To hear some Christians talk, it would appear the church in contemporary Britain is under attack from every side. If that is so, why the surprise?
Christianity began with a man under fire. So did the Baptist cause. Four hundred years ago the early British Baptists were suffering such persecution in Britain they fled to the more liberal Holland. They went in search of freedom and made a call for freedom for themselves and others, including, presciently, Muslims.
The yearning for freedom is dear to all Baptists who own the tradition from whence they came. “Let freedom ring” could be our denominational rallying cry.
Lest we betray that heritage, present-day Baptists must still proclaim and live that same cry. What is not easy is knowing exactly what that might mean in Britain today. The Equality Bill currently making its way through Parliament is arguably about freedom for people in what it calls “protected categories.”
They have to do with, for example, faith, belief, sexual orientation and gender. Some Christians apparently find that difficult. That is understandable because if individuals and groups truly have freedom, the public square will become a battle ground of conflicting views. Christians do not always like what they hear when others freely speak their minds.
Christian unease may be exacerbated by the fact that once, not long ago, Christianity was the dominant voice in British public life. It was at least taken very seriously, regarded as in some sense normative, if not unerringly followed.
The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in his recent Reith lectures addressed the issue of what place faith has in the public realm. He argued for the reintroduction of religious and spiritual perspectives to help shape public life. His implication was that religion, faith and spirituality are not taken as seriously as they might be.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of what such people are saying, it seems clear that Christianity is but one voice in the public sphere in Britain today. It is privileged by some, discounted by others. It seems unlikely that will change in the immediate future.
That means Christians need to learn to live with being in a land of many voices, and need to learn to speak as one among many.
Government must at least ensure space for that. Presumably such space is part of what the 18th century American Baptist minister John Leland had in mind when, on the basis of his belief in freedom, he argued for the first amendment to the United States’ Constitution, enshrining separation of church and state.
Interestingly, Leland argued for freedom for people of no faith as well as people of faith, as does the Equality Bill. Presumably the early British Baptists when they came home from Holland were also arguing the state should give space for them to live freely by the light given to them. Let freedom ring.
It would be difficult to argue Christians are entirely denied such space in Britain today. That does not mean there is not a need for vigilance; freedom is easier lost than gained.
There is a role here not only for government, however. There is a role for the church and for individual Christians. The role is to enter the lions’ den (if that is what it is), head to Jerusalem, mount the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaim “We have a dream.”
Such dreams, however, involve hard work, careful analysis, listening to the Spirit, and the envisioning of just what it is we want to do in the public realm we so wish was ours. There is work to be done if we wish to be heard.
Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and managing editor for ChristianToday.com. He served previously as the editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain.