Bishop opens up a debate with 'Christian society' claims

By staff writers
June 5, 2006

Bishop opens up a debate with 'Christian society' claims

-05/06/06

The Anglican Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, is concerned at Britain no longer being considered a Christian society and its replacement by a "multi-faith mish-mash" ñ but his views have been challenged by those who say that a plural approach is in everyoneís interests, and that Christianity should be a subversive rather than an establishment force.

Bishop Nazir-Ali, who was a candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury last time round, comes from a Muslim background in Pakistan. He is on the evangelical wing of the Church of England and is influential in its thinking about Christian mission in a changing world.

In a speech and a number of interviews last week, Bishop Nazir-Ali criticised the idea, first mooted by Prince Charles himself in 1994, that a future king could defend all faiths, not just Christianity, because, he says, the differences between them are too great.

In line with recent comments by the Pope and the head of the Orthodox Church of Greece, he also attacked the onset of secularism in Western society ñ saying that the institutions of British society are rooted in biblical values.

This has annoyed groups such as the National Secular Society, which campaigns against ëreligious privilegeí, including faith schools, the establishment of the Church of England and religion as a tax break.

The British Humanist Association also says that secularism is about a level playing field for all in public life, not about being anti-religious ñ though it campaigns against abuses wrought in the name of religion.

Critics of Bishop Nazir-Aliís views say that when one faith group is in a dominant position it is unhealthy for society, and point to a history of intolerance and ëwars of religioní, claiming that his account of Christian-shaped history is one-sided.

The Bishop of Rochester, who has also been an Episcopal leader in Raiwind, Pakistan, and general secretary of CMS, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme last week that the British monarchy and legal system had both emerged from a Judeao-Christian ethic.

He continued: "People of other faiths recognise this and they are not often the ones asking for a multi-faith mish-mash. They recognise the value of Britain being a Christian country."

Dr Nazir-Ali said he would have no issue with Prince Charles wanting to uphold the freedom of people of every faith or none. But he blamed "secularisers" for creating pressure to remove a ìdistinctively Christian characterî from places like hospital chapels.

He also claimed that these are the same people ìwho want to level us down to a lowest common denominator, so that faith doesn't make any impact on society whatsoever."

However, Simon Barrow of the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia, says that defensiveness on the part of church leaders ñ together with romanticism about the past and an attachment to the ëChristendomí model of the church grounding the state ìdistorts Christian witnessî as well as being unsustainable in a plural culture.

ìThe idea that Christians have a right and duty to perpetuate a position of benign superiority within the social order is out of kilter with the subversive character of the Gospels,î says Barrow. ìIt is a big theological mistake which we have been lulled into by the state-accommodated church idea that first arose from Constantine.î

ìFaith cannot be enforced, Christianity should not be reduced to a cultural bulwark against things Christians do not like ñ and Jesusí creation of a new community of equals is undermined when the church operates in a dominant or patronising wayî, he adds.

In a book to be published in a few weeks time, Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley also suggests that faith and politics needs to be re-thought radically in a ëpost-Christendomí context. He says that the loss of the churchesí establishment role is actually a liberation, viewed the right way.

Ekklesia argues that churches need to renew themselves from the grassroots, practising distinct values such as non-violence, social justice, forgiveness, enemy-loving, barrier-breaking hospitality and inclusion. They should also have no fear of cooperating with others, whether religious or secular, on common concerns.

However, other prominent figures in the Church of England have expressed disquiet about the erosion of ëtraditional Christianityí in public life. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has called on British people to remember their Christian heritage. And Lord Carey (Rowan Williamsí predecessor) has warned against the ìprivatisationî of religion.

Ekkesia says that the churches must take their destiny into their own hands and stop trying to use the state, the tax system, Establishment, publicly-funded schools, blasphemy laws and appeals to ëcivic religioní to do the job for them.

ìWhen faith communities argue for a privileged place in society, rather than being self-supporting and content with the same level of protection and freedom as those of other faiths and none, it looks like special pleading and produces mistrustî, says Simon Barrow. ìWe need to treat each other as equals and look for insight from each other.î

The 7-8 percent of British people who currently go to church on a regular or occasional basis is projected to fall to around 2 percent by 2040, according to a recent study by the Christian Research organisation.

When that occurs, two-thirds of the practicing Christians in Britain will be aged over 65 and will be outnumbered by practicing Muslims, it is suggested.

"Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die," according to Callum Brown, a historian at the University of Dundee in Scotland, and author of The Death of Christian Britain ñ which looks at secularisation trends from the 1960s.

But spirituality is very far from dead, other research suggests. Disconnected from traditional religious institutions, it has migrated into everything from New Age practices and secular ëself-helpí regimes to evangelical sects and new spiritual movements.

