The place of the churches in society

Posted on February 24, 2012


In an article in the Independent newspaper this week, Mary Ann Sieghart (or her subeditor) announced that ‘You don’t have to believe in God to cherish the Church’, a proposition which she offered in response to the latest attack by Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins produced a survey showing that many people who ticked the ‘Christian’ – perhaps particularly the ‘Church of England’  – box on the census showed few signs of basic Christian knowledge, and reported little participation in Christian practice. His figures were hardly surprising, of course: it is not news that the 70% of the population who claim to be Christian are not all at worship on Sunday morning. He drew from them the conclusion that self-identification should not be used as a criterion for assessing the level of Christian commitment in the nation.

In academic research and discussion we tend to hesitate for some while before setting self-identifications aside: there is a basic courtesy in letting people choose their own identity; and often self-narrated identity turns out to have deep consequences that can be missed in a cursory look. Nick Spencer reports definite attitudinal differences between those who choose to self-identify as Christian and those who do not; Sieghart’s first response to Dawkins is  similar claim: so what if all that people mean by ticking the ‘Christian’ box is that they ‘try to be a good person’? In general, people trying to be good are a benefit for society…

She goes on in her article to praise the lack of militancy in the Church of England, and then to point to all the  good work that the Church does in society. This is where her article gets interesting:

Most attractively, though, the Church of England sees its job as ministering not just to its own flock. All over the country, if you bother to look, you will find Church-run groups that help children excluded from school, the homeless, refugees, the elderly, the sick, disaffected teenagers, the poor. There is no expectation that the beneficiaries be Christian.

True enough, and certainly praiseworthy. Why, she asks, is the Church so active in ministering beyond its borders? Her answer, surprisingly, is establishment:

It is precisely because the Church is established that it feels a duty to serve the whole nation.

I will extend Seighart the courtesy of assuming that she knows about different practices of establishment in the different nations of the UK, and meant to say something similar about (at least) the Church in Wales and the Church of Scotland. Even granted that, though, the claim is curious: I am not aware of any data that suggests that the established churches run more ‘groups that help children excluded from school, the homeless, refugees, the elderly, the sick, disaffected teenagers, the poor…’ than Roman Catholic or nonconformist churches; the suggestion, indeed, seems implausible.

I suppose Seighart might be making a claim that the motivation of the established churches is different: Catholics and Methodists run youth groups, but they do it in an attempt to convert others, not out of a desire to serve. Salvation Army soup runs are evangelistic, and so bad; Anglican ones are altruistic, and so praiseworthy (in England; in Scotland, where the local Anglican denomination is not established, perhaps their motives are different?). This is profoundly implausible, however: many of these sorts of initiatives are ecumenically-run; there is no basic division of motivation on the basis of established status.

The Church of England, and the other established churches of this realm, serve the public for the same reasons that the disestablished churches – and indeed members of at least some of the non-Christian religions – do. Some of it is unreflective and instinctive: there is plenty of data showing that religiously active people are more generous in giving to charity, more likely to volunteer, and more connected to their community. Where it is theologised, the basis of community service is always one way or another missional.

Now there are varieties of accounts of Christian mission, and all will be in play. No church I’ve ever known, however, has seen its community engagement as merely a vehicle for direct evangelism: no-one will be thrown out of the toddler group, or refused a meal, or whatever, because they refuse to come to the Alpha course. Equally, no church I’ve ever known has not harboured some hope that somehow its community engagement will demonstrate the attractiveness of its vision of the good life, and so serve as a witness to those who choose not to engage in the liturgical life of the church.

So what? Well, Seighart’s piece is representative of a particular line of defence of the place of the churches in British society that is presently quite common: churches are, on the one hand inoffensive, and on the other useful in the charity work they do. To be accepted on these terms, however, one must stay inoffensive. Seighart makes her ‘red lines’ very clear: no opposition to abortion; full acceptance of actively gay and lesbian people; no opposition to pop music; no dogmatism; … The details of the list are less important than its existence: religion is deserving of toleration only if it acquiesces to a set of external norms.

Now, with no disrespect to the power of Mary Ann Seighart’s pen, I do not suppose that crossing her red lines will concern too many people; but most politicians when they speak about the place of religion in society do so in similar terms: ‘moderate’ religion is acceptable, indeed praiseworthy; and ‘moderate’ religion is defined as religion that conforms itself to the shifting norms of the society – which is, in practice, often interpreted as ‘religion that conforms itself to the unexamined prejudices of those who happen presently to hold power’.

This must be unacceptable, however: religious people behave differently from non-religious people precisely because religious traditions instil different visions of the good life in their adherents than are generally held in society. The whole value of religion is dissent from cultural norms. Further, ethical values do not operate on a ‘pick and mix’ basis: a valuing of human life leads to both the offering of care to the homeless and an opposition to abortion and euthanasia, for instance.

Any civic society has to determine the level of dissent from its normal values which it will tolerate, of course. There is no credibility in imagining an anarchist or ultra-liberal utopia in which every view and practice is permitted. The question is always how widely to draw the boundaries of tolerance; the modern liberal instinct has generally been to go as wide as possible: that which does not actively damage the life of another is permissible. (The problem, of course, is that this criterion is itself open to judgement: does abortion damage the life of another?)

What, then, do churches do? One option is to seize power and become the ones who define the vision of the good life that determines what is acceptable in society. The Church of England, which Seighart praises for being so mellow and undogmatic, has a long history of sponsoring state persecution of all non-Anglicans (the Church of Scotland has been far less willing to persecute). The natively Baptist option is more tolerant (&, I think it can be argued, is the deep root of liberal ideas of tolerance – although this depends on a particular, and (I admit) presently unfashionable reading of Locke’s intellectual development): the state’s role is to provide a space where different visions of the good life can be proclaimed and explored.

Seighart’s demand that the churches conform to whatever unexamined prejudices happen to be current amongst the powerful as a price for their acceptance in society comports well with her praise of Anglicanism, but, for those of us who value the virtues of tolerance, is not something to be welcomed.

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