For Scotland the brave, please don’t leave

Facebook-20140914-124754Watching Braveheart won’t be the same, it won’t have the same sense of irrational patriotism – cheering the Scots to rebuff the English won’t feel quite the same. It’s illogical, it is borderline nonsense, but seeing the resistance against the invading armies and the defence of their nationhood seems more stirring knowing that three centuries later it was a Scottish king who took on the united crown of both countries.

When the Union came it was not an invasion, it was not the conquest of a marauding army, but the coming together of two countries.

I have a little Scottish blood in me, I occasionally consider getting a Buchanan tartan to mark that part of my heritage. I have never lived there, visited only a few times, but it is a connection I do not want to lose.

And this week I’m scared about what might happen. And I am saddened too. The idea of a United Kingdom without Scotland seems wrong, it’s like a wedding where the groom doesn’t show. This is no more than an emotional defence of why I want Scotland to stay as part of the United Kingdom. I have heard the arguments – I have seen them shift like the sand beneath tidal turns. I have watched the politicians make the case for independence, and the counter arguments against them. I have listened and tried to comprehend the financial, constitutional and political dimensions of the debate and in each there are reasons why Scotland might want independence, but they fall short against the logic, the romance and the attachment of the Union.

Scotland might be better off if they kept all the revenues from their oil, but they would have to deal with a national debt on their own. They may want to retain the pound, but no one is quite sure how that would work without leaving one union only to re-enter another straight away.

The devolution of powers to Scotland caused all sorts of constitutional niggles – not least the West Lothian Question whereby Scottish MPs have a vote in Westminster on matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and therefore have not impact on their constituencies. But what happens if they vote yes, do MPs stand in 2015 and hold their seats for a year, what if those seats are what ensures a governing majority?

There are certainly political issues at stake, the Conservatives have not fared well north of the border in recent years, their standing in Westminster would be much stronger without Scotland, the dynamics of politics in a Scotland-less-union would be very different. And yet they put aside short term political opportunism to stand for a Union that is more important than who governs it at any particular point.

And this is because this decision goes beyond the logistics and the politics, and the practicalities of how it would work. Maybe Scotland might suffer financially, maybe the rest of the UK might be changed politically, but while those are the battlefields the independence debate has be fought on, they are not the field upon which it will be decided.

Facebook-20140914-124801Despite all this I’ve not really engaged with the campaigns, and perhaps that is because I don’t have a vote. Or maybe it is because I have no doubt how I would vote. This is not a decision that rests on the tactics or strategies or the policy promises. It is not about the preening of the politicians or the caricatures of each other’s character. It is about the gut. I care more about the result of Thursday’s vote than I have about any election I’ve observed.

I have leafleted for local council candidates, I have canvassed for prospective parliamentary candidates and I have the wonderful record of never campaigning for the winning candidate. The disappointment of standing at the count and seeing the candidate for a council seat you have work with for weeks lose by a handful of votes fades into insignificance against the prospect of Scotland ceding from the Union.

Needing a passport to get into Scotland isn’t a big deal, if you fly you need it anyway. Even changing currency is a frustration that would be swiftly accommodated. The pain of this divorce would not be in the short term logistics, or the financial turmoil it may lead to. The pain is in the decades and centuries to come when the Union that stood through centuries, that brought peace and stability to these isles, that worked together, accommodated differences and thrived on unity, is only a relic in the history books.

And that is the thought that saddens me, that what made us strong, what helped us through strife, what stood against foes internal and abroad, has slipped away. That’s why I am hoping beyond all hope that Scotland votes no.

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Will anyone resign because we are failing Iraqi Christians?

iraqi-christiansA minister resigns over the government’s policy in Israel and Gaza. And the shock is not so much that Baroness Warsi resigned, but that the government had a policy on Gaza over which one was able to protest.

Because the government seem as helpless as you or me. And it’s not just in that particular corner of the Middle East that violence is leaving its bloody scars. In Syria, the war continues, in Iraq, the illusion of peace is extinguished.

But those stories slip down the agenda, and each new insurgence, coup or catastrophe demotes the last to also run status. The fragile ceasefire and hope for peace in Gaza comes after horrendous loss of life and humanitarian vandalism in the previous month. I struggle to understand the right and wrong, whose side has the just cause and who is the aggressor, I want things nice and simple, I want options laid out on a menu, and if I don’t like what is chosen then I can protest. Then I could, if I were a government minister, tender an honourable resignation in support of a cause I am passionate about.

If only more people would resign, like Baroness Warsi, because of government inaction to support those who share their faith in the hardest corners of the earth.

