- Christian heritage is used here of those Christian elements of our culture, shared values, laws and institutions which we have inherited from our nation’s past. We owe a great debt to the Christians in the past who have been faithful under God. Their godly influence has shaped our nation. We now reap where they have sown.
- Secularisation is where religious ideas and institutions lose their social significance.
In the United Kingdom our culture, laws, democratic institutions, architecture, literature, art and science have all been profoundly influenced by Christianity and cannot be understood without reference to it.
Christianity has played a major part in many of the great social reforms in our history: the creation of schools and hospitals, the abolition of slavery, the improvement of working conditions and the protection of children.
There can be no doubt that the UK is becoming increasingly secularised. People’s beliefs about moral issues (for example on sexual ethics) are becoming increasingly more secular and less Christian.1
Whilst this is true, it is certainly not the whole story. Christians can still be salt and light in our society and argue, as active citizens, for the retention of Christian laws, institutions and values which have served our country well in the past.
Not all of our ‘Christian cultural capital’ has been used up. Even if it was, Christians must still seek to be an influence for good. As it is, our Christian heritage is still influencing people’s attitudes and values.
Public attitudes towards the Christian faith
There is good evidence that many ordinary people identify with the Christian faith and many biblical moral values.
- The official 2011 Census found that 33.2 million people (59% of the population) in England and Wales identify themselves as Christian.2
- By comparison, a quarter of the population reported they have ‘no religion’,3 with under 0.2% identifying as atheist (29,267), agnostic (32,382) or humanist (15,067).4
- The British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, often accepted as the leading survey of public attitudes in the UK, found in 2013 that 13% of those surveyed attended a church at least once a month (excluding special services such as weddings and baptisms). 8% attended once a week or more.5 By contrast, weekly attendances at professional football matches in the UK total just over 800,000, or 1.3% of the population.6
Clearly the State and individuals have embraced secular values and beliefs in many areas, but the UK is not a secular state and a significant proportion of its people are theists who consider themselves to be Christian.
Our National Life
The legacy of this Christian heritage is still very much present in our national life:
- Christian teaching and assemblies in schools are required by law.
- Church schools are very popular with parents.
- Ordinary people as well as those most senior in public life attend Remembrance Day services. National disasters are always marked by a Church memorial service.
- The Head of State is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and “Defender of the Faith”. The Coronation Oath sworn by the new Monarch is profoundly Christian.
- The Church of England and the Church of Scotland are also ‘by law established’.
- Christian oaths are taken by MPs, others in public life and by witnesses in a Court.
- Both Houses of Parliament start their daily proceedings with prayer.
- The BBC still broadcasts daily prayers and regularly broadcasts church services on TV and radio. [Though broadcasting law increasingly reflects secular views – see Religious broadcasting.]
The Christian message never changes, but the context in which it is presented does. The late Raymond Johnston, former Director of the National Festival of Light, summarised the position well:
“Christian testimony, then, is first and foremost to an unchanging gospel. But secondly God’s Word is addressed to the particular problems and blessings, vices and privileges, blindness and insights of the age in which the message is being preached. A genuine, full-orbed Christianity insists that everything must be seen in the light of the Holy Spirit and all aspects of life evaluated and lived to the glory of God.”7
There are many factors as to why secularism has gained so much ground. Some factors are in themselves morally neutral (such as the development of mass communications), others are profoundly moral.
Perhaps the chief factor of all is the failure of the Church to stand up for Christian truth; hence the importance of Christian citizenship.
Christianity and the State
Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age, but also in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:21).
Scripture clearly teaches that God’s present judgement is a reality for nations which defy Jesus Christ:
“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment, Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:10-12).
Christians are to pray for those in authority and for the state to provide freedom for the gospel to be preached and for men to live “quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-3). A ruler in authority is “God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
Christ’s kingdom can never be identified with any particular nation or political party. While it is not the role of a state to coerce individual citizens to adhere to particular beliefs, the state can never be neutral as regards values. Christians are to work for the state to adopt Christian values and to implement godly laws.
There are different views among Christian people regarding the establishment of religion. However, as a matter of fact the Coronation Oath is an explicit denial of the secularity of the United Kingdom; and the establishment of the Protestant Reformed Christian religion in general, and of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland in particular, still defines the UK as constitutionally a Christian country. These constitutional arrangements will remain in force until there is intentional constitutional change to the contrary.
In promoting the Christian faith, The Christian Institute seeks to affirm the universal Lordship of Christ and to challenge secular humanism, theological liberalism, universalism and other ideologies.
The Christian Institute affirms:
- Salvation solely through the atoning work of Jesus Christ (John 14:6); and
- That biblical Christianity maintains the true basis for tolerance, democracy and human dignity; and
- Its commitment to freedom for, not freedom from religion. No state can be neutral in terms of morality or religion. When a state has a majority who claim allegiance to one religion, it may not enforce that one religious belief. There will, however, inevitably be a privileging of that religion at certain public ceremonies such as thanksgivings, funerals of public figures, and rituals and prayers at the beginning of Parliaments. Also it will be privileged in education, while ensuring opt-outs for those of other faiths and none. There must be freedom for minority faiths and philosophies except where these plainly transgress the moral law. To fail to privilege one religion would be for the State positively to endorse either a secular humanistic philosophy (which results in atheism), or a “multi-faith philosophy” (which is opposed by faithful people in all religions). Currently Christianity is privileged in the United Kingdom where the majority claim a Christian allegiance. The Christian Institute sees this as entirely appropriate and is committed to the ideals behind the current Coronation Oath whatever future form of constitution the UK may have.
