A Christian country?
The debate has been engaging the air-waves and print-runs again. Is Britain a Christian country? Or was it ever?
Of course, it all depends on what we mean by ‘Christian’. There was never a time when every Briton was a Christian; nor even when the majority of Britons attended church. Even in 1851 it has been estimated that, in real terms, only 25 per cent of the nation went to church, once double counting is allowed for.
If, however, we mean that the institutions, education, health care, laws and values of the nation have been strongly, even predominantly, influenced by Christianity, then we must say, yes, of course Britain is a ‘Christian’ country.
Even most humanists and secularists agree with that. What they also say though is that Christianity’s time is now up: ‘Move over, let other ideologies and value systems have their day!’
A complicating factor in Britain is the establishment of the Church of England. In a recent radio discussion, one defender of the ‘Christian nation’ view was also defending the ‘establishment’, as if the two ideas were inseparable — and a humanist was making mincemeat of him.
It is pretty easy, after all, to pick holes in the idea of bishops in the House of Lords and the monarch as head of the church. Nonconformists and secularists can make common cause on this.
Some would say that it is the establishment that makes Britain a Christian country. I am more inclined to agree with an evangelical Anglican friend who recently said to me that what made Britain Christian was its past great revivals; and what we need urgently today is another movement of God’s Spirit. Surely that is nearer the truth; the establishment will accomplish nothing.
Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones said many years ago that Wilberforce and Shaftesbury only achieved what they did because they were riding the crest of the eighteenth and nineteenth century revivals.
When a monarch is a Christian and actually has power to do something, then this can be a force for good. But for this we are going back to Alfred the Great (in the ninth century), who laid the legal and institutional basis for Britain to be a ‘Christian’ country.
Edward VI would be another, short-lived, example. But this is going back a long time. And Alfred was not ‘head of the church’ and Edward’s influence was hardly due to his official title.
As the dissident Puritan Roger Williams (1603-83) pointed out, if you would have an established religion, remember the history of English monarchs. Henry VII found the country Catholic and left it Catholic; Henry VIII found it Catholic and left it half-Protestant; Edward left it more fully Protestant; Mary turned it Catholic again; Elizabeth left it Protestant; and whither the Stuarts…?
Williams was writing in the 1640s. Out of the English Reformation had come the Elizabethan Settlement, and there would be 100 years of tension before nonconformity experienced the most painful of births in 1662.
Williams was a nonconformist by conviction long before this. He went to New England in 1631 and soon found himself in conflict with the Congregationalist establishment. The men he clashed with were men whom he respected and with whom he shared the great points of Reformed theology.
But Williams was committed to the separation of church and state in a more thorough-going way than any of the leading Puritans. The state, he argued, is a civil institution and not the defender of or judge of spiritual things. Freedom of worship should be allowed to pagan, Jewish, ‘Turkish’ or antichristian consciences and false religion should only be fought with the sword of the Spirit, not the power of the state. Uniformity of worship is not to be enforced.
Fundamentally, he argued that the state of Israel is not a pattern for any civil state today — a claim that hit against the very heart of the New England establishment’s rationale.
Was this because Williams was indifferent to religious truth? Not at all. In his 70s he rowed 30 miles to debate with Quakers for three days, because he saw their teachings to be wrong. But Quakers were only free to be there (in Rhode Island) because of his equally strong commitment to religious freedom.
Williams argued that a relationship of separation between church and state would in the end benefit both. He loved peace and saw this separation as the way to peace. He saw that ‘true civility’ (peaceful co-existence in society) and Christianity could both flourish, notwithstanding freedom of conscience, and indeed fare better because of it.
He had confidence that the gospel was best left to the work of God to establish and prosper. Indeed, he argued convincingly that established religion would in the end harm the gospel and the church.
When the care of religion is committed to the state, argued Williams, ‘by degrees the gardens of the churches of the saints were turned into the wilderness of whole nations’. The ‘wall of separation’ (a phrase he used long before it was taken up by Thomas Jefferson in 1800) was needed for both church and the state to be truly themselves.
Is Britain a Christian country? In a sense, it is irrelevant. We are saddened by the ignorance, immorality and wilfulness of the campaign to dislodge Christian influence from our nation, but our task as Christians is not to build a ‘Christian nation’.
It is to proclaim and bear witness to the kingdom of God. This does not mean ‘just evangelise’, but it does mean that political influence is not the church’s primary consideration. It also means we rely not on the legal establishment of religion, but on the Spirit and the Word of God.