Today two senior officials from Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge were found guilty of crimes against humanity. In their eighties they still remain resolute of their ignorance and innocence of the atrocities committed. In March I walked around the killing fields, I saw the fragments of bone still rising through the soil nearly four decades later, I walked around the school turned into a torture facility – a place where thousands passed through over four years but just 11 walked out alive. This was genocide, this was horrific: this was man killing man for no other reason than they could potentially pose a threat to one man’s idea of what society should be like. I wondered at the time whether it made it better or worse that this wasn’t killing an ethnic or religious group, it wasn’t like the holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, and that’s a moot point because it was horror laid on horror, a legacy that haunts a country grappling to find its way out of poverty, searching for ways to rebuild trust among its population – who had been taught to hate one another.

A13310755845_038146b4d2_ond I wished someone had resigned over that. What if there was a Cambodian in the British cabinet, or the American administration, who caught an inkling of what was happening and stood up and said no more. No more vacillation, no more vague good intentions, but something has to be done when children are being taken from their families and smashed against trees.

So often we call for advocacy on behalf of the voiceless regardless of their faith or ethnicity, and we should and it’s important. But those who share my faith are dying today, and we should speak for them. It is for them that I cry out, and for whom we should shout. And Christian politicians looking at the plight of Christians, especially in Iraq, should despair at the inaction of their government and resign.

The violence against Christians in Iraq is not negligible, it is horrific. The deaths caused by an insurgency seeking to create an Islamic State covering Iraq and Syria are not just of Christians, but as Christians we should be especially vocal in speaking out for their protection. This is not a simple act of self-interest, it is the defence of freedom which benefits all. The thousands of Yazidi Iraqis forced to shelter on a mountain top, and slowly dying because that is no place to shelter. They too need protection and advocacy, this morning I had no idea who they are, a small group which blends Christian and Zoroastrian beliefs and branded by ISIS as devil worshippers.

What’s happening in Iraq is genocide.

As Philip Jenkins writes: We often read of the birth and growth of churches, very rarely of their deaths. In Mosul, however, we may be seeing the end of an astounding example of Christian continuity that lasted nearly two millennia.”

The US Catholic Bishop’s Conference wrote last week to National Security Advisor Susan Rice, they said: “The urgent situation in Iraq demands both our prayers and action. U.S. humanitarian assistance for the victims of the conflict is critical. In addition, our nation must take diplomatic measures. Our nation bears a special responsibility toward the people of Iraq.”

There is no doubt that this is a hard situation to respond to, and made harder by the legacy of US and UK military involvement in Iraq, the opposition to that involvement and the problems it created. Because of the loss of life British military action caused then there is understandable, but regretful, hesitancy about getting involved in any way now. But abstinence out of fear is shameful. Especially when we think of Canon Andrew White and others who are committed to serving in Iraq and have refused to move regardless of the threat to their life.

I know of no Yazidi politicians in the British government who can resign in solidarity and in protest that we are not doing enough, that we are not doing anything. But I know of plenty of Christians. I know of Christians committed to their faith and passionate about defending religious freedom, and above all, thinking death is never a suitable sentence for refusing to convert.

I wonder if there are any men or women of principle, who seeing the violence, hearing of the persecution, witnessing the horrors that scar the landscape of where the church has its ancient foundations, turn down the privileges and the prospects that their post affords and hand in their resignation. It is shameful that as a country we are doing nothing.

As Dan Hodges puts it, lets not wait for the books and the films, lets not wait to shed a tear as we read the next We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, or wait to stare in horror at the next Hotel Rwanda.

Is there an honourable man or woman in today’s government who cannot stand that we stand by while Christians are slaughtered and forced from their homes? Who instead of standing by, stands up and says that something must be done.

Who will resign out of protest that we are not coming to the aid of the Christians and the Yazidi: the persecuted and the hounded of Iraq?

Assisted dying: it’s just not cricket

On Saturday morning James Anderson marked out his crease in effort to prevent the England cricket team capitulating to a hefty first innings deficit. The previous night Stuart Broad has played a few shots and helped Joe Root nudge the scoreboard towards respectability, and then the final batsman – not a batsman in any conventional sense of the word, but the final player in the team to come out to bat – hung around long enough that his bowling duties would be delayed until the next day.

All through Saturday’s morning session Root and cricket batsAnderson pushed the total up, with Root, the recognised batsman, initially protecting Anderson from most of the play before they went on to bat as equals with the teams talismanic bowler trading the red leather for the bat as his weapon to do damage to the opponent. That morning all sorts of records fell. It was the first time both number 11s had scored fifties, first time both teams had a final wicket partnership over a hundred. When Anderson finally succumbed shortly after lunch England had carved out a lead from this granite of a wicket in Nottingham.

Cricket is a strange sport, it asks everyone to play their part. Only a fortnight before Anderson had fallen two balls short of the most redoubtable defence against Sri Lanka, turning down shot after shot, refusing to risk his wicket for anything. When he was out to his fifty-fifth ball it was the second longest duck ever. There were tears in his eyes when he was interviewed after the match. In most walks of life we play to our strengths, we do what we’re good at, and we avoid those things where failure is likely. Bowlers have no such option. James Anderson is not in the team for his batting, as a number 11 he is sent out onto the wicket as a final sacrifice at the tail end of an innings. He is not expected to score, but still he marks his crease and waits for the bouncers designed to scare him, the yorkers which will put him off balance and the reverse swing, of which he himself is a master, designed to tempt him into playing a shot.

