Sunday, March 04, 2012

Reflecting on faith in a secular Lent

As it's the beginning of the month, I thought I'd post the lent reflection that  wrote for my church magazine.

Lent offers us an opportunity to reflect on our lives in the run-up to Easter in two ways. One is to reflect on our personal, individual walk with Jesus and the other is to ask how we can be a witness to our faith in the communities in which we live. They are, of course, intimately connected.

There has been much press interest in recent weeks over the place of the Christian faith in our society. Before Christmas, David Cameron asserted that Britain is a Christian country, even if his own faith is sometimes not as strong as he wished it was. Then in February there was an explosion of stories about whether militant secularism was on the rise; stories that often generated more heat than light.

So in Lent, as we reflect on the events at the heart of our faith – namely the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – it is a good time to ask what we think and feel about the place of the faith that matters so much to us in the wider society in which we live.

Baptists have something original to contribute to this debate because Baptists can be seen as the group that first called for a secular society – if by that we mean a society in which everyone is free to decide what they will believe. Thomas Helwys, one of the two founders of our movement, was the first Englishman (probably the first person anywhere) to call on the ruling powers to allow freedom of conscience in matters of religion.

As Baptist minister and theologian Alec Gilmore reminded us a couple of years ago: ‘For Helwys, religious liberty was a right for everyone - heretics, Turks and Jews, whoever they were, whatever they did; even for Roman Catholics, when the memory of the Gunpowder Plot was still acute. Anything less was a loss to the community, as well as to the individual. No parliament could legislate against it. No monarch could overrule it. He reminded James I that he too was a mortal, "dust and ashes" like the rest of us, with no power over the immortal souls of his subjects. James responded by putting him in prison, where he remained until his death.’

So while Baptists are delighted that anyone wants to be a follower of Jesus, we are also committed to allowing people not to be. The state has no role in deciding people’s faith. So Baptists have always been somewhat ambivalent about whether Britain is a ‘Christian’ society and have tended to side with the secularists, arguing that the state’s role is create a framework and atmosphere where all people are free to believe what they want to. So the followers of all religions and those who choose to follow no religion are welcome to participate fully as citizens.

Such a view means that Baptists are iffy about prayers and bishops in Parliament, about state funding for Christian schools and about giving Christian ethics pride of place in the moral debates of the day. Of course, when Helwys was writing there wasn’t a strong and vocal atheist movement; most English people were default Christians and Helwys’ case was most sharply about how the state should not determine what kind of Christian they should be.

We are invited into this debate in every generation. And perhaps in this Lent, it’s a good time for us to defend people’s right to follow Jesus and not to (if that’s what they choose).

But Lent is also a time to reflect on what kind of Christian we are going to be. If the trappings of state support for our faith are removed, then our faith has to stand on its own two legs – and those legs belong to every person who claims to be a follower of Jesus.

So here’s a story from the Celtic Christian tradition and a meditation to help our Lenten reflection. Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne, met a man on the road: ‘Are you a Christian,’ he asked him. ‘Of course I am,’ replied the man. ‘That’s good to hear’, said Aidan: ‘now, will you try to be a better one?’

To live rooted and grounded in Jesus
Is how to be a better Christian
To learn our faith
Is how to be a better Christian
To overflow with thankfulness for all God’s mercy
Is how to be a better Christian

It will not happen through
force of will,
following rules,
finding secret wisdom

It started in baptism
When we died and rose with Christ;
It continues in faith
As we walk with him

This Lent, will we reflect on our lives and seek through Cross and resurrection of Jesus, through the inspiration and in-filling of the Holy Spirit, to be those who radiate the glory of God to our friends and neighbours?

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