WELCOME to the panto season. Is Britain a Christian country? Oh yes it is! Oh no it’s not! David Cameron’s Oxford lecture last week, in which he praised the centrality of the King James Bible in the nation’s history, has prompted debate about what a Christian nation looks like, and how closely the UK resembles this image. The speech has been interpreted in some circles, bizarrely, as a reprimand to Dr Williams for criticising the Government’s policy in the New Statesman in June, and latterly in his article on the riots in The Guardian. There is a hint of this, but by far the largest part of the lecture is directed at the secularist who wishes the country to shrug off its ancient cloak of transcendence and fend for itself in a thin vest of utilitarianism.
Mr Cameron, as so often, is half-right and half-wrong in his definition of a Christian nation. He is right to discern the liberal openness that exists at the heart of Christianity. Jews, Muslims, and secularists ought to feel safe in a society framed by Christianity. As he put it: “The tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too; and because many of the values of a Christian country are shared by people of all faiths and, indeed, by people of no faith at all.”
Where Mr Cameron’s view of the Church errs is in his desire for it to act as a guardian of the nation’s morals, telling people (as Mr Cameron likes to do) when, as in the riots, they are misbehaving. But the Church is not a transcendal branch of the police force, and Christianity is not merely a moral code. For those who have received the grace of a glimpse of Christ and the heavenly realms, it is a destination, a place both to exist and to aspire to, a person to respond to. And in that aspiration and that response is the energy to behave better. Without that experience of Christ, the trappings of religion hold no sway over people.
Christianity is a useful flag of convenience for a country to have. The British culture is undoubtedly informed by faith, despite the inarticulacy of the present generation of believers. But, even were it not so, there is value in an assumption of Christianity, since it can act as a form of placebo: even if the majority of citizens do not experience the reality of faith, its semblance has a restorative and redemptive effect. Dr Williams spoke on Radio 2 about the “messiness” of Christmas. The bureaucratic efforts of the Romans caused a chaotic birth for our Lord. Human boundaries are a poor substitute for the wideness of God’s mercy. In the messiness of a tolerant, open-hearted faith, one that is not constrained by the concept of “membership”, a vision of Christ is set before all — Christians and not-yet Christians alike. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”