Today Christians across the country can breath a sigh of relief as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced his plans to allow a small North Devon town council to continue its 400 year old tradition of saying prayers at the start of council meetings.
Following last week’s announcement that the National Secular Society (NSS) had won a ruling that local councils could not lawfully include prayers as part of their formal business, Eric Pickles is quoted to have said:
“While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established church governed by the Queen.
“Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities – be it parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.”
The announcement that Mr Pickles will rush section 1 of the new ‘Localism Act’ into force ‘within a week’ will no doubt mute the celebrations of the National Secular Society, as the new act will restore the rights of local councils to say prayers as part of their proceedings if they choose to.
So why is it that Mr Pickles’ assertion that we are a ‘Christian Country’ sticking in my throat?
It isn’t that I don’t applaud the decision to give councils the right to decide for themselves if they include prayers. Neither is it that I don’t enjoy the schadenfreud of seeing the NSS defeated in their latest attempt to remove the trappings of faith from public life. No, what I find so distasteful is the comparison between the Government’s reaction to the NSS case and their relentless pursuit of the Welfare Reform Bill.
In the former case, the Government are keen to cite our Christian heritage as a reason to keep religious rituals in public life. In the latter case they seem hell-bent on taking away financial aid from those in out society who are most in need of it. Could it be that the price of a clear conscience is allowing a little bit of public religion?
As I think of those who think that God is somehow pleased when we remember to name-check him, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to the religious rulers of his time as he tells them that God cannot be bought-off with their religion:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices— mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law— justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.”
Jesus Christ – Matthew 23:23
The big problem with public religion, especially the sort which we are forced to take part in, is that it tends to inoculate us against the real thing. And Jesus calls those who would come after him (and call themselves Christian) to pursue justice, mercy and faithfulness, not just to say a few prayers before we get down to business. Being a ‘Christian country’ must surely mean that we pursue matters of justice as well as maintaining those traditions which remind us of our Christian heritage.
I’m currently reading Timothy Keller’s book ‘Generous Justice‘, in which he presents the compelling case that through His Word, God is calling Christians to pursue social justice in their churches, local communities, nations and worldwide. Keller explains that God’s command in the Mosaic law that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ (Deuteronomy 15:4) is much more than an empty aspiration:
“God’s concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass”
Timothy Keller – Generous Justice, p27
I get the feeling that this assertion that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ is going to be increasing important to my church community over the next few year. This isn’t just because people around us are getting poorer (although many in our fellowship and parish will be hit hard by the ongoing financial crisis and associated austerity measures), but because I sense we are being called to live out this reality in our church family and our local community.
What this is going to look like I don’t know, but I do know that if we get anywhere near it we won’t be able to be accused of preaching an empty and irrelevant religion. Real faith in real action is what the Kingdom of God is all about.