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Reflections on how recent election results should be challenging the Church

29 May 2014

Haddon Willmer, and through his latest blog Roy Searle* advance the argument that what is currently going on politically is a challenge Christians and the Church as a Christian community cannot duck.
Church and UKIP… May 2014

The media and politicians are saying there is a Eurosceptic earthquake happening across Europe including England. Yet the church, at least our part of it, within its four walls, notices nothing. We do not fear what might happen soon, such as the break up of the UK, or of Europe and our belonging to the EU. Do we assume it will make no difference to us whether these things happen or not? To us or to anyone?

farageOr is the church as a whole really UKIP at heart – we want out of Europe but are content to let other people, like Farage, do the work to achieve it? Or maybe the Church at heart is pro-European by inertia – that is the way it has been for decades, and we don’t want the bother of change? We are left guessing about the heart of the church, because it never speaks its mind on these questions. It does not encourage thinking about them. It may mention them in a sentence in prayer, but that is a way of handing it over to God, so sparing ourselves of any responsibility to think, talk and engage.

The church schools us steadily not to think and talk about things like this. It says, Come to God for an hour and a half, switch off from the world where you live the rest of the week. Seek God for yourself, in your individual spirit, do not follow God who is in Jesus on earth, coming into the world, not out of it.

If as Church, as Christians, we took another way, and let ourselves be called into thinking and action by the issues of the world about us; if we were disturbed and awakened by the earthquake we are in, what should we think?

