Traditional Christians Contribute to Society

Profound developments across the Anglican Communion this year have left yet more people asking the stark question as to whether they still feel at home in the Church of England. Equally, others might be feeling more at home than they ever have before. General Synod saw for many the long-awaited rejection of coercive forms of gay therapy and the welcome to transgender people. On the other hand, the recent Primates Meeting in Canterbury saw the inevitable decision to exclude the Scottish Episcopal Church from ecumenical and leadership roles, which followed last year’s announcement regarding the US Episcopal Church. All these developments raise questions about how we are to live as disciples of Jesus in a complex, pluralist world. Traditional Christianity offers a pattern of life. Neo-liberal culture is another pattern, but it cannot itself provide a value free umbrella-process for how citizens can live together. That is because it also exerts a pressure to conform to its values, its perspective. The question facing traditional Christianity is whether it can make a positive contribution to British society in today’s context.

Schools and Bullying

The second edition of the Church of England’s guidance to schools about bullying, Valuing All God’s Children, illustrates the situation in which we find ourselves. The bullying of those who identify as LGBT is rightly challenged and the importance of welcoming all is underlined. There can be no justification for bullying of any kind within a school – or frankly any – context. If any Church of England schools are not creating an environment in which bullying behaviour can be tackled then this must be addressed. The distinctively Christian basis for addressing this is affirmed in both the 2014 and 2017 editions: each person is of worth because all are made in the image of God. In the 2017 edition this is unpacked, using the Church of England’s new vision for education under the categories of Wisdom, Hope, Dignity, and Community. What is not explained in the 2017 edition is the Church of England’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Instead it’s acknowledged that there’s a range of views on marriage and gender.

Both editions affirm a big tent approach to exploring differences where a range of views can be explored with respect. However Christianity is not a religious version of a minimalist neo-liberalism – do no harm, let all flourish. It is richer than this. So the big tent metaphor needs to be resourced by a tradition that is working with deep differences that are acknowledged and discussed. In our modern context, helping students to live together with differences is the deep lesson. Traditional and progressive views on marriage and sexuality need to addressed without implying the possibility of a value-free, neo-liberal big tent context.

I would therefore have preferred the new document to have adopted both the 2014 and the 2017 perspectives. From the 2014 edition: an acknowledgement of the plurality of our modern context but also a recognition that in this pluralist context the traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality needed to be explained, even amidst the range of views held in the Anglican Communion. From the 2017 edition: an exploration of how differences and divergent personal identities can be addressed without bullying, using a big tent approach that draws on a visionary and ethically resourced approach to encounter and debate. This combination would show how people can live well together with a range of views whilst being resourced by Christian faith.

Yet without the positive reiteration of the Church’s traditional teaching the implication may be drawn that this teaching is linked to bullying behaviour. In the second edition the lived reality of traditional Christian lives is downplayed and other lifestyles are emphasised despite the fact that expressing a traditional view is not in itself bullying or discriminatory. Everyone needs to be affirmed, including those who follow traditional Christian teaching. So it is important that traditional Christians challenge bullying and affirm the dignity of each person. It is also important that traditional Christians express their views and have their principles respected within Church of England schools. It is important that traditional Christians contribute positively to the common good.

Principled Pluralism

In what follows I argue for principled pluralism: that modern society works best when diverse communities contribute to the common good on the basis of their principles. Their principles will include perspectives on particular issues, perspectives on the nature of society and the common good, and perspectives on the nature of life itself. In other words, these comprehensive perspectives include a way of life that affects most aspects of human living. In the 21st century it may seem that one global culture is emerging: the spread of neo-liberalism with its fundamental emphasis on the individual – expressed in consumerist economics and in the universal claims of human rights – appears all pervading. However, in a pluralist world many would start from another perspective with different principles. After all, the socio-economic culture of neo-liberalism is Western. In a pluralist world there are always clashes between and within cultures and traditions. Our challenge is to build the common good together.

