Learning to think without tanks

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
17 Oct 2007

This is an extended version of an interview that appears in the October 2007 edition of 'Movement', the magazine of the Student Christian Movement, courtesy of Howard Ingham. After an introduction to Ekklesia's approach, it goes on to look at how 'post-Christendom' completely changes what is popularly taken to be "the problem" about religion and politics - creating radical new possibilities unimagined by institutional religion and anti-religion.

Ekklesia describes itself as a think-tank. What does that mean to you? How does it work in practice?

Well, in recent years most public policy think-tanks have been allied to particular interest groups and are often corporately funded, pursuing a certain kind of ideological path. Both the Thatcher and Blair projects were incubated in that way, for good and ill. Ekklesia, on the other hand, has no big financial backers and runs on a shoestring. We work with four part-time freelance staff, volunteers, researchers and interns, a virtual office arrangement, a website and a network of unpaid associates, contributors and consultants from a range of backgrounds. What we share in common is a concern to reshape current debates about ‘religion in public life’, which have become very simplistic and angry of late. Through research, writing, media commentary and a regular news briefing service, we are trying to open up fresh perspectives on questions like faith and violence, the state and religion, the increasing involvement of the churches in schools and public service provision, and so on. Our instinct is to question institutional interests and hierarchies (including church ones), not to prop them up uncritically. But we want to be positive rather than oppositional. And we also try to make our thinking as engaged as possible – rooted in the development of concrete alternative practices like non-violence, economic sharing, hospitality and forgiveness. We believe that it is different ways of behaving which change the way we see the world. As for the ‘tank’ bit, well, obviously, we don’t really do tanks! Sure, we put forward strong views (for example on moving from punitive to restorative justice in the penal system). But our hope and intention is that we can seed radical ideas through conversation rather than confrontation. Might is not right. Real truth does not rely on arms.

Are you getting noticed? Do you think you can make a difference?

Compared to many other think-tanks we are very small. But we do get tens of thousands of hits on our website every day or so; we are used as a resource by the BBC and other national and international agencies; we publish a lot of material; we have academics and people with a significant stake in civil society working with us from time-to-time; and we have been recognised by writers on the Independent, the Times and other mainstream news and comment outlets as a creative force. But we are not trying to win a popularity contest – indeed, in many quarters we wouldn’t anyway! What we are helping to do, I hope, is to act as a growing channel for a whole stream of radical and progressive Christian thought and practice which tends to get overlooked by the media, by policy makers, and by a ‘debate’ dominated by (not necessarily very representative) vested interests in perpetuating institutional religion or ideological anti-religion. And insofar as we are able to hit the headlines occasionally – for example with our call for the churches to make white peace poppies available alongside red ones to stress the concrete search for alternatives to war as a valid part of our remembrance – it’s probably because of our capacity to make people think tangentially. Not because we have a massive spin machine or the privileged contacts in high places. We are working from the margins inwards. We think that’s where the real engine of social and spiritual change is. But it isn’t necessarily dramatic or quick.

Are there other ‘Christian think-tanks’? And if so what marks Ekklesia out? What is its distinctive contribution?

Well, there are a number of parallel organisations that tackle social issues reflectively – the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity comes to mind. And there is Theos, a new Christian think tank that has started out by defending much of the fabric of Christendom we want to let go of. They seem to have received money from the Bible Society and top-level endorsement from church leaders, incidentally. Fair enough. We are in a very different place, however. It seems that everyone has to have a ‘unique selling point’ or a ‘big idea’ these days. Ekklesia is suspicious of ‘being different’ just for the sake of it. But I guess we do have one dominant idea. It’s called post-Christendom. And it has roots in Kierkegaard, in Anabaptism, in radical Catholic base communities, in the theological foment of the '60s, in peace theology, in feminist theology, and in many other dissenting strands of Christianity going back to what we might call ‘the Jesus movement’. What the post-Christendom thesis says is that, in one way or another, the inherited privileges of the historic churches in the West are being steadily eroded. Christians in Britain and elsewhere can no longer assume that their values, their leaders and their vested interests will take a front seat in the wider political arena. In fact, the traditional churches, who have historically allied themselves to governing authority and blessed it (that’s essentially what we mean by ‘Christendom’), are now facing decline. They can’t go on as before.

