Britain is suffering because we have been too willing to forget what made us who we are, writes Michael Nazir-Ali.
I have resigned as Bishop of Rochester after nearly 15 years. During that time, I have watched the nation drift further and further away from its Christian moorings. Instead of the spiritual and moral framework provided by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, we have been led to expect, and even to celebrate, mere diversity. Not surprisingly, this has had the result of loosening the ties of law, customs and values, and led to a gradual loss of identity and of cohesiveness. Every society, for its wellbeing, needs the social capital of common values and the recognition of certain virtues which contribute to personal and social flourishing. Our ideas about the sacredness of the human person at every stage of life, of equality and natural rights and, therefore, of freedom, have demonstrably arisen from the tradition rooted in the Bible.
Different faiths and traditions will not necessarily produce the values and virtues which have been so prominent in the history of this country. It is quite wrong to presume that they will, as Gordon Brown appeared to do last week in his speech calling for "value-based" rules at St Paul's Cathedral. Some faiths may emphasise social solidarity more than personal freedom, others publicly enforce piety over a nurturing of the interior life and yet others stress honour and shame rather than humility, service and sacrifice. It may be, of course, that there is a useful overlap among these traditions in terms of values by which to live. It may also be that people of different faiths can "own" many of the values produced by a Christian framework in this nation, but this cannot take place in a vacuum.
One of the surprising aspects of what you could call our values vacuum is the historical amnesia which is so prevalent today – or, rather, a selective sort of amnesia. The perfectly virtuous pages of history, such as Magna Carta, the campaign to abolish the slave trade and, later, slavery itself, the easing of conditions of labour for men, women and children and the introduction of universal education, which all took place under the inspiration of the Christian faith, are forgotten or ignored. Instead of which we get large doses of guilt along with an emphasis on our involvement in the slave trade, religious and ethnic persecution, exploitative colonialism and other wrongs which certainly need repentance. But repentance for past wrongs without the celebration of what has been good has deprived people of a common vision by which to live and a strong basis for the future.
The churches in general, and the Church of England in particular, have, of course, been concerned about these developments; but in many cases, they have had to stand by and watch the erosion of the Christian tradition in this land. The so-called "reform" of abortion laws, the disappearance of a public recognition of marriage and family in the fiscal and social spheres and the erosion of a Christian presence in public institutions, in terms of chapels and chaplaincies, have all occurred while the Church has either looked on impotently or, sometimes, been complicit in bringing about the change it has subsequently regretted. For example, the 1965 Church report on abortion reform left the door open for the 1967 Act to include provisions which would later be used to widen considerably the availability of abortion.
I have, for a long time, been a supporter of the continuing establishment of the Church of England on the simple grounds that, if the State wishes the Church to have a voice in its councils, why should the Church refuse such an opportunity – as long as it is without compromising Christian integrity. I have often had cause to remember what St John Fisher, one of my distinguished predecessors, had to say about the Royal Supremacy, "insofar as the Law of God allows it".
What a contrast this view of the Church's pre-eminence makes when compared to the beliefs of today's prominent political and even religious figures. Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, went so far as to say recently that the establishment of the Church of England depends on "staying in tune" with British society. The Church is seen as simply the religious aspect of society, there to endorse any change or chance which politicians deem fit to impose on an unsuspecting nation, rather than being the guardian of the Christian tradition which has provided for nearly everything valuable in this country.
Against this, the Church worldwide is growing rapidly and is very aware of its counter-cultural situation. In many parts of the Middle East, South and Central Asia, China and Africa, the expression of Christian faith and life is restricted at best and, in some cases, there is active persecution, both official and unofficial. I have for long been involved in assisting these brothers and sisters in the faith with advocacy of their cause; now I plan to devote more of my time to their struggle. It is crucial for the future of world Christianity that they survive and flourish; and in their clear and sacrificial witness, they have a great deal to teach the churches of the West.
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