29 Apr

Christian? What does that mean?

As posted on The Northern Echo 22nd April 2014

GK CHESTERTON said: “The secret of being a successful journalist is to write one article for the Church Times and another article for The Horseracing Times, address them to the respective editors, then put them in the wrong envelopes.”

Perhaps David Cameron had this advice in mind when he went into print over Easter?

At least he has written a piece for Church Times, but we have yet to wait for his foray into racing tips. Unlike Tony Blair’s government, which, according to Alastair Campbell, “doesn’t do God”, Dave has described himself as “a fairly typical member of the Church of England” – by which he means enthusiastic about good works and community involvement, but more reticent and doubtful when it comes to church dogma.

He wrote: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and frankly more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”

So far so good. But I was surprised to see his use of the word “evangelical”.

I was brought up as an evangelical and I have enjoyed the friendship of evangelicals all my life, so I know what evangelicals stand for. Here are some fundamental beliefs shared by all evangelicals: they all believe that good works are not enough, because we are all sinners and we are justified only by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Moreover, this is not gentle Jesus, the Labour member for Galilee South. This is, according to evangelical Christians, Christ who was born of a virgin and rose from the dead.

Evangelicals also believe in the Ten Commandments and that marriage is exclusively a relationship between a man and a woman.

Mr Cameron, by his words and actions, has made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t believe those things. He is like so many thoroughly decent human beings who believe in doing their best, being generally kind and helpful.

This is admirable. But it is not Christianity.

His views are very common. So many liverymen and businessmen in the City of London have told me that, while they don’t actually believe that Christian dogma is true, they regard Christianity as useful in promoting charity and social order. That is pretty much what Mr Cameron believes too.

TS Eliot puts it well: “To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation for morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christian dogma is a very dangerous inversion. It is not enthusiasm but dogma that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” Now there are a lot of good-hearted people – many of them kinder and more generous than some Christians – who just can’t bring themselves to believe in the Virgin Birth, the atoning death of Christ, the resurrection from the dead, the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion. Fair enough.

They are good people, but not, by any contortions of the English language, Christians.

Mr Cameron believes in the social gospel, the necessity for good works. So he is happy, as he says, to regard the churches as “partners” and to say that in the end Christians and the rest of the British “have a lot in common”. He speaks perhaps more truly than he knows. Because over the past 50 years, most of those who lead the Church have stopped believing traditional Christian doctrines too.