On Christian Liberty

Sunday 17th February 2008
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
John 3:1-17

If Nicodemus had been spotted sneaking out of Jesus' house by the press pack in the middle of the night, all hell would have broken loose. There would have been calls for his immediate resignation from the Sanhedrin for associating with Jesus because Nicodemus had three terrible faults: first, he was prepared to explore his faith and what it meant for society and salvation; secondly, he was prepared to be thoughtful rather than hasty in his judgments (John 7:50-53); and thirdly, he stuck to Jesus when things were at their worst (John 20:39-40).

Now I do not want to stretch the comparison too far but the Gospel reading on the deeply thoughtful private conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus comes at the end of a 10-day period in which our beloved Archbishop of Canterbury has been pilloried by our media for daring to explore his faith, for presuming to be thoughtful and, worst of all perhaps, for seeking to serve Jesus by serving non Christians. I am pleased to report that General Synod gave the Archbishop a standing ovation, save for those who have been calling for his resignation since his appointment.

Let me begin by outlining what the Archbishop said in his now famous lecture to some 1,000 lawyers: first, that there may be instances where the civil principle of one, totally uniform law, uniformly and universally applied, should be moderated where religious belief is concerned (such an instance is the permission for medical doctors to refuse to perform abortions); secondly, where such modifications are made, no person should thereby lose their general civil rights; and thirdly, any such accommodation should be very carefully considered and framed.

Now it seems to me that there are four issues here which require our immediate attention: first, how can professional journalists, particularly on so-called 'quality' newspapers and in the BBC, claim that they are incapable of understanding a lecture which I found it easy to understand; secondly if, as seems more likely, the Archbishop was deliberately misunderstood for the sake of 'a story', for audience figures and profit, what does that say about our media? Thirdly, if 'the story' is horror at rational discussion about Islam, what does that say about the role of our media in social cohesion; and, finally, if the media claims simply to reflect society, what does that say about society?

Considering first the honesty of the media. It's not enough to joke that we don't believe what we read in the papers. The media could not flourish if we did not consume it. There is no excuse. How many here wrote in protest to newspapers or broadcasters after the flagrant misrepresentation of the Archbishop? Did we say that we would cancel our subscriptions or refuse to watch the news, because of blatant lying? How many of us will take this action now?

Considering next the responsibility of the media. Our press and broadcasters have become routinely Islamophobic. We have to grant that most terrorists who threaten us currently come from an Islamic culture; but we would have been appalled if the media had treated Roman Catholics with routine hostility and misrepresentation during the IRA's military campaign.

Thirdly, we need to consider whether the root cause of media hostility to our Archbishop and Islam is not simply part of an aggressive atheism. The tone of much of the media coverage of the Archbishop's speech was hostile to the concept of religious groups having any say in the way that our law is formulated, that there is supposed to be a rational way of formulating a law quite independently of the lives and consciences of individuals and groups. In other words, these people want religion to be privatised, to be totally unconnected with what we do in the world; then, of course, if we divorced religion from behaviour we would be properly ridiculed.

I now want to come to the fourth point and the central issue which the Archbishop addressed in the context of Sharia Law. So far, as Christians we have not had too much of a problem with laws formulated as a rational response in our democracy to privilege and the arbitrary exercise of power. But over time we have begun to feel that there is a parting of the ways, particularly in the area of human sexuality: some of us are uncomfortable about legislation on divorce, abortion and the use of embryos in scientific research; and the pressure is bound to increase. We are facing a well intentioned but dangerous assault by secular legislators and the only way that we will be able to resist this for ourselves will be to recognise an equal right for others. In any case, on most issues the major faiths will agree. The most likely exception is the way that the role of women in society is regarded but, as the Archbishop noted in his lecture, no special concession to faith communities, or any other communities for that matter, can over-ride civic legislation on such issues as civil rights. It may be difficult for some of us in the established Church to accept, but our ability to secure rights of conscience under the law will depend not only on ecumenical dialogue but also on inter faith dialogue.

In the past few years we have seen a virulent atheistic attack on religion from such figures as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins; they have seen that the tide of post 'enlightenment' religious scepticism has turned, that society is not heading towards a uniform, totally utilitarian settlement. We need to recognise that it is not Anglicans who have turned the tide; it has been turned by Muslims brave enough and trusting enough to proclaim their faith in Christian lands and by Eastern European people whose religious observance is more meticulous than ours. We owe them gratitude not indifference nor hostility.

Finally, as part of our solidarity with other people of faith, we need to be brave. Whether or not the media leads society or reflects it, it is clear that those seeking exile, illegal and illegal immigrants and residents of the European Union have been lumped together in a hate campaign against foreigners and, indeed, many people of non UK origin who were born here, and some whose parents were born here. This mass of individuals, of many different religions and none, has in turn come under fire for not conforming to some idea of Britishness which might be summed up as: agnostic, shallow, selfish and white. In speaking to the lawyers, Archbishop Rowan took upon himself the mantle of an honorary black; he imagined the plight of less well placed brothers and sisters; he stood up for the outcast and the stranger. We who are white and comfortable, middle class and supposedly part of the establishment, are beginning to know what this is like. From now on, standing up for Jesus will be increasingly painful. The least we can do, for the sake of the oppressed and for ourselves as the oppressed in waiting, is to refuse to collude in our own downfall.