A Christian vision for being English

In an article entitled ‘Courageous and compassionate. In search of the English’ which was published in the Daily Telegraph on 7 August, the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, sets out what he calls ‘an expansive vision of what it means to be English as part of the UK.’

His vision for the future is for a ‘a more developed and strengthened regional government within England’  and for  English identity to be understood in terms of being part of ‘a courageous and compassionate community of communities, serving the common good, and delighting in our diversity across these islands.’

There have been a lot of reactions to this article, but none that I yet have seen have noted its exclusively secular tone, something that one might think rather surprising in an article by an Archbishop. What I mean by saying that its tone is secular is that there is no mention of God, or how the existence of human beings is related to God. As numerous commentators have pointed out, one of the striking things about Western culture is that it increasingly lacking in any kind of reference to God and the Archbishop’s article reflects this trend.

 A striking example is of this is the Archbishop’s summary of the Christian vision ‘which is the bedrock of our cultural, ethical and political life.’ According to the Archbishop this vision, as taught by Jesus, is about ‘loving your neighbour as yourself.’ The problem with this summary of the Christian vision is that it is misleading because it truncates Jesus’ teaching by leaving out Jesus’ reference to loving God.

In Matthew’s Gospel the full account of what Jesus said runs as follows:

‘But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together.  And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:34-40)

As Peter Leithart explains in his commentary on Matthew, in his answer to the Pharisee’s question:

‘Jesus does not just say that we should make God the highest object of our love, loyalty, obedience, fear, devotion. He does not treat God as just one more thing that we should love, just love it a bit more. Jesus says that we should love God in a way that appears to leave no room for love of anything else. We should love Yahweh with all heart, all soul, all mind.’

However:

‘ That is not the end of Jesus’ answer. It cannot be. If loving God means walking in His statutes and keeping His commandments, then other commandments come to the fore. Loving God with all we have requires us to love other things, other persons. Loving God with our whole heart and soul and mind means listening to Him, and He tells us we have to love our neighbours, too. What looks like an exclusive one-on-one devotion to God opens up into relations with others. Love for God expresses itself in devotion to our neighbours. Love for the God of the Bible includes love for all that this God loves.’

The Christian vision therefore is love for neighbour flowing from an antecedent all encompassing love for God. Historically, this is the vision which the Christian Church has taught the English people for as long as there has been an English nation, and this is the vision by which the English people as a whole have accepted they ought to live, however much they may have failed to live it out in practice.

Today, however, many people in England, as elsewhere, would question why they should love God. ‘What has God ever done for me?’ they ask. The answer to this question is provided by the prayer of ‘General Thanksgiving’ contained in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, which runs as follows:

‘We bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips but also with our lives; by giving ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days…’

What this prayer tells us is that what God has done for us is to create us in the first place (our creation), keep us in existence (preservation) bestow upon us all the good things we enjoy (all the blessings of this life) , rescue us through Jesus Christ from the power of sin and death (redemption) , provide us with the means by which Jesus’ saving work becomes effective in our lives (the means of grace) , and give us the hope of living joyfully with God for ever in the world to come (the hope of glory).

If that is what God has done for us it is obviously right that we should be ‘unfeignedly’ (genuinely) thankful to him, just as it is be right to be genuinely thankful to our fellow human beings for the good things they do for us. Furthermore, because what God has done for us encompasses every aspect oof our existence, both in this and in the world to come, it follows that our thankful response to God should be equally all encompassing. Hence the commands to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbours as the expression of our love for God.

If this is the Christian vision for what it means to be human, it must also be the Christian vision for what it means to be English. As a result, the Archbishop’s picture of what it means to be English requires revision in two ways.

First it needs to contain a revised account of what the Church is called to do.

When the Archbishop writes about the role of the Church he writes about ‘foodbanks, debt relief, youth work, shelters for the homeless and all the other ways the local church works with others to make a difference.’ These are indeed important aspects of the Church’s work. They are ways in which the Church obeys God’s command to love our neighbours. However, the Church is called to do more than this. Its fundamental reason for existence is to do what no other institution can do, namely, to enable people learn to love God and receive the new life that he offers both in this world and  in the world to come.

Secondly, it needs to contain a revised vision of English identity in which God is central.

This needs to say that Englishness needs to be about  being ‘a courageous and compassionate community of communities, in which love for God and love for neighbour in obedience to God is the driving and unifying purpose of our common life, and in which we take delight in the ethnic and cultural diversity which God has created in these islands.’

It is this kind of Christian vision which our nation needs and not the watered down secular version that the Archbishop’s article offers in its present form.