Picture
At a Labour Party Christmas dinner many years ago, I sat next to a lady who attended church in someone’s front room. Her congregation counted nine and was convinced the world would end in 2008 (I sometimes wonder if she was right). Over turkey and roast potatoes, she detailed for me all the people in the world who called themselves Christian but who really weren’t. “The Catholics aren’t Christian because they worship Mary. The Baptists have got it wrong because they don’t christen their children. And the Anglicans are the worst because they encourage men to fornicate with other men.” “So who is going to Heaven?” I asked. “Just the nine of us,” she replied.

It’s a tricky business, deciding who is and who isn’t a Christian. The Roman Catholic Church, to which I belong, used to have a very simple rule: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (“there is no salvation outside the church”). We stopped believing that in the 1960s because, well, it was the 1960s. Nowadays, accusing other people of not really being a Christian is politically incorrect and politically unhelpful. A return to Sectarianism could undo the precious coalition between Christian groups that sustains us through these dark times. Also, any attempt to try to judge the content of another man’s soul implies that we know others better than God does. As Rev. Peter Mullen writes in the Telegraph, “The fact is that it is only God to whom all hearts be open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid.” 

But saying that anyone can call themselves a Christian without undergoing some sort of quality control has its drawbacks. We risk if we allowing public persons who are self-evidently not Christian to go about misappropriating its imagery and muddling its message. That’s why I was at once heartened and then dismayed when I read that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, had declared himself to be a “committed Christian”. Looking closer at the words he used, it is obvious that while it's possible he is a Christian, he is hardly a poster child for orthodoxy. But by claiming that he is, he risks leading others to error. That’s why it’s appropriate for people who are making an effort to live orthodox lives to correct his mistakes.

Cameron (o, heck, let’s call him Dave – it’s what he wants), gave his speech this week to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. It’s a Protestant document but I do believe that, alongside the Book of Common Prayer, it is the English people’s greatest gift to literature. Dave said, “I claim no religious authority whatsoever. I am a committed, but I have to say vaguely practising, Church of England Christian, who will stand up for the values and principles of my faith but who is full of doubts. Like many (I am) constantly grappling with the difficult questions when it comes to some of the big theological issues.”

Only a Tory politician can get away with making a statement and then retracting it in such a self-effacing manner as to make it sound like an admirable and rare act of honesty. And only Dave could do this twice in the same sentence. Consider contradiction #1: “I am a committed, but I have to say vaguely practising, Church of England Christian...” So he is “committed” but not to the extent of actually going to church. Contradiction #2 (from within the same sentence!): “… who will stand up for the values and principles of my faith but who is full of doubts.” So he will publicly defend a faith he only half believes in. Why bother? The picture emerges of a man who rarely attends church and who doesn’t believe in the full teachings of Christ, but who is also “committed” enough to his faith to die for it. Dave is simultaneously Richard Dawkins and St. Sebastian. 

Dave has shown little sign of being a “committed” Christian as Prime Minister. His chancellor has pursued a fiscal policy that may well be necessary but hardly drips with charitable goodwill. In social policy, he has shown total disregard for the faith by backing gay marriage and refusing to support a tighter limit on abortions. He said, “I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative but because I’m a Conservative.” It’s another classic latter-day Tory contradiction. In the revised version, it reads, “I don’t support unpicking two-thousand years of social consensus despite being a Conservative but because I’m a Conservative.”

So in what sense is Dave a Christian? Dave’s remarks about the King James Bible were predictably asinine (it is full of “arresting phrases that move, challenge and inspire”), but he did add that it’s “values” bind Britain together. “The Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today. Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend. The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option. You can't fight something with nothing. If we don't stand for something, we can't stand against anything.”

I would argue that a country that witnesses corporate greed, underage looters, evergreen dole queues, and roughly 180,000 abortions per year is not united by Christian “values”. That’s probably partly because “values” is an empty word that contains little theological value, and its overuse in our society has weakened us. Christians are guided not by values but dogma – and dogma contains rules for living that demand sacrifices. A country without dogma is a country that asks nothing from us and gets nothing in return. It is a nation of laws, routinely disobeyed. 

Cameron does offer us a coherently Tory vision – the idea that the Anglican Church is the embodiment of English culture. Tories tend to see national identity in terms of shared “values”, summarized in Fr. Ray Blake’s response to Cameron’s speech as “honesty, integrity, charity, respect for law and order, neighborliness.” This is The Big Society: the free association of high-minded individuals.

However, this has nothing to do with religion. Faith is not bound by national identity, on the contrary it is something timeless and spaceless that connects us with every man and woman on the planet. For me, one of the attractions of Catholicism is that it is a stubbornly universal faith. Practiced properly it often stands in opposition to national law, morals, and culture. Its refusal to acknowledge the authority of local tyrants is precisely why the Tudor Monarchs banished it from England. The Catholic Church asks us to be something bigger and better than loyal Englishmen – to be Christians.

The heresies of Dave are typical of the establishment strain of Anglicanism. By eschewing dogma in favor of English good manners, it has preserved our national culture at the expense of preaching Christian doctrine. The critic might ask, what right have you, Tim Stanley, to determine what is and what is not concomitant with Christian teachings? If only I had the chance, I would answer that by posing this question to Dave: “From where should a man derive his authority when trying to define truth?” A Catholic might say, “the Church”; a Fundamentalist, “the Bible”; a charismatic, “the Holy Spirit”. I wonder what theological authority Dave bases his “values” on? Papal infallibility is a no-no and his position on gay marriage suggests that he’s unfamiliar with the Bible. Perhaps it is his conscience, but a conscience uninformed by tradition or Scripture is hardly a reliable guide. No, I suspect that Dave believes that the law should reflect the will of the people – that God exists to serve society, rather than the other way around. He is a secularist agnostic, not a “committed Christian”.