It was recently reported by the writer and critic, Christina Patterson, that the pop world celebrity and charity event organiser, Bob Geldof, “carried the coffin of his late daughter into a church. Later, in the service, he spoke. But we do not know what it was he said, because the service was only for family and friends”.
Amongst other considerations, what stays with me is the fact that a public place, a church building that is normally open for the public to spend time in worship or quiet reflection, was used for a private ceremony – albeit involving a celebrity, that is, a person whose life is to be celebrated, in life or death.
I write this article on the second anniversary of my mother’s death. She was a church-going person for most of her life. My mother was known for being a devout Christian of evangelical persuasion. Though she was a most private person, her quiet, religious devotion was publicly acknowledged. Yet, when she died, her funeral service took place for “family and friends” in the privacy of a Funeral Director’s chapel. My mother was, for me and my family, a celebrity.
This seems to me to be a picture of religion in Australia (where my mother died) and the UK today. Religion has become a private matter. We refrain from publicly showing our grief at the death of someone we have loved and cherished, yet we choose to say goodbye to people we have lost in a church building or a chapel.
It is reported that, in the UK today, the Church of England still conducts 1,000 weddings a week. It conducts 2,700 baptisms and at least 3,000 funerals. It is thought that the actual figures may be higher than these. The National Association of Funeral Directors thinks that more people have a church-centred funeral than any other kind (including those held in their own chapels).
These kinds of statistics are still used by some to insist that the UK is a “Christian country”. The Christian rituals we observe, in life and in death, according to the champions of Christian Britain, are the appropriate response to those “militant atheist” claims that the UK is post-Christian, if not anti-Christian. Yet, many of those who lie buried in church ground rarely, if ever, went near those sacred places when they were alive. Notwithstanding, the Christian Church in the UK, and particularly the Church of England, still performs what would appear to be regarded as valuable cultural and social functions.
Yet, the observation of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is worth pondering: “If regular church-going is the sign of a Christian country, then Britain doesn’t make the grade”. This is the case even though the Church of England is the Established Church of the British State, with strong links to government and royalty, not to mention a presence in every parish in the country and the resultant numerous baptisms, weddings and funerals it conducts.
Generally speaking, it would seem that the British are quite happy to acknowledge the existence of the Christian Church and its churches, even use them at certain times to fulfil their rites of passage into or out of British society. Otherwise they seem to have limited value and appeal, and certainly not in terms of attracting widespread personal commitment to and support of.
Perhaps a suitable expression of this dichotomy is to be found in the distinction I became aware of as a theological student – more years ago than I care to remember. That is, the distinction between the “pastoral” and “prophetic” functions of the Christian Church. The former refers to the caring, nurturing, parenting and educating roles of the Christian churches – essentially relating to those within the Church or who identify with the parish or local church. The latter speaks of the Christian Church’s mission in the world, its “outside” work – evangelism, work for social justice, peace and human well-being.
The pastoral church is the place to go to when a comforting word or an inspirational piece of music is wanted; when a calm and peaceful place is required; where the solace of ritual and a culture of acceptance to be experienced; where the recognised rites of passage of British society can be carried out. This is a natural and acceptable desire of the human being. Bob Geldof and his family and friends would have realised the value of such experience, as did my family and friends two years ago as I led the funeral service of my mother.
The prophetic church is another matter. This is the hard place of challenge and response, the domain of uncertainty and pain, the land of much work for little reward except that of knowing the works needs to be done in what is often a warlike culture – still exemplified in the life and work of the Salvation Army (a Christian institution for which I retain a special feeling, having been born in a SA nursing home and dedicated under the SA flag in Glasgow, Scotland – though never becoming a militant member of the SA ranks, despite experiencing the romance of the organisation in my early 20’s).
It is often thought that the prophetic church is the particular responsibility of those ordained for the task of mission, rather than the combined work of the whole Church. This is a mistaken notion. The Christian Church is true to itself only when those committedly attached to it realise both functions.
If beliefs are to be genuinely believed, if ethics are to be honestly appropriated, then both beliefs and ethics are to be given a loud voice and a practical application both within the Christian Church and in the world outside of the doors of the Christian churches. It is simply not enough for the people of the UK to collectively identify as a “Christian nation”. Appropriate actions must qualify appealing words, at both individual and institutional levels.
Evidentially, there are many people in the UK who are quite accepting of the pastoral life of the Church. It is safe and secure, continuous and dependable. This situation is understandable and generally acceptable to both sacred and secular societies within the nation. However, there would appear to be far more persons who would gag at the thought of taking on the roles and responsibilities of the prophetic Church. It is this fact, amongst others, that needs to be fed into the current debate as to whether or not the UK is a “Christian” nation.
The history of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland, indeed, the whole of the British Isles, may have been decisively shaped by Christianity, but that does not make the UK a contemporary Christian country. The facts need to speak for themselves without fantasy being allowed to skew the debate.