Saturday, 11 February 2012

Is Christianity really being marginalised?

As you might have seen, the UK's High Court has just ruled that a local council was not allowed to have prayers at the start of its official meetings. (Here is the BBC's report.) Some people, such as Lord Carey (the former Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Daily Mail, are bewailing the 'assault on Christianity' that this ruling represents. I'll quote a section or two from the Mail article as they show some of the hysteria that has greeted this decision:
A landmark legal ruling banning the tradition of saying prayers at council meetings was denounced last night as an ‘assault on Britain’s Christian heritage’.

The High Court controversially backed an anti-religious campaign to abolish official acts of worship. Christians and politicians reacted with dismay after a judge overturned centuries of custom by outlawing a town hall in Devon from putting prayers on the formal agenda...

Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said: ‘Prayers have been a part of council meetings for centuries, and many people, either for religious reasons or cultural reasons, see them as a positive part of our national life.

‘It’s a shame the courts have taken sides with those whose goal is to undermine our Christian heritage. It is high time Parliament put a stop to this assault upon our national heritage.’

So, our Christian heritage is under attack because councils aren't allowed to have prayers as part of their official meetings? Well, this Christian couldn't care less. If local councillors who are Christians wish to seek the Lord in prayer before council meetings then they are absolutely free to do so. I don't see anyone looking to ban us Christians from gathering together round each other's houses, in pubs or in our church buildings to pray; do you?

What it seems us Christians are no longer free to do is to pray as an official part of local council meetings. Boo hoo. Times have moved on, people. If we want our democratic bodies to be representative of all sections of the local community, then the way meetings are conducted should (within reason) encourage everyone to feel they can take part if they wish to. Even if all members of a local council are Christians, then having prayers at the start of their meetings might well send the message that only Christians are welcome; or at least that Christian councillors would really be preferred, thank you very much. That's simply not right, in my view.

There's another point, too. You might say how about if all the councillors are Christians and most people in the area are too. Wouldn't it then be all right to have prayers at the start of council meetings? I still don't think so. First, the point remains that those who aren't Christians might feel excluded or unwanted; and the Christian councillors can still pray together before their meetings officially start, in order to avoid sending any message of exclusion. But second, since when did the New Testament ever encourage Christians to seek power through official channels? Christianity is a religion of the marginalised, the unwanted and the oppressed. Theocracy is Old Testament (at best), from a time when God was working his purposes in the world mainly through one nation.

Personally, I think Christianity changed markedly for the worse when church leaders got their hands on the levers of power (I'm looking at you, Constantine), bringing in an era in which outward adherence to Christian practice was the social norm. Even more disastrous than this is the temptation for particular nations to be seen as God's chosen instrument, as has recently happened (I'd argue) with the United States of America (more on this from me here). There's a lot that governments can justify if they view themselves as God's agent, leading a Christian nation...

PS – I will carry on my series about mistranslations in the Bible soon, but this talk of Christianity being marginalised has really got my goat.

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