The perspective of traditional Christianity is based on a person: Jesus. Christians are disciples of Jesus. Through Jesus, God made and saved the world and offers new life. He actively shapes our lives as the risen Lord. This perspective includes a view on the big question of life itself, on the nature of society and the human person, and on how diverse communities can together contribute to the common good. So traditional Christianity is comprehensive: it offers a way of life. Its principles also include an understanding of its own development as a tradition. This includes the place of scripture, the mission and morality of its perspective in dialogue with the global and local flows of culture, and the significance of the Christian community as sign and promise of God’s love for the world. In the dialogue between scripture, church and culture, Christianity has developed some constants and clarified its perspective. Nevertheless, Christianity has its own clashes with and between its traditions. A more progressive form of Christianity would not agree with all I say here. Yet, as part of the global Christian movement, traditional Christianity, from its principled perspective, can make a positive contribution to the common good in a pluralist society.

Exploring the UK Example

In the UK, for example, there is now further pressure for wider social change coming from the Government. The Prime Minister has proposed a consultation about whether it should be possible for people to choose their gender without a medical assessment. Her intent is to make the process of gender choice less cumbersome and less intrusive, yet this is a complex issue which includes neurological, social, physical, emotional, cultural and developmental dimensions of identity. (The debate about ‘desistance’ – the non-persistence of a trait – amongst professionals, whose specialism is gender dysphoria, illustrates the complexity.) Earlier in the year, the Minister for Women and Equalities, Justine Greening, was also reported as saying that she thought the Church of England should adopt same-sex marriage. We had little enough theology informing our recent debates at Synod; the Church hardly needs this pressure now to conform to secular programmes that encourage us to believe in a form of freedom grounded in our individual capacity to choose who and what we are. The pressure on traditionalist believers, like myself, is growing.

Yet the main pressure on traditionalists is not that fellow believers have another viewpoint to theirs or that the Government is proposing significant social change. The real pressure comes from working out how to make a positive confident contribution in the context of a modern pluralist culture, especially when others see you as being negative. The danger is that you become critical or defensive and revert to over-stated claims about truth or scripture. The challenge is to offer a positive expression of the contribution traditional Christianity makes to our culture.

Education, I suggest, is one key arena for positive social engagement. Education plays a crucial role in preparing people for a meaningful life in a world requiring interpretation and reflective action. Technology will have an increasing impact on human society, as will the tensions around personal choice and social values. As human beings we want to know who we are and why we’re here, as well as what exists and how things work. Education is vital for developing this perspective but this should be holistic, including the formation of character and purpose. Traditional Christianity can positively contribute to the spiritual, moral, social and cultural aspects of education.

Positive Traditional Religion

Traditional Christians actually have a very good basis on which to be positive. They believe in a God who acts in love towards humanity, setting us free to be with others, engaging with all spheres of life: politics, art, economics, science, education and the church. So this is the good news of God’s freedom granted to us in Jesus. This is a freedom based on God’s love for us: a freedom to live for God and for others and not just ourselves. We are called to love God and our neighbour: this is our identity as humans.

This perspective offers us an ethical realism. It is realist about how values and virtues are grounded in the reality of God, and it is realist about human beings: we don’t use our freedom to love God and others so we need saving from our self-centred selves and enabled to grow into God’s freedom. Traditional Christianity thus encourages a certain kind of character with some core virtues and practices. Therefore, if the key question is: what do traditional faith and traditionalist believers have to offer? The answer is: a lot - a positive worldview, a purposeful way of life, and some practical wisdom about human beings and society, particularly about the character and virtues of Christian living. Let me offer a summary of what this perspective might include.

First, I think traditional Christianity is very positive about the world. It begins with a big ‘Yes’: God created the world and it is good, very good. God’s grace is shared in creation from the beginning, and continues with his saving work in Jesus and his promise of a new creation by the Spirit. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are central to this ‘Yes’ of God: scripture, church and culture all tell of God’s love. It is God’s love for us that is the basis for our love, and for our faith and hope in God. Every person has dignity because God is in relationship with each one, drawing each person to himself in Jesus by the Spirit.

