Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Is Britain a Christian country?

‘We should be more confident about our status as a Christian country,’ said David Cameron last week in an article in the Church times (CT 17/04/2014). I’m glad Mr Cameron has the confidence to speak about his own faith, irregular and vague though that may be (by his own admission) but I can’t agree with his basic assumption that Britain is a Christian country. Although 59% of the population of England and Wales  stated ‘Christian’ as their religious belief in the 2011 census, the number of churchgoers on a typical Sunday was around 800,000 – probably more than actively belong to a political party, but a small minority of the whole population.

Yes, you could argue that Britain is constitutionally Christian, with the Queen as Head of State, and Head of the Established Church, and the Church of England represented formally through its bishops in the House of Lords. But that in itself doesn’t make Britain a ‘Christian country’ in the sense of being a theocracy or, more exactly, a Christocracy. The only place that I can think of where that was tried was 16th century Geneva at the time of Calvin – and what a joyless time that turned out to be.

So what about judging the ‘Christianness’ of Britain by people’s experience of Christ? David Cameron doesn’t once mention Jesus Christ in his article – rather he puts his faith in the Church of England. Oh dear! I’m a fulltime employee of the C of E and I wouldn’t put my faith in it. Rather, my faith is in Jesus Christ – the one person DC fails to mention in his article. That reminds me of J John’s statement that if you take the ‘Christ’ out of ‘Christian’ you are just left with ‘Ian’, and he can’t help anyone.  I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the population have little real experience of Jesus Christ that could be articulated in any clear way. For Mr Cameron church membership seems to be concerned more with maintaining centres of cultural heritage as places of peace and serenity rather than seeing them as centres of mission and proclamation of the good news of Jesus. Yes, he is, by his own admission, probably typical of most members of the C of E.

So is it possible for any country to be a ‘Christian country’?  If so, how do we judge it: by doctrinal adherence, by spiritual experience, by moral values?  Mr Cameron seems to judge by the last of those three – as indeed most politicians would these days. He mentions in his article the Christian values of ‘responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion , humility and love’ but then goes on to say that they are shared by people of every faith and of none. So what is an exclusively ‘Christian value’? Perhaps the unique value we could point to in Jesus himself is self-sacrifice: not popular on the lips of politicians today! DC’s argument is weak here because he goes on to criticise what he calls ‘some sort of secular neutrality’, but that is the very thing he has just given us in his list of ‘Christian values’ – those held by people of all faith and of NONE.

Mr Cameron points to the good works that Christians are involved in, and that is something to be proud of certainly. I support this government’s decision to maintain its level of foreign aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income at a time when some decry that. It’s ironic, though, that the churches, by and large, are picking up the pieces left by the government’s welfare policy, as evidenced by the rise in use of food banks. Don’t believe what the Daily Mail says – these are people in real need and the DM should be ashamed of the way it condemns people who innocently find themselves in crisis moments of extreme poverty.

There was a time when people spoke of Christendom: when political and spiritual power went hand in hand. Those times are long past, thank goodness. They led to plenty of bloodshed and shame in the history of the church. What can we say about the UK today? At best I believe we can describe ourselves as a secular country with a Christian cultural heritage – but even that heritage is weak: you only have to hear the massive silence at weddings and funerals when you invite the congregation to join in the Lord’s Prayer – people just don’t know it anymore.

I’m sure David Cameron wants a better society for all – who doesn’t? I’m sure he wants to win the next election outright – which political leader wouldn’t? I’m sure he has faith in God, however vague and woolly that faith is. But I’m not persuaded by his argument that Britain is a Christian country.  I’m not convinced by his logic, by his authority to speak on the subject, or his (spiritual) passion.  And I would certainly want to direct people to put their faith in Jesus Christ rather than the Church of England. 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Visiting Purley Food Hub

Last Saturday morning I visited the Purley Food Hub. Ever since Ash Wednesday when we read from Isaiah 58  
...if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
I have been taking an interest in the increasing call on food banks round the country. I wanted to find out for myself how our local food bank operates, and talk with some of the clients who use it.

The Purley Food Hub operates from the back of Purley URC Church, using the entrance porch as a reception area, and one of the side aisles for food storage. I was very impressed with the professional and caring atmosphere, and the dedication of the volunteers who run the Hub. Clients are referred by a number of agencies including social services, doctors and schools which give them a ticket to present when they arrive. This entitles them to 3 day's supply of food - more or less depending on whether they have a family. They let the volunteers know if there is any food they are allergic to or don't like, and then the volunteers pick out a selection of tinned or dried food for them.

I spoke to a number of clients, some of whom had heartbreaking stories. One woman and her son, who suffered from Tourettes Syndrome, had walked from South Norwood. Her partner had recently died and she had simply run out of money for food. Tears were in here eyes as she told me how grateful she was for some practical help and a friendly welcome. Another single father with a baby daughter in a pushchair had walked from South Croydon. He couldn't work because he had to care for his daughter; he'd been given B&B accommodation by the Council but had no money for other food. A young couple had walked from Waddon - he was 16 and she was 18 and pregnant. The boy - not even an adult in legal terms - couldn't work because of disability and they had outstayed their welcome in his parents' house. Another lady's husband had died and she had to move out of her privately rented accommodation because she couldn't afford it. She had a medical condition that meant she was off work, and again had simply run out of money.
Another young guy was too ashamed or embarrassed to speak, so I left him to his own thoughts. During the three-quarters of an hour that I was there I reckon that at least a dozen people were helped. 

In many cases these are people on benefits whose circumstances have recently changed - mostly through illness or bereavement - and the benefit system hasn't caught up with them so they are left literally penniless and without food. In most cases the crisis passes and they are able to pick up their lives again after the help the Food Hub gives them.  But I can't help wondering how in such a rich country as ours, and in the even more prosperous area of outer London, so many people are suffering food poverty like this. Since the Purley Food Hub opened in January 2013 1500 clients have been helped. Yes, there may be a few who take advantage of the system - and the volunteers recognize that and are becoming more skillful in preventing abuse of the system - but most people would not put themselves through the shame of approaching the Hub unless they were really desperate. We almost seem to be going back to the Victoria era of the workhouse and the Poor Laws. 

Most of the food banks in the UK seem to be run by church or other religious groups. The Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths all hold generosity to the poor and needy as a high value. In the Old Testament over and over again God is described as one who loves justice. So it right that the church not only gives practical help to those in need, but asks why they are needy in the first place, and questions the status quo that allows this.