So where does that leave the church? What are we to do as Christians?

It leaves us with a dilemma. Shall we resist or shall we transition? One of the major blocks on positive change (what the gospel calls metanoia, radical conversion) is the desire to cling onto props from the past. From Ekklesia’s point of view, that means things like Establishment, bishops in an unelected second chamber, tax breaks, publicly-funded schools which select on the basis of faith, church exemptions from equalities legislation, and so on. These are often seen in terms of ‘survival’ by the denominations. But there are three problems with adopting a ‘defensive’ approach. First, it’s unsustainable in a plural, democratic age, because the churches are now a minority and have no mandate to impose their will on others. Second (and this is even more vital for Ekklesia), it isn’t Christian – because the Gospel is about the risk-taking realm of God, about Jesus’ subversion of selfish religion and politics. It’s not about self-preservation. Consequently, and thirdly, defending the collateral of Christendom isn’t working and can’t work. The future is with church as a movement for change alongside others, not the church as an ally of the status quo.

Does that mean the end of the church as we know it?

Yes and no. It means looking at what we need to take from the past into the future, and what we need to leave behind or change. It’s a call to newness which is ironically very traditional. The word ekklesia is actually a New Testament word for ‘church’ (more properly 'assembly'). But it simultaneously refers to a political formation, to what can become a new kind of social solidarity in the public square. So, after Christendom, with its 1700 year accommodation of the Gospel to top-down power politics, the church has an opportunity to remould itself as a harbinger of alternative community. Its vocation, I believe, is to move away from control (the mistaken desire to get the state to ‘be Christian for us’) towards witness (a vulnerable testimony to the awkward truth that we human beings need a real change of heart and mind, both personally and politically). The biblical word ‘witness’ is martyria, from which we get our term martyrdom. That reminds us that standing against the worldy ‘gods’ of might and money can be very costly. Jesus’ teaching, preaching and acting led to his death as a subversive. But the Christian story says that hope does not die, that God can bring new life, a new creation, out of even loss and death. That is the hope we are sustained by.

That sounds very different to the view of the religious right, and of other religious forces which see the secular world as a threat.

It is. From a religious point of view it is challenging the way God, spirituality and organised faith gets hijacked by bigotry and conflict. For example, Ekklesia has published a book (Consuming Passion, Darton Longman and Todd, 2005) which argues that popular misinterpretations of the Cross of Christ as an act of divine sadism have been used to legitimate punitive and violent policies in the public arena. For some secularists this shows that all religion is corrupt and irrational. We disagree. We think this shows that, as well as seeds of destruction, there are also seeds of liberating self-critique in the texts and traditions we inherit. In that sense, Ekklesia is not ‘liberal’. We don’t think the answer is for the church to become less Christian, but rather more Christian. That is surprising to many people today, since the new orthodoxy among some ‘cultured despisers’ of faith is that there is no salvation outside being non-religious! That view, which mimics the exclusivism of a certain old-fashioned Christian view, misrepresents both the good in religion (think of Tutu, Bonhoeffer, Luther King, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero and many others) and the way in which benign secular ideas can also be corrupted. When St Paul talked of everyone “falling short of the glory of God”, he was saying that we are all in the same boat. It isn’t that some are inherently better than others. And while we don’t want to suggest that the Early Church was perfect (it clearly wasn’t), we in Ekklesia do think that there is a radical trajectory in Christianity which goes right back to the Jesus event. In that sense we are out to conserve and transmit the Gospel afresh. We are therefore, in a certain sense, ‘conservative’; and our belief in liberality comes out of an encounter with the life-giving generosity of the Gospel, not through some illusion that ridding ourselves of ‘religion’ is sufficient to make people good – any more than ‘being religious’ is.

