Christianity needs a new public profile

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
21 Mar 2008

Predicting the future is always a precarious business. But when it comes to the relationship between Christianity and public life there are some pretty clear trends which provide enough evidence to make at least a few credible assertions about what the next few years may hold.

With Gordon Brown signalling he wants to end the involvement of Number 10 in the appointment of bishops, the UK will soon be in the situation where 26 places in Parliament are reserved exclusively for men (and they can still only be men) appointed unchecked, by a separate, undemocratic institution.

The system will look not just absurd, but entirely unaccountable, and it is surely just a matter of time now before the bishops are banished forever from the Second Chamber.

The public also seems less and less willing to tolerate the special exemptions and privileges afforded Christianity in the context of the state funding it receives for its community projects and institutions. Religious charities will soon have to show that they produce some public benefit beyond simply being ‘religious’ in character - currently the requirement to gain charitable status.

The right of church schools to legally discriminate in both employment and admissions in favour of church goers, must also soon end. As yet another survey reported just this weekend, church schools routinely treat less favourably the 95% of the population who pay the taxes to fund them but who do not attend church.

Catholic adoption agencies have already lost their battle to continue their particular brand of discrimination. Church schools must inevitably follow. Slowly but surely the religious slant in the playing field of public funding will be levelled off.

But as the adoption saga demonstrated, these things will not disappear without a fuss. The established church in particular will continue in its attempts to hold onto its privileges by appealing to the ‘Christian’ history and identity of the nation.

It will do this whilst simultaneously claiming to speak for all faiths to give it greater authority. This was the approach employed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his recent address to the Church’s Synod following the Sharia controversy. We should expect to hear a lot more of that sort of argument.

Dr Williams has acknowledged that the blasphemy law - which protects only the Christian religion - must go. But in its place he has urged additional measures to protect the sensibilities of all religions. The church’s strategy is now clear – that if it is to have a hope of maintaining its privileges, it must try to get them extended to other religions too.

This of course, is something that other religions are very happy to support. But whoever holds them, the few remaining vestiges of Christendom look at best anachronistic and at worse to perpetuate grave, and unacceptable injustices.

Even if successful, the strategy of creating a multi-faith settlement won’t provide a long-term solution. The church is running out of justifications for the various anomalies it clings onto, and it is just a matter of time before they go completely. Neither will their disappearance be lamented by all Christians.

The churches cannot proclaim the message of God's liberating future by clinging to the past. Freedom from the constraints of defending untenable privilege can free us to discover a whole new arena of alternative social witness rooted in the rediscovery of Jesus' radical message, and what it means to be joined to his Body.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This is adapted from a series of articles on Public Christianity appearing on the website of New Statesman magazine: http://www.newstatesman.com/

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