4thought on Ulster

This item was prepared as a response to the week in which Channel 4’s ‘4thought’ strand dealt with the issues of the Ulster ‘flag protest’.  I’ll be saying more about Ulster in future posts, but for now here’s a basic idea to think about….


I first looked into the problems of Ulster in the late 1960s when I was at Uni and the current troubles kicked off.  As an evangelical Christian I obviously had a lot in common with Ulster’s Protestants, but was appalled by what was going on there.

My analysis then was that oddly the religious aspect of the violence was not in the many things that Catholic and Protestant disagree about, but in one of the few things they broadly agree about.  Thing is, you could have real ding-dong arguments about issues like mass v communion, prayers to saints or not, papal infallibility v biblical infallibility – and yet the argument would remain just that, a verbal debate; these issues would not provide cause for riots, guns and bombs.  But the idea they agree about is the notion of having a ‘Christian country’, albeit with detail differences in each faith.  And by the nature of states, this means that they have to accept real physical fighting – war or police action – to establish or defend that Christian state, and social discrimination in the state in favour of one religion and against others; practical discriminations in areas like jobs, council housing, even fair voting arrangements; and those things lead to fighting  This also creates a dynamic of fear; the Catholics obviously want to change a fearful situation of being victims of discrimination, but Protestants fear losing their dominant position and becoming themselves underdogs.

The other thing I realised was perhaps the ultimate irony; despite the agreement of both Irish ‘sides’, the idea of a Christian country’ is actually not a Christian idea.  It is not taught in the New Testament and arose only three hundred years later when first Constantine formally tolerated Christianity but also supported it and tried to exploit the faith politically, and then about 70 years later another emperor decided that he wasn’t willing to have his subjects disagreeing with him about religion and made Christianity effectively compulsory.

In the New Testament, Jesus disclaims the idea of Christian states by saying ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, and by teaching the need of a spiritual rebirth which of course cannot be achieved by human legislation.  Paul and Peter both portray the international multi-ethnic church itself as the real Christian nation, citizens of heaven who live humbly on earth as ‘resident aliens’ even in their native land, whose warfare is ‘not with physical weapons’ and who are not meant to be ‘managers of other people’s affairs’.  (this is only a sketch – there’s lots more similar teaching)

On the one hand, so long as Catholic and Protestant retain this idea of a Christian state, ongoing conflict is pretty much guaranteed; on the other hand, if both would recheck their beliefs against the Bible and discover this original alternative teaching which rejects the Christian state of either kind, then there would be a hope of taking the religious element out of the conflict.  That wouldn’t totally resolve all the issues, but as far as I can see many of the other original issues are now out of date, and compromise would be a lot easier if people were not thinking that they were doing the will of God and upholding a religion rather than just secular issues.

Sadly neither Eire nor the mainland UK can help in following that course because both are themselves nominally religious states, Eire Catholic and England with an ‘established’ Protestant church of which the Queen is earthly ‘supreme governor’.  ‘Unionism’ and ‘Loyalism’ are basically about Ulster’s Protestants wanting to remain part of ‘Protestant’ England, which is why the Union Flag is such an emotive symbol and the decision to stop flying it has caused such protest.


Second Post

Second Post

Main news item this time is the Anabaptist Network Communities Day at Didsbury.  Since then we’ve also had the February Manchester Anabaptist Study Group meeting at which we discussed a recent article from America which challenged some British perceptions about Christians now living ‘After Christendom’.  As ever the discussion went all over the place; but I think we mostly thought this was a misunderstanding by the American writers because of the different legal situation of churches in the USA, where there has never been the kind of ‘established church’ seen in various forms in most European countries.

Next meeting for the Group will be March 18, again 7.30pm at Quaker Meeting House, Cheadle Hulme, STOCKPORT.  We expect to be continuing our studies in the First Epistle of Peter, which we are about halfway through.

Anabaptist Network of Communities Day, Sat 9 Feb 2013

At Didsbury Baptist Church, near Manchester.

Around 50 turned up for this event, from as far afield as Coventry, Birmingham, the Lakes, Glasgow and London – anyone I’ve missed please forgive me!  After tea, coffee and chat we had a more formal session introducing people, then brief worship with an Anabaptist hymn unfamiliar to many of us.  After that we split up for the first of two ‘market place’ sessions.  Some went off to hear John Hoad relating his experiences when he and other parents got together to ‘home educate’ their children.  I stayed in the main room where Andrew and Kath Dodd talked about ‘Retreats and Spirituality’ based on their experiences at Hawkshead Hill Baptist Church in the Lakes near Coniston.  Back together for another ‘moment of praise’ with ‘I sing with exultation’ a hymn originally written by the Anabaptist martyr Felix Manz, put to death for his faith by being drowned in the River Limmat.

Lunch also involved a lot of discussion and getting to know one another.  Then more ‘market place’ sessions.  Angie Tunstall led a session about ‘Forming a peace zone in school’ while Tara Gingerich Hiebert, a Canadian Mennonite over here while husband Kyle studies, led ‘Mentoring young people’ based on her time as a youth pastor.  I opted for the third choice, ‘Preaching After Christendom’ led by Glen Marshall of what used to be called Northern Baptist College, who confessed that he is being rather slow in writing the book of that title for the Paternoster series ‘After Christendom’.

