Secular Society and the Church – a changing relationship?

Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran and of course latterly Libya have all come centre stage in terms of the worlds news. I suspect that we are in the midst of momentous changes for the Arab world and North Africa. We could be seeing the start of something akin to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Or not. Will a new order emerge, or will the ‘old men’ hang on and reassert their power. If a new order does emerge where will it’s foundations lie? Liberal democracy? Islam? Universal human writes? – some fusion of all of these?

Commenting on the situation in the Middle East the Bishop of Croydon (soon to be Bradford) Nick Baines opined –

“Empires come and go. The trouble is, they seem permanent when you are under them. Most of the Old Testament prophets keep banging on (in the best possible sense, of course) about the need for God’s people to see the world through God’s eyes and not be taken in by the apparent power of the ‘empire’. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Britain – they all came… and they all went.”

Which raises difficult questions for us Christians in the West. The old order is changing around us too, and for many of us that experience is deeply disquieting. In the recent ruling in the High Court that a Christian couples views regarding homosexuality were justifiable grounds for questioning their suitability as foster parents the judge ruled that

‘Although historically this country is part of the Christian west, and although it has an established church which is Christian, there have been enormous changes in the social and religious life of our country over the last century. Our society is now pluralistic and largely secular. But one aspect of its pluralism is that we also now live in a multi-cultural community of many faiths. One of the paradoxes of our lives is that we live in a society which has at one and the same time become both increasingly secular but also increasingly diverse in religious affiliation.’

One of the challenges of these changes and ‘paradoxes’ for Christians  – particularly Anglicans – members of the established church – is that what has been taken for granted as being ‘part and parcel’ of living in a ‘Christian country’ is no longer certain. As one Christian commentator has put it –

‘One consequence of this is that Christians need to grow up and realise (a) that they no longer live in a country which gives the Christian faith a pre-eminent position in the jurisprudence of the land (the judgement in para 30 recognises that this has been the case for at least a century) and that therefore (b) there is an obligation, as Jesus instructs us, to render unto Caesar things that belong to Caesar.’

This will present a whole array of challenges for Christians in the coming years that I think we as a Church are only just beginning to get a sense of. There are implications for how the church as a whole ‘lives ‘in’ the public square. The terms of the relationship between our secular society and the Church are changing, and I’d argue that with each change the rationale (justification) for an established church is harder to maintain.

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