A couple of years ago I was working with someone who had cancer, I didn’t know all the details, but I knew he had cancer, went into remission, then was no longer in remission. In May 2012 he passed away, but a few months before he wrote about his experience and his thoughts on assisted dying. Yesterday his thoughts were published in the Independent ahead of a debate in the House of Lords this week on legalising assisted dying for the terminally ill. Christopher Jones writes, that had the proposed law had been in place it would be for people like him:

“I might have been open to the option of ending my life by legal means, had these existed. The legal prohibition of this course was immensely helpful in removing it as a live option, thus constraining me to respond to my situation more creatively and hopefully. In hindsight, I now know that had I taken this course, I would have been denied the unexpected and joyful experience of being ‘recalled to life’ as I now am.”

Over the weekend the unexpected revelation that Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, supported the proposed change in the law sent shock waves around the Christian community, uniting those from often hostile factions in disagreement with his stance. This was followed by the support from Desmond Tutu, a seeming momentum of support from senior Christian leaders to change the law to one that is ‘more compassionate’. But, as current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby wrote in the Times, “Helping people to die is not truly compassionate”.

I cannot imagine the suffering many people who are terminally ill face, or the life of those who are not terminally ill but suffering from illnesses that render their lives hard to live. There are cases that go through the courts of people who want their loved ones to have the freedom to end their lives, there are heart wrenchingly painful accounts.

And yet, and yet, I don’t think life can be subject to those choices. There are some choices we should not be allowed to take. I firmly believe that restricting the choice available to assist in someone’s death is the more compassionate thing to do.

We all have our part to play in life, and whether that’s for a few more months than we might expect. I am grateful for having known Christopher, and I am grateful he left these words.

Number 11 batsmen are sent out at the end of the innings when it is nearly over, but for them this is their chance to play some shots before the end. And sometimes it is remarkable. In twelve tests the winning shots have been struck by a batsmen disregarded as really a batsman. We could limit the batting to those who are good at it, those who train day in day out to receive the bullets of fast bowlers, the turning balls of whirling spinners.

cockney cricketSometimes playing out of position leads to unexpected results. Sometimes things happen that should not. What looks like a lost cause can be the gateway to something new. After Anderson’s heroics on Saturday the epilogue on Sunday evening was even more remarkable if irrelevant to the outcome of the game. On a pitch that yielded few easy wickets a draw was the inevitable conclusion as India batted through the day yesterday. As the sun dipped beneath the horizon and the match proceeded towards its close Alastair Cook took the ball to bowl his second and third ever overs in test match cricket. And took a wicket. The batsman out of form became a bowler, and the country’s greatest bowler was a batsman when it mattered.

In yesterday’s sermon at ChristChurch London Liam Thatcher talked about how Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from his chains while under arrest in Rome. He writes to the church that started when revival broke out in another jail twelve years before. His chains were not the method he would have chosen, but they were the way the gospel was spreading throughout the palace guard. Paul was chained up but the good news could not be.

Playing out of position can be awkward, being somewhere we would rather not can be painful, and it can be difficult, and sometimes we wish we could choose otherwise. But sometimes we learn something in those places, sometimes the unusual is where the unexpected happens. When it does, it’s more exciting. Anderson taking wickets isn’t worthy of headline (and nor should Cook scoring runs – but that’s another matter altogether), but when his heroics were with the bat people sat up, refreshed the live updates, and paid attention. There is something about let everyone play there part, even if it is out of position, and allowing assisted dying could stop that: and it’s just not cricket.

Does the customer have all the rights?

Business Cartoon“I want a wet cappuccino” declares the customer, “so you want a latte?” I reply. “No” they restate, “a wet cappuccino”. So I give them a wet cappuccino – which is really just a latte.

Burger King have long marketed their burgers with the tag line “Have it your way”, a riposte to the supposed inflexibility of McDonald’s. The customer can choose what they want and how they want it, within reason and usually at extra cost. Recently they changed the slogan to ‘Be your way’, and the shift marks not only a development of their advertising but the further incorporation of individualism into everyday life.

It’s not so much ‘I think therefore I am’, but ‘I choose therefore I am’. The liberty to decide what to do, how to do it, or whether to do it – whatever it may be – has become society’s fundamental and inalienable right. Not just the customer is always right, but the customer has all the rights.

Cases on both sides of the Atlantic have brought the question of religious liberty to the fore in recent weeks. There was the case in America of a dog walker ‘firing’ a customer because they supported the legalisation of marijuana. Also in the States was the related issue of whether an employer should cover medical insurance for treatments which they had religious objections to. And in Northern Ireland a bakery is being taken to court by the Equality Commission for refusing to back a cake decorated to advocate for the legalisation of same sex marriage. Continue reading

The confession of a lazy but determined voter

Tomorrow morning I’ll head round the corner from my house and enter a community centre I never knew existed. I’ll be on my way to work and probably one of the first to enter. I’ll mark the papers, pop them in the respective boxes and be on my way.

