Can biblical faith flourish in an intolerant secular society?

Dec 5, 2017 by

Politician (Tim Farron) and Bishop (Tim Dakin) call for new relationship between minority orthodox Christianity and dominant liberalism.

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The main hall at the Law Society in Chancery Lane was packed. TV cameras were in attendance, and bloggers and tweeters were poised over ipads as Tim Farron was introduced as the speaker for last week’s annual Theos lecture (full text here).

Farron is a fascinating anomaly for the governing classes who dominate the establishment and the media. He is politically left-leaning and philosophically liberal; passionately anti-Brexit, in favour of more government spending on public services and benefits for the disadvantaged; critical of conservatism. Yet he is an evangelical Christian, whose faith, as he says, is more than just cultural – he is a true believer. His resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats in June, saying that it was not possible for him to be faithful to Christ and hold that particular public office, led to a large volume of comment some of which can be found here.

My guess was that given the niche in which Theos positions itself, the number sharing Farron’s genuine evangelical faith would have been a minority in the audience including eminent academics, hard bitten journalists, politicians, theologically liberal Christian leaders and perhaps even LGBT activists. Now free of the shackles of political leadership, and aware that people are genuinely interested in what he thinks, Farron did not miss the opportunity to be absolutely clear about the key elements of his bible-based faith. He gave a testimony about how he came to personal knowledge of Christ and saw the reasonableness of a Christian world view. He spoke of his regular attendance with his family at a church where “my pastor preaches faithfully from the Bible without compromising…”. As no-one can doubt his commitment to social justice, he was able to say that the Gospel “tells us that we are not good, that our biggest need is not food, water, money, relationships, success or acceptance by society… our greatest need is forgiveness from the God who made us.” While this would have made revisionist Christians in the audience cringe, it surely also caused a thought to cross the mind of more than one listener how great it would be if certain prominent church leaders were able to speak as clearly as this!

For Farron, authentic Christian faith must be counter-cultural. He compared the “Babylon” of Revelation 17 with the godless, self-serving Western culture of today, and that as Christians put God first, they will not only turn their back on contemporary idols and false ideologies, but also be a shunned minority (although he was at pains to point out the relative freedoms which Christians still enjoy in Britain today.)

The threat to religious freedom, democracy and cohesion today comes from an increasingly intolerant secularism which is the result of the victory of liberalism. In Farron’s account, British liberalism emerged from the battle for religious liberty and the freedom of ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries.

But today, according to Farron, that doctrine of liberalism has become dominant, and like state-sponsored Christianity, instead of being ‘emancipationist’, has become oppressive. Liberalism has today become like the ‘established church’ of Constantinian or post-Reformation times, wanting a monopoly of power, no longer a philosophy which challenges the human tendency to lord it over others. For Farron, the foundation of liberalism is Christianity (and particularly non-conformist evangelicalism), not political correctness masquerading as a kind of self-evident ‘liberalism’. “Secularism is a totalising creed that reduces everyone down to either consumer or regulatory units”, he says, and cannot be a basis for ‘shared values’.

At the same time, Christianity must be ‘liberal’, sticking to the Bible’s teaching, but not seeking to impose this on society in such a way as to restrict freedom of thought and action within the law. Farron isn’t saying, as some evangelicals do, that Christians should just focus on the local church, and be indifferent to the lives and choices of society outside the Christian community and those being evangelised on the fringe. As he said: “God will judge…it is not unloving or judgmental for Christians to point that out”. But he warns against the kind of close association of church and state:

“That in Britain we have a church trapped as part of the furniture of the state is a waste of a church.  A boat in the water is good.  Water in the boat, is bad.  A church in the state is good, the state in the church is bad.  Really bad.  It pollutes the message of that church.  It compromises it.  Weakens its witness.”

This serious criticism of the Church of England’s basic DNA, which Tim Farron did not develop in his argument, puts a finger on a key issue for thinking about the future of Anglicanism in Britain. Bible believing Christians in the C of E have always argued that Establishment ensures a place for influence at the high table, and an open door into communities at the grassroots. But if Farron is right, and the state is no longer Christian-liberal, and instead has become increasingly secular-authoritarian, then the state church no longer influences positively for Christianity. It must conform to secularism in order to stay at the high table – and in doing so must of necessity shed much of its Christian character, and collude in the persecution of orthodox Christianity.

This problem begins to be identified and addressed in an article by Tim Dakin, ironically as Bishop of Winchester the holder of one of the most ancient positions of church-state Establishment! Writing for the Fulcrum website, Dakin argues for a ‘principled pluralism’ – a benign public square which recognises and encourages the ways that different faith communities and other groups with diverse beliefs and  values can contribute to the common good. Traditional Christian teaching need not be a threat to a liberal society or a source of tension and negativity, but can be seen as making a positive confident contribution to society.

Dakin’s piece, entitled ‘Traditional Christians contribute to society”, is clearly aimed a rebutting the view expressed not just in secular government and media but also in increasingly powerful revisionist church leadership circles, that orthodox Christian faith is to be seen as harmful. Like Farron, Dakin is concerned about this, and even gives an example from the recent Church of England document on bullying of ‘transgender’ children in schools:

“What is not explained [in the document] 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…without the positive reiteration of the Church’s traditional teaching the implication may be drawn that this teaching is linked to bullying behaviour.”

Like Farron, Dakin believes that biblical Christianity can be accommodated in a new culture of tolerant liberalism, but unlike Farron he appears not to recognise the reason for why his own Church has capitulated to LGBT lobbyist-inspired government diktats on gender ideology, namely that it is a state church, compromised with state policy. Also, unlike Farron, Dakin seems much more diffident in commending biblical faith in Christ from the perspective of personal commitment. He prefers to say, more ‘objectively’, what traditional Christians believe, and ends up pleading for a space for these people in a plural public square because of the good they might do, rather than because of the truth of the message. Again, as a C of E Bishop, he has to do this, mindful of the way his role has morphed from defender of the faith to being a kind of mediator of “a vision for social responsibility, for collaborating across differences….tolerance… respect for others, an appreciation of difference…social cohesion…to create the conditions for a flourishing society.”

Tim Farron’s speech, as this review points out, was a great encouragement, although he was perhaps over-optimistic about the prospects of renewing liberalism in the way he outlined, and in particular did not address the hegemony of the LGBT lobby. Tim Dakin’s article, while containing some thought provoking ideas, only serves to illustrate the increasing tension facing the Church of England seeking to hold on to its role as the ‘faith’ component of a secular state. If the thinking in this article is the best that biblically faithful Christians can hope for from an evangelical Bishop, it’s not surprising that more people are either following Tim Farron into ‘nonconformist’ churches, or exploring alternative ways of being Anglican but not Church of England.



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