Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Petitions and taking on the establishment

Last night was the second of our three evenings at church reflecting on the big themes in Mark’s Gospel. We spent two hours looking at Jesus’ relationship the establishment, the likes of the Temple authorities, the Pharisees, the Herodians and Romans, all of whom were threatened by his presence and ministry, and all of whom formed the coalition which gathered to ensure his execution at Easter.

Reading through Mark again, it’s striking how polemic Jesus’ actions are when facing up to the ‘powers that be.’ There’s an attack on the Pharisees’ ‘human tradition’ which concludes an incitement to the gathered crowd who are told that ‘nothing outside a person... can defile’ (Mk 7:15). There’s the turning over of tables in the temple and an attempt to shut down the buying and selling of goods in its precincts (Mk 11:16).

It’s troubling to compare the practices of Jesus with that of so many of our own churches, especially within our Baptist tradition, where we seem to have lost so much of the edge of our protesting, non-conforming heritage.

And it’s also interesting to think about the current debate on the redefinition of marriage which is causing so much angst within the evangelical community. Lots of churches, including our own, have offered members the opportunity to sign the Coalition for Marriage’s petition voicing concern about the government’s planned changes. But what are we actually doing when we sign a document like this? Are we taking a prophetic stand, asserting our obedience to God and not the state? Or are we asking the state to stay on our side, making sure the establishment rules are still on our terms? Are we trying to have our cake and eat it?


  1. Clearly, in a “democracy” Christians don’t have a right to have laws made to suit us. We do have a right and indeed a responsibility to blow the trumpet of warning if God’s clear ordinances are being ignored, and especially if the result would be to the detriment of the poor, the needy and the unvoiced (for example, children). If we are against government proposals we need to be clear where the detriment is, and say so, and avoid responding only out of our own prejudices.

    It seems to me that the church has a problem being prophetic where it has allowed itself, its message, its principles and its lifestyle to be too far identified with those of society in general where for a time society has embraced some of the same agenda and we have been fellow travellers. For example, on marriage, if the current proposals were passed into law, the church may have to do something very radical if wants to keep a distinctive voice and maintain that heterosexual pair-bonds have a privileged place in God’s kingdom. In Germany, until recently, you had to be married in a Standesamt to have any status under the law of the land. A church service was an optional addition. Could there come a situation where to maintain a distinctive voice the church refused to carry out any marriages-in-the-eyes-of-the-state, and adopted a sort of German model – a bit like the difference between a birth certificate and a baptismal or dedication certificate? Would the church be willing to say stuff like “well if that’s what you mean by marriage, we don’t do that – we’ll have a separate ceremony before God according to our religious beliefs"? If we are not willing to contemplate separating our practice to that extent, how serious are we about being kingdom builders, or are we just being religious NIMBYs?

  2. There are instances where it has been "convenient" for the state to go along with the church and the church to go along with the state on a range of issues. However, increasingly the privilieged position that the church has held within the state is fast disappearing - see recent attacks on wearing signs of your faith, prayers before council meetings, calls for the removal of the Lords Spritual from the House of Lords, the debate on redefinition of marriage and other examples.

    Maybe the church needs to review its relationship with the state and be prepared to take a stand for God and against the state on issues that they may have gone along with together hand in hand for many years. Ultimately, the kingdom and the state are not compatible, having different motives, ideals and destinations.
    As John has already said are we serious about being kingdom builders; serious enough to stand against the law if it directly conflicts with kingdom ideals.

  3. All good points Ian... I sometimes wonder if the best solution to the whole marriage debate would be to have a system similar to that which operates in many countries on the Continent. Everyone has their legal wedding in a civic setting like a Registry Office and the church only blesses marriages.

    Of course, for that solution to really work, we’d need to have disestablishment of the CofE... the idea is becoming more attractive by the minute!