I’ll have cast my vote for the councillors to represent me on Southwark Council and MEPs to do the same in the European Parliament.

I don’t yet know the names of the people I’ll vote for. Not that I’m undecided, just that I know very little about what they’re saying or standing for, or even their names.

There was an election flyer on my kitchen table, and my flatmate was canvassed a couple of weeks ago – and on that grounds alone likely to vote for the party to take that minor amount of effort. I think that flyer found its way to the bin.

If I were to go home tonight and scour the internet for policies and biographical details I would not need the contrition I feel towards my lassitude toward the democratic process. But I’m not, I know how I’m going to vote. I know enough about the parties and their positions on the national level to be frustrated by them all but aligned closest to one. And the names beside that logo will get my vote tomorrow.

Except tomorrow I’m not supposed to be voting on the national policies of parties, but on what they would do on my local council or in the European Parliament. And yet, my confession is not one scarce found among voters heading to the polling booth tomorrow. I would argue it’s the norm.

Most voters are not deciding which candidate gets their support based on a thorough evaluation of the options, or the specifics of the ballot, but on a wider, general, sense of support or disagreement with the parties across the country. Perhaps I do a disservice, there are surely many who do know who is standing and what their vision is; perhaps I misrepresent the population by projecting my ignorance onto others.

And while I am a lazy voter, I am also a determined one. Voting is not something to do lightly, or without thought, but more than that, and regardless of whether we take care, it is something we must do. I would rather the population opted for the party whose logo was in the colour they preferred than stay at home. Voting is too important, even when it seems pointless.

Before the last general election the oft heard cry was that a single vote doesn’t make any difference – the majority is too large, the party I support will never win, my vote will be wasted. But what if everyone took that view? What if everyone opted out?

Politics isn’t a consumer activity where our choice to participate or not is an active decision, and where exit is also a valid option. If we choose not to go to the cinema we are communicating our dissatisfaction, with the choice of films, the price of tickets, the location of the cinema, we are telling the cinema that something is wrong. In politics it doesn’t work like that. If we opt out we let others take the decision, and their decisions affect us all.

It’s why despite everything, despite my frustration with the parties, their leaders, their campaign tactics, their policies, or lack thereof, I vote because I must. And so should you. Because to not would be to let others make your mind up for you. You should also watch the video at the top – best voting video ever.

Also, if you wish to learn a bit more about the European Union and the elections, read this guide.

Is Britain a Christian country?

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Is Britain a Christian country?

David Cameron thinks so, and the British Humanist Association think not. The latter part of that surprises exactly no one.

Following the Prime Minister’s Easter reception, video message and article in last week’s Church Times the argument has rolled on and on. I came to his defence, but then suggested he was suffering from a little religious illiteracy. One thing I have not wanted to do is question his motives.

I read his remarks about the experience of pastoral care from his local vicar and I read of a man grateful for the support of the church. I see a man witnessing the work done by churches in villages, towns and cities after other services leave and amazed at the effectiveness of it.

I don’t think all that this government has done is good, and I don’t want my appreciation for his words spoken to cancel out criticism of his actions. Nor do I want to be blind to political reality, that a government criticised by churches for not doing enough about food poverty and criticised for introducing same sex marriage, is keen to find words to restore relationships and appeal to an important sector of society.

I believe the Prime Minister is sincere in his words, and real in his appreciation, and restoring relationships that have been fractured should not be ignored. I can also overlook the inevitable political environment and clumsiness of his phrasing to be grateful for a government committed to supporting Christians at home and overseas – especially in those places where their faith costs them the most.

But is he right to say that Britain is a Christian country?

Constitutionally yes, theologically no, and demographically maybe.

The Queen is the head of the Church of England and is defender of the faith, the hierarchy of the Church of England are part of our legislature and their church’s laws are made by parliament. That history and constitutional arrangement may not be liked but cannot be denied: in some legal sense at least, we are a Christian county.

The demographics of Britain are changing, there are less people identifying as Christians than before, lower attendance and more people of other faiths and none. The 2011 census shows a majority still identifying as Christian but other surveys show lower levels of fidelity, as Nick Baines, bishop of the newly created diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, comments, you can pick your own statistics. What cannot be argued with is that church attendance is a minority pursuit – and has been for quite a while, but it is not a dwindling activity. Despite doom mongers and pessimistic projections there is life in the church yet, and resilience where irrelevance was expected. If your definition of whether Britain is a Christian country is based on the faith of the people in it, then different people will answer differently, some will look at all those who hold the label – regardless what it means to them – and say yes. Others will counter that many, if not most, of those claiming the label haven’t experienced personal salvation and therefore are not Christians, and therefore as a country we are not Christian.

