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A private affair?

Nick Spencer

In an increasingly secularised Britain, what exactly is the mandate of faith in the public market place - if any? NICK SPENCER argues that religious belief should be neither private nor privileged.

'Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.' Thus began Terry Eagleton's famously savage review of The God Delusion.1 Eagleton had numerous problems with Dawkins' book but supreme among these was its author's self-assured ignorance.

'What, one wonders, are Dawkins's views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?'

Dawkins took Eagleton to task in the paperback edition of his book. Accusing him of being a 'self-consciously intellectual critic', he reasoned that religious believers regularly dismissed rival belief systems without giving them serious consideration, so why shouldn't he. 'Most Christians happily disavow Baal and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without reference to monographs of Baalian exegesis or Pastafarian theology.'

Dawkins' prestige and brilliance have helped legitimise such ignorance in public discourse. Why engage in any serious theology - historical, philosophical, moral or any other kind - when you can simply dismiss religious types with an airy, 'Yeah, I believe in fairies too.' Thus, Simon Hoggart in the Guardian earlier this year, 'the 'faith community' (as if Christians, Muslims, Hindus and people who worship Coca Cola bottles were all the same deep down)...'

Such contempt is particularly useful when you wish to evict religious people from public debate, as was Hoggart's intent. 'They can believe whatever they like… just so long as they just stop messing up our lives, whether it means obliging us to have a spring holiday in midwinter [he seemed to blame Christians for the bad Easter weather], or dying in pain and humiliation while harassed families reach the end of their tether.'

Christians and other weird people can do what they like, as long as they do it in private.
The argument is not new. 'Now is the time to place religion where it belongs - in the private sphere, leaving the public domain as neutral territory,' wrote AC Grayling in August 2001. When it is pointed out that banning the religious voice from public debate might be somewhat illiberal, the justification is either that religious people do not base their arguments on reason (unlike atheists) or that whenever they do get a seat at the table, they end up commandeering the whole debate. Thus, philosopher Simon Blackburn wrote in the Independent in 2007, 'When religious groups demand respect, what starts off as a demand for tolerance can rapidly end up as a demand to take over your life.'

Whilst the 'religious people are irrational' line is hardly worth responding to, the 'give them an inch and they'll take the whole damn playing field' one has a little more substance. It is, after all, one that Christians themselves have used to great effect in the past. We cannot emancipate Catholics or allow atheists to take up a seat in parliament. If we do, we'll end up Papist or secularist before we know it.

To say that Christianity does not have a wholly positive relationship with political power is something of an understatement. The religion has often suffered from a theocratic sickness, in which it attempts to monopolise rather than engage with political power. Even when it is clearly not theocratic - and only the most obtuse rhetoric accuses Rowan Williams or Cormac Murphy O'Connor of being closet theocrats - the case of Christian engagement in the public square is not helped by the fact Christians do not seem to be able to agree on what role Christianity should play in a plural public square such as ours.

Too often the debate is polarised between over-simplistic rallying cries: 'Disestablish! Evict the bishops! Close faith schools!' or 'This is a Christian country - those who don't like it can move elsewhere'. Is there room for a more nuanced, realistic manifesto for Christian engagement in the public square?

Any Christian answer to this question must begin with scripture. How did Jesus' first followers envisage their relationship with the governing authorities? What role did the early church play in the public square of its time?

The answer to this question often begins and ends with Romans chapter 13. 'Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities,' end of story. Whilst Romans 13 is important and needs to be heard, there are other ways in which the New Testament answers this question which must also be heeded. One of the more interesting, if less noticed, of these lies in the life of the earliest church, as described in the first five chapters of the Book of Acts.

These chapters, which cover the brief period between Jesus' resurrection and the first significant persecution of the church, focus primarily on the activity of a small number of leading disciples, primarily Peter and John. However, they also consciously pull back on three occasions (2.42-47, 4.32-37, and 5.12-16) to offer a picture of the wider church. Between them, these chapters reveal a four-fold pattern of engagement in the public square, based on public proclamation, public assembly, public action and public confrontation.