This discussion was very lively and wide-ranging; and inspiring.  I don’t think I can really convey how lively it was with almost everything about preaching ‘up for grabs’, purpose, style and content.  We felt that old-style ‘monologic’ preaching still has a place; indeed Glen suggested that when done it should be done really well, with flourish and a good use of rhetoric.  But we also clearly recognised a need for other styles of teaching and learning within the church, while preaching to outsiders today is a whole new ball game and we certainly didn’t come up with any final answers!

Then followed a news session about current happenings in the Anabaptist Network.  While all this had been going on, the children present had been off doing activities of their own, and they now joined us and led part of the final prayer and praise session and handed out bookmarks they had made.  All the children were at the young end and I think we were disappointed there weren’t more young teenagers who could have taken part in the adult sessions.  A final hymn, ‘We are people of God’s peace’ by Menno Simons himself, and then a final round of tea coffee and chat before setting off home.  Overall, a great day of sharing and fellowship.  Oh yes, the Mennonite Centre’s Metanoia book service was present, though on a small scale; I saw quite a few buying, and I myself bought the Hospitality and Community book in the After Christendom series, and I’ve finally got a copy of John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus which I started reading while waiting for my train at Burnage.

But Seriously….

But seriously….

After poking a little fun at the Church of England by likening it to Gollum enthralled by the ‘ring of power’ of state establishment, it seemed only fair to seriously discuss the biblical teaching on the subject; and also in the interests of fairness to make very clear that this isn’t just about the Anglicans – it’s also about any church seeking special power and privilege in the state, from the Orthodox and Roman Catholics down to the various Protestants of Ulster.  So what says the Bible?

Seriously, it doesn’t say much in favour of Christian establishment.  The subject is pretty much absent from the New Testament, and the few ‘proof texts’ quoted in the Anglican 39 Articles of faith or the Puritan Westminster Confession  are somewhat stretched to say the least!  But many Anglicans would probably point to the indisputable fact that Old Testament Israel had – or indeed was – an established religion, and say that surely that was meant to continue in the new age of Jesus the Messiah.  Is that a sound assumption, or does the NT suggest a different role for the church in the world?

For this first exploration I want to look at two passages from John’s Gospel; John 3; 3 and 1; 11-13.

Jesus answered (Nicodemus) “Truly I assure you, unless a person is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.  But to those who did receive him, he granted ability to become God’s children, that is, to those who believe in his name; who owe their birth neither to human blood, nor to physical urge, nor to human design, but to God.

Being a Christian is about being born again; and this spiritual rebirth is ‘from above’ and owed ‘neither to human blood nor to physical urge, nor to human design….’  Or put simply, there is no way people can be made Christian by some government decree.  Nor can they be made Christians by being born to Christian parents in a Christian country.  Nor can this new birth be achieved by some quasi-magical ritual like infant baptism – it’s a matter of ‘believing in his name’ which an infant clearly can’t do.  A new birth related to faith has to happen over real time by a process as the sinner faces his sinfulness and the Holy Spirit works to change him – possibly right at the end of his life, possibly not at all.

And this basically means that the ‘Christian country’ is impossible.  A country dedicated to some more nominal and ritualistic pagan religion may work, but where Christianity is involved, the state must be religiously plural, composed of those who have been born again and those who, as yet, haven’t been.

Except … and here’s the rub.  That human decree for a ‘Christian state’ can’t produce true born again Christians; but it can in various ways produce superficial conformity.  Depending on the total circumstances, an individual may conform out of fear (of the proverbial Spanish Inquisition or its equivalent); or he may conform for advantage – because professing Christianity gets you a better job or something similar – possibly even a job in the church itself; or perhaps worst, he may simply take his Christian status for granted because he is ‘born only once’ in that supposedly ‘Christian’ society – he really believes he is a Christian, but has never truly been born again, never faced and repented of his sin.  There are also more than a few cases where there is evidence of ‘Christian’ rulers and/or their enforcers being personally cynical, exploiting the faith of others.  It’s not a satisfactory situation.  Where Christianity is allied to nationalism, the supposedly Christian state may end up being massively unChristian in conduct.  The superficial conformity may suit a government – but it is inimical to true Christianity and to the salvation of souls.  It can even end up with a cynical or fanatical ‘Christian country’ actually persecuting the true Christians – as, for example, modern Anglicanism admits it did in the case of John Bunyan.

It is possible to envisage a ‘legally Christian’ state in which there isn’t even one actually born-again Christian.  I don’t think England ever quite got that bad, but the indications are that it got uncomfortably close in the decades before Wesley started his mission.

Modern Anglicanism is not the totalitarian body that Henry VIII set up for the religious uniformity of his kingdom; but the legacy of that superficial conformity still affects Christianity in this country and how non-Christians see us.  I recall in my youth evangelical vicars and curates telling us how we needed to be born again and that it was not enough to be born English or to have been ‘christened’ as an infant – and failing to realise that they only needed to say that because of the confusion caused by their own church’s established position!

And – fairness again – it isn’t just the C of E; there are other ‘would-be-established’ groups like the Presbyterians, who still seek the ‘Christian country’ even though they believe in the new birth, and don’t realise the inconsistency.

Having a ‘Christian country’ is a tempting proposition; it is tempting for Christians as well as for governments looking for a binding[i] factor for their state – but it is a temptation to ignore the Bible even at this fundamental level of the nature of Christian conversion.

[i] ‘binding factor’ – the literal meaning of ‘religion’ is just that; it comes from the same root as ‘ligature’.