Category Archives: Society

Liberal Democrats Do God

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a dutiful citizen. From that first time proudly walking out the school gates to the latest European Elections I have always voted. And I even go to hear the candidates speak so I can decide who to vote for. But, between elections it didn’t have much impact on my life. Until last year…

Politics came crashing into our lives last year when our son, William, stood in the council elections. Suddenly, we were Liberals: putting leaflets through doors, going to the count in the local sports hall. He was the youngest candidate standing anywhere so he had quite a lot of press attention. I remember getting him up at 6am to do a radio interview (on the phone, in his dressing gown, sitting on the sofa). Even as parents it was quite an intense experience. He came a good second and, after saying ‘Well done’ to him, I went to congratulate the winning candidate. ‘Oh thank you, Monica,’ she said and gave me a big hug. Well Reigate is a bit like that.

Liberal Democrats Do GodWhen this book was published it caused a mild media flurry. The title is based on the famous comment from Alistair Campbell following an interview with Tony Blair that ‘We don’t do God’. It is encouraging that many politicians (including our current Prime Minister) are prepared now to publically declare their faith and the effect it has on their life. My feeling is that the attempt (by the ‘New Atheists’ and others) in the late 20th century to ‘Kill off God’ may have had quite the opposite effect. It has encouraged people from all walks of life to be honest about their faith in a way that has not been possible for some time.

Although this is quite a short book there is a lot in it and my choice of what to comment on is entirely personal. My focus is more on the Church than on the world of politics and I suspect that everyone reading it will have different things they feel are important. Each section is written by a prominent Liberal Democrat politician and the range of issues is enormous. I’m going to start with Sir Andrew Stunell:

Three reasons to Thank God – and not the usual ones

While I was reading this a tune kept on turning round and round in my head. Most of my generation will know this tune. The words are:

God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year,
God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the Earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Because the sense of this short essay is that God is working his purpose out. Maybe not in the way we would expect. Possibly not in the way that many Christians would want but it is happening. Sir Andrew’s first thankyou is:

Let’s start by thanking God that we live in a secular and pluralist society.

Within a few hundred years of Jesus’ death on earth attempts were being made to control and manage the Christian faith. This reached its peak in the late middle ages but, even by the year 1800, it was still impossible, in the UK,  for anyone who did not belong to the Church of England to enter parliament, get a University degree or hold public office. Of course, you also had to be a man and of reasonable personal wealth to do most of these things. Even those following other flavours of Christianity such as Baptists or Catholics were excluded. As Sir Andrew says: ‘We have never been all one great big happy Christian family’.

This level of control had some unexpected consequences. One of these was to force Jews and non-conformist Christians into other areas of public life, such as banking and manufacturing. But a less positive effect was to weaken the Church in this country, to the point where going to a church service was not seen as a act of faith at all, but merely ‘doing the right thing’.

The second ‘Thankyou’ is:

Lets thank God that the Holy Spirit has been at work through the ages

He continues:

… the Holy Spirit didn’t stop work when the Book of Revelation was sealed. Not according to scripture itself, and not according to the subsequent evidence – of which Wilberforce’s successful crusade (against slavery) is a landmark piece…

Stunell mentions a whole list of things that have improved in our society: Slavery, women’s rights, care for the disabled, relaxation of dress codes, but I would like to highlight another improvement in our society and in our churches that we now take for granted.

A friend of mine was divorced about 40 years ago. Added to the pain of ending her unsuccessful marriage was a virtual exclusion from her normal society. The church she belonged to was unwelcoming and certainly offered no help. All her friendships and clubs depended on her being part of a couple. We have come a long way since then. Churches offer ‘Divorce and separation’ courses and actively welcome divorced people and remarried couples. People generally are more relaxed and accepting of divorce and its consequences. The failure of a marriage will always be painful and difficult but at least the people involved can now start again much more easily.

Which brings us to the third ‘Thank you’:

Let’s thank God that he has yet more truth to break forth from his Word

In ten years time Christians will look back at the fuss we made about Gay marriage and wonder what it was all about. We will wonder how we could not have opened our church doors and our hearts to those who had struggled to find their place in society; who were, after all, our neighbours. We will wonder how we could have denied the love of God to so many people. Not just our gay neighbours but all the non-gay people who could not accept a church that seemed to pass judgement on people just because of who they were.

