Evangelicals from different denominations based in the north east of England were joined by Church of England evangelicals from the rest of the country for the 24 hour “Jesmond Conference” in Newcastle. Jesmond Parish Church has become the largest and most significant Anglican centre in the region. David Holloway, vicar of Jesmond for more than four decades, has given considerable thought to the decline of Christian influence in Western culture, and his reflections provided the basis for the discussions and the final conference statement.
Papers had been provided to delegates before the conference, setting out the issue of British Values in its immediate context and examining some of the philosophical and cultural background. In the summer of 2014 it came to light that some schools in Birmingham appeared to have been strongly influenced by Muslim governors and teachers, who were introducing teachings and practices alien to commonly held understandings of modern Western democracy. The Government’s response was to conduct an inadequate and hasty “consultation on promoting British values in school”. Holloway comments: “But what are British values and who should decide? The consultation made the Government’s answer clear: British values are what the Government decide.”
In an attempt to appear even handed and not specifically targeting schools in areas with large populations of Muslims, OFSTED inspectors have in a number of well-publicised cases been critical of schools with a Christian foundation and also some in rural ethnically homogenous areas. This has led to accusations that the Department of Education is using an undemocratically concocted definition of British values to push through a politically correct agenda, ensuring that schools promote among other things a positive view of homosexuality and a non-confessional understanding of religion. As Holloway says, “there seemed to be a lack of awareness by Government officials that extreme Islamists could be particularly concerned with such school inspections” and that the promotion of the Government’s definition of British values might therefore make the issue of extremism and Jihadist recruitment worse.
Holloway invites us to look back 50 years to see the origins of this philosophy of secularism and the State taking on the role of arbiter of what is right and wrong. In 1964 Max Warren gave a series of lectures entitled “The Functions of a National Church”, in which he argued that the nation of Britain had always existed with a consensus of belief that its rulers served under God, yet the role of the church should not be to rule but to “prophesy, purify and prepare”. 1964 of course was just before the first sexual revolution, brought about in part by Western governments deciding that the remit of law should not extend to legislating about the ethics of private conduct of relationships. Homosexual practice and abortion were decriminalized, contraception became universally available, and a new libertinism took hold, leading to an increase in immorality. But by 2014 the Church’s traditional teaching against homosexual practice and sex outside marriage are seen as implausible, immoral and “un-British” according to the new thinking.
Holloway argues that “what is needed for human and social flourishing and also cultural growth and vitality is this: the aims of a society (for example, democracy) need to be backed up by background assumptions and beliefs (such as come from the Christian tradition).” If good values are no longer backed up by shared beliefs, “then sooner or later you have spiritual, moral, social and cultural decay…then societies are ripe for various forms of totalitarianism to bring about social order, whether secular, fascist or jihadist”.
Holloway gave four lectures to the conference, on democracy and the family, the rule of law and spiritual and moral order, individual liberty and its limitations, and tolerance and respect. Each talk was relatively short (around 20 minutes) but was packed full of summaries of key social and political thinkers from Aristotle to Augustine, from Locke to Mill, showing that the idea of a common religion undergirding worldview has been axiomatic in all societies. In Britain, for centuries we have also taken for granted a “sacred canopy” in which biblical Christianity is embedded in the structures of state but tolerant and respectful of all faiths and none, allowing the flourishing of a genuinely “liberal” environment in which individuals and groups can pursue “the good life” according to certain common values and restraints. But this canopy has now been largely removed.
These talks were followed by discussion in small groups, based around the headings “prophesy, purify and prepare”. We addressed the question of what the national and local church could do to speak truth to power, apply the Gospel in the public square and bring back Christian foundations to politics, law and education, and what the obstacles to this might be. One such obstacle is pietism and fear of controversy in many evangelical churches.
As a final lecture, Charles Raven continued the theme of national values, taking as his starting point the premise of Alastair Macintyre in his influential After Virtue that the West, in abandoning its common overarching narrative, is heading for another dark age. According to Raven, same sex marriage is “an icon of secular libertarianism”, as now marriage has been redefined no longer linked to gender or procreation, but personal fulfillment. It is one more example of a process of “cultural amnesia” – the erosion of national self consciousness based on history and sense of purpose. Both politics and church appear stale, unsure of past foundations and future vision, and seeing shrinking membership. Raven compared this with a modern independent nation such as Kenya which despite having enormous problems, has a vibrancy and hopeful vision for the future characterized by a growing population through healthy birth rates, a growing church, and a maturing political system.
There was debate in my group, reflected in one of the questions at the end, about whether the reconstruction of the spiritual and moral foundations of Britain is possible at the present time, or whether we need to recognize that we are in a time of rebellion and judgement and prepare accordingly. Holloway is optimistic: faithful Christians have a much greater influence than they think, the Gospel is capable of remarkable transformation, and our sovereign God can work miracles. Raven is more sober in his forecast: the “confessing” church may in future need to separate structurally from an increasingly apostate national church; and the faithful may need to turn aside from what is often parodied as “maintaining Christendom” or “going back to the 1950’s”. Instead, our model might be the early Benedictine project, forming genuinely Christian communities, counter-cultural, sustaining theological truth and moral life amid a potentially hostile and decaying civilisation.