My worlds collide

When I first wrote this it was relevant but I got overtaken by other events. Still, whilst it’s old news there’s no point it staying sat in my drafts.

There is no single theme for my blog. Most of the time there’s very little overlap so maybe I should be more focused and write in different places for different content. Irrespective of that, today is a bit different.

In the aftermath of this story I’ve read a lot and heard a lot of bluster in various media. As I’m a Christian who works in local government and have family connections to church in Bideford this particular story couldn’t be more relevant.

The bottom line for me is that I believe in the separation of Church and state but it’s really important to note that’s Big C. That doesn’t undermine the fact that plenty in our society is built on a heritage of Christianity and a widespread aspiration to fulfill a lifestyle that is, consciously or otherwise, reflective of Jesus.

What I believe, the activity of our state and how it came to exist as it does are inextricably linked. At the core of my faith, and central to governing a disparate people is the celebration of difference and the service of individual needs within relational community, not the dogmatic imposition of one particular kind of law.

There’s a lot I could ramble about on this so I’ll try to keep it to five thoughts.

1. Persecution

The rhetoric from some quarters suggests Christianity is being persecuted by marauding bands of militant secularists. The trouble is that persecution looks very different to prayer being removed from an agenda. Christians are challenged to be salt and light, to be known for integrity and to seek truth: such distortion makes a mockery of that fundamental aspect of what we believe. We should stop it (especially at Christmas).

2. Prayer is real

I believe prayer is real and it is powerful. Why would you believe that if my defence of it is with an appeal to tradition? Whilst there may be value in a period of quiet contemplation that’s not prayer, that’s a quiet period of contemplation and that is something different.

3. Why?

That doesn’t mean that I don’t see the good in bookending a meeting in prayer. Sometimes I find a work meeting incomplete because prayer is absent – which maybe only goes to show how institutionalised I am. But I’m not going to put prayer on the agenda, not because I don’t think it would be a good thing but because I’m not meeting with Christians. Why would I mandate something for those who don’t believe it to be real or powerful? What exactly do we (or God) gain in foisting officialised prayer on people?

4. Where two or more are gathered…

Whilst I’m sympathetic towards those Christians who will feel the loss of time set aside for prayer I hope ten minutes at the start of a meeting doesn’t represent the sum total of personal daily devotion. In fact, I kind of naively hope that whether prayer is officially included or not there are complementary meetings of Christians going on anyway. There’s an opportunity here as Christians to proactively bring your faith and work together by making space to meet elsewhere – not in political groups but as individuals seeking to love mercy, act justly and walk humbly together on behalf of those you’re serving.

5. The non-political

There are people outside the halls of government who have been upset by this ruling. I hope that they’re as passionate about local issues between meetings. If you believe prayer is a good thing there’s nothing stopping you from making sure these meetings are covered even if prayer isn’t on the agenda. Nor is there anything stopping you from encouraging the councillors and officers involved in a whole host of different ways, not just prayer.

What’s all this shouting?

I can’t see why people are so agitated. The presence of prayer on a public agenda didn’t mean The Church had won anything. Removing prayer from those spaces doesn’t mean we lost. There’s a fixation with the idea that faith is being removed from the public sphere and Christianity isn’t influential any more.

I would contend that it is massively lazy to equate the traditional presence of prayer on an agenda with wielding influence.

Besides, God isn’t asking us for passive observation and assumed levels of benign influence. We’re challenged to serve the world and to look out for the last, the least, the lost and the broken. How much influence does that require?

As an institution the Church has enjoyed a privileged position in society but that shouldn’t be simply because of what it is. Nor do I think it is. Ultimately it is there because Christians are knowledgeable, valuable and contributing to the life of our communities and they’re good to have sat round the tables, alongside all the other stakeholders too.

That doesn’t mean creating a Christian kingdom on earth that forces everybody to operate within certain guidelines, like I said I’m in favour of separating Church and state.

But note the Big C.

Whilst institutions should be distinct I don’t believe Christians can ever separate church and state. In order for us to be God’s hands and feet, to be yeast, to add flavour, to shine light and to be known for the quality of our love we have to be actively engaged with the decision making processes around us.

We’ll have no trouble here

The Church as institution and the church as bunch of Christians are challenged to serve everybody with all they’ve got in expectation of God’s transformation. That means recognising, loving and standing in defence of the variety and diversity of the world around us.

Because we’re Christians we need to be engaged with the life of the world in such a way that we can serve its transformation with grace and full of hope. And Serving the local community is why local government exists. Whether prayer is on the agenda or not we’re after the same things. Parish clergy and ward councillors aren’t a million miles away from each other in their aspirations for a place.

There does not need to be this vying for position, this tension between church/Church and state, this distraction from what’s important.

Wouldn’t it have been refreshing for talk of faith under siege to have been quickly replaced by a celebration of one of the oldest and most significant vehicles for community transformation?

For the rhetoric to be about how church and state work alongside one another to transform communities?

At the very least it would have been good to hear that living Christianity is about following Jesus and not protecting privilege or coercing people into spiritual practice as though that’s what Jesus died for (it wasn’t).

Frankly this whole issue has been a massive waste of everybody’s time and energy. It beats me why any one is bothering?

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...