I’m with Andrew Stunell on this. He says:

In this generation it is rights for gay people that seem so hard to acknowledge and so readily denied.

In contrast to that, in all my years as an MP and a councillor I have never once had a letter from any Christian asking me to make committing adultery a criminal offence, or to introduce a law to stop adulterers adopting children, or prevent them from teaching children or repeal the Civil Marriage Act that permits them to remarry, or to require them to have medical treatment to prevent a recurrence of their sexual behaviour. I have had all of those things recommended to me about gay people. That is despite the fact that adultery is unambiguously condemned in Scripture in a way that goes far beyond the somewhat iffy references dredged up about gay behaviour. It unambiguously causes far more harm to far more children than gay behaviour, and is unambiguously very much more damaging and destabilising to families, and of course the institution of marriage, and society at large. Just ask any MP about their Child Support caseload.

In my opinion, things are about to change. The silence from the leadership of the Church of England is deafening on this subject. The dam will burst from the top. But it may take a change to the structure of the Church to achieve this. Which brings us to Lord Tyler’s essay on:

Faith, Society and the State

He says:

 My plea would be for more consistency and more transparency. Treat our fellow citizens as grown-ups, by acknowledging that we are now a multi-faith nation with strong intra-faith links at all levels of society. If that means disestablishment for those of us who live in England, so be it. If that means that King Charles III decides to call himself “Defender of the Faiths”, well why not?

I understand that since the Swedish Church was disestablished in 2001 it has gone from strength to strength, with new commitment to its mission and increasing membership. I have no reason to believe that the English sky would fall in, any more then it did in Wales.

I think we, as Christians, need to reclaim the debate on disestablishment of the Church of England . I was cooking macaroni cheese on Friday and pondering how to make the separation of the Church and State seem at all relevant when I heard a rather sad little story on the BBC News about bats. The journalist was talking to a Church warden from a church in Norfolk. More than 300 bats were roosting in his church. As they are protected he was unable to get rid of them. He described putting down sheets every night and coming in every morning to find them soaked in urine and dotted with poo. The stink was putting people off coming to church at all! What was not mentioned was that he was unable to just close down the church building and set up in a school hall (or other practical venue). Of course not, the parish church is the parish church.

This little story seemed to show in miniature many of the problems with the Church of England: Ancient, impractical buildings, inflexible structures that do not allow change, an insistence to be a ‘special case’ and often outside the law. Lord Tyler says:

Above all, I hope to those of us who remain Anglicans can soon find a way to return to Christ’s own teaching and stop agonising over the dated views of my namesake Paul of Tarsus… Sorting out a speedy way to implement the clear majority view of the Church that the “Stained glass ceiling” of women priests is ludicrous, and offends all our Christian instincts would be an excellent first step in this direction.

I am an Anglican. In many ways the Church of England is stronger than ever. Those who belong to this organisation are really committed to both the Church and to God. There are very few ‘Pew Fillers’ any more. And in Justin Welby we have a really remarkable leader. But, to fulfil our potential we need to break the shackles from the state and stand free.

How did England lose its Faith?

To most people in this country the answer would be: Why not? We know better now than to believe all that superstitious nonsense. But I knew there had to be an answer. It just took a long time to find it.

It came to me at the beginning of the hot summer of 2011. I was called to do jury service and it was altogether an odd experience. I was warned that there would be quite a lot of waiting around so I brought a book to finish. The book was one of my favourites ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ by William James. So I sat on the bank of padded, but not too comfortable chairs and read. ‘What are you reading?’ The tall, thin man opposite asked. I showed him and explained it was about the way that people experience God. ‘Oh, I’m a born again Atheist’, He said, ‘God is just something you have constructed in your mind because you need an authority figure’.

