The battle against secularism
I write on a day when the secularists are not happy. The Queen has just ended her speech at the opening of Parliament with the words, ‘I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels’. Secularism holds that there should be a very strict separation of church and state and following on from that all religions should have equal opportunities and rights before the law. Our secular friends are profoundly uneasy and indeed angry at the fact that Christianity enjoys certain privileges in the United Kingdom. They point out that only the UK and Iran have clerics sitting as a body in parliament. The fact that Scotland and England both have ‘national churches’ also fills secularists with disdain.
The privilege which Christianity enjoys assumes certain principles. It assumes that Christianity, especially Protestantism is the best and even the only expression of true religion. One of the titles of the monarch is ‘Defender of the Faith’. The faith referred to was originally defined as the Roman Catholic faith but since the Act of Settlement it has clearly been defined as Protestantism as no monarch is permitted to be a Roman Catholic or to marry one. The tacit view of the British constitution is that the reformed faith is the gold standard of religious truth. It is surprising that this understanding has prevailed for so long.
Church and state
I am a Scottish Presbyterian which in common with Anglicans holds that there is a legitimate relationship between Church and state. The link is that the Church has a responsibility to pray for the monarch and government but the government has responsibility to provide an environment in which the Church may thrive. In our world the government still acts as a patron for the church in funding for church schools and allowing gift aid tax contributions to the church among others. I would argue that the state has then a duty to protect the church. In a multi-faith society it is over ambitious in the extreme to expect the state to support Christianity to the exclusion of all other religions. The problem is that we are witnessing a swing from the exclusive support of Christianity to the active persecution of Christianity.
The fruits of militant secularism are all too evident. Recently Gloucestershire County Council approved the following prayer for the opening of meetings, ‘May we find the wisdom to carry out our duties, the humanity to listen to all, the courage to do what is right and the generosity to treat each other with respect. Amen’. These words are clearly not a prayer. There is no reference to any deity and not even a reference to any concept which is vaguely numinous; it is a group of people talking to themselves.
There is an element of persecution as can be seen by various discipline cases for wearing crosses at work and the case of Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who was disciplined for her stance on civil partnership. George Carey observed, ‘In a country where Christians can be sacked for manifesting their faith, are vilified by State bodies, are in fear of reprisal or even arrest for expressing their views on sexual ethics, something is very wrong.’ There is something wrong. The fact is, secularism is not benign. It is not a philosophy which argues for neutrality but one which argues for the dominance of humanism in public life and the eradication of all references to faith. There is then a battle of ideas in the public square.
A healthy faith
One random thought. Let’s thank the secularists for providing us with a context which may bring greater health to our faith. There is a real danger of enjoying state patronage which can be like swimming in a pool of candy floss and beer, ‘it makes you stupid, slow and docile’. Martin Robbins observed that state sponsored ‘privilege is patronizing and infantilizing, and leads to underachievement and stagnation’. In Everyday Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis make the point that the cost of being involved in the establishment is the possibility that, ‘the church becomes an arm of the state’ and this ‘may blunt the church’s prophetic role and evangelistic proclamation’.
In this battle we must be honest. There was never a time when the feet of our Lord walked on the green mountains of the UK. There has been much superficial moralism but rarely widespread genuine spirituality. In the periods when the church thrived most, during the Wesleyan revivals of the eighteenth-century and the Welsh revivals of the nineteenth, cultural and political change came about through men and women changed by the gospel. The preaching of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones did more for the deprived areas of south Wales than any government. The battle which faces the church is primarily evangelism, not social reconstruction. We are not interested in perpetuating a mere system of rules and we must be candid in admitting that religion has caused much distress to humanity. We need only to look at the (tribal) religious wars of Northern Ireland and the rantings of Islamic fundamentalists to see that man’s religions are also his greatest crimes. It is our position that Jesus did not come to start a new religion but to abolish religion as men see it.
A belief system
The church does have a prophetic role in society. The growing persecution of Christians is a breach of basic human rights and the government needs to be constantly reminded that this is unacceptable to God and to man. In today’s culture the prophetic tool is often debate. The claim that secularism is not a belief system must be challenged. It is a system of theology every bit as fundamentalist and hard-headed as any third degree separatist we may find today. Debate may be conducted through the media, through engagement with opinion-formers; it will not usefully be conducted by megaphones at rallies.
Modeling is another key weapon in the battle. The people of the book are seen to live a better way. In the past Christianity has given us music, art and fostered creativity. It has liberated women, slaves and the poor and has put a new song into the hearts of many. The new secular UK is increasingly gray in colour. Bland uniformity to political correctness is silencing the music which believers bring. Our nation has to be pointed to other countries which have legislated God out of public life. There are no artists in North Korea! The facts are also self-evident, faith based schools, which make up one third of all schools in England are consistently high performing. Janina Ainsworth, the Chief Education Officer for the Church of England, said of recent attacks on faith schools ‘Some seem to believe that the Christian ethos, which is so valued by parents, is like a sort of magic dust that is sprinkled on church schools simply by association. But it is, in fact, achieved through the hard work of staff and governors in building a learning community that is underpinned with Christian values.’ This is an example of us modeling a better way.
There is a battle but there is also a victory assured. We have read the end of the book and we know that the lamb wins. We are not sitting in the trenches in despair but are able to show in the gospel that there is good news and that even the common grace of God brings blessing to the nation.
David C. Meredith is senior minister at Smithton Free Church of Scotland, Inverness.