Second, I think traditional faith offers a framework in which to understand the world in terms of vision, values and virtues, interpreting God’s grace in creation, salvation and re-creation. Here the teaching about being made in the image of God gives dignity and deep purpose to our lives: our grace-enabled relationship with God, our vocations to serve others in daily life, and the complementary nature of the sexes. The Christian vision and virtues of Christian living are grounded in this reality. Here is the basis for what we call human rights: the mission and ethics of traditional Christianity expresses the deep dignity of all, but also the place and responsibility of all in human society and in relationships of respect and reciprocity even amidst differences.

Finally, justice is at the heart of Christianity because it is realistic about what needs to be put right: the world is not entirely good. We do need to be saved from evil and our sinful selves. Some things are good for us; others are not. We need a way of life that puts into practice, for others’ benefit, the virtues of justice, courage, temperance and prudence. Thus traditional Christianity offers practical wisdom about how the common good can be built up, what good government is like, how relationships work best, including a pattern of heterosexual marriage. In a free society this spiritual capital strengthens civil society, contributing to the just ordering of society for the common good. In fact, Christianity shaped the freedom that is the basis for modern liberal societies, and it offers a worldwide vision for justice to challenge and shape the economic system of consumerist capitalism.

However, the traditional perspective on freedom now stands in contrast to forms of freedom, found in contemporary societies, that advocate an individualism guided by an open-ended self-generated identity. This optimism is maintained in spite of the Marxist, Freudian and Postcolonial critiques of the neo-liberal confidence in freedom. The Christian understanding of humanity is grounded in the freedom of being made in the image of God who created us and gave us a purpose and a pattern of life. The Christian life includes a discipleship in which we are schooled but not coerced by Jesus, the humble teacher of true freedom. Traditional Christianity would therefore also offer its own critique of a progressive Christian version of neo-liberalism. But it would need to do that in such a way that it indicates how it can offer a model of living well together whilst disagreeing deeply!

Mandatory Secular Education?

Christians, especially those in leadership positions, should therefore welcome the opportunity to talk about their convictions and deeply held beliefs in contentious areas. But are bishops, and Christians generally, soon to be harassed about their beliefs? Are we going to be classed as extremists or as hate criminals because we’re different or disagree with others? Surely the time has come for a recognition that in our society there is a range of principled differences? Secularism – and its version of freedom – is just one worldview and there exist a variety of different religious worldviews about humanity, sexuality and marriage.

We need the kind of pluralism – a principled pluralism – that nurtures ‘worldview diversity’ and a vigorous debate in the public square, including contributions from Christians and people of other religions, about what the common good looks like. Many of us traditional Christians want to make a positive contribution to the common good based on our faith in the God who made us in his image, supremely expressed in Jesus. The articulation of what the common good looks like, to which all are free to contribute, is a project that modern liberal societies have only just begun as they come to terms with the reality of principled pluralism. Traditional Christians have a freedom and a responsibility to develop their social ethics for the common good in this context.

There is now a legal right to freedom of religion and belief enshrined in both domestic and international law. If in today’s societies that includes choosing your gender (as it does already in some cultures) then that’s the nature of pluralism. But imposing a worldview – through mandatory secular policies – surely doesn’t characterise modern liberal society, unless it is no longer truly a society where freedom of religion or belief is encouraged and protected as a right. The role of government includes maintaining the right of a range of traditions and freedoms, ie ‘the individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of people with different faiths and beliefs’ (Fundamental British Values), whilst ensuring that education is not used as a means of indoctrination.

So it is concerning that the proposals about gender choice come from Justine Greening, who of course is also the Secretary of State for Education. Will the consultation she and the Prime Minister have mooted lead to a mandatory national curriculum that includes a requirement that primary and secondary students study gender choice in Relationships & Sex Education (RSE), and in Personal, Social, Health & Economic education (PSHE)? Will this be extended to Spiritual, Moral, Social & Cultural education (SMSC) in Further Education or in more general guidance to the education sector as a whole? In which case, such a curriculum needs to include a range of viewpoints about human choosing, including religious worldviews about freedom and choice. To say that we can choose our gender and how we relate to other genders is a theological statement for Christians: it says something about the nature of freedom, society and humanity generally.

