Thursday, 16 February 2012

Reflecting on Bideford

Some of my congregation suggested I should keel over and fake my demise on Tuesday.  That’s because a group of us from South Street were on a fascinating tour of the Houses of Parliament and just at the end our guide told us of the odd (and as far as I can recall never practiced) rule that if a person dies in Parliament they are automatically granted a state funeral!  That prospect became even more remote when he said if any of us did actually keel over we would be rushed round to St Thomas’ hospital and be pronounced dead there rather than in the hallowed walls of Westminster!

Well Tuesday was a great day.  We had an early start and late finish but a great day never the less.

On the way up some folks were reading the paper on the coach and it had a headline about the militant secularisation of Britain.  This is in response to the court ruling last week that the practice of saying prayers before the Bideford council meetings has been deemed unlawful.  Interesting to note as we went through the House of Lords lobby there was a notice to say their Lordship’s session at 2.30pm that afternoon would commence with prayers offered by the Bishop of Litchfield – for how long, I wonder, will that be considered ‘lawful’?

As we gathered at the foot of Big Ben to board the coach back to Somerset I picked up one of those wonderfully free copies of the London Evening Standard and read an article by the cabinet minister Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, entitled We must put religion back into public life. Of course such sentiments follow on from the Prime Minister’s assertion that we are still a Christian country...discuss!
There is no doubt that a debate about the place of faith in society is going on.  On the one hand the current movers and shakers (often around my age) seem to be pressing ahead with a certain militant secularisation, whilst others – especially those used to the privileges of establishment – are fearful of where it will end if God is left out of our national equation.

I wonder if any of this should surprise us.  Isn’t it just a natural consequence of the plain fact that most people under fifty have never, even nominally, bought into the Christian story – they have neither been regular members of a church congregation or readers of the bible and now, as ‘powerful’ people in politics, education or the workplace, they see no necessity for ‘doing God’.  None of this means our liberty in free assembly, debate or conscience is in danger but what it might mean is that all the privileges of establishment such as council prayers, armed forces chaplaincies, school assemblies (not to mention Songs of Praise!) may indeed be up for grabs. 

As Baptists we have known, perhaps too far back in our history, what it is like to be at ‘the margins’ of society.  There is little doubt that we are beginning to experience that once more for we are a minority (Baptists) within a minority (Christian).  Our young people know that especially for within their peer groups admitting you even go to church is felt to be beyond the pale. 

I don’t think we should complain too loudly about losing our so called ‘privileges’.  Although we would want to celebrate, and own, our nation’s Christian tradition, our future doesn’t depend upon council prayers or bishops remaining in the Lords but in the church fearlessly proclaiming a counter-cultural message in which Christ’s values will often challenge those which are thought of as fundamental to the 21st century.  It strikes me we have much to say and contribute – we just need to find alternative routes into society to say it.

Personally I don’t want a privileged slot in this market place of ideas, For I believe the integrity and authenticity of the Gospel is such that – put us alongside any other faith (or as Maureen Lipmann used to say ‘ology’) – we have a message, based on the cross and resurrection, which can touch any individual’s heart with grace and bring about a spirit of love and justice in both church and society.

This weekend The Revd Dr Ivor Hughes will be leading morning worship at South Street and Mrs Linda Lovell will be leading Holy Communion at 6.30pm
With best wishes,
Ian

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