When my sister in law drew my attention last week to the Daily Torygraph's article about David Cameron's Christian credo and his description of Britain as a Christian country, I have to say I wasn't terribly surprised. It was off the back of a Church Times article where the PM seems to have been fishing for the support of the nice, middle of the road, Vicar of Dibley-esque wing of the Church of England against all those nasty Bishops and pink-tinged foodbank volunteers who have been giving him and his government a hard time recently. My sister-in-law was of a similar mindset to those who wrote a letter to the Telegraph to express their belief that his description of Britain as a Christian country would prove divisive... Well, clearly it has... it has divided the country into those who write letters about such things and those who don't. I also don't want to cast doubts on David Cameron's faith, as Tony "Does he think of himself as a Christian or as Christ himself" Blair's spin doctor, Alastair "We Don't Do God" Campbell, has allegedly done (the remarks are supposed to have been made on his blog on Good Friday but have now been taken down)... I may be the only one, but I actually find David Cameron's "Magic FM in the Chilterns" description of his faith refreshingly honest... although I wish for his sake it was more than that and that his faltering faith would have a little bit more practical compassion within it... the getting your hands dirty sort of faith rather than the "God helps those who help themselves" sort...
That said, I found little in the original piece that would really be divisive... it explicitly recognises the impact of people of other and no faith, and would find echoes among statements by the more moderate leaders of non-Christian faiths, who repeatedly say that they appreciate the broad religious tolerance within British "Christian" society, a tolerance, it must be said was hard-won through periods of extreme intolerance in the wake of the reformation, English Civil War and later deposition of James II.
Actually, probably the most divisive thing in it is the misappropriation of the word "evangelical", which paradoxically may unite conservative evangelicals, liberal Christians and letter-writing humanists/atheists in opposition to him... He probably meant "evangelistic" (although Christians themselves constantly confuse the 2 terms, with "evangelical", often with a capital E, describing a theological trend, and "evangelistic" referring to a zealous sharing of good news, with a capital G and N if being done by Evangelicals). Or perhaps, looking at the article again, he simply means "enthusiastic", because a lot of it sounds like a half time team talk to a "rugger team" being beaten 42-nil by a bunch of beastly state-school boys who aren't playing the game the way it should be played! When asked about the PM's speech the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have picked up on this encouragement to be more confident in the core message and values of Christianity.
But this far, and this far only I will agree with today's illustrious letter-writer's to the Telegraph, that only insofar as England and Scotland still have established churches (but not Wales or Northern Ireland)and there is an implied Christianity woven into the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom, can "Britain" be defined as a Christian country... David Cameron is at least being consistent... he has been spouting this sort of nonsense since back in 2011 with the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible... And it is an idea drawn straight from 17th century England with it's attempt, like most of post reformation Europe to have a 1 nation-1 monarch-1 faith.
I actually find the use of the word Christian as a modifier to be off-putting... In reference to a Christian play, book, film or painting, how much does their content need to be shaped by Christian faith to make them definitively Christian?
With the description of a country as "Christian" you have that issue magnified by the number of citizens and then some. Historically the description of a country as Christian/Protestant/Catholic/Muslim/Sunni/Shi'ite/Hindu/Zoroastran (delete as applicable) has always had political implications... from before the time of Constantine. Actually I am reliably informed that the first supposedly "Christian" country was Armenia in the early 4th century, before Constantine had his "vision" of a conquering cross... But that part of the world has had a dodgy history of using faith as a national rallying point. The Armenians' near-neighbours, the somewhat combative Georgians became Christians but famously inscribed their coins in Arabic with the message "Sword of the Messiah" so their other Turkish Muslim neighbours would be in no doubt where they stood...
You would think that David Cameron would think twice about describing Britain, or England as a Christian nation if he were to take a good long look at his equally combative near-neighbours here in Northern Ireland, the most explicitly "Christian" of the 4 UK nations (despite our lack of an established church - though don't tell either the Presbyterians or Church of Ireland - I think they both think they are the unofficial establishment). Christian institutions have helped to shape Northern Ireland (and the rest of the UK) but to describe the entire nation as Christian is a nonsense, if not a blasphemy. The description of Northern Ireland as Christian without any clear demonstration of that in our love for one another has brought shame on the name of Christ for decades if not longer.
Describing nations as Christian may simply be a religious rallying point for nationalism, which, as I will return to (again) in a while, is all too often a narrow, exclusive and profoundly anti-Christian ideology.
It is individuals who must decide whether or not they are Christian, not nations... Christianity is no respecter of geographic borders... The borders of the Kingdom of God are drawn on the contours of the human heart... and while those contours may at times be a bit like the Chilterns, there is no suggestion in scripture that Jesus' feet walked those green and pleasant lands, or conferred special Christian status on any part of these islands...