Says Simon Barrow: ìIt isnít just Christians who have to learn to think and behave in a new way. Plural, multicultural societies can be tough for other faith groups who wish to have their convictions afforded special protection. Growing religious calls for censorship against offence are dangerous, but minority and faith-based communities need support and understanding too. It is counter-productive when the campaign for free speech becomes an excuse for insults and ridicule.î

Barrow also says that ëtraditional secularist groupsí are going to be casualties of the changing climate if they are not careful. ìBasing your philosophy on being stridently anti-religious is no more attractive to most people than domineering religious systems. And it misses the point ñ which is how we get people of faith and no faith to work together, share public space, deepen understanding, learn to disagree better where necessary, and offer a vision of ëthe goodí to one another.î

Meanwhile Inderjit Singh of the Sikh Messenger has also expressed ìdisappointmentî at Bishop Nazir Aliís recent pronouncements, especially those concerning chaplaincies in hospitals and other public places.

Welcoming the development of a more inclusive chaplaincy system, he told BBC Radio 4ís ëThought for the Dayí audience of a dying Sikh woman mistakenly given the last rites by a Catholic ñ because the church did not appreciate the sensitivities involved and had sole custody of such arrangements.

Some secularists have said that all state funding should be removed from religiously linked chaplaincy, but others argue for a shared approach to pastoral work which respects those of all faiths and none, and involves a range of agencies in providing services.

ìAn approach that offers space to all doesnít have to be what Bishop Nazir-Ali calls ëa lowest common denominatorí system, nor does it have to exclude faith,î says Simon Barrow. ìSurely we can do better than that ñ create a level playing field, and leave the church to get on with learning to be the church in a positive way.î

[Also on Ekklesia: Orthodox leader criticises secularism, supports refugees 05/06/06; Archbishop of Canterbury commends secularity to faith communities; Should God get a name check? - Ekklesia's Simon Barrow on the EU constitution; We need a truly secular political party, says religion writer; Muslim leader denounces religious extremism; Secularists join Christians and Muslims to oppose Indian anti-conversion law; Government plans reopen debate on faith schools; Leading humanist calls for renewed cooperation with believers; Archbishop highlights the role of faith in Europe's future; Secularists ask Live 8 to keep Vatican out; God and the politicians - BBC2 a response; Creationists target schools and universities in Britain; Evangelical Alliance criticised for slur against same-sex couples; Secularist and Christian voices highlight threats to free speech]

Bishop opens up a debate with 'Christian society' claims

-05/06/06

The Anglican Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, is concerned at Britain no longer being considered a Christian society and its replacement by a "multi-faith mish-mash" ñ but his views have been challenged by those who say that a plural approach is in everyoneís interests, and that Christianity should be a subversive rather than an establishment force.

Bishop Nazir-Ali, who was a candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury last time round, comes from a Muslim background in Pakistan. He is on the evangelical wing of the Church of England and is influential in its thinking about Christian mission in a changing world.

In a speech and a number of interviews last week, Bishop Nazir-Ali criticised the idea, first mooted by Prince Charles himself in 1994, that a future king could defend all faiths, not just Christianity, because, he says, the differences between them are too great.

In line with recent comments by the Pope and the head of the Orthodox Church of Greece, he also attacked the onset of secularism in Western society ñ saying that the institutions of British society are rooted in biblical values.

This has annoyed groups such as the National Secular Society, which campaigns against ëreligious privilegeí, including faith schools, the establishment of the Church of England and religion as a tax break.

The British Humanist Association also says that secularism is about a level playing field for all in public life, not about being anti-religious ñ though it campaigns against abuses wrought in the name of religion.

Critics of Bishop Nazir-Aliís views say that when one faith group is in a dominant position it is unhealthy for society, and point to a history of intolerance and ëwars of religioní, claiming that his account of Christian-shaped history is one-sided.

The Bishop of Rochester, who has also been an Episcopal leader in Raiwind, Pakistan, and general secretary of CMS, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme last week that the British monarchy and legal system had both emerged from a Judeao-Christian ethic.

He continued: "People of other faiths recognise this and they are not often the ones asking for a multi-faith mish-mash. They recognise the value of Britain being a Christian country."

Dr Nazir-Ali said he would have no issue with Prince Charles wanting to uphold the freedom of people of every faith or none. But he blamed "secularisers" for creating pressure to remove a ìdistinctively Christian characterî from places like hospital chapels.

He also claimed that these are the same people ìwho want to level us down to a lowest common denominator, so that faith doesn't make any impact on society whatsoever."

However, Simon Barrow of the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia, says that defensiveness on the part of church leaders ñ together with romanticism about the past and an attachment to the ëChristendomí model of the church grounding the state ìdistorts Christian witnessî as well as being unsustainable in a plural culture.