All of this deliberation happens without any consideration of what makes something Christian, and whether a country can be Christian. In days gone by the king, queen, emperor, or whatever guise the absolute ruler came in, declared the religion of the country and the people, and those were two and the same. The religion of a country was also something not easy to change – a landmark for religious liberty was the idea that a king could choose the religion of his country.

But salvation does not come through regal fiat.

And it is not in the power of an earthly king, however absolute his rule, to make a people children of God. God took a people and called them his own, he gave them a land, when they asked he gave them a king, he gave them commandments – a way to live by – and they took off their jewels, melted them down and turned the gold into a god they crafted in the form of a calf, which they could feel and touch and which had no power.

The God who has power now calls us to be his children. His family is not defined by race or nationality by constitutional settlement or political sentiment. It is defined by whether we place our trust in the saviour who hung and died and called us his own. And the King who triumphed over the death we have no power over.

The kings of this world will perish. They will fade and be replaced. People will come and go, statistics will change and be interpreted this way and that. Activists will lay claim to what they want and speak for many they do not. Politicians will court politically important groups, they will divide and rule, they will strategise and stigmatise, they will call some in and others out. They will want faith for what it can give and push it away for what it challenges.

And I hope more politicians will come to know Christ as their saviour. As the King who loves them. As the risen Lord. I hope they will encounter the work of the church, I hope it will reflect the love of God and I hope it will change them. And I want this country, as well as all others, to be places that honour and glorify God and are witnesses to the lives and faith of the resurrection people who find their home there.

Countries cannot be Christian, that misses the point of salvation. I want many more people to know Jesus, know they are loved, know that they can be made whole through him. But no matter how many people experience that, no matter how closely laws honour God and his creation, that will not make Britain a Christian country. And just because it makes the secularists annoyed that’s not a good enough reason to pretend it is so.

Does David Cameron really want the church to be more evangelical?

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David Cameron calls on British Christians to be more evangelical. Why am I not jumping up and down on the rooftops whooping and hollering, and generally celebrating?

Because I’m not convinced.

The Prime Minister doesn’t know what an evangelical is, and I suppose I should have some sympathy with him there.

He uses the word as a verb, a synonym for passion or zeal, only with a religious fervour. Likewise he called for more evangelism, but evangelism for the role of the church in society, rather than sharing the good news that Jesus came to save.

On this weekend when we remember Jesus died to take the weight of all we do to reject God, when we know that he went beyond the grave and rose on the Sunday to triumph over the death that was all too real but could not hold him. On this weekend we should have a clearer view than ever what it means to share the good news. What that good news is and what it does.

The good news is that Jesus saves, not that churches run foodbanks.

David Cameron’s words are a nice way of using language in a way it is almost meant, it is designed to resonate with those for whom they have particular affinity but it doesn’t mean very much. The Prime Minister wants the church to be nice, to provide the endless services it does to communities, to stay when others go, to build resilience, to be the glue that holds things together.

But it is not a coincidence Christians provide the vast amount of support which they do.

It’s not just they have lots of volunteers and are able to mobilise activity.

It’s not a guilt thing, making recompense for the poor record religious institutions might have.

Or a decontamination thing, acting in certain ways so that others will think better. It didn’t work with huskies and it wouldn’t with food banks.

It’s a good news thing. That good news we want to share. What we are evangelical about.

David Cameron wants our good works but despite his talk of evangelism that seems the totality of his good news.

Churches offer incredible services to their community, they remain when others do not, they serve when others walk away, they live while others leave.

And it’s quite nice when this contribution is recognised. When the local council want to partner with you in providing a service, when businesses support you, when the Prime Minister lauds you.

Yet have we sacrificed something along the way? Have we been too quick to keep our calling card in our pocket, has our identity been obscured?

Have we opted for favour over faithfulness?

They are many examples of churches holding true to their beliefs, their motivation and their passion and serving their community.

Look at Street Pastors, you’d have to be pretty dim to miss the church connection.

We have to be the same people whether we’re preaching from the pulpit or sweeping the streets. Whether we’re expounding theology or handing our food parcels. We do not have a Christian button which we flip on when we are in church and off when we serve the public. That’s what being evangelical is all about.

It doesn’t mean we act the same in every context, the words we use from the pulpit won’t be appropriate on the playing field when we’re coaching football.

We don’t do good just to earn the adulation of the authorities. We do good because we believe that the gospel which changes our lives will one day banish every trace of pain and suffering. When good will triumph.

We do good because we get to be partners in bringing this good into our world today while we hope for tomorrow.

We do good because we are called to be good news. We are called to be carriers of the gospel.

When we step into our community, when we serve with passion, when we lead with conviction we are ambassadors for Christ.

It’s not a choice between good works or good news. It’s about both. Always about both.

