Britain 'a Christian nation': is Eric Pickles right?

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Eric Pickles said militant atheists should "get over" Britain being a Christian country

Militant atheists should accept that Britain remains "a Christian nation" and "get over it," according to government minister Eric Pickles.

The Communities Secretary has previously intervened to ensure local councils can't face legal challenges for having prayer in their meetings. Now, in a speech to Conservative Party members at their Spring Forum, he has gone further, saying: "I've stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish. Heaven forbid. We're a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don't impose your politically correct intolerance on others."

But is he right? Certainly the 2013 census revealed that 59% of British citizens describe themselves as "Christian". However, that figure is a fall of 13% in just a decade – and the proportion of the population worshipping each week is far less!

There is no doubt that society in the UK has moved a long way from Christian values. For example, when it comes to money, the culture of greed which has flourished since the 1980s is hard to describe as anything but idolatry.

Likewise, the decision to discard the centuries-old Christian tradition of having a Sabbath day for worship, rest and family and embrace Sunday trading is a major change.

The justice system, too, has departed from its Christian heritage. Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, has said judges should take an "essentially neutral view of religious beliefs". He declared: "Once upon a time, the perceived function of the judges was to promote virtue and discourage vice and immorality. I doubt one would now hear that from the judicial bench." And he added: "The last few years had seen the disappearance, in an increasingly secular and pluralistic society, of what until comparatively recently was in large measure a commonly accepted package of moral, ethical and religious values... Today, we live in a largely secular society."

Again, the recent adoption of gay marriage is a significant change from what only last week Archbishop Justin Welby described as the traditional and ongoing view of the Church of England that "sexual relations should be within marriage, and marriage is between a man and a woman".

So whether it is the world of finance or the weekly pattern of work and rest, the justice system or the prevailing morality, it is hard to describe Britain as in any way "a Christian country".

But while these changes may sadden us, they should not dishearten us. For although Christians have always taken a positive view of the idea of government in itself as a God-given concept for the good of humanity (Romans 13v1-4), the Christian faith can easily end up as a pale imitation of the real thing when it is officially adopted as a state religion or becomes part of the prevailing cultural worldview.

In such circumstances, for the majority of people, Christianity can all too easily end up being seen as a matter of external compliance with religious rules and norms – rather than as a challenge to genuine personal transformation. It becomes a matter of conforming to a Christianised culture – rather than a personal challenge to repent and believe the gospel.

Indeed, while "Christian" Britain may have had some advantages, it may also have inoculated many people against the real thing. After all, if all you've seen is a half-hearted formalised national faith, why would you want to try the genuine article?

In a post-Christian culture, authentic followers of Jesus Christ will be increasingly distinctive in their approach to money, time, morality and our ethics. And that can only be good.

David Baker

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