Faith and Politics standoff a 'dead end' says new book

London, UK - July 3, 2006 Current ideas about the relationship between faith and politics – both among believers and secularists – are “hopelessly stuck” in a confrontation which is “as deadly as it is mistaken”, says the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia – which is launching a book proposing a “radical new approach”.

Faith And Politics After Christendom, by Ekklesia co- director Jonathan Bartley, is published this week by Paternoster Press. It is provocatively sub-titled “the church as a movement for anarchy”.

It argues that in the UK and elsewhere the old ‘Christendom’ settlement, whereby religion (specifically Christianity) sought to offer blessing to the state in return for being accorded official status, protection and privilege is ending – and that this is good both for the churches, whose radical Gospel message has been undermined by being part of the establishment, and for those of other faiths and none, who are marginalised when one faith or ideology dominating the public square.

Explains Mr Bartley: “The history and ideology of Christendom, which has parallels in other religious traditions, has led to the utterly false assumption that the only options in the relationship between faith and politics are between the kind of religion that tries to dominate others, or the virtual expulsion of religion from public life and its reduction to a ‘private’ sphere.”

Neither of these approaches, often advanced by religionists and secularists respectively, is either credible or desirable, argues Ekklesia.

In Faith And Politics After Christendom, Jonathan Bartley says that if it wants to follow the subversive way of Jesus (who rejected violence, broke religious taboos, by-passed political authority, and was ultimately killed by the powers-that-be) the church should stop trying to grasp political privilege for itself.

Instead, it should recognise itself to be a creative minority, operating from the margins, with an imaginative agenda for change which it should seek to ‘get on the agenda’ by example, by witness and by cooperation with others – as in the global anti- poverty movement.

The book is highly critical of the ‘new deal’ that the British government is offering the churches and other faith communities – involvement in partnerships with the government and service provision.

Not all of this is bad, it says, but the underlying ‘deal’ is unhealthy. It solves the churches’ loss of identity and role by making them surrogates for the government (with resulting clashes over human rights and fairness) and it allows the government to ‘contract out’ welfare provision without addressing underlying questions of injustice and the rich-poor divide.

Ekklesia has called for an end to the Establishment of the Church of England under the Crown, the abolition of blasphemy laws, the removal of religious selection in state schools, and the revision of marriage laws to distinguish between legal, civil and religious partnerships.

Instead it has encouraged churches to become directly involved in non-violent conflict transformation, restorative justice, the politics of forgiveness, ecologically sustainable lifestyle, hospitality for migrants and displaced people, alternative worship, emergent church, radical spirituality, anti-poverty action and fresh approaches to bio-ethics, family and sexuality.

“The agenda for ‘future church’ is about demonstrating how the Gospel undermines the norms and values of a violent, selfish, acquisitive and fragmented social order,” says Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

“But in order to do that the churches need to let go of their privilege and of models of partnership that shore up the status quo. It’s about a new way of thinking and acting – combining risky faith and hopeful reason”, he explains.

Ekklesia points out that the post-Christendom approach to religion in public life creates new alliances and shatters old assumptions – and Jonathan Bartley’s Faith and Politics After Christendom points out that it is not an ‘ideal’, but an emerging reality.

“Historic churches may be stuck and declining as institutions, but there is life between the cracks and there are radical alternatives developing through networks like Christian Peacemaker Teams and experiments with ‘fresh expressions’ of church,” he notes.

Ekklesia says that it is as happy to work with secular and humanist organisations on common causes and a fresh agenda as it is to cooperate with evangelicals, liberals, catholics and people of other faith traditions.

The new ecumenism, it suggests, is not about stitching together ecclesiastical institutions, but about a “dynamic process of cooperation, conversation, argument and distinctive action” among people of overlapping but different convictions.

Says Barrow: “The Jesus movement didn’t obey the ‘standard categories’ of religion and politics, and nor should we. In post-Christendom, we no longer have to choose between state church and fearful fundamentalism, or between being indiscriminately pro- or anti-religion. Those ‘choices’ might dominate public talk about religion, but they no longer work. It’s time we changed the agenda to something more hopeful and liveable.”

‘Faith and Politics After Christendom’ was launched this weekend at an Anabaptist Network conference in Birmingham. It has already been commended as an "essential read" by commentators, academics and church leaders – including (among others) Bruce Clark of The Economist, Stephen Bates of The Guardian, Methodist general secretary David Deeks, Bishop of Bath and Wells Peter Price, and Lord Alton of Liverpool.