Our Identity and Vocation

The proposal to define the person and truth in terms of choice is a comprehensive position; it is not a neutral perspective that simply expresses the tolerance of a liberal society. Other different ways of seeing people and understanding truth are similarly comprehensive. Traditional Christians believe that God made humanity in his image and in doing so chose us for a purposeful and patterned life of freedom. But this is not a sectarian vision of separation from secular society; this is a vision for social responsibility, for collaborating across differences. Christian distinctiveness is about contributing to the common good of all from the depths of a Christian vocation: God’s call to serve others. We need more than tolerance. We need respect for others, an appreciation of difference, and a willingness to cooperate not only to build social cohesion but also to create the conditions for a flourishing society.

Moving beyond tolerance would allow for a measured, careful and ongoing discussion about the social ethics of our neo-liberal societies. This would include an exploration of the ethical self and how choices are made, and an evaluation of the virtues and aims of national life. There could be an open debate about what co-creating the common good really looks like and what it might lead to. The alternative is that we endorse individualism and/or nationalism and don’t embrace community life and the need for global hope, which also includes the dignity of the individual and the wisdom of nations and cultures. It is this more nuanced and rich discussion about dignity, wisdom, community and hope which feeds the Church of England’s commitment to the common good. Rights-based tolerance is a thin and minimal approach to society. We need to re-ethicise our discourse. It is from its long history – its spiritual, moral, social and cultural development – that traditional Christianity can draw to engage with the same dimensions in education. From this resource it can also work with others to explore ways in which freedom, responsibility, justice and love can fill out British Values with ethical content and help build the conditions that create the common good of all.

Re-Ethicising our Debate

To move beyond tolerance, with a vision, requires that we include virtues from the start. The great virtues of faith, hope and love with justice, courage, temperance and prudence are now being recognised as necessary by commentators on neo-liberal economics. A virtues-inclusive vision of the common good accepts the pluralism of diverse ways of people discovering their potential, but suggests that this is found in working with others to create a positive society, rather than just tolerating difference. This is a perspective to which traditional Christian believers can contribute in developing a framework for education at all levels.

The Church of England has begun to develop such a virtues-viewpoint in its emphasis on character-based education. In such a worldview the flourishing of students is not reduced to their ability to ‘input’ on the ‘supply side’ of a society as those best able to run an economy based on the marketing of choice. A person’s vocation is beyond their economic value. People really matter: even if we disagree, we can respect each other, work with our differences, and seek to cooperate for the common good of all.

We may also need to emphasise that identity is a deeply cultural matter. The variety of different anthropological disciplines have taught us that. There’s cultural and social anthropology, biological anthropology and philosophical anthropology. It may not be well known, but there is also theological anthropology. One of the disciplines which has connected theological anthropology with the other anthropological studies (and which was partly responsibility for their generation) is mission studies. Christian mission continues today and continues to say things about the nature of human beings and about our identity and vocation. The Christian mission extends the biblical tradition into many cultures and many futures. It was mission which brought the gospel to these islands as early as the second century. Traditional Christians continue to believe in Christian mission for today’s cultures. The offer of freedom in Christ, and an ethical perspective grounded in him, is part of the comprehensive Christian perspective.

The Government should therefore not side with a particular ‘comprehensive’ worldview but should ensure freedom of religion including the Church of England’s freedom to sponsor education and to do so without having to undermine its own teaching. It follows that space must be created for a range of viewpoints within the Fundamental British Values and the interpretation of the Equality Act, space that allows for students to be taught RSE and PSHE education according to their religious background, thereby achieving the principle set out in the Department for Education’s Policy Statement of March 2017. Such education is aimed at enabling students to become positive contributors to the common good of all, including the promotion of tolerance and respect for freedom of religion and belief. But more than that it enables them to promote the kind of society in which human virtues are practised for the love of God and love of neighbour, recognising there will be many different ways of expressing and interpreting such responsibilities in a plural world.

Tim Dakin

Tim Dakin is Bishop of Winchester

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