This is the editorial from the October Record – just out now.
The Rise of Civic Christianity and the Collapse of the Church
It’s a somewhat strange paradox. As the church seems to be in decline, the number of religious items in the news increases and the clergy are everywhere. Tom Nairn’s quip that Scotland wouldn’t be free until the last Church of Scotland minister had been strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post (how’s that for hate speech?!) if true would suggest that Independence is a long way off. D C Thomson, the publishers of the Sunday Post, are one of the few publishing firms doing well (unlike the recently demised Sunday Herald) and although the Church of Scotland is losing most of its Indians, it still has plenty chiefs.
Despite the most fervent wishes of the more militant secularists religion is not going to disappear from civil society soon. Indeed I suspect it is highly likely that it will become even more prominent, but is this a good thing? What we call civic Christianity seems to be growing – or it is as least as prevalent as ever. It seems as though our political leaders want some kind of religious blessing on their secular endeavours. It’s why chaplains are wanted in schools, hospitals, work places and political institutions. Religious leaders are then all too keen to grasp at the straw of civic Christianity in order to justify their own existence.
But what is the place of Christianity in public life?
Should we still live in a society where we have school chaplains, the Kirking of the Council and prayers in parliament? John Owen’s Sermons to the Nation are from a different time – but when you read them you can only long for our current politicians to hear such preaching. Lets examine some recent examples of what we call ‘civic religion’.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is a self-professed evangelical -coming out of the Alpha school. His church is in trouble – only 2% of young people even nominally identify with the Church of England and its numbers have halved in the past 15 years. There is no indication that this trend will not continue. Yet the Archbishop (and bishops) are influential members of the Establishment. In a recent speech to the TUC Justin Welby wooed his audience by announcing that there should be more taxes, praised the unions, condemned zero hours contracts (which he called ‘the reincarnation of an ancient evil’) and denounced Amazon. The trouble with his speech is not that what he said was wrong – your political views will colour your views of that – but rather whether he should have said it, and what he missed out.
We don’t believe that Christian leaders should keep quiet about politics – but we should be very careful about making pronouncements on behalf of the Bible or the Church. For example I have views on the EU and Scottish Independence – but I would never dare claim that they are views revealed to me directly from God or that the Church should share those views. The Church is not a political organization. We can proclaim biblical principles that will have political implications, but we should not baptize any particular political philosophy. There is always the danger of hypocrisy as well. No sooner had the screen faded on Welby’s speech denouncing Amazon than news came that the Church of England was a major shareholder in…Amazon! We were told that zero hours contracts were a reincarnation of evil and then discovered that some C of E cathedrals use zero hours contracts. Did someone not once say something about taking the beam out of our own eyes first?!
But the bigger problem is with what he didn’t say. The difficulty with being a biblical prophet is that God often tells you to say things that your audience does not want to hear. The Archbishop’s speech at the TUC was like a ‘love in’ – an endorsement of everything that his audience would like to hear. Although he said there was a great deal of God in it…there was in fact very little. Indeed if I was a trade unionist I would have gone away with the impression that God agreed with me and all was well with the world (apart from the evil capitalists of course!). The truly prophetic would have been the archbishop challenging the culture of death (abortion and euthanasia) and thereby asking the unions to stand up for the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. Imagine the reception if he had challenged the deconstruction of humanity and marriage currently being enforced by the rich and powerful on our culture! But of course such a prophetic word would not be said in that particular echo chamber. Tickling ears means that you avoid ‘offence’ i.e. anything that challenges or disturbs those who are listening.
And that is the main problem with civic Christianity.
We are allowed to be chaplains in schools, universities and other civic institutions as long as we never say anything that would disturb the status quo. We are allowed, even encouraged, to talk about being radical – as long as we never are radical. When I was asked to go and speak at a University CU recently, they received a health and safety form asking that my speech be vetted in order to ensure that no one would be upset (triggered) by what I said. Dundee University frequently get requests from outside groups asking that they dismiss me as a chaplain because I do not bow down to their gods. Our society wants a religious veneer and blessing, as long as it is on their terms. If you are not on (their) message you are excluded.
Take for example the recent Pride marches in Perth and Dundee. Both were blessed by clergy (one C of S and one Anglican) who were described in the press as ‘brave and courageous’. In what sense could that be true? They stood up and told the mob what the mob (and the media) wanted to hear. Being brave would mean proclaiming the Word of God, not baptizing the philosophies of men.