So where does right-wing Christianity in America fit into this? And is it heading over here?

Well, bits of it have headed here. The growth of ‘creationism’, with its rejection of modern science and its naïve and untenable reading of the Bible, is an example. This is another false attempt to hold back the tide. Culturally the climate in Britain is more sceptical, so it is unlikely to be swept up in fundamentalism. Nevertheless, global policy is shaped by the US. So we cannot ignore these trends. We have to understand them. And here things are not as they seem on the surface. The religious right in the USA claims the Bible for its mantle, but actually it imprisons it in an alien ideology. The biblical God (who is not the god of a dying metaphysic) is not stuck in a prescriptive past, but is the one who breaks down our fixed ideas with a promise of a new heaven and a new earth. All change, please. This is a God who chooses intensely vulnerable material (like flesh, texts and history) as a means of self-disclosure, not the “knock-down certainty” of right-wing Christianity, or any other form of fundamentalism.

What this shows is that faiths are extended arguments, rather than monolithic systems of thought. And in that sense fundamentalism is not ‘traditional’. It is a narrowing of the tradition in the name of a limited kind of rationalism which believes it has got God and the world sewn up. The irony here is that the ideas about religion and the Bible perpetuated as ‘the truth’ by the religious right are exactly the same ideas about ‘what religion really is’ according to a born-again atheist like Richard Dawkins – a great scientist with a sadly rather childish view of ‘faith’. In fact faith is not flying in the face of facts, it is recognising that once we have acknowledged all the facts there are we still can’t claim to have everything taped. We need to go on exploring, to go on recognising that empirical and forensic procedures still leave us with a mystery at the heart of the universe and of human being and becoming. That mystery is what Christians call love – the capacity to embrace the other, even when we fear him or her, because we feel ‘held’ by something that resists capture by our own interest and perspective. As Rowan Williams once out it, God, the beyond-in-our-midst, precisely by being God (and not another ‘thing’ or ‘supernatural being’ in the universe), is not part of our world of competitive difference. God's love is truly dis-invested from our power games, and therefore God is more like the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, inviting us to a different estimate of what the world is and what is possible through it. Ekklesia’s message on so many issues, therefore, is “things are so much bigger, so much more interesting, so much more hopeful than the stereotypical stand-offs between left and right, conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious would grant.” We need a paradigm shift, a ‘new way of thinking’ which turns out, surprisingly, to be deeply rooted in what we have inherited. That’s the sense in which Ekklesia wants to be radical. The word ‘radical’ comes from the Latin, radix, meaning ‘roots’. You need to be rooted in order to face the most dangerous frontiers. A liberalism which assumes that all the answers are in the present and which too easily dismisses the difficulty of the thought we have received from our ancestors is in severe danger of chucking out the baby with the bathwater.

Can you tell me more about how Ekklesia came about, what your focus is on now, and what your plans are for the future?

At the moment it feels like we are just trying to keep going (which can be tough when you are small and have few resources). It also seems that we are always in the middle of things, starting more than we can finish. We recently got involved with the debate about nationalism and ‘Englishness’, for example, which we hadn’t quite intended. We did it by suggesting tour that St George, who is actually patron saint of many principalities, is best understood as an icon of global dissent rather than of narrow self-interest. He was an established Christian who abandoned his weapons, wealth and position to challenge the Emperor Diocletian over his persecution of minorities. And he was beheaded for his pains, so the legend goes. Yet the St George we often revere today is ‘English only’ and has, in the recent past, been claimed by the racist right. He needs re-branding, truthfully. That notion upset some of the tabloids, but we think it is entirely defensible and sensible.

