Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Light not Salt: Michael Nazir-Ali at Durham

The inaugural lecture of the Hensley Henson Lecture on The Church in Politics: Past, Present and Future took place on October 19 in Durham Cathedral and was addressed by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, retired diocesan of Rochester, whose interventions on marriage and the family, Christian-Muslim dialogue, homosexuality and multiculturalism have made him as controversial a figure as was Henson in his own day.

Bishop Michael opened with an account of how - while organizing meetings for Christians to raise issues of concern with parliamentary candidates during the 2010 election - he was informed by several clergy of his acquaintance that this was not an activity that they felt called by God to undertake. Such "pietistic fideism" however, Bishop Michael insisted, is simply not an option for Christians, nor can it be right simply to accept separation of the private and "sacred" from the  public and "secular." Coupled as these notions are with a post-Enlightment celebration of the individual - in the West at least - they run counter to the concept of covenant that underpins a Christian understanding of the moral (if not the civil and ceremonial) law, and it is from the moral law alone that it is possible to discern the common good.

The enduring significance of Matthew 22, vv.15-22, with its implicit separation of secular from sacred, must not be understood as a blanket injunction to deference to civil authority. The Reformation, even as it promoted a degree of distance between church and state, in no sense purported to silence the latter in the public arena. Moreover, there is a clear separation between, as Bishop Michael put it, between the "godly magistrate" of Romans 13 and the "beast" of Revelation 13.  The state necessarily forfeits its authority when forbidding what God commands, or, more concretely, commanding what God forbids (Henson, it might be noted, was an admirer of the Confessing Church under National Socialism).

The default position of the Church of England, Bishop Michael argued, has been to conform to the divine injunction to be "salt of the earth," a pastoral presence "working invisibly" through society. Yet this injunction is coupled with another urging Christians to be "lights of the world." If in the Middle East - and perhaps Africa and Asia also - there is a need for an emphasis on the dignity of the individual as against communal and social mores, in the West it is the bonds of family and community that stand most in need of renewal. Such renewal depends upon a commitment to be a light in the darkness that not only draws others to itself but also casts a light - not always welcome - upon policies, customs and behaviours that detract from the health of the community. Such a critique will - if correctly pursued - be holistic in character, free from political partisanship and conscious of the inevitable shortcomings of all human solutions to social disfunction. As Bishop Michael noted, invoking Richard Niebuhr, Christ is ultimately "above culture," since no temporal culture can exhaust the riches of the Gospel.