The United States – One Nation Under God?
This civic religion is also seen in other countries. The United States does not have an Established Church, but it does have an established religion. The US is ‘One Nation under God’. US politicians (like US sports stars) are far more likely to thank the Almighty than their counterparts in Europe. It would be a severe electoral handicap in most of the US if you announced you were an atheist (which is surely why only a couple of Congress people have done so).
But that nominal Christianity can have its own problems – especially when you add to it the politisation of the Church. In the blue corner we have the liberal church, enthusiastically endorsing every Democratic policy they can find – which results in the blasphemy of Chelsea Clinton claiming that abortion was a Christian thing to do. In the red corner we have much of the evangelical church, implying if not explicitly stating that to be Christian is to be Republican. The Moral Majority may be turning into the Moral Minority but it still holds considerable political sway. This has resulted in the blasphemy of leaders not only endorsing President Trump but also showing the most appalling double standards.
Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist in Dallas for example stated of the President’s alleged affair with a porn star “even if that’s true, it doesn’t matter…policy is more important than the Presidents personal lifestyle”. Thus the evangelicals who proclaimed that President Clinton was not fit for office because of his sexual sin, have ended up endorsing a President whose sexual behaviour is worse. I realize that there are many good Christians who regard this as a kind of trade off – they will ignore the Presidents ungodly behaviour and attitudes as long as they can retain a seat at the table. This is the kind of political tradeoff that has, throughout the history of the church, never worked. We are not a political organization and we should not play at politics. Our task is to proclaim Christ and his Word – whatever the response might be. Speaking truth to power means telling Herod that he is an adulterer who is going to be judged by God, not seeking to retain your ‘place in the nation’ by flattery and political manipulation.
Australia’s Pentecostal Prime Minister
Meanwhile in Australia Scott Morrison has just become their first ever Pentecostal Prime Minister. This has resulted in the usual mockery and fearmongering. Australia is in the midst of a drought just now and Mr. Morrison called for prayer – thus triggering social media outrage. Thankfully Mr. Morrison is not playing the religion card, which is just as well because he endorses policies that many Christians would disagree with, (just as there are many who would agree). If the new Prime Minister is a believer then we should be thankful and pray that his policies would be informed by his Christian faith. We pray for him as a brother as we pray for pagan politicians. We don’t want the exclusion of Christianity from the public sphere – we just don’t want the politicians using Christianity as a political tool. Christ is too precious for that.
God Save the Queen
Back in the UK we remain thankful for the number of Christians who are actively involved in public life (some under the radar). None more so that our head of State – the Queen. God save our gracious Queen. In many ways she has been the glue that has held this nation together, and her faith has been the glue that has held her together. I dread to think what will happen when she is no longer with us. Prince Charles has already said that he wants to be defender of faith, not defender of The Faith. This is not just a meaningless truism – its what is does mean that is disturbing. Faith in and of itself is not a good thing. It can be blind. It can be dangerous. It can be false. Why would we defend what is blind, dangerous and false?
The fact is that this nation was founded upon the Christian faith – and the United Kingdom more specifically on the Protestant and evangelical faith. The Bible is a foundational document of our society and culture. As we remove ourselves away from that and go our own way (the greatest punishment that the Lord could inflict upon us), it is not that we will end up with a secular neutral state with no faith. No – we will end up with a society where the State has replaced God. We don’t want a theocracy (where the church runs the State) but neither do we want a technocracy, an aristocracy or a secular State where the State (run by the self-perpetuating elites) becomes God. The genius of the British system was that it was a democracy, a secular state in which due acknowledgement is given to God, and there is a proper separation between church and state.
The road we are heading right now is towards a new civic religion. I dare not call it Christianity. It is a baptized secularism where the State clergy become in effect the priests of the State, doing its biding and teaching its doctrines. We become the States ‘useful idiots’. Respectability and ‘keeping a seat at the table’ become the modus operandi. Never mind how few people are in our churches – at least we get to sit on government boards and get to sit at the State media table. It’s not just the Established Churches such as the C of E and C of S that fall into this trap. Baptists like Steve Chalke and gay activists like Vicky Beeching are welcomed as ‘religious representatives’ by the State, precisely because they endorse the State doctrines. Even biblical groups, like the Free Church, can be tempted just to keep our heads down and keep quiet, lest we are discriminated against and lose even the few crumbs we get from the States largesse (bear in mind that 21% of people in Scotland are employed directly by the State, and a further 20% are indirectly employed).
And so we play the game. We go along with the civic religion. We kid ourselves that we are being salt and light, as we go with the flow. It’s dangerous and banal. I was recently at a State Christian service – being held to bless a particular institution – as was the tradition. The tiny congregation (half of whom had to be there because they were participating or part of the official entourage) were treated to a service of such banality that it made atheism seem positively exciting and attractive. There was no mention of Jesus, no reading from the Bible and the only hymn sung was one which any Deist or even atheist could have joined in. The clergy were there, including of course an Imam. The fact that Islam and Christianity worship different Gods was conveniently ditched for the State doctrine that all religions are essentially the same. The clergy wore all their robes and finery supposedly to add an air of dignity. But there was nothing to dignify. The talks were banal to the point of imbecility. I listened to intelligent people telling us that we were all in a wonderful place and we were all wonderful people and all we had to do was be nice to each other. I don’t need a clergyman (or woman) to tell me that. I can hear it down the pub – and probably with more humour and fun, than in a stuffy assembly of people playing at religion.
For that is what civic religion is. At best it is playing at religion. At worst it is using religion to reinforce the doctrines and faith of the secular elites who rule over us. Its why ‘Thought for the Day” usually reflects the current secular zeitgeist, rather than any biblical teaching. It’s why most civic sermons are little more than therapeutic deistic moralism. It’s why the church is losing spiritual power whilst retaining the remnants of civic power.
What Can The Righteous Do?
When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? (Ps 11:3). We remember that the Lord is still on his throne and that he is the one who loves justice. We argue for freedom of religion, the root and source of all our other democratic freedoms. We proclaim the Good News of the Christ who came into the world to save sinners and to bring about the ultimate renewal. We remind the civil authorities that ultimately neither the church nor God answer to them – they have to answer to God as his servants. We pray. We preach. We praise. And we practice. We do the good works that the Lord has prepared in advance for us to do.
We speak truth to power, not falsehood to prop up failed politicians. The times call for clarity, courage and compassion. Only the Church that truly follows Christ, has him as its head and listens to his Word and does what he says can fulfill that calling.
And here is the intro:
Welcome to the October Record.
Apologies if this Record is a wee bit later than usual. It’s entirely the editor’s fault. Although in my defence it is hard trying to run a growing church, engage with the culture and edit the denominational magazine. A wee plea for help. You would make my life a lot easier if you sent in news items and potential articles – and sent them in timeously. I.e. if you want something in the November edition, send it in now.
Please note the following guidelines. We cannot guarantee that every article or news item will get in. It depends on space and content. If you send photos can you please make sure they are of good quality (in terms of resolution) and that they are labeled. If you have ideas for articles please let me know.
This month we have lots of news….and this is only a taste of what the Lord is doing in and through his church. I don’t wish to show favouritism but I thought the story of Ian MacLennan from Kiltearn Free Church getting a French honour (p15) is really special. This month we have also included a couple of testimonials – one from the new Free Church in Govan and another from Charlotte Chapel Baptist Church in Edinburgh.
We also have a couple of stories about writing in the secular press. Whilst I was in Australia I came across a remarkable columnist in the Spectator called Mark Powell – imagine my delight when I discovered that he is an evangelical Presbyterian minister! Meanwhile at the other end of the scale (but just as important) is our own Duncan Macleod from Dornoch who has a regular column in ‘The Raggie’ (The Northern Times). In that regard it is also good that some secular newspapers are picking up on some of the stories and items in The Record.
Feel free to share. It is also good that people are using the digital version. Please feel free to subscribe – either for yourself or perhaps a friend, Christian worker overseas. It is especially good for them as it avoids the cost of postage and is obviously immediately delivered.
My favourite page in this month is the poetry page – with John Donne’s beautiful poem. Its one I want to cut out and frame. Beautiful poetry, beautifully presented. That is what we long for. We want the beauty of Christ to be reflected in all that we do. May His beauty be upon you, and may you be able to share that wherever you go in the coming weeks, See you next month… David
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