Being evangelical means speaking truth, it means serving others, it means loving without limits, above all it means know that Jesus saves. This weekend as we remember Jesus’ death and celebrate his resurrection let that be centre stage.

Should we mock David Cameron on twitter?

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David Cameron has done it again.

He’s tried to be nice to Christians and it went a bit wrong.

But this time my annoyance is not with him.

From time to time the Prime Minister makes comments in statements or interviews about his faith and the role of Christianity. He might compare his belief to being like listening to the radio in the Chilterns, fading in and out. He might suggest that the Bible is not a bad moral guide.

And we might pick holes in what he says, criticise the understanding of the Christian faith. I did.

On Wednesday various Christian leaders went to Number 10 for the Prime Minister’s Easter reception. There were church leaders, evangelists, anti-poverty campaigners, those working with the persecuted church and victims of trafficking.

Normally such events are little more than a PR exercise, they’re press released and managed to present the Prime Minister in as good a light as possible. This one feels a little different. There was no press release, no prepared speech, and only belatedly a transcript of the Prime Minister’s remarks.

Those there swiftly reported what David Cameron had said. A single news story led to many others and by the evening the Prime Minister was being mocked on twitter.

When I read the full version of what he said I squirmed slightly at how evangelism was expressed (as little more than doing good). And yet the words I read were an encouragement to the church across the world frequently persecuted for their beliefs, and to the church in the UK to be dynamic in bringing life to communities across the country. A boost for parish priests who canoed through villages during the storms earlier this year.

The words were warm, and Cranmer notes: “clearly coming from the heart, it reveals rather more about the Prime Minister’s spirituality and appreciation of the Church of England’s ministry than anything he has previously disclosed”.

Unfortunately David Cameron doesn’t make it hard to be mocked, comparing himself to Dyno-rod was an unusual analogy. But it was the Big Society (yes, with capitals) that got the ball rolling. Perhaps appropriately for an Easter message, the Big Society is a concept that refuses to die. As Christian Guy tweeted:

This is where my sympathy for David Cameron goes into overdrive. He was trying to give the church credit for their work and respond, as he has repeatedly done, that all his packaging did was take what the church has been doing for centuries, millennia, and get more people involved.

As reported in the Times, a No 10 spokesperson commented: “The Prime Minister has long made the point that he may have coined the catchphrase but he didn’t invent the concept. All sorts of organisations from different faith backgrounds have made a positive contribution to society, including schools and charities.”

When the Big Society was first announced, churches jumped up and down yelling that they’d be at it for ages. Now he agrees the response is: stop thinking you’re doing God’s work. He can’t win.

You might consider the Big Society to be a cover for cuts, you might think it is painfully hard electoral message to sell on the door steps.

But I think there is a challenge to us all in how we respond to politicians, how we engage with them, and how we judge their beliefs and actions. I am certain we should not sycophantically praise politicians to get an invite through the famous black door. I don’t think anyone there got there by doing that. I think there is a vital prophetic role for the church to speak truth to power, to tell when the least are forgotten, when the abandoned are cast away, when the stomachs of the hungry groan, when the shelter for the weak is not there.

There are many things we can criticise the government for. We can say their welfare changes are pernicious, we can say their changes to marriage undermine the family. We can criticise governments for taking us to war, for favouring business over caring for the environment.

The bible tells us in Psalm 146 to put critical distance between us and our leaders, to be reluctant to place too much trust in what they can do: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.”

And we should remember that politicians are fallible, they are like you and me, they make mistakes, they have mixed motives, they put priorities in an order that fails to reconcile heaven and earth.

But maybe because of that, criticism should not be our only posture, in fact, I don’t think it should be our primary posture. It is useful, it is vital, we must critique what is unjust, but we shouldn’t start there.

Political leaders, like all other leaders, are taking responsibility, they are exercising authority, and as such, in a way that is always limited, never absolute, they are exercising God’s authority.

Jesus, before Pilate, asks where his authority comes from.

Jesus tells the challenger seeking to trap him, to give to Caesar what is his, knowing that the image of Caesar on a coin demanding fealty is itself an image reflecting Caesar’s creation in the image of God.

Paul writes to the Romans reminding them that the governing authorities only have authority because God has given it, and that those in authority are God’s servants.

In 1 Peter we are challenged to do good and honour our rulers: if that is a challenge today what must it have felt like to those under Roman oppression?

And in 1 Timothy asked to pray for those in authority – that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

This is not a weak prayer, a surrender, it is a challenge. It is a hard task.

There is a responsibility given to leaders that should provoke respect but not blind loyalty. There is an authority to rulers which we should live under but also challenge.

And when we turn to twitter (admittedly there were some funny tweets) to mock leaders who express gratitude to the church for the work they do, and stand with Christians persecuted for their beliefs across the world, I got annoyed. But more than that, I was also saddened because I think it undermines the prophetic voice we should have. A voice that respects, but is not cowed, by authority.

Watch the Prime Minister’s Easter message:

Are we worshipping welfare?

