On Monday 17th October there was a book launch for “Christianity and the New Social Order” of which I am one of the three authors, in the UK Houses of Parliament, in one of the committee rooms of the House of Lords. If that is not a “mixing” of theology and politics I am not sure what is! One of the people present, however, asked exactly how faith was involved in this when the conclusions of the book refer to seven guidelines for shaping the country which could have been written by any slightly left-of-centre politician or commentator. My colleague who writes extensively in the book on the contribution of religion to human wellbeing as reported by empirical research, answered along those lines. Apparently our presence right at the heart of the seat of power, and the fact that 3 members of the House of Lords were in attendance, plus one Member of Parliament – note that NO UK bishops turned up – was not, in itself enough. This raises the issue, as mentioned by one responder to my first blog, of how explicit we have to be in order to “keep the faith” in public life. I would argue that physical presence is itself a witness, as is our capacity (our lack of it) to engage others beyond theological circles in current debates.
So the “mix” of people at that event was itself significant. Amongst those present, apart from the politicians, were members of London based theological think tanks, representatives of other denominations, members of the press, and two parishioners of mine who had taken time out to travel down to London to listen and support. Neither of them is a committed churchgoer and one is an avowed atheist. Why were they there? As one of them said, the church as an institution with a public presence, has the opportunity to make a contribution to these debates at a national and international level, and that is what we should be doing. One does not have to share the faith commitment to acknowledge that religion has something of value to offer to the wider society. The other person later had a challenging discussion centered on his view that the Church of England – to him as an outsider – is spending far too much time debating the issue of women bishops, when it ought to be engaged in political and social issues. This was disputed by a feminist colleague who argued that the church needed to get its own house in order before it could have a credible voice in the outside world. This, again, from someone who is not a member of any faith community.
What I think is important here is that these encounters and the ensuing discussions are themselves a major contribution to “mixing” theology and politics. Nobody had to mention God – but presumably God does not need to us to keep doing that in order to be “present”? But both the fact of the conversations and the quality of them represent the sort of engagement that is required if faith is to make a contribution beyond the confines of its own institutional boundaries. The launch had created a space, both physical and intellectual, within which dialogue could occur and new thinking begin to take shape. Another possible outcome of the event might be a gathering of theologians and senior members of the UK banking profession to discuss “ethics and banking” – an interesting and challenging prospect also. When the environment in which we are now operating is often hostile to and suspicious of religious people, just being there in the midst and in the mix and to be treated with respect and as if others believe we have something positive to offer, seems to me to be a faithful witness. Maintaining a “faithful presence” has much to be said for it.