This business of public proclamation is clear from Jesus' first public words, 'Repent and believe the good news,' (Mark 1.15) as it is also clear from those of his disciples in Acts. Following the events of Pentecost, Luke tells us that, 'Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd.' (Acts 2.14) The motif is repeated in subsequent chapters. When Peter attracts an 'astonished' crowd after healing a crippled beggar on the Temple steps, he turns to address them. (Acts 3.11) In a brief summary of the early Church's life, at the end of chapter 4, Luke tells us, 'with great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus'. (Acts 4.33) Similarly, when the apostles are arrested in the following chapter, it was to prevent them publicly teaching the crowds about Jesus: 'We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.' (Acts 5.28) Public proclamation was, and is, the sine qua non of the Church's public life.

Second, there was public assembly. Luke takes care to point out that not only did Jesus' first followers meet together in private (Acts 1.12-14) but they also met regularly in public. In his first summary of the early Church's life, Luke tells us that 'every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts,' and in his second, he records that 'all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade,' before adding, 'no one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.' (Acts 5.12-13) In this way, the early Church lived not simply as a community, but as an intentionally publicly visible community.

Third, there was public action. Luke tells the reader, in Acts 2.45, that 'selling their possessions and goods, [the apostles] gave to anyone as he had need.' His later summary, in chapter 4, elucidates this picture of public generosity by describing how 'there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.' He also describes how 'crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.' (Acts 4.34-36) Finally, in chapter 5, Luke tells us, 'the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.' (Acts 5.12) Between them, these vignettes give us an idea of the early Church's public action, in which the new community helped and healed those within and beyond its boundaries in an expression of God's own action in Christ.

Finally, there was the business of public confrontation. This is readily (mis)understood as a form of would-be violent insurrection, a model that is singularly unhelpful in understanding the pattern of the early Church, which according to other New Testament sources (not least Romans 13) was largely respectful towards to the public authorities.

Instead, the early Church plotted a midway between aggressive insurrection and supine timidity. Theirs was a public commitment to an alternative authority, an alternative narrative, alternative values and loyalties, a commitment that could and did cause tensions with the public authorities. Thus, when Peter and John were told by the Sanhedrin that they may 'no longer ... speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,' they replied, 'judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God … we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.' (Acts 4.17-19) The exchange is repeated on their next appearance before the Sanhedrin when the High Priest again accuses the apostles of ignoring the 'strict orders not to teach in this name.' Peter and the other apostles replied, 'We must obey God rather than men! ... We are witnesses of these things [relating to Jesus].' (Acts 5.29-32) This is not armed rebellion but rather a stubborn insistence that being a Christian demands certain things. It betrays willingness, if not desire, for public confrontation.

Acts 1-5 was never intended to be a blueprint for the Church's engagement in public life but its four-fold model of public proclamation, public assembly, public action and public confrontation, which we might usefully group under the umbrella term 'public witness', does offer us a constructive example of how Christians might operate in the modern, British public square.

Useful as the model might be, it still leaves one very big question unanswered, however. What form should that public witness take? In particular, what stance towards the governing authorities should it adopt?

Norman Kember, the British peace activist abducted in Iraq in 2005 was engaged in a form of Christian public witness, as were the British army chaplains working there at the same time. The four Catholics who dug graves outside the Ministry of Defence on 28 December 2004 to protest against the Iraq war were engaged in a form of Christian public witness, as were the Anglican bishops who spoke against the war in the House of Lords. The Christians who attended Westminster Cathedral's 'Faith and Life in Britain' lecture series in spring 2008 were attending a form of public witness, as were those who protested against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill at the same time.

The term 'public witness' is a broad one and Acts 1-5 fails to give much of an idea as to whether Christian witness should be 'merely' public, in the sense of operating in a space to which we all have access, or should it be 'political', in the sense of operating within that part of public space that is the site of the 'governing authorities'? In other words, should Christian public witness take place within, without or against the public authorities?

Unfortunately, the rest of the New Testament does not give much of a steer on this question, appearing, instead, to endorse an approach of flexibility and adaptation. In some well-noted instances (1 Timothy 2.1-2; Titus 3.1; 1 Peter 2.13-14; Romans 13.1-7) New Testament writers advocate what appears to be a cooperative attitude towards the public authorities. In others (e.g. Luke 4.5-8; Luke 22:25-26; John 18.33-37; 1 Corinthians 1.18-2.16; Revelation 13), we hear what appears to be a more subversive approach, in which Christians should work outside, perhaps even undermining, the official authorities.

