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19 December 2014

Evangelical identity and British values

Evangelical identity and British values

Identity is a funny thing. It's hugely important, yet often we take it for granted. It's unique to each one of us, yet we all have many identities.

I'm a father, a brother, a friend, English, a scouser, and an Everton supporter, to name but a few. These identities are like layers of an onion: each one more or less significant than another. The question is: what's at the irreducible core? Who are we when everything else has been stripped away?

In the years ahead, we can expect this question to come into sharp focus for evangelical Christians. That's because, alongside the daily claims on our allegiances by our consumer culture trying to sell us particular 'lifestyles', a public debate is now developing about 'British values'. Who we are as a nation – or nations – and what direction our society should go in is under the spotlight. Ordinarily, this kind of debate would provide an ideal opportunity to highlight the historical biblical roots of our national identity. In the UK, it's not hard to illustrate the value of Christianity to our language and our culture. The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta provides the latest example of such an opportunity. However, despite such appeals to history being legitimate, the latest British values debate is set to be far more challenging and complex than previous discussions about national identity. In recent years the context for the debate has changed dramatically. The goalposts have moved.

Rightly or wrongly, we have lived under the assumption that Britain is a Christian country for centuries. While constitutionally – in terms of the monarchy and the established Church – this assumption may still hold in a purely legal sense, the reality is that culturally our country is now far from Christian in its character. As we emerge from the failed secular experiment of the 20th century, our society is ever more diverse, individualistic and fragmented.

Whereas in the past it was the Church that gave us a vision for society and for the common good, now it's secular liberal elites in politics, the media and academia who are the primary shapers of our social ecology.

At the Evangelical Alliance, we encounter this new status quo in our public policy work in the parliaments and assemblies of the nations of the UK. Whereas once there was a default Christian viewpoint, there is now a default secularism in government and the media. Alongside this, there is widespread religious illiteracy in society – a lack of knowledge about the motivations and actions of people of faith. Yet paradoxically, the social contribution of Christians is increasingly valued and needed at this time.

All of this presents the Church with a number of important tasks: defending the freedom for the gospel and expressions of authentic Christianity; challenging ideas about a sacred/secular divide that sees faith as a private pursuit; educating the government and the media about the vital role of faith in public life; exposing the myth of secular neutrality and providing public leadership, both locally and nationally. The advocacy team at the Alliance is committed to pursuing these tasks as a matter of urgency – not least because the recent redefinition, or privatisation, of marriage has ushered in a completely different statutory understanding of human nature and society: a new social orthodoxy. In the years ahead, as the state becomes increasingly set against all those with traditional Christian views of sexuality and marriage, our understanding of 'British values' will be challenged. In the absence of any reasonable accommodation, in education, employment and welfare, we can expect the state to legally – directly – and coercively – indirectly – push against any identities that express dissenting views.

How will our evangelical identity fare under these pressures? Will we acquiesce and compromise? Or will we opt-out and pursue piety? Will we stand and speak with courage and hope for a distinctively biblical way of life?

Although this is a challenging context, perhaps we should be thankful for the opportunity to affirm what is at the core of our identities and to witness a distinctive, counter-cultural faith. In Hebrews 12, Paul describes the qualities needed to prosper under pressure. He teaches that everything that's not of the Kingdom will be shaken. Consequently, the degree to which evangelicals identify as being British should probably be in accordance with the degree to which British values reflect the values of the Kingdom.

In the years ahead, it will be important that strong foundations are in place for our identity as Christians. We will need to watch our life and doctrine closely. And we will need to know who we are in Christ and who Christ is in us.

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