How the Church should uphold diversity

By Vasantha Gnanadoss
26 May 2009

When the General Synod of the Church of England overwhelmingly voted through my Private Member’s Motion in February 2009, it drew a clear line between Christianity and the white nationalism of the British National Party. My motion asked the House of Bishops to implement a policy banning clergy and lay people employed to speak for the Church from membership of organisations which contradict the duty to promote racial equality.

The very next day Synod passed another Motion. This spoke of the uniqueness of Christ and of ‘sharing the gospel of salvation through Christ alone with people of other faiths’. I was one of only eight members who voted against this motion. I could not possibly have voted for it because I believe the underlying claim was not that Christ is unique but that Christianity is superior.

Such a claim has no objective basis and was supported in the debate only by selective references to the bible and by a series of personal anecdotes. There is, of course, plenty of evidence to the contrary but this was not mentioned. I believe that we Christians, and Christianity as a whole, will have a lot to answer for on the day of judgement.

In the meantime, it is our responsibility under God to act towards other people of faith with humility and a sense of realism about our own shortcomings. We should stress our common humanity and our readiness to learn from one another and be open-minded about what God is doing in our multi-faith society.

The Church of England has for too long been slow to take its own ethnic diversity to its heart. If it now also claims that Christianity is superior to other religions, it could unwittingly support white nationalism. Some of the benefit from my Motion would then be undone.

Moving on one more day, Synod debated a report on ‘Presence and Engagement’. This is the term now used by the Church of England to describe its mission and ministry in areas where there are significant proportions of the population who follow other faiths and more generally, its stance towards people of other faiths throughout society.

The original report was entitled Presence and Engagement: the churches’ task in a multi Faith society (GS1577) and was debated in July 2005. The February 2009 report was called Staying present and engaging faithfully (GS1720).

When General Synod debated the first report in 2005, I was an enthusiastic supporter. The report seemed to me to portray accurately the multi-faith society in which I live day by day. I spoke in the debate and gave examples of engagement with two different Muslim communities by my own church, All Saints in Battersea. The All Saints approach seemed to me very much in line with what the report was saying.

The starting point of 'Presence and Engagement', as set out in the first report, was ‘The mission of God’. The report said that the task of Christian people is to understand their part in the mission of God, “to which all human plans and projects are subordinate”. And the part that Christian people play depends on the many different contexts in which they find themselves.

The Church has a vital part to play in the mission of God, said the report, but we must guard against thinking that the mission of God is dependent on the Church or restricted to the Church. As Nicodemus learned from Jesus, the Spirit, like the wind, blows where it wills. Christians should not pretend they can understand where the Spirit comes from or where it goes. Instead, they should to learn to discern the activity of the Spirit in the world. They can use Paul’s checklist in Galatians of the fruits of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Wherever these are found, we can be assured that God is at work.

To find the fruits of the Spirit in others, however unexpectedly, and to respond gladly as if we hear a gentle calling of our name, is to recognise Christ in others and to find a resurrection moment full of new possibilities.

The 2005 report dealt very clearly with the issue of conversion. If Christians are true to their calling they will live out ‘the attractiveness of Jesus and of the Kingdom of God’. They should not refrain from sharing with others what they have experienced as good, liberating news. Equally, they should listen to other perspectives and understandings with the expectancy of benefiting spiritually themselves.

The outcomes of such sharing, whether for oneself or for others, is a matter for the Holy Spirit and is not primarily an issue of human endeavour.

What I particularly like about this first 'Presence and Engagement' report is the sense of mutuality under God between Christians and friends of other faiths. Either might learn from the other about God and God’s world. Either might make fresh discoveries through the process of engagement.

In the second report, produced earlier this year, we find some considerable changes of approach. The subtitle of the 2005 report accepted without question ‘a multi faith society’ as a given to which the church was seeking to respond. But the 2009 report attacks “simplistic ‘multi-faith’ rhetoric”. It claims that “there is also a too ready assumption that Britain can be categorised as a ‘multi-faith’ society”.

This attempt to stop calling Britain a multi-faith society is based on an appeal to ‘the statistical reality’ that only five to six per cent of the population are of faiths other than Christianity. The report fails to say what it considers to be the statistical reality of Christian commitment in Britain. The data published in UKCH Religious Trends suggest that of the 72 per cent identifying themsleves as Christian in the 2001 census, 60 per cent were ‘notional Christians’ and only eight per cent were ‘regular churchgoers’. I think that to resist the description of Britain as a society of diverse beliefs and convictions on statistical grounds is to build on very shaky foundations.

Another feature of the second report when compared with the first, is an increased emphasis on Christian evangelism towards people of other faiths. There is no explanation of what meaning the term evangelism is intended to convey. Some attention to the distinction between ‘witness’ and ‘proselytism’ made by the
World Council of Churches would have been helpful. But faced simply with the word ‘evangelism’, we can only read it in the generally accepted way as
‘activity designed to win people over to Christianity’.

The Church’s work over the years in developing constructive inter-faith relations in Britain is portrayed as fundamentally motivated by a yearning for conversions. It is claimed that the task of developing trusting inter-faith relationships is wholly consistent with the task of evangelism. I find it very difficult to believe that trusting inter-faith relationships can ever exist alongside an emphasis on evangelism (as commonly understood) towards people of other faiths.

The claim that there is harmony between evangelism and trusting inter-faith relationships is repeated in words near the end of the 2009 report.

The mission of God shown in the unique life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ encompasses both dialogue and evangelism in a seamless whole and is the eternal source of hope for the world.

These words were applauded by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the debate in February. It seems to me that even the Archbishop is overlooking the fact that to many Christians and others these words imply that dialogue and the development of trusting relationships will be used as a way to proselytise.

The Archbishop’s major speeches and articles tell a very different story. He has made a notable contribution to the strengthening of trust between people of different faiths by setting out the Christian position very clearly, whilst respecting and striving to understand more fully the differing convictions of others.

The success of my Private Member’s Motion undermined the BNP’s claims to have Church of England support. But now we are faced with the Church back-tracking over Britain as a multi-faith society and placing a new emphasis on winning people of other faiths to Christianity. I feel these are the Church’s reactions to a sense of anxiety about its role. Reactions of this kind could fuel the growth of white nationalism and help the BNP to achieve continuing electoral success.

Such a change in mood within 'Presence and Engagement' between 2005 and 2009 shows that those of us who identify with the thinking of the first report need to speak up for the continuing truth of that thinking. It is an approach that continues to inspire the many Anglicans who contribute so much to the success story of inter-faith relations in this country.

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(c) Vasantha Gnanadoss is a member of the General Synod of the Church of England.

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