Easter: I don’t think that word means what David Cameron thinks it does

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I’ve hesitated for a few hours, but I can’t managed to hold back any longer. David Cameron’s Easter message is dreadful. I’m used to the charm-offensive-say-something-nice-to-Christians-at-Christmas-and-Easter type of message, but this is in a league of its own. Here are a few extracts and my only slightly restrained commentary.

In a few days’ time, millions of people across Britain will be celebrating Easter. Just as I’ve done for the last five years, I’ll be making my belief in the importance of Christianity absolutely clear.

As Madeleine Teahan has already noted, it’s not clear whether it’s David Cameron’s belief in Christianity or the importance of Christianity that he’s making clear. And by the end of the piece the reader is still not clear what Cameron is making clear, perhaps other than the fact he has a confused understanding of Easter and wants you to vote for his party.

But I’m an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country. And for me, the key point is this: the values of Easter and the Christian religion – compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility – are values that we can all celebrate and share.

I’m not going to try and suggest that compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility are not values driven by Christian belief – I believe they are – but this is an incredibly reductionist and secular attempt to read the Easter message in a pliable and acceptable way.

But even so, in the toughest of times, my faith has helped me move on and drive forward. It also gives me a gentle reminder every once in a while about what really matters and how to be a better person, father and citizen.

This is the bit designed to show the personal, honest, side of David Cameron’s faith, and it has been paraded as such. Everyone has their own beliefs and I’ll let him have his. But I have one question that rears its head whenever David Cameron talks about Christianity: he talks about faith as though it is an end in itself, faith in what, faith in the role of faith, faith in the importance of Christianity, or faith in Jesus?

As Winston Churchill said after the death of his opponent, Neville Chamberlain, in the end we are all guided by the lights of our own reason. ‘The only guide to a man is his own conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions.’

Way to go Dave, imploring relativism in an Easter message to an audience committed to the timeless truth of the death and resurrection.

This government has consistently taken decisions which are based on fundamental principles and beliefs.

Vacuity 101: everything we do is based on some sort of fundamental principle and belief. When I leave the house I walk on the pavement because of the belief that cars will stay on the road. The more important question is what those beliefs are, whether they are good ones, and whether actions match up to the principles they are supposedly based on.

Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children.

No. It’s not. My four year old niece has a better understanding of Easter than Mr Cameron. Maybe I’ll get her to lend the Prime Minister her VeggieTales DVD and fuzzy felts from Sunday School.

I have no problem with politicians appealing to any audience they can get in front of them, and I appreciate their warm thoughts about the contribution Christians make to the country. But an Easter message without mentioning God, Jesus, the Cross or the Resurrection is an incredibly poor effort.

And when it is done to suggest that he is ‘one of you’ (even if a lazy and not a very good one) the crime is even more egregious.

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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:

Is the strength of the Christian faith its moral guidance?

399px-David_Cameron_-_World_Economic_Forum_Annual_Meeting_Davos_2010Over at the Heresy Corner blog Nelson Jones has a rather amusing take on David Cameron’s latest intervention into affairs of a religious nature. Parts of it are very funny, and parts are trying a bit too hard to make a political point.

The Prime Minister was asked “What would your response to Jesus be on his instruction to us to sell all our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor?”

To which he replied: well that’s a tough one.

Or more fully:

“Um, that’s, I’ve done lots of these Cameron Directs and I’ve never had that question before.

“I’m a Christian and I’m an active member of the Church of England and I think like all Christians I sometimes struggle with some of the sayings and some of the instructions and some of the parts of faith as I think all people, well most people of faith do.

“What I think is so good about Jesus’s teachings is there are lots of things he said that you can still apply very directly to daily life and to bringing up your children. You know, simple things like do to others as you would be done by, love your neighbour as yourself, the ten commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, to me they’re still pretty fresh and good instructions, so I find those a set of instructions I can grapple with but the particular one you mentioned I find that one a little bit more difficult.”

He is also said: “I’m not saying religion is like pick and mix, you just pick the bits you like. I’ve always felt the strength of the Christian faith is the basic core of moral guidance. You can find moral guidance from other sources but it’s not a bad handbook”

David Cameron in the space of a few words sums up the challenge for Christianity in contemporary society. The challenge is presented in how his words carefully encapsulate a couple of key points, and in how he then goes on to miss the far bigger point. Continue reading