Now it seems very interesting to me that someone can be so certain that something is not true. For instance, I rather like the idea of UFOs. I’m fairly sure they don’t exist but it seems intriguing  that so many people believe they do. This man (his name was Alex) had all the arguments and had obviously read ‘The God Delusion’ with attention. But what Alex, and Dawkins, never seem to take into account is that many people experience God in very direct ways. But I am getting off the point…

One major difference between doing Jury service and my normal existence was the amount of free time I had. During long lunch breaks I would wander round Guildford looking in the shops and, of course, ended up in the local bookshop. It was quite a large bookshop but had the usual measly couple of shelves on Faith matters, perhaps 100 books altogether. Many of these were arguing against God rather than for Him. Initially, the book I picked up looked as though it was one of these. It was called ‘The Rage against God‘ by Peter Hitchens. As I looked through it seemed the ideal book to give to my new friend Alex.

I never gave it to him. As I read it on the train, moving through the parched Surrey countryside, I realised it was saying something unique and important. That the English people, even while they sat comfortably in their beautiful old churches, were worshipping the wrong God. As Hitchens puts it:

I hope to show that one of the things I was schooled in was not in fact religion but a strange and vulnerable counterfeit of it, a counterfeit that can be detected and rejected while yet leaving the genuine truths of Christianity undamaged.

The relevant Bible text is from Exodus 20:

No other gods, only me. No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me. But I’m unswervingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments. (The Message translation)

Which is the first commandment. Its strange really but even completely non-religious people are comfortable with most of the 10 commandments. Some are even written into law. Others, such as the prohibition of adultery, they know to be right even if inconvenient. But this first one appears to be uncompromising to the point of cruelty. I’m going to come back to this later but first I want to continue with Hitchens view of English religion. He talks of the ‘Faith in Science’:

The Christian conservatism of my schools did not protect me from the rather Victorian faith in something called ‘Science’ which was then very common. Perhaps this is because Christianity was not implied in every action and statement of my teachers wheras materialistic, naturalistic faith was. This faith did not require any great understanding. Mainly, it was just an assumption, a received opinion we all accepted.

But faith in science can only dilute and misdirect religious faith (and taken seriously it can even strengthen it, but that is for a future post…) . It takes something stronger to poison it. He comes to this in chapter 5:

Now we come to the very heart of the cult that enthralled us all, especially children… I possessed for many years a comic book biography of our Great Leader, called ‘The Happy Warrior’, one of thousands of more or less idolatrous publications which concentrated rather heavily on Mr Churchhill’s good side. I knew more about his life than the life of Christ. He was our saviour.

Hitchens describes the central ritual of the year:

As pseudo-religions go, ours was attractive and elegant, and it contained many decent and godly elements. Its central ceremony was Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to the 11th of November…In the very depths of this season of universal drab coloured gloom we were marched in ranks and files down to the town war memorial, absurd caps on our heads, for the crowning ritual of the year.. A Vicar in austere black and white vestments intoned uncompromisingly Protestant prayers, we kept in silence, a quavering bugle blew, we sang ‘Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past’, a hymn that seemed to have been carved from granite much like that of the memorial itself. It was a deep evocation of everything we liked about ourselves, an indulgence in melancholy and proud self restraint. No outsider could possibly have penetrated its English mysteries, or imagined that we were, in fact enjoying ourselves. But we were.

There is a great deal more in the book about the cult of the Second world war and it is well worth reading but I will end my quotes on this subject with this summing up:

… the proper remembering of dead warriors, though right and fitting, is a very different thing from the Christian religion. The Christian church has been powerfully damaged by letting itself be confused with love of country and making of great wars.

There was a sort of double whammy effect here. On the one hand the content of what was being offered by the Church became thinner, less convincing and more boring. Also, the Church (especially the Church of England) became associated with increasingly old fashioned values. The generation born after the war wanted to move on and the Church was not moving with them.

Timothy Keller, in his book ‘Counterfeit Gods’, describes something similar happening in the USA.

Why did our culture largely abandon God as its Hope? I believe it was because our religious communities have been and continue to be filled with these false gods. Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ. These toxic effects of religious idolatry have led to widespread disaffection with religion in general and Christianity in particular. Thinking we have tried God, we have turned to other Hopes, with devastating consequences.