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The great welfare debate of February 2014 has failed to ask or answer any substantive questions. I add just one caveat to that strong statement, from the looks of Theos’ report The Future of Welfare I suspect it does address many such questions – however, I have only read the introduction, and unfortunately coverage has not penetrated beyond it being another intervention by Christians on welfare.

It is less of a debate and more of a farce. With many who see poverty taking its toll railing against a government accused of worsening the situation. And those taking decisions thanking the commentators kindly for their advice, but also reminding them that they are the ones taking the necessary hard decisions.

There is an almost axiomatic response that a family in poverty requires government action, and specifically legislation.

I think there is a responsibility on us, as a society, to look after each other. But maybe we need to take a deeper look at the solutions that are frequently called for without a pause to consider if they are the best.

We have not asked what kind of welfare system we want.

The automatic response to more people needing food from foodbanks seems to be: the government should offer more generous benefits so this problem doesn’t occur. I care about as little for that logic as I do for the response that: it’s austerity, these are unavoidable choices. All choices are avoidable, it’s just that some options are unpalatable.

Too much of the furore in recent weeks has been focused on who said what, and whether they have the right to say it. By keeping the debate at this level the real questions do not get asked. It’s all about the bishops who intervened and the politicians who slapped them down.

I believe it is vital for church leaders to speak out on political issues, I believe it is vital for them to give testimony to what they see in their ministry. Churches often have the closest contact to communities, they are trusted and they are present where politicians often are not. I also believe politicians shouldn’t be afraid to respond. I think the bishops and fellow church leaders were unwise to give their letter to the Mirror: it was used as a very blunt political tool. I also think David Cameron’s response to Vincent Nichols, whose interview got this ball rolling, was high handed and failed to engage with the concern expressed.

The dynamics of the debate lead to frustration. Where we want something to happen but we don’t get beyond complaining. And part of the problem is it is very complicated. Take banker’s pay, they are often paid inordinate sums, amounts that make the eyes water. Should their pay be capped? In which case they will pay less tax into the Treasury reducing the amount to spread around. Should they be taxed more? They already are, and there is a point at which higher rates of taxation provide a disincentive to earn more. One can argue this shouldn’t be the case, that they are earning more than enough already so the government taking a higher proportion of their pay shouldn’t worry them. But alas, it does.

This week we heard of HSBC paying their chief executive £9 million, changing the structure of his pay to get around rules restricting bank bonuses. And there was outcry. But the restrictions on bonuses came about to address the incentive toward risky activities which set pay would mitigate against. Now that the pay is set and not made up of bonuses the issue seems more with the amount he is paid not how it is structured.

Wayne Rooney also made headlines for his £300,000 a week pay packet, that’s over £15 million a year. This is far more than most people will earn in their lifetime. The tragedy in this case is that Manchester United don’t pay their cleaners the living wage. Maybe the argument would be posited that unless stars like Rooney are retained the fans won’t come and watch, and then the cleaners wouldn’t have jobs at all. I think Manchester United have more pressing concerns when it comes to keeping their fans happy.

These raise the question of what we want the taxation and benefit system to do. Do we want it to provide essential services for all and a safety net for those in particular difficulty, or do we want it to be a mechanism for equalising the distribution of resources? A completely redistributive welfare system removes the incentive for work and effort – the ultimate manifestation of this train of though is toward a common wage for all regardless of the work carried out or whether any work is carried out (I’m sure I read something about this in a university political philosophy class).

On many occasions those relying on benefits are stigmatised, and opinion polls show gross misunderstanding of the cost of out of work benefits and the level of fraud. Most benefits go to the elderly and far too much goes to those in work. Far too much because work should not leave families dependent on the state, when we have business structures dependent on low incomes propped up by the state while money is made for those at the top: this is injustice.

And yet. And yet I think we ask too much of welfare, and our attachment to it as a vital protection can blind us to its limitations and where it over reaches its efficacy. While many accept something has to change, the welfare state has become an idol we dare not deface. So it remains as it is, unsuited to its task, unable to deliver, and inviolable to change. 

The way we as a society, and as a state, look after the poor, the vulnerable and the elderly is a testament to the health of a society. But what says more is the way we help each other beyond immediate care. If helping the Good Samaritan by the road side is only the first step toward countering injustice, campaigning for better street lighting and security is only the second. The ongoing steps of working to remove the danger and the threat that made those first steps necessary is the longer and harder task. In relation to welfare this means strengthening education, promoting work, ensuring there is work to be done and work that is paid sufficiently. And more than the safety net the state can provide it means working to strengthen the bonds of society, the place of family and community, that build resilience and protect against the shocks that will undoubtedly come from time to time. 

I wonder whether our use of the Good Samaritan as a parable for good welfare is a poor one. I wonder if it is an easy tale to latch onto to promote a political point. Do we use it as a catch all for helping other people, almost guilt tripping support for something without considering the alternatives? Because sometimes the alternatives are not unpalatable, they are just harder, and we sometimes like to avoid the hard things. It’s easier when the state does it for us.

