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Andrew Symes: An established church only works if society tolerates its beliefs, warns Nazir-Ali


One of the main themes running through Faith, Freedom and the Future is Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali’s conviction, familiar to those who have heard him speak or read his work before, that the freedom and flourishing of the individual within healthy and harmonious communities and nations is best preserved by a strong foundation of a Judaeo-Christian worldview. By contrast, inflexible secularism and Islamism provide the greatest threats to this essential liberty.

The book’s format is a series of essays of differing lengths, grouped together around five key subjects. It begins with some statements about what the Christian faith is, launching into a theological discussion on the atonement, and affirming the centrality of the sacrificial and self-substituting death of Christ on the cross by which through faith our sins are forgiven, we are declared ‘not guilty’, a new community is brought into being, and God’s transforming work in the world is carried out in love. This Gospel message is for the world, because, as Bishop Michael explains in three points which suggest an evangelistic sermon, they provide a fourfold solution of forgiveness, friendship, faithfulness and family to the problems (especially in the contemporary West) of alienation, anxiety and addiction. While as he says later, the ruling authorities of the West are increasingly intolerant of faith, on the ground there remains a yearning for the spiritual, a search for meaning, direction and destiny, and a disenchantment with the “flattening” effect of secularism.

In Part two the author asks how Christians should think and act when the “assumption of a Christian basis for our common life is being challenged and rejected?” (p51). Aware of the increasing tendency among some evangelicals to focus on church matters and disengage from responsibility to proclaim Christian values in public life, Bishop Michael offers a succinct argument for such engagement using biblical material, church history, and more recent missiological thinking of Kraft, Niebuhr and Sanneh. He concludes: “the message of Christ is not only the means for underpinning the social order, but also provides the resources for a critique of it, and points society towards its destiny” (p69).

The Church should play its part in critique/opposition, and also in building on what is good; in transformation. In order to do this, it needs to have a clear understanding of its own message, a commitment to the development and use of the gifts of each member in church and in society, and a willingness to serve the community around it without becoming captive to its values and beliefs. The idea of ‘establishment’, or a national church, only works, according to the Bishop, if the nation wants to include the voice of the Church without compelling it first to change its message. The best option going forward may be a ‘gradual, graceful retreat’ from establishment, and the development of a community ‘in exile’, building up moral and spiritual centres of Christian vision.

Part three of the book begins with a substantial piece on “freedoms we risk losing”. The origins of our understandings of liberty and human rights are traced back to the Bible, but also show the influence of Greek philosophy and even Sufi ideas of tolerance, and ancient rulers such as Cyrus, Ashoka, Constantine and Alfred. Today tyranny, totalitarianism and Islamism has stopped social tolerance of diversity in many parts of the world. Democracy per se is not enough, because it can lead to a ‘tyranny of the majority’ and be manipulated for the power of the few rather than the well-being of the many. Bishop Michael turns his attention to the increasing tendency of Western-style secular humanism to erode freedom of conscience and asks: what moral and spiritual basis does secularism offer?

This essay is followed by a number of shorter pieces on specific issues: for example the importance of marriage and family, the problem of absent fathers, the potential for genetically engineered babies, and euthanasia. In every case the abandonment of Judaeo-Christian morality has resulted in not just a lack of ethical guidelines and breakdown of social cohesion, but also the increasing intolerance of dissent to politically correct orthodoxies. Churches can play a transforming role by challenging this, and in particular by commending and supporting lifelong male-female marriage, as the Roman Catholic Church is doing.

The fourth section of the book, entitled: “Islamism’s challenge to a Christian future”, contains illuminating distilled reflections on the social, political and religious context of the Middle East, including brief overviews of the leading nations of the region. Radical Islam with its violent ideology remains a threat to the West but has been for some time a far greater disaster for the minority communities in countries which, until recently, did permit religious and cultural diversity albeit in contexts of political repression. Bishop Michael calls on Western nations to take notice of human rights, especially the outrageous persecution of Christians, and to “engage with ideologies” not just provide relief and economic development. There is also a chapter on how Christian communities that remain can be assisted to survive and flourish.

One of the causes of the current crisis is the rise of apocalyptic fervour in some streams of both Sunni and Shia Islam, where (for example) Shia Imams teach of the coming parousia of the Mahdi and the supernatural establishment of a new order through violence and martyrdom. Secularism simply does not understand this and attributes the disaffection of young Muslim men with the West as originating purely in US foreign policy and economic deprivation, rather than in a profoundly religious worldview.

This book has been launched on the day when former equality commission head Trevor Phillips has been trailing his Channel 4 documentary “What British Muslims really think”, in which he admits that multiculturalism (non-integrated separate communities in Britain) has failed – something that Bishop Michael has been saying for years. The book deals with this issue, urging new policies to help with integration but, of course, insisting on the recovery of a Christian moral vision as the basis for hospitality and tolerance.

If Christians have been reticent about this, it is partly due to the ‘spiritualising’ of the Gospel and the retreat from public engagement, and partly due to the crisis that results from sections of the church abandoning “the faith once delivered”. This is explored in more detail in the final section of the book, as part of wider reflections on biblical ecclesiology and the polity of the Anglican Communion. In his introduction to this section, Bishop Michael puts his finger on the attitude to the Bible as the central problem among mainline churches in the West: “rather than a respectful reading of a privileged text, bearing witness to God’s mighty acts, we have a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ of reading ‘against the grain’ of the text, of seeking to deconstruct it and reducing its relevance for us” (p215). The church must seek to transform society through service and Gospel witness, but it has too often uncritically followed the values of culture.

The future for Anglicanism lies not in a schism, but reform based on the agreed authority of God’s word revealed through the Scriptures. The Bishop goes on to commend the work started by the GAFCON and Global South movements, adhering to the confession of faith outlined in the Jerusalem Declaration, and advocates a new Council for reflection and decision-making, which includes not just Primates but respected clergy and lay leaders as well.

The book concludes with a sober warning: an aim of extremist Islamism and aggressive secularism is to cause Christian expression to submit and ultimately to wither. In response, Christians must speak for human dignity and freedom, support the “natural family” and be involved in social justice, as well as modelling and proclaiming the Gospel. All this comes from “fidelity to the story by which they live”.

Faith, Freedom and the Future can be ordered here.

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Andrew Symes
Andrew Symes
Andrew is a vicar and theological educator. He is also the Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream.

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