On reflection, what appears to be confusion makes perfect sense. The extent to which the church works within, without or against the public authorities of the day will depend enormously on the nature of those public authorities. If the state's 'moral orientation' is in serious tension with the gospel's - if, for example, it is violent, idolatrous, imperial, and oligarchic - the church should work against it. If, on the other hand, its moral orientation is similar to the gospel's - if it renders just judgement, maintains public order and protects the vulnerable - there is greater opportunity to work with and within those authorities. The key note must be flexibility.

It is a basic Christian belief that no state will ever truly embody gospel values, and it is a basic historical fact that very few will ever be totally at odds with them (even the idolatrous Roman Empire was recognised by New Testament writers for its duty to punish wrongdoers and restrain evil). This process of analysing the moral orientation of a state is unlikely, therefore, to yield neat, clear-cut answers - a fact that becomes clear when we think about the moral orientation of the British state.

In doing so, we should first notice and sidestep a common mistake. Living in a democracy, we sometimes assume the values of 'British state' and 'British public' are the same. They are not. The British public consistently favours both the death penalty and euthanasia but both remain illegal. The governing authorities do not precisely reflect the values of the British people - an impossible feat given how plural those values are - so much as present to the people a vision of the public good that they periodically choose or reject. That is how British democracy works.

This is an important point as it heads off the ubiquitous 'who voted for you?' criticism. When Mail on Sunday columnist, Peter Hitchens, and the Labour Peer, Lord Harrison debated the question 'Should religious people have a privileged position in society?' on the Today programme in April 2007, Lord Harrison, commenting on the role of prison chaplains, remarked at one point that he was 'not aware that our prisons are overcrowded exclusively with regular churchgoers'.

This view demonstrates this popular fallacy. A public good, such as prison chaplains, is only justified if it clearly reflects the values of the public it serves, in this instance, prisoners or, perhaps, taxpayers. In reality, prison chaplaincy, like other public goods, exists not because it precisely mirrors public values but because it embodies a concept of the good to which the public assents.

This makes for a more complex situation. The nature of Christian 'public witness', and in particular whether it takes place within, without or against the public authorities, depends not on what the population thinks - whether people are 'Christian' or churchgoing, for example - but rather on whether it embodies values, a concept of the good, that the public recognises and assents to. In other words, the nature of Christian public witness should be decided by the extent to which the church contributes to the public good in a way that the public wants.

It is important to clear up a potential confusion at this point. This argument is not suggesting that the church should act on the basis of whether or not it attracts public approval. That ways lies spiritual death. Whatever context it finds itself in, the Church must proclaim, assemble and act the message of the gospel 'in season and out of season', as Paul instructs Timothy (2 Timothy 4.2) - even if those actions bring themselves into conflict with the public authorities. The four Catholics who dug graves outside the Ministry of Defence on 28 December 2004 to protest against the Iraq war were not doing because it was something of which the public approved. The same could be said of those Christians who gathered in Parliament Square to protest against the Sexual Orientation Regulations. Whatever you think of either group, they were doing what they believed the gospel compelled them to do. That is as it should be.

The issue of 'public good' relates not to what the church does but where it does it - on its own or in partnership with the public authorities. In his first encyclical letter, Pope Benedict wrote:

Love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.

The question is not whether the church practices charity but rather whether it does so by working with the public authorities, by ignoring them or, in the extreme case, by undermining them. This essay has argued that this question will be decided not by the church but by the moral orientation of the state in which the church finds itself.

In modern Britain, that will mean a careful analysis of that state. The moral orientation of any state is a complex affair, shifting over time, complicated by necessary compromises, susceptible to disjointed thinking, and the British state is no exception to this. It will necessitate a careful, case-by-case adjudication of the proper nature of Christianity's 'public witness' in modern Britain. The case for hospital chaplains may be different for that of army chaplains. Both may differ from the case of church schools, which itself may differ from the case of Bishops in the Lords, or establishment.

This will frustrate those who want a simple and clear-cut answer to the question of what role Christianity should play in modern, plural Britain. But that should not matter.

Manifestos are not slogans. This manifesto for Christian public witness may not cut the Gordian knot of what form that witness should take, but it does provide a framework for answering that question, a framework that rests ultimately on whether the British public recognises that 'Doing God' is, in fact, doing good.


Entitled 'Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching' and available at


Nick Spencer's full report, 'Neither Private nor Privileged: The role of Christianity in Britain today', is available from