A speech to the Cornerstone Group at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on the 4th October, 2011.
Who would have believed a hundred, even fifty, years ago that, by the opening decades of the 21st century, some Christians in this country would be made to feel like outcasts in their own land? Incidents of harassment, mockery, and discrimination are well known – not to mention asinine comments about the calendar. And whilst it would be foolish to equate these with what Christians in some countries suffer, in terms of persecution and martyrdom, the question posed poignantly in Psalm 137, albeit from a different context, becomes increasingly pertinent to us: how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
And yet, in asking that very question, Christians might seem to collude with a secularist view that public space should indeed become a strange land for us – when in fact the vast wealth of the nation’s art, music, language, the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, provides sure evidence that, despite the enrichment other faiths bring, and the carping aggression of new atheism, our culture is shaped by Judaeo-Christian tradition.
The flyer for this meeting indicates that I will address the role of Christianity in tackling “the full range of political and economic problems we currently face”. Tough! The title I gave: “Faith in Society” is more modest in its intention; for I am neither a politician nor an economist, but simply a churchman who passionately believes that faith, and especially Christianity, has a key role to play in our society.
In his book Civilization, Niall Ferguson quotes a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who was examining why Europe, lagging behind China till the 17th century, then overtook it. At first, he said, we thought it was your better guns, then we thought it must be your political system, or your economic policies. But now we conclude that it was your Christian religion. Interestingly, in China today, the number of Christians in church on Sunday is larger than the total membership of the Chinese Communist party. Commenting on this, from the perspective of another faith, the Chief Rabbi asked: “What has China realised that the West is rapidly forgetting? – that a civilization is as strong as its faith…and that when people lose faith in the transcendent, they next lose faith in an objective moral order, and finally they lose faith in themselves.”
Countering that spiral of loss requires, as I know from my experience in Greater Manchester, firmer promotion of Christian values, stronger support for Christian institutions, and intelligent relationships with other main religions – who I find are always glad when we Christians stand up for our faith. In fact they are puzzled when we don’t.
To emphasise the importance of Christian values, I have over the past few years systematically spent an afternoon and evening in each of our nearly 350 churches and their local communities – urging them to this biblical purpose: Run the Race…Look to Jesus…and Pass on His Faith, Hope and Love. Faith, Hope and Love are the seminal values that shape all Christian behaviour and attitude. (Incidentally I think verbs are very important if you want people to capture a vision. If you have simply a pronoun, adjective and noun without a verb, people can be left wondering what it is they are supposed to do).
The issue over values has been made more starkly relevant by the recent riots. I was on the streets here early the following morning, visiting the scenes, talking, praying with people in the wake of what was sheer thuggery, vandalism and theft – and for which justice must be meted out, though of course the problems won’t be solved by court sentences. For among the complex mix of reasons that led to the disorders, the serious and relentless erosion of Christian values over the years has its significant place. The result of their disappearing has been a moral deficit in private and public life that has spawned acquisitiveness and dishonesty. The biblical warning has been forgotten: “the love of money is the root of all evil”.
One of the regrettable mistakes of our present culture is the way in which private and public morality has been decoupled. How we behave is evidence of the sort of character we have. To create a false distinction between what we do in public and how we are in private is fraught with problems of credibility. So, no wonder a moral vacuum has been created, leaving people of all ages and backgrounds confused about the difference between right and wrong. The result is a me-first ultra- consumerist culture in which the quest for possession of things overrides a caring concern for people. Lately we have had unpleasant glimpses of the default position to which society inevitably returns when its moral imperatives are forgotten.
Highest among Christian values is life itself, the most precious of God’s gifts. That is why, from start through to finish, Christians have a special duty to protect life. The duty to protect the unborn child (with the need, and I say this as a long supporter of the principles of Anglican Life, to reduce the demand for abortion, and provide sensitive and appropriate counselling). The duty to protect those who go through life battered and bruised, and who by any measure merit compassion (incidentally, I have been asked to chair a Commission on Poverty in this city where we have the worst health and mortality rate in the country). A duty to protect those who are at the end of life (and I say this as President locally of the country’s third oldest hospice) and who need assisted living not assisted dying. The reported comments of Chris Woodhead in the weekend press arguing, apparently seriously, as he contemplates the Dignitas route for himself, that if there is a cull for badgers why can there not be a cull of the terminally ill, further exposed the ghastly nature of much of the euthanasia case.
Passing on Christian values – and the undoubted responsibilities that go with them – is helped by the fact that authority in our society is not concentrated solely in the State, but also belongs, for example, to families, schools, and churches.
