By Sam Tomlin
The state church, the Church of England, shot itself in the foot the other week and almost everyone agrees. It should be clear to even those outside the church that a simple ‘moving with the times’ mentality is not the operational goal of an organisation concerned more with immutable spiritual and moral values. However, when the majority of the vote goes one way, strong and generally accepted theological arguments in favour of women bishops in toe, many, including myself, were surprised and disappointed with the result.
Aside from internal church politics and theology, though, many fear that the reputation of the church has been irreparably damaged externally. Of course this does not mean that it is wrong: as many conservatives have gleefully pointed out, Jesus said persecution and people disagreeing with you will be a kind of sign that you’re my follower. A whole PhD could be written on this topic, but briefly I feel that Christians have often brandished this as a means to justify what we’re thinking at a particular time and while it has an element of truth its use here is misplaced.
Very seriously for the Church of England, though, voices questioning its position in society have grown louder (as many MPs have shown recently). If any other organisation voted against women in leadership but was allowed to keep hold of its unelected representatives in the House of Lords and its free pedestal upon which to speak into society, serious questions would be asked and rightly so. At what point will the UK say enough is enough?
I actually don’t think this will happen (mainly because it will only be a matter of time until women bishops are voted in), but I want to propose that for Christians this would not be the worst turn of events. In my opinion, one of the greatest catastrophes in church history was the alignment of what had been a radical sect’s beliefs into the religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fourth century. What was a decision for Christians to follow ‘The Way’ as it was called and risk death, became a run of the mill activity, ordained in grand, ornate churches and state buildings, far from the life of simplicity and non-violent radicalism Jesus lived and seemed to call his disciples to follow.
An activist I much admire in the United States once said, “Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalised, suffering, and at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal and powerful.” Indeed, if the church did lose its favoured status in society I believe it would be a welcome opportunity to reassess the values it truly stands for.
This does not mean I do not value the seemingly limitless wisdom on matters ecclesial, moral and political of Archbishop Rowan Williams or I am sure Justin Welby when he succeeds; nor, importantly, does it mean a ‘privatisation’ of religion where those with faith are discouraged from sharing a faith perspective in the public sphere. Far from it, everyone comes to the public sphere with beliefs and things that have shaped them, but they come (in theory, although with social mobility levels so low, I am not sure it’s true in practice!) into the public sphere because they have something worth saying and people want to listen because of what they have done. Martin Luther King is a good example, or in contemporary society the many charities tackling gang culture, homelessness and human-trafficking set up by Christians with an ethos inspired their faith.
Losing some of the image of ‘Christianity’ in this country through separating church and state would be good for liberal democracy, but also particularly good for the church, which can seek to be heard because of the transformation it brings to society and people’s hearts as opposed to primarily because of its traditional position. Without a megaphone handed to it by the state it would have to continue to work hard, returning more to its radical genesis to be heard, and in my opinion this would be no bad thing.