We’ve also worked with a teaching union and others on policies to move beyond discrimination by faith schools. Our argument is that it is un-Christian of Christians to seek a privilege for their own, given that their Lord argued and showed that “those who seek to save their lives will lose them.” We’ve similarly contributed to the case for de-linking the Church of England from the Crown. We’ve tried to show how groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams are helping create fresh hope amidst the endless cycles of violence in conflict zones. We’ve produced a briefing on religious fundamentalism. We have argued for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. We’ve explained why creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) are bad theology as well as non-science, and aren’t fit for science classrooms. We have sought to build bridges between Student Unions and evangelical Christian Unions in recent rows over free speech on campus. We have stood by the view that recognising lesbian and gay people within the Body of Christ is about the integrity of the Gospel, not a few ‘proof texts’. We opposed censorship of ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’ and challenged Christians to look positively at its theological questions, rather than getting in a twist about a bit of bad language. We did a response to a major report on the economics of prosperity in an unjust and unequal world. And we have suggested a radical new approach to marriage and civil partnerships, recognising that the Christian vision of relationships is an invitation to faithfulness – and as such cannot be imposed on everybody, as the requirement of formal recognition by a state which operates on behalf of all, not just Christians.

Those are just a few of our recent interventions. In the near future we will publish a report about the wars going on in the Church of England (suggesting that post-Christendom means new ways of handling conflict within, as well as outside, the church). We are also engaged in a range of conversations about models of secularity which can be embraced by religious as well as non-religious people. We have been developing our theological roots both inside and outside the Anabaptist Network UK, the Mennonites and other ‘peace churches’. We have books in the pipeline on restorative justice and on fresh, affirmative approaches to migration. And we have been caught up in the question of how the churches are relating to “the equalities agenda” in areas like adoption policy, schools and public services. We are pro-equality and anti-discrimination.

Then we also have an ISP, Peacenik, an online bookshop (Metanoia), a regular news brief, and a range of services from consultancy to training, media commentary and public speaking. I feel exhausted even describing it!

But it’s important to realise that all of this came out of a small, personal initiative. My colleague, friend and co-director Jonathan Bartley first established Ekklesia in 2002. His own religious and political journey had been transformed as a result of Workshop, a radical grassroots theological education programme. Jon comes from a conservative evangelical background and he once worked for former Tory PM John Major. By contrast, I came to Ekklesia (first in 2003, then more substantially as a director in July 2005) from a long period serving the ecumenical movement, as a 'new times' socialist, and as a former convenor of a network of the Christian Left. But despite these different trajectories, the two of us have found an amazing amount of common ground. And we've both changed in the process, I think.

Given our very varied links, and the associates and contributors who have come on board (mostly informally), we have been able to sustain conversation and practical cooperation in ways which look difficult on paper. So as well as Christian dissidents and peace workers of different hues, we have a good number of evangelical backers and want to maintain positive links in that section of the church. At the same time we have also been able to work with the British Humanist Association, and to identify with initiatives like the New Generation Network of primarily young Asian progressive thinkers, some from religious and many from non-religious backgrounds. They are wanting a better conversation about race, identity and religion – and for the government to listen to a wider range of voices as it tackles exclusion, cultural diversity, community-building, and the alienation that leads to violence.

Moreover, and putting aside our convictions for a moment, we spend a fair bit of time briefing journalists and researchers about issues involving religion, about which there is much debate but little understanding. They come to us because of the links and knowledge we have – but also because they know we value our independence and will not simply repeat ‘the line’ from some church agency or denomination. At the same time, we remain a ‘do tank’, promoting fair trade goods and ecologically sustainable lifestyles. Some proceeds from this help us to maintain our own annual budget – which is a very small sum indeed, given how much we raise for global justice and peace causes (around £250,000). So we continue to have a hands-on approach. And we both need and welcome support from people who can contribute a little time, expertise and resourcing to the business of promoting ‘transformative theological ideas’ – ones which make sense, make connections and make a difference.

Simon Barrow has been co-director of Ekklesia since July 2005. Prior to that we was assistant general secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI). He has also worked in current affairs journalism, politics and adult education, and he continues to write and publish as a theologian and political commentator.

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