Families are, or should be, the primary means of instilling patterns of value and behaviour. I have to say that, in my view, churches have sometimes been far too tentative in defending marriage and two-parent families in the face of secular attacks. Of course, we should not stigmatise single-parent families. They are often the result of complex events beyond anyone’s control. Furthermore, children are not necessarily socially disadvantaged by having one parent (though I know from my own experience of being brought up without a father, how important it is to find a good male role model). Nevertheless, children are likely to benefit most from having two married parents. And whilst I recognise that there are other family models where people need support, marriage deserves and requires stronger public and, may I say, stronger governmental support.
In this diocese, Church schools form a major part of our ministry. We educate more pupils than any other diocese (a quarter of all children in Greater Manchester)– and we aim to do so by nurturing children to love God and neighbour and form moral precepts that will fashion their lives, countering what the Archbishop of Canterbury has described as “an educational philosophy that for two decades and at every level has been less and less concerned with building virtue, character and citizenship”.
It is no credit to this country that our children, according to UNICEF, are the unhappiest in the world. Children need a moral framework and identity. Of course people do not have to be religious in order to behave morally. But no government has been able to put forward a credible non-religious moral framework. Where are the systematic building blocks for life that can replace the Commandments, the Beatitudes and the New Testament’s teaching on compassion and the discipline of loving care for others? To sideline religion, and especially Christian faith, from the process of nurture and education in this country is foolhardy.
The Church of England is not only a vital promoter of marriage and character-forming education, it is also, to quote Roger Scruton “a quiet faith that has shaped a nation and its culture…The Anglican Church is not only a compromise in itself, but a place in which compromises can be worked out and agreed on …It represents a unique attempt to adapt the Christian message to the demands of a national culture…and help the ordinary embarrassed person to find a way back to God.”
As the Bishop of Leicester said in the House of Lords: “There is no better-placed organisation, religious or otherwise, able to cite a presence in all communities, and have good understanding of, and relationships with, all denominations and faiths…Establishment secures a place for spirituality in the public square that benefits all faiths and not just Christianity.”
That is certainly the view locally where I chair the Greater Manchester Faith CommunityLeaders Group. The Church of England is seen as the credible umbrella beneath which other faiths like to meet. And together we make a difference to the well-being of this county’s communities In its report “Faith as Social Capital” the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looked at 2,300 faith communities in the North West and identified 5,000 significant non-worship projects on issues such as racism (the Faith Community Leaders Group has since promoted the Hope not Hate campaign), crime (the Group gives continuing support for victims and provides safe third-party reporting centres), homelessness (Church Housing and other groups do a considerable work in this locality). Greater Manchester has the largest number of faith communities in the North West – including a greater number of Muslims than in Bradford, and the biggest
Jewish community outside London. Here in Manchester, people of different faith are a richness rather than a problem.
The Church of England is pioneering thematic project areas in which all faiths will take part. Already operating in our buildings are local mental health provision, preventative health care advice, serving mainly black communities. Many of the black population see hospitals as places for dying and will not go for tests, so ECG machines and other equipment are brought to our centres. We have a network for community tension monitoring in which other faiths are already well involved; and we are pioneering skills centres, English language lessons, youth employment projects, a basic-necessities co-operative. We aim to get people out of a culture of no work. But, as faith community leaders, we will watch for anomalies and injustices that make impossible demands on, for example, the disabled.
We do this together as different faiths because we have faith in society, and we want to encourage good citizenship. But we Christians must also be aware that if we expect others to integrate as good citizens identifying with this country, we will not do so authentically when, as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has put it, we are suffering amnesia about our own identity.
In his speech to the Pope last year, the Prime Minister spoke of “people of faith being the great architects of a new culture of responsibility… Faith is part of the fabric of our country. It always has been and always will be… a vital part of our national conversation. And we are proud of that.”
I do hope so. But I am very concerned that so many politicians and journalists collude with a view that the Church of England is a spent force. Melvyn Bragg has a different view: “It is still there in the constitution, in key ceremonies and in its great architecture, music and language. It is still a force which could yet rediscover its energy and play a strong part in a much-needed regrouping of this country.” Indeed I could take you to parish after parish, as I have been myself, across this diocese and show you the unmistakable evidence of exactly that happening.
My prayer, my hope is that the Church of England in common with all Christians will maintain the place of faith in society, not least by having the courage of our convictions – and making sure we stand up for Jesus. For, whatever political persuasions we Christians may have, and however closely we may walk with people of other religions and none, if we are truly committed to the faith, hope and love that is His, then confidence will be restored, you will be strengthened in the Christian dimension you bring to your political and economic tasks, the Church’s energy will grow. Then the question will no longer be “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” It will have become “How shall we not?”