But, you may well ask, why didn’t I realise this? I was born and raised in England, why did I spend 15 years pondering this question? Well, I was raised in this country but my parents were not. My mother rejected the rather austere Dutch Protestantism she was raised in. My fathers parents had already ceased to be practising Jews by the time they arrived in England, from Germany in the late Thirties. As a girl, Churchill was no more than an interesting historical figure to me. The fact that ‘we’ had won the war was no more to me than a fact. When the bugle blew and we stood in silence I was remembering quite a different war.

Last November I turned on the TV on Saturday night expecting to watch the usual hospital drama. Instead there was a program from the Royal Albert Hall. Groups of various parts of the armed services were processing into the centre of the Hall with great ceremony. A Welsh newsreader was describing the function of each of these armed services with great dignity and ceremony. A glittering brass band played sombre music for the men and women to march to. It was all very touching, just like a religious ceremony. But who was being worshipped? Was it the actual men and women there? Or those who had died? Or some abstract noble warrior? Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against soldiers. Those who I have met are fine, courageous people and they do a difficult job. But so do a lot of people and when it comes down to it they are just people. To put them in place of God is certainly wrong.

By the time I was an adult the cult of Winston Churchill had faded but it was to be replaced by another, equally potent, figure. Diana Spencer was married to Prince Charles at 19. She was a year older than me. The summer I left school I watched her arrive at her wedding on the TV with millions of other people but she did not figure much in my life after that. When her marriage fell apart I can remember thinking how sad it was. She was badly treated, a genuinely tragic figure. So, it wasn’t until her death in 1997 that the scale of the focus on her became apparent. I remember the morning she died. We were preparing to go on holiday. I was hoping that our 3 year old son would be happy watching kids TV for an hour while we did the last of the packing. But instead of Teletubbies and cartoons there was only an endless reel of a wrecked car in a Paris tunnel. I switched the TV off and spent the next fortnight in a campsite on top of a hill in Dordogne. While we were there we found out that Diana had died and, of course, this was a big story but it wasn’t until we returned to England I realised just how big. It seemed the whole country was in mourning. I just kept quiet and watched the TV news: The weeping mourners, the young Tony Blair talking to camera, the acres of flowers outside Kensington Palace. I had started going to church the year before and there was a prophecy being spoken at our church in Reigate…

I said I would come back to the passage from Exodus. Churchhill and Diana are not the only gods revered by the English people. You only have to wander through the cathedrals dedicated to shopping or corporate success to realise that. It seems incredibly harsh for generations to be punished for worshipping the wrong god but the problem is that it is true. Sin is an odd word but, in this case, I would call something a sin that hurts other people. And we all know families that repeat hurtful actions generation after generation. It could be addiction, alcohol abuse, pride or anger. And these families can look to their ‘gods’ all they like but, you know something, they are not going to help. Some people reading this may say that God won’t either but He seems a much better bet and Jesus offers us the hard, deep magic of forgiveness that we must offer first before we receive it. In the ‘Rage Against God’ Hitchens describes a Russian society that has almost completely forgotten God. It is a bleak and hopeless picture and he says that we are heading the same way. I don’t agree.

The prophecy I heard went something like this:

Before the flowers have faded around Kensington Palace God will have started something new.

I don’t know if this was just something said in Reigate or was more widespread. At the time I dismissed it. After all there were no accounts of people flocking to Church. But, by 1998, the Alpha Course was successful enough to be described as a ‘cult’ by the newspapers, thousands of people were spending their holidays at New Wine or Spring Harvest Christian conferences,  many new churches are being started in school halls and ordinary people’s front rooms. Something was starting. The installation of our current Archbishop of Canterbury is another sign of the rebirth of Christianity in this country

But we need to be careful. Jesus did not insist on his ‘rights’. He did not define himself as better than those categorised as sinners in his society. When we define Gay people as sinners we hurt ourselves as much as them (especially those who wish to become Christians). I will end with a quote from Sir Andrew Stunell MP.

Making Christians angry is easy. Making Christians think is the hard part.

Suggested Reading:

‘The Rage Against God’ by Peter Hitchens. Well worth reading, if only for the description of modern Russia.

On Forgiveness: ‘What’s so Amazing about Grace?’ by Philip Yancey.

On modern ‘gods’ (but from an American point of view): Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller.

The quote from Sir Andrew Stunell from ‘Liberal Democrats do God’ – Edited by Jo Latham and Claire Mathys

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