The church’s services as chaplain to this democracy are no longer required. You’ve been given your P45; your severance pay is in the mail.
This is roughly what Walter Brueggemann said to a Presbyterian audience in America.* It is perhaps how the church in the UK feels when we hear, for example, that it is unlawful for prayers to be included on the agenda of council meetings. We have been made redundant, and we share the same feelings of anger, impotence and insecurity as those who have lost their jobs. The immediate reaction is to protest and to seek to reverse the decision. This has been evident in many of the responses from church leaders, but I wonder if we should think again.
Our protest on hearing something like this is partly a concern that faith continue to have a role in the public life in our country, and a concern for the status and reputation of the church. I believe the former is worth standing up for, but am not so convinced that we should focus on the latter. Faith must have a role in the public life of a democratic society. We must be free to exercise our faith and to express our values. But so must people of other faiths, even those of secular faith. I am also uncomfortable when people who, for whatever reason, do not want to pray feel that prayer is being imposed on them.
I believe in prayer, but I wonder about the benefit of prayers in a context in which they are appended at the beginning of a meeting which will carry on without any reference to God. Perhaps our model of public engagement should be that of Daniel. He presumably did not have the opportunity to pray before civic meetings, in fact if there was prayer it was probably to another god. However, he was engaged in the public life of the society in which he had been placed and brought his faith and values to bear at every stage. This model of engagement seems appropriate for the current context. If we take it seriously it will require us as churches to focus less on defending our influence and reputation, which are being eroded. Instead, we will concentrate on preparing and encouraging each other for faithful involvement in the various aspects of society that we encounter in our everyday life. We will also encourage people, as part of their discipleship, to be actively involved.
Perhaps we are being given our P45 as the chaplain to society. We may no longer have the right to pray at certain meetings. Once we work through the pain of redundancy there is the possibility that we will find a new vocation, a new way of engaging.
Peter is on the board of Contemporary Christianity and is minister of Garnerville Presbyterian church.
* Quoted in George R. Hunsberger, ‘Birthing Missional Faithfulness: Accents in a North American Movement’, International Review of Mission Vol 92, no. 365 (April 1, 2003): p 147.
I recall when I was rector of Ahoghill, David Alderdyce, then leader of the Alliance party telling our local clerical that for too long the churches in Northern Ireland had acted as chaplains to the tribe instead of prophets proclaiming the sometimes unpopular ‘Thus saith the Lord’ . I thought of that as I reflected on the role of the Church of Ireland in events leading up to the signing of the Ulster Covenant.
Thanks Peter for a most timely helpful and honest blog! We can never legalise religion and inappropriate praying is just one area that I dislike. Engaging and connecting is a constancy and my faith is strengthened through that process.
Keep on challenging us and always be relevant! (You always are!)