I have been criss-crossing the country on Wycliffe business recently. As I was waiting for my train wandering around one of our fine cities the other day the “illiberality of a liberal nation” struck me forcefully! All over the city centre there was posted dire warnings of the penalties of dropping your cigarette butt on the ground, or failing to put your litter in the bin. Lined up outside every public building, in pouring rain I hasten to add, were clusters of smokers having a quick puff before they lurched back inside. On the train on the way back I read a couple of articles in a magazine which seemed to reinforce this: One concerned a campaign to ban smoking in the street; the other was from a columnist who appeared to agree with those who were banning children from Church weddings on the grounds that they might cause a disruption.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Smoking is a filthy habit and passive smoking is dangerous to asthmatics like me. And our filthy streets certainly need a clean up. And screaming children in the middle of a wedding service can be irritating. But at what point does a liberal society say to a litigious government and local council: “butt out”! Because as the government seems to stray further and further into the area of legislating against civil liberties, it at the same time is the most liberal in its attitudes towards church and family life. Yes, there is the civil partnership act. But this “liberal” attitude has chipped away at the bedrock of a healthy society by privileging anyone but married couples bringing up children in lifelong monogamy. And it seems to afford clergy of the Church of England little freedom to do their job in seeking to be the conscience of the nation.
It is a worrying trend that has repeated itself in degrading societies down the ages. The open minded-ness of liberal thinking knows that it has no real power to change people’s hearts and lives. The result is that a whole raft of rules and regulations are thrown at the society in a perverse attempt to allow the freedom which they claim. The street preacher is arrested and forbidden to preach in the town square. But the thief is no longer put in jail but is fined (not that I think that the latter is necessarily a bad way of dealing with this crime).
It is this cultural drift which has wafted into the Church of England. We want to exist in the nation; for the nation. But as DL Moody once pointed out: the place for the ship is in the sea, but woe-betide the ship into which the sea gets!
John Richardson makes a similar point in this regard in his recent blog about the Church of England (http://ugleyvicar.blogspot.com/2008/07/reasons-to-be-cheerful-maybe.html). He points out that the Clergy Discipline Measure has produced legislation which is hot on dealing with issues of straying over diocesan boundaries, operating without proper ecclesiastical authority etc. The result is a document which is giving registrars and diocesan bishops quite a headache up and down the land. Yet, the CDM never completed its task and produced a Clergy Discipline (Doctrine) Measure presumably because we live in a denomination (infected by the society) which is unable, and probably thinks it is unbecoming, to interfere in private and personal beliefs. One noticeable trend in recent years is that the General Synod Reports have been rather more robust in their theological thinking than 20 years ago (including Some Issues in Human Sexuality), but this has had little or no impact on what actually happens when it comes to the conduct of some clergy and some bishops on the ground.
John Stott warned (see later blog for this full text) that Conservatives have a tendency to be biblical but not relevant. Liberals have a tendency to be relevant but not biblical. The transformation of our culture will surely only happen if we are listening to the Word of God and allowing it to transform our thinking (Hence, Romans 12:1f metamorphe) and allow it to rigorously transform Church and Nation. The only way to stem the tide of illiberality in the Church and nation is not by increasing litigation, but rather by humbly sitting under God’s word and allowing the full implications to seep into Church and land.