1 We certainly should not think that this UKIP-signalled earthquake is the total agenda for the church, that we should drop everything else in order to deal with it. The Gospel sets our agenda, not Farage or the popular wave he rides on. The Gospel does not excuse us from acting responsibly in response to the political issues which call for decision and action today, but it sets that responsibility in the context of the will, grace and judgment of God, which is ultimate, and transcends any agenda or perspective defined by human powers, institutions, parties, etc.
2 We would test the options for action in the earthquake in order to discern any which are plainly contrary to the Gospel, and distinguish them from those that might be tolerable within the parameters set by the Gospel. euroWe would not expect any practical option (as represented for example by political programmes) to express the Gospel perfectly and fully, so that it should without reserve be endorsed and espoused by the Church. What we can expect to find is that some options in significant degree realise some of what the Gospel points us to, and for the rest is open to change towards and not away from the Gospel. It is not impossible that there could be some attractive offers being made in the public arena where the church has no choice but to say it is contrary to the Gospel, so that Christians cannot support it at all, and should pray and work for it to be simply stopped. That was so, I think, with slave-owning states, with Nazism and with Apartheid; some, but not all, Christians came (mostly too slowly) to see and say there could be no arrangement between these regimes and the Gospel. Is it not clear now that all Christians, individually and as Church, should have been faithful to the Gospel and so clear in their simple No to these options. But in many situations, we are faced with a variety of options, which fall into the ‘tolerable’ category and deciding between them is not a simple Yes or No. I think this is the case in the UK at present, even with UKIP. It does not help us in making good decisions to assimilate UKIP with the Nazis, despite the strong elements of racism and xenophobia in the party. A more critical discrimination needs to be thought and talked out here.
3 A note in passing: I talk of the parameters set by the Gospel. That needs explaining. We need to beware of assuming that, as Christians, our understanding of the Gospel and its parameters is already adequate to guide our critical discernment of the issues that the earthquake faces us with. In waking up to take those issues seriously, we also have to wake up to thinking the Gospel afresh, more deeply, maybe in radical difference from anything we are accustomed to. This rethinking of the Gospel has to proceed concurrently with thinking about the political issues, hand in hand: not one before the other.
4 One way of getting into thinking and talking about the issues confronting us in the earthquake might be as follows. Suppose UKIP goes on making the running; suppose with the help of the Conservatives, it gets its in-out referendum on EU membership; suppose the result is Out; suppose too that Scotland becomes independent and consequently England is left for the foreseeable future with a conservative majority; suppose that the range of right-wing political attitudes has a majority following; suppose finally that the Church, even as all the churches together, and even with some alliances with other faith communities, is marginalised by secularised politics and finance and hedonist and merely humanist culture: what then should the Church pray for, witness to and strive for? What should the church think and do?
5 It could not command the situation. Is it reduced to making marginal futile comments, blown away in the wind? Is it to go on loving and serving some people, in a small way, locally, giving them a helping hand with some problems in living, all within the larger system, politics and culture which is immune to any Church contribution? Can it usefully raise questions and make practical suggestions for making the best of what will not be a perfect situation, and may well be frightening and damaging in its outcomes?
6 A responsibility which is on the Church, as on any responsible person or agency, in the next year, is to attend to the possibilities opening up because of the rise of UKIP. If we decide that the Church should not say a simple No to UKIP (Church leaders could not make statements to that effect, since it would be disowned by some proportion of Christians in the Churches – the argument about UKIP is thus within the Church, not just between Church and the party) what is Church to do, so that Christians can live responsibly and act clearly and usefully?
7 Already, some Christians and some Christian agencies may well be showing us the way here. My personal trouble is that I live from week to week in a part of the Church of Christ where little notice is taken of what is already being done. We need to notice, catch up and join in the work, taking forward the thinking and acting in our own community and place.
8 Whether England is in or out of the EU, the Gospel asks us all, whether professedly Christian or not, to test our action and intention by certain criteria. The church needs to be clear for itself what those criteria are and continually strengthen its faithfulness to them; it tests itself by them in the course of reminding everyone of them, as signs of the kingdom of God.
Some at least are not obscure or complicated, though none is easy to practise faithfully. They are not primarily standards which are stated and enforced by law. They are essentially questions, pressing insistent questions, directed to conscience, coming from God, asking us to give an account of what we are doing or intending to do and so bringing ourselves to humility, rethinking, and change. For example, we are commanded in the Gospel to love our neighbour and to understand neighbour to be stretchable even to the enemy. European_Parliament_election-317x300This cannot be legislated and enforced by law; it is not a defined legal duty. This kind of question comes in the simplicity of the Gospel which calls to us in all our living and leaves us without excuse when we fail. The Gospel thus continually invites and challenges us to be more truly and fully loving than we generally are and it tests us at the points where we have practical, political reasons for not loving fully and freely. It makes us aware of who we are excluding when we take a particular course of action – and asks, Is that way really necessary? And in the place where loving is restricted, its asks what is to be done to love as much as possible, and to keep the door open to better loving in the future. That kind of questioning, being open in a self-critical way, is what the Gospel presses upon all who hear. It is alternative to – it will save us from – complacently endorsing the restrictions on our loving, as though because they seem necessary they are right and should not trouble our conscience.
9 What will happen to ‘loving our neighbour’ if we were to take the UKIP way out of the EU in the UKIP spirit, whatever that is? Will it be then wider in its embrace or narrower? Will it be more generous and joyful or more grudging? Will it be even more privatised or will it be better understood as a criterion applicable to social, organisational and political practices? Such questions spawn large sets of subsidiary questions.
10 Pursuing these questions would help us to make our minds up as Christians, if we were to face a referendum or as we respond even now to the pressure of the UKIP mood. Going through them might bring us to a clear No to UKIP; it would certainly enable a critical engagement with UKIP concentrated on fundamental issues of value and purpose, plainly identified, which would be quite different from the present manoeuvring of the major parties to appease the UKIP mood in the hope of winning the next election.
11 I need to do more thinking to be able to set out clearly other criteria. Loving neighbour is not the only one needed, though it might be explained as the umbrella which includes other criteria (or signs). Either way, they need to be spelt out and I am ashamed that I cannot reel them off. It is a sign that I have thought too little about these questions for some long time, and when I did engage with them, I did not get as far as I should have done. And in any case, while basic issues are still the same, the context of the 1980s was different in many respects. I hope that there are already Christians in England who are thinking and talking faithful sense on these issues; I have to find them. If they find me, I would I hope gratefully welcome them. What I am aware of at present is weak and too often off-target. So many of us are occupied with intra-church narcissistic trivia; some fascinated by church as historical relic, or as aesthetic or as therapy; while others are as apathetic and uncommitted to Church as they are to our political institutions and party politics. There is probably as little capacity in the Church in England to be an adequately confessing Church as there was in Germany in the 1930s. It is easy to despair, but that would be wrong. In faith, we look in the darkness for chances to do little things of love and hope.
Roy Searle came to faith whilst training as an Outward Bound instructor and has held pastorates at Portrack, Stockton-on-Tees (1980-1988) and Enon, Sunderland (1988-1992).  He is one of the Founders of the Northumbria Community where he has been one of the leaders since 1992.

 

 

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