How does a local church in the centre of Islington handle politics?
This weekend, Prime Minister David Cameron made a significant speech about the relationship between faith and the political world. The speech was given as part of the 400th anniversary celebrations of the King James Bible at Christ Church, Oxford, and it attracted a lot of attention in the press for its boldness. Mr Cameron celebrated the role of the King James Bible in bequeathing us a body of vivid language, in forming the basis of democratic politics and in making this a Christian country. In expanding these points, the Prime Minister extended his argument for a positive impact on our country from one particular version to the Bible itself, and to the Christian faith.
Some will find his examples rather selective and, as he admitted himself, he is hardly offering a theology of politics. However, there's no denying that the speech is stimulating and the effect is to re-kindle debates about the role of faith in contemporary society. Not long ago, it wasn't uncommon to hear that religion is, or should be, a private matter. It was widely thought a little indecent to bring one's opinions about religion into the public sphere. But of course, faith is much more than private opinion about anything.
In office, the last two Prime Ministers let it be known that they were Christians, despite Alastair Campbell's insistence that, "We don't do God."
Now David Cameron says of his faith,"I am a committed - but I have to say vaguely practising - Church of England Christian, who will stand up for the values and principles of my faith… but who is full of doubts and, like many, constantly grappling with the difficult questions when it comes to some of the big theological issues."
"Committed" and "vaguely practising" is a peculiar combination! But on the point about the role of the church in the political arena, he was very clear: "I have never really understood the argument some people make about the church not getting involved in politics. To me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church and the Bible are all inherently involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions."
In the heart of the inner London borough which has a considerable reputation for its politics, this is a welcome statement for us. Members of St Mary's are interested in politics and many of them are active in political parties at a local and national level. There's an appetite in our church for understanding how our faith relates to the world in which we live. We read the Bible carefully and with the expectation it speaks to us today (though we don't often use the King James Version) which is why we can't really avoid political issues at St Mary's. Nor should we.
The way that wealth is created and used, the responsibilities we have for the care of the planet and each other, the framing of laws and the moral understandings that underpin them, decisions about education, health and social justice should all be informed by the Biblical worldview and Jesus' radical teaching about the Kingdom of God. The plight of the poorest and most disadvantