In the surreal world in which we live, where a republican Marxist could be Prime Minister and Donald Trump could be president of the US, I guess that nothing should surprise me. But this one comes straight out of the Monty Python book of ironic surrealist history. The government wants to send me back to school, to learn their version of theology and ensure that I am not an extremist!
I spent seven years training to become a Free Church minister. And that was only the beginning. I have been on numerous 'refresher' courses, taken sabbaticals and of course I read and train continuously. So in one sense being told that I could be required to receive 'special training', is not particularly alarming. Except for who it is that is doing the training.
The government are concerned about Muslim extremists and so, in order to combat this, they want to promote and protect 'British values'. To achieve this aim they are proposing to establish a national register of 'faith leaders'. These faith leaders will receive special training and special security checks. Any faith leaders who want to be involved in the public sphere (basically all of us) will have to be on this register. This is the British government's great strategy for countering extremism. What's wrong with it?
1. It's taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The danger comes from Muslim extremists. No other group. We are not under threat from Buddhists burning themselves in the street, or Baptists wanting to drown all heretics, or Bishops setting out on a crusade through the leafy suburbs of Surrey. The problem is a form of literalist Islam that seeks to bring about the Caliphate by attacking and destroying the perceived enemy of Islam, the West. The government knows this but because they operate on the myth that all religions are the same and therefore should all be treated the same, they don't want to be seen distinguishing the Catholic Church from ISIS. So in order to get to their real target (Islamic extremism) they have to target everyone. It's a cowardly, ignorant and self-defeating way of operating.
2. It's totalitarian and wide open to abuse. Government control of religion is as bad as, if not worse than, religious control of the government. Politicians being politicians, they will face the temptation of both trying to control the church and other religious organisations, and of seeking to use them to control. Being in charge of the 'opiate' of the people is a powerful aphrodisiac! The government's inability to distinguish between those who fly planes into buildings in the name of their God, and those who oppose government policy on marriage, is somewhat disturbing.
3. It's self-contradictory. In order to protect British values they are going against British values. Once the government decides that it is responsible for theology then we have entered an Erastian state. A theocratic state is where the church/mosque/temple runs the state. An Erastian state is where the state runs the Church. The British constitution has been based upon recognition that church and state are interlinked but not synonymous. For me this is a fundamental principle.
I am moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. We are called that because in the early 19th century the British government, worried about 'extremists' calling for democratic freedom, were upset by the evangelicals in the Church of Scotland who argued that each local congregation should be free to call their own minister. The government argued that local landlords, or the State, had the right to appoint ministers. And so 400 ministers and one third of the people left the national establishment Church of Scotland, and formed the Church of Scotland, Free from state interference. For us the spiritual independence of the Church, and the headship of Jesus Christ means that the government of the church is, in the words our ordination vows, "distinct from, and not subordinate to, civil government and that the Civil Magistrate does not possess jurisdiction or authoritative control over the regulation of the affairs of Christ's church". The current government proposal is a direct attack on the spiritual independence and freedom of the Church of Christ.
The sad thing is that in many ways this is also unnecessary because in media such as the BBC, in universities and education and in politics and political appointments, those who do not buy into the philosophy of the liberal elites, are likely to be excluded anyway. It's ironic that in a society where diversity is supposed to be a value, those who hold diverse views are de facto excluded. The government's latest announcement simply means that what was an unwritten policy, has become a written one. Welcome to the world of 1984 (30 years late), where religion must have a government approved stamp, and ministers of Jesus Christ, must bow to the Prime Minister and his minister's version of what Christianity should be. O Brave New World.
David Robertson is Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland