Saturday, September 2, 2023

A Christian nation?

Matthew 16:21-28 & Romans 12:9-21

During this last week, the Times published the results of a poll of Church of England clergy.  It’s caused quite a stir in many places.  Given that many of you will have read the survey for yourselves, or at least heard about it, I think it might be helpful if I were to tackle some of its results head on.

The survey contained a number of statistics about the clergy’s shifting attitudes towards same-sex weddings and blessings, as well as other aspects of public morality and the still vexed question of women priests and bishops.  Most of these statistics give hope to people like me, who pray, daily for a less condemnatory tone from the church.  But, of course, such statistics are grist to the mill of those who want to condemn the Church of England for being ‘woke’.  Personally, I don’t mind being called ‘woke’, if the definition of woke is to be someone who is awake to the issues of discrimination and prejudice in our society.  I DO object, however, to being labelled as one of the ‘tofu-eating wokerati’ which our Home Secretary so memorably called out recently.  I’ve never eaten tofu in my life!

The Times itself, as the publisher of the clergy survey, fixed its headline on a rather more national issue.  Two-thirds of the clergy surveyed declared, apparently, that Britain could no longer be called a Christian country.  This, my friends, came as no surprise to me.  Had I been invited to participate in the survey, and had I found the time to answer it, I would have said exactly the same.  In fact, it seems to me that Britain has not been a Christian country for a very long time indeed.

You may wonder why I say this – so let me invite you to think about the issue with me.  For a country to describe itself as ‘Christian’, logic dictates that such a country would deliberately follow the teachings of Christ and his apostles, in the way that it orders its life and institutions.   A definably Christian country would be to do the hard work of making Christ’s teachings a reality in our common life.  Our two readings of today offer us some rather good examples of what that teaching encompasses.

Take St Paul, writing to the Romans.  Let me just pick a few nuggets out of what Paul advises.  First, he says, “hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good”.  There is so much in our society and nation that could be described clearly as evil – and which we yet tolerate.  I mean evils like gambling, excess drinking, pornography, and – perhaps most pernicious of all - the excess accumulation of wealth by a tiny minority.

What else does St Paul advise?  He instructs the Roman Christians to ‘extend hospitality to strangers’.  Now, of course, I realise that the migration crisis of today has no real parallel to biblical times.  But a truly Christian nation would be asking itself hard questions about the language and rhetoric being employed on the subject of strangers in our midst today.  We would, in Paul’s words, ‘take thought for what is noble in the sight of all’.  

If that’s Paul’s perspective on how a Christian community operates, what about Jesus?  He, naturally, goes for the jugular.  ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’.  A Christian community, or nation, is defined – at least partly - by the extent to which it sacrifices itself for the good of others.  There is some sacrifice by our nation.  We do give aid to other countries, and as a population, we are notoriously generous to mass fundraising events, like Comic Relief and Live Aid.  But when we drill into some hard statistics, the news is not good…

The World Giving Index is an annual report which ranks over 140 countries in the world according to how charitable they are.  It may surprise you to learn that the United Kingdom ranks only 17th on the list.  Ahead of us, in terms of charitable giving, Indonesia (a Muslim country) is number 1.  Then, also ahead of us, are the likes of Kenya, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Zambia and, believe it or not, Ukraine.  It is remarkable, isn’t it, that some of the poorest countries in the world are also the most charitable?

Another key metric is the amount of tax paid for the common good by country – taxes which are meant for the benefit of all, especially those least able to care for themselves.  The top 10 countries for tax rates include the likes of Denmark, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Israel and Belgium – all well known for having strong health and education services, generous pensions for the elderly, and high indices of general happiness – but all with tax burdens of around 50%.  The UK is nowhere near the top 10 of such countries, with a tax burden of only 33%.

No my friends, in a comparison with Jesus’ teaching about taking up our cross, our nation can only barely claim to be called Christian, in terms of charity or the amount we agree to give for the benefit of the whole community through tax.

Jesus goes on in terms which are not difficult to relate to the rise and fall of the British Empire:  “for what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”.  There are some who look back with pride to the days when Britannia ruled the waves, and vast swathes of the World were coloured pink. But what did it profit us to have gained, practically, the whole world?  What aspect of our life did we forfeit?  Startlingly, if we rank countries by gross domestic product per head of population, the United Kingdom now doesn’t even make it into the top 20 nations of the world.  

Our once proud Christian nation is undoubtedly no longer so. We live in post-Christian Britain.  

In terms of our public morality around gambling, drinking and pornography we’re in decline.  

In terms of the high standards we should expect of our leaders, we’re in decline.  

In terms of the way we care for our ‘widows and the poor’ through our miserly benefit system, we’re in decline.  

In terms of the the way we dispense justice through our collapsing court system, the extent to which we give charity, our ability to heal one another through a crumbling health service, the way we unapologetically celebrate wealth and idolise fame, we are in obvsious steep decline.

There are SO many ways in which our national life barely resembles anything that a truly Christian country should look like.

But, my friends, there is hope.  Jesus died to save the World – and our little post-Christian nation is included in his sacrifice.  It is not too late, in Jesus words, for us to take up our collective, national cross of sacrifice.  It is not too late for us to declare the year of the Lord’s favour, to raise up the poor and broken-hearted, to set free the captives.  It is not too late, in Paul’s words, for us to hold on to what is good, to hate what is evil, to live in harmony with one other, to associate with the lowly, to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all, and to live peaceably with all.  Let us never cease from praying the prayer of Jesus himself – Thy Kingdom Come!  Amen!

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