Has our faith in the goodness of the welfare system turned it into a god that we worship?

Welfare debate: do politicians want churches’ works but not their words?

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Hearing a politician say that job of “the Church of England is to evangelise the message that Jesus Christ is the son of God, come to intervene for a humanity that can never meet God’s standards of perfection, and that humanity should concentrate on loving God and loving our neighbour” should be a cause for joy. Unfortunately the words from Charlotte Leslie MP are used as a device to try and shut the church up.

Since the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, spoke out last weekend against the government’s welfare reforms and austerity measures Christian leaders have made the running for the week’s news. David Cameron replied in an article for the Daily Telegraph attempting to claim a moral mission for his government’s reforms. Theos think tank published a collection of essays on the Future of Welfare, and then 27 bishops along with other church leaders signed a letter to the Mirror calling on the government to act on food hunger, ensure the safety net of the welfare state is secure and make work pay.

There was bluster and counter bluster, the most significant intervention in decades, an unprecedented attack. Forgetting that these unprecedented moments happen a couple of times a year. David Cameron in his response to Vincent Nichols had the courtesy to welcome his comments, and his place in the debate. Others have been less kind, and I would put Charlotte Leslie in that position, at least implicitly criticising church leaders for speaking out.

Christians are welcomed for their work on the front line, collecting food donations, handing them out, counselling those in severe debt, walking the streets at night causing crime to drop. The social action churches do is lauded, their contribution to the voluntary and charitable sector is vital. There are times when the church is loved. And there are times it is loathed, and that’s usually when it conflicts with the prevailing political consensus. Political ostracism is one threat but political co-option is arguably the greater challenge.

When church leaders criticise a political programme the other side can easily grab the religious leaders and use them as a shield. While the comments can be fair, the concerns grounded in reality, the policy asks reasonable, sometimes the political climate can morph an outspoken church leader’s statement into a political point scoring mechanism.

That’s where political interventions are dangerous. They become a clothes horse used to hang whatever particular agenda or priority best suits at that moment. It’s either a sign of strength, or a sign of disconnect, of a church finding it’s fight, or showing all it has left is to complain about the incoming tide and garner the attention given as it expends the last gasps of its relevancy on a fruitless cause. For journalists looking for a story it is the House of Bishops becoming the Labour Party at prayer. For naïve Bishops it is the church saying what they’re seeing on the ground and nothing more. The rest is up to the politicians to sort out.

It’s that sort of attitude towards politicians that gets us in trouble. When we think they are a special cadre of people, somehow more capable, more equipped, more likely to find solutions to the problems we encounter and comment on. When we think something is for politicians, so we don’t need to get our hands dirty, we’re abdicating responsibility. As I put it elsewhere, sometimes campaigning can look a lot like complacency.

Elaine Graham, in her book Between a rock and a hard place identifies this as the paradox of a post secular society, where Christians are welcomed on occasions, usually for the services and good they bring to communities, but also rejected, often for what they have to say. Perhaps, Christians are the new children, best seen but not heard.

Which bring us back to Charlotte Leslie’s intervention as well as John Redwood’s blog questioning whether churches want to pay more tax to fund the welfare they seemingly are calling for.

It was Christians who got involved before the funding of the welfare state started and as Stephen Timms, Labour’s employment spokesperson and chair of Christians on the Left, frequently comments, is it any surprise that it is Christians who have risen to the task in recent years?

A study by the Evangelical Alliance showed that 84 per cent of evangelicals volunteered at least monthly, for an average of two hours at a time, the contribution to the economy of this across the cities, towns and villages of our country is immense, and it more than offsets the gift aid churches receive back on the gifts they receive. If the government wanted to pay the church for its work the nation’s finances would be in a perilous state.

John Redwood doesn’t support higher taxes on churches, he’s not advocating the repeal of rebates which create vital stimuli. He’s a classic small state conservative, liberating voluntary organisations to take responsibility for their communities, Burke’s little platoons, is honey to his lips. But his tongue-in-cheek comments read like a warning shot across the churches’ bows, similar to Leslie’s call for the church to get its house in order before criticising the government.

If I were to caricature the two sides, the politicians and the church leaders, the politicians say to the churches: “thank you very much for the wonderful work you do, now leave us alone to make the important decisions which we know best how to handle”, they like the works but not the words. But the churches shouldn’t get off the hook either, too often their response is: “look at the dreadful impact of what you’re doing, we should know because we see it everyday, sort it. Oh, we don’t know how, just sort it”.

As I say, they’re caricatures, not the truth, but resembling it. The politicians want to keep the church at a safe distance, and the church obliges by lobbing in the odd hand grenade as they did this week, but then retreating to the comparative safety and affirmation of acting the Good Samaritan on life’s Jericho Road, letting others handle the tricky policy questions needing answers.