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In praise of wishy-washy Christians

01 March 2013

The way of Jesus is one of service, not stridency, says Peter Graystone 

EIGHT hundred years ago this month, Pope Innocent III issued the charter that launched the Fifth Crusade. This catastrophic attempt to deliver Jerusalem into Christian hands brought about the slaughter of thousands of people - as many died of disease or drowning as they did by the sword. It ended when the Egyptian Sultan Al-Kamil agreed to surrender a piece of the True Cross to the Pope. The terms of this peace treaty were never met because he did not, in fact, have one.

The Christian Church in England today is not characterised by violence against its opponents, thank God. It does have strident moments when Christians wave placards, or sign petitions against organisations that they think are not cruel enough towards women, or gays, or whatever. That is undeniably depressing. But murderous Christians in this country are exceptionally rare. What has gone right?

Enlightenment happened. This 18th-century philosophical movement changed the way we examine our concepts of truth, right, and wrong. Progress was driven by raw, logical thought. It was fired not by supernatural beliefs, but by science, analysis, and the pursuit of good for every member of society. Whether or not we realise it, our world-view has been forged by bringing this rational, humanist thinking to the Christian faith. It civilised the Church of England. It made us what we are.

Nineteenth-century England had a revolution. Unlike other European revolutions, it did not involve violence. Rather, we built sewers, reformed prisons, created a network of railways, made child labour illegal, founded art galleries, and eradicated smallpox. Each of these social reforms was driven by Christian men and women who were doing it because the way of Jesus had taken hold of their lives. They did not make much of it. They were wishy-washy Christians. But they brought healing, compassion, justice, and the casting out of demons - the signs by which Jesus said that people would recognise the Kingdom of God.

I am a fervent believer in wishy-washy Christianity. Strident Christianity brought us the Crusades; wishy-washy Christianity brought us the Welfare State, the Jubilee debt campaign, and a justice system in which politically inconvenient people are not left to rot, forgotten, in prison.

Being a wishy-washy Christian is hard work. It means committing yourself to things in the life of the neighbourhood which you would rather not do, often unthanked. It means that you vote (even though you would rather not engage with the leaflets that tumble through your letterbox). It means that you visit the lonely (even though your time is the commodity you can least spare). It means that you join Parent Teacher Associations, unions, and the Neighbourhood Watch (even though they involve the most boring meetings known to humankind).

It means that you extend hospitality to people you would not usually invite into your home (even though you would prefer not to have your sofa smell of wee). And, most challenging of all, it means that you befriend your neighbours (even if they are not churchgoers).

I absolutely love England. It is unfashionable to say that. It is even more unfashionable to say that I love the Church of England - this broad, tolerant, agonising, welcoming, civilised, prayerful Church that has been central to making this a good country in which to live. I do not want to go anywhere else. I want to be here; and I want the deep love that I feel for Jesus, the founder of our religion, to inspire me to make this land a better place.

Peter Graystone develops pioneer mission projects for the Church Army.

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