Sunday, January 06, 2008


Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester has stirred quite a reaction with his provocative article in the Sunday Telegraph arguing that Islamic extremism has made some areas of the country effective no-go areas (something many on the ground see as both a misrepresentation and a self-fulfilling prophecy) and that Britain's status as a 'Christian nation' led by an Established church is being eroded (which I have argued is a positive rather than a negative).

Third Way magazine (for whom I do a monthly Westminster column) will be publishing an extended interview with Dr Nazir-Ali (pictured) shortly - so this will set them up nicely. Actually, I was invited to consider being the interviewer, but I declined, because the aim of these 'High Profile' features is to get people to talk about their influences, and I was not sure I would be able to resist getting into a debate! My view of what he says is also conditioned by the fact that I know +Michael a bit. We first met when he became general secretary of CMS in 1989 (I wrote and edited their annual review that year, working as a freelance journalist), and then renewed acquaintance through the Mission Theological Advisory Group of CTBI and the Church of England (he was chair and I was a staff associate). I think we last met in mid-2007 during a public discussion about religion and society filmed in London by Premier Radio. I've always had great respect for him on a personal basis, though he seems to have moved towards ever more entrenched views over the past five years, and obviously I disagree with him strongly regarding his assessment of Establishment, 'Christian Britain' and what one might call the mixed-belief economy of modern Britain.

What we need right now is not Christendom revanchism (an impossibility anyway), but the rediscovery of a Christian vision which is self-sufficient enough not to need to prop or be propped by the state, open enough to engage with others on equal terms, historical enough not be fall prey to nostalgia, and subversive enough to recognise that the Gospel is about overturning the status quo rather than wanting to be its lynch pin. This is not an easy or even task, given the resurgence of fundamentalism, various "moral panics", the polite corrosions of civic religion, public indifference, establishment clericalism and the temptations of a rootless form of liberalism which mistakes hopelessness for open and critical enquiry. But success is not a promise to followers of Jesus. The rather different call to costly discipleship is.

In many respects I am more and more drawn towards the seemingly austere conclusion of Alasdair Macintyre's classic After Virtue, which suggests that in a hostile environment small communities of civility and virtue can chart a genuine way beyond the 'new dark ages' that may already be upon us. Superficially that sounds pessimistic, but it is not. It is realistic, given the state of the world, its environment, its religion and its politics. It is about investing in consistent, small-scale hope rather than falling for romanticm, Hobbes, Machiavelli or the illusions of power.


Yvonne said...

I think most people would welcome a Christianity that recognises other faiths as valid, and finds allies in all people of good-will, identifying values rather than beliefs as the core message of religions. Have you seen the excellent Phoenix Affirmations? (I may have mentioned them to you before, but perhaps your readers haven't seen them.)

Anonymous said...

I think the Bishop of Rochester was correct, and if the past few weeks have been anything to go by, most people agree with him rather more than they agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Our Christian culture is valued by most people, even the non-religious. In fact, many minorities want this country to remain Christian. Other faiths are respected if they don't try to dominate. Ekklesia is far too keen to throw in the towel, in my opinion. As someone said in the Times today: "this is moral weakness dressed up as worthy celebration." The Church of England has suffered from too much liberalism, not too little. This is why it is in such decline, and Ekklesia are just part of that.

Simon Barrow said...

Hi anonymous - I do like people who contribute here to identify themselves, please. If you think Ekklesia is "throwing in the towel" or accommodating to some soggy liberalism, then I'm afraid you haven't begun to understand what we are saying. A 'Christian country' is an unhelpful myth which reduces a radical Gospel to civic functionalism, and is now, in any case simply an untruth. Trying to preserve Establishment is hitching the church to a lost cause, and wasting energy which would be better used developing vibrant and a positive ecclesial and social life. Taking our future into our own hands alongside others, rather than over and against them, in other words. This isn't defeatism, it's renewal. But renewal in a tradition doesn't have to be either sectarian, functionalist or triumphalistic - it can be open and transformative. It is cultural conformity which stops many in the churches seeing this.

Yvonne said...

I agree with you Simon - except that there's nothing soggy about liberalism! Liberalism is more radical than either socialism or conservatism.

@ Anonymous: I want this country to be secular, so that everyone, religious or not, may flourish in a climate free from fear (this means I am totally against homophobic Christians being given special dispensation to continue in their behaviour, and totally against the introduction of any part of Sharia law, and totally against Pagans claiming special dispensation over the ancient dead, and anybody else claiming special dispensation to limit someone else's rights). I put in the last one about Pagans, because I am a Pagan and I didn't want anyone to think I was monotheist-bashing!

Simon Barrow said...

Hi Yvonne: there are different liberalisms. Some are strong, and some are soggy! In Christian circles, liberality is vital, and often under threat. Part of the threat is that people assume that it is extrinsic to the Christian message, so that to be more liberal you have to be less Christian. Some of us are trying to point out that there is a vibrant liberality to be found *within* the tradition (though not all of it, more the dissenting strands, which go back through the ages - and are therefore as 'traditional' as anything to the contrary). I nevertheless would want to argue with those who think that liberalism as an ideology is enough to defend liberality as a practice. Not so. Liberal Christians in Nazi Germany had nothing to offer. Nor did conservatives. It was those who were radical on the basis of deep tradition, like Bonhoeffer, who were in the best position to resist. They upheld liberality, but believed something far more than liberalism to be able to do so. (OK, longer discussion!)

Yvonne said...

Hmm, I think you could get a PhD thesis out of this topic. Agreed that there are some deeply liberal ideas in the Christian tradition (but also some deeply conservative ones); and the same goes for most (probably all) spiritual and philosophical traditions. I think it is true, though, that people who are speaking from the heart of their tradition, because more securely grounded in it, will have more depth to what they are saying.