The Prime Minister has spoken apparently about Britain being a Christian country, and should not be afraid to admit is is so. I did not hear his speech and have to rely on news reports of it. But if that is a correct description of his thoughts, is Mr Cameron right? On one level, he is, Christianity has long been the major religious tradition in Britain, and has influenced much of our social structure and culture. But was Britain ever Christian and is it now? Despite the fact that many more people claimed to be Christian in the past, and perhaps even a majority, nevertheless, I believe that the answer to both questions is no. I suspect that it is next to impossible for a state to be Christian, if by Christian we mean a disciple, a follower of Jesus. That is something we can hope to achieve only on a personal level. It is possible, I think, for a state to exhibit in its laws and general social ethos something of the values that Christianity or Christian discipleship might support. That does not however make the state Christian.
However, of greater importance than this question is Mr Cameron’s other suggestion, namely that Christianity’s traditional values could rescue Britain from moral collapse. Here I agree with him but I suspect, based on my understanding of current government actions and pronouncements, that he would neither want nor welcome my agreement. I cannot suggest what the PM understands as traditional Christian values but I would want to put forward as those values those described in a passage towards the end of Matthew’s gospel. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus makes the only clear judgement in the gospels about who is following his path and who is not.
Those who Jesus recognises as his own, that is those who follow his path, are those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned. In other words, Jesus recognises as his own, followers, if you like, of his tradition, those who work out the heart of God’s bias to the poor evident throughout the Judaeo / Christian story.
Since the time of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity has too often been dragooned into service as the handmaiden of state power, losing its gospel edge time and again in return for being allowed to dine at the top tables.
Christianity is for the poor, the excluded, the powerless, the voiceless, or it is not Christianity. If the Prime Minister is suggesting we base our public policy on that tradition, then I am with him all the way.