ìThe idea that Christians have a right and duty to perpetuate a position of benign superiority within the social order is out of kilter with the subversive character of the Gospels,î says Barrow. ìIt is a big theological mistake which we have been lulled into by the state-accommodated church idea that first arose from Constantine.î

ìFaith cannot be enforced, Christianity should not be reduced to a cultural bulwark against things Christians do not like ñ and Jesusí creation of a new community of equals is undermined when the church operates in a dominant or patronising wayî, he adds.

In a book to be published in a few weeks time, Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley also suggests that faith and politics needs to be re-thought radically in a ëpost-Christendomí context. He says that the loss of the churchesí establishment role is actually a liberation, viewed the right way.

Ekklesia argues that churches need to renew themselves from the grassroots, practising distinct values such as non-violence, social justice, forgiveness, enemy-loving, barrier-breaking hospitality and inclusion. They should also have no fear of cooperating with others, whether religious or secular, on common concerns.

However, other prominent figures in the Church of England have expressed disquiet about the erosion of ëtraditional Christianityí in public life. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has called on British people to remember their Christian heritage. And Lord Carey (Rowan Williamsí predecessor) has warned against the ìprivatisationî of religion.

Ekkesia says that the churches must take their destiny into their own hands and stop trying to use the state, the tax system, Establishment, publicly-funded schools, blasphemy laws and appeals to ëcivic religioní to do the job for them.

ìWhen faith communities argue for a privileged place in society, rather than being self-supporting and content with the same level of protection and freedom as those of other faiths and none, it looks like special pleading and produces mistrustî, says Simon Barrow. ìWe need to treat each other as equals and look for insight from each other.î

The 7-8 percent of British people who currently go to church on a regular or occasional basis is projected to fall to around 2 percent by 2040, according to a recent study by the Christian Research organisation.

When that occurs, two-thirds of the practicing Christians in Britain will be aged over 65 and will be outnumbered by practicing Muslims, it is suggested.

"Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die," according to Callum Brown, a historian at the University of Dundee in Scotland, and author of The Death of Christian Britain ñ which looks at secularisation trends from the 1960s.

But spirituality is very far from dead, other research suggests. Disconnected from traditional religious institutions, it has migrated into everything from New Age practices and secular ëself-helpí regimes to evangelical sects and new spiritual movements.

Says Simon Barrow: ìIt isnít just Christians who have to learn to think and behave in a new way. Plural, multicultural societies can be tough for other faith groups who wish to have their convictions afforded special protection. Growing religious calls for censorship against offence are dangerous, but minority and faith-based communities need support and understanding too. It is counter-productive when the campaign for free speech becomes an excuse for insults and ridicule.î

Barrow also says that ëtraditional secularist groupsí are going to be casualties of the changing climate if they are not careful. ìBasing your philosophy on being stridently anti-religious is no more attractive to most people than domineering religious systems. And it misses the point ñ which is how we get people of faith and no faith to work together, share public space, deepen understanding, learn to disagree better where necessary, and offer a vision of ëthe goodí to one another.î

Meanwhile Inderjit Singh of the Sikh Messenger has also expressed ìdisappointmentî at Bishop Nazir Aliís recent pronouncements, especially those concerning chaplaincies in hospitals and other public places.

Welcoming the development of a more inclusive chaplaincy system, he told BBC Radio 4ís ëThought for the Dayí audience of a dying Sikh woman mistakenly given the last rites by a Catholic ñ because the church did not appreciate the sensitivities involved and had sole custody of such arrangements.

Some secularists have said that all state funding should be removed from religiously linked chaplaincy, but others argue for a shared approach to pastoral work which respects those of all faiths and none, and involves a range of agencies in providing services.

ìAn approach that offers space to all doesnít have to be what Bishop Nazir-Ali calls ëa lowest common denominatorí system, nor does it have to exclude faith,î says Simon Barrow. ìSurely we can do better than that ñ create a level playing field, and leave the church to get on with learning to be the church in a positive way.î

[Also on Ekklesia: Orthodox leader criticises secularism, supports refugees 05/06/06; Archbishop of Canterbury commends secularity to faith communities; Should God get a name check? - Ekklesia's Simon Barrow on the EU constitution; We need a truly secular political party, says religion writer; Muslim leader denounces religious extremism; Secularists join Christians and Muslims to oppose Indian anti-conversion law; Government plans reopen debate on faith schools; Leading humanist calls for renewed cooperation with believers; Archbishop highlights the role of faith in Europe's future; Secularists ask Live 8 to keep Vatican out; God and the politicians - BBC2 a response; Creationists target schools and universities in Britain; Evangelical Alliance criticised for slur against same-sex couples; Secularist and Christian voices highlight threats to free speech]

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