Religious freedom must be preserved
Christians are to pray for the governing authorities “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”. Paul says, “this is good and pleases God our Saviour who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). In other words, we are to pray for freedom to live the Christian life and to proclaim the gospel. Praying for those in authority is a gospel priority.
When religious liberty is threatened, Gospel liberty is also in danger. It becomes more difficult to proclaim the gospel and more difficult for Christians to live out godly lives that witness to the Gospel. Jesus himself warns his followers not to lose their distinctive “salt”, lest they become useless and trampled on by men (Matthew 5:13). Jesus wants us not to be ashamed but rather to put our light on its stand. Christians should therefore be concerned greatly about any laws or policies that limit our religious liberty.
Christians must submit to the governing authorities except where they require what God forbids or forbid what God requires (Acts 5:29).
These days there is a deliberate twisting of what ‘religious liberty’ actually means. Religious liberty is not only the liberty to believe certain things in our head, but the liberty to act according to those beliefs. It is, for example, the liberty to gather with like-minded people, to form associations with those who share our faith, to tell other people about our faith, and to speak out against what we believe to be wrong.
It is this liberty to act on our beliefs that is under attack in our day. Part of this stems from the growing chasm between Christian values and the values of those in authority.
Legitimate use of the rights of citizenship
- The Christian has dual citizenship of heaven (Philippians 3:20) and of an earthly nation (usually that in which he was born).
- Whilst it is the Christian’s heavenly citizenship which commands the ultimate loyalty, the Apostle Paul was prepared both to use and not to use his rights as a Roman citizen depending on whichever option most benefited the gospel cause. (Acts 16:37-39; 21:39; 22:25-29; 25:10-12).
- Jesus said that his followers were to “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s and unto God the things which be God’s” (Luke 20:25 KJV). In a democracy the government is chosen by the people. As Professor Cranfield, the late New Testament scholar argued, there is a sense in which the whole citizenry is the equivalent of Caesar in a democracy because they elect their own leaders.8 There are unique responsibilities and privileges that flow from living in a democracy. There is nothing wrong with Christians using those privileges.
Individuals live in nations
- The reason that God brought nations with separate languages into being was because man’s collective pride had to be judged and sin restrained.9
- Sinful nationalistic pride is clearly condemned in Scripture, but God has ordained that individuals live in nations. There should be a healthy national identity.
- Raymond Johnston has written: “We are not here by accident. God has put us here to belong to this country, at this time, by his sovereign purpose.”10 These comments are true of a Christian citizen living in any nation, but we in the West can thank God for the faithful work and witness of Christians who have influenced our culture for good.
- It is no exaggeration to say that civilisation itself is indebted to our Christian heritage. As Johnston writes: “Impartial law and politics are near to the very essence of principled civilised communal living. From such study came the democratic ideal of representative Government, with universal adult suffrage and regular elections. This in turn is founded upon concepts of accountability and human dignity, which themselves derive from the Biblical view of man made in the image of God. It is no accident that these ideals emerged in the Christian West (and nowhere else), a civilisation uniquely tamed and moulded by the Gospel.”11
- Our Christian heritage and the fact that there are substantial numbers of committed Christians living in the UK is to the great benefit of our nation.
- Christians should give thanks for our Christian heritage and the large measure of religious freedom we enjoy. At the same time we must recognise that our “Christian cultural capital” is fast being used up as our culture is becoming increasingly secularised. This has resulted in religious freedom for all faiths being diminished. The opposite process is happening in some countries in the developing world where they are experiencing the substantial growth of the Christian Church.
- It is right and proper for Christians to use the blessings of our Christian heritage to argue for religious freedom, Christian teaching in schools and Christian religious broadcasting.
- 1See for example Park A, Bryson C, Clery E et al (Eds), British Social Attitudes 30, NatCen Social Research, 2013, Table 1.7 and Figure 1.4, page 16
- 2Religion in England and Wales 2011, ONS, 11 December 2012, page 2
- 3Full story: What does the Census tell us about religion in 2011? ONS, 16 May 2013, page 2
- 4’What is your religion?’ ONS, 15 January 2015, see http://visual.ons.gov.uk/infographic-what-is-your-religion/ as at 2 July 2015
- 5In answer to the question “Apart from such special occasions as weddings, funerals and baptisms, how often nowadays do you attend services or meetings connected with your religion?”, see British Social Attitudes Information System, www.britsocat.com
- 6Based on figures for 2014/15, see for example http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/eng-premier-league-2014-2015/1/ as at 2 July 2015
- 7Johnston, O R, Christianity in a collapsing culture, The Paternoster Press, 1976, page 7
- 8Cranfield, C E B, ‘The Christian’s Political Responsibility according to the New Testament’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 15(2), 1962, pages 176-192, referenced in ‘A Biblical Case for Social and Political Involvement’, see http://www.cscoweb.org/eldr.html as at 7 May 2015
- 9See Genesis 11
- 10Johnston, O R, Caring and Campaigning, Marshall Pickering, 1990, page 7
- 11Johnston, O R, Nationhood: Towards a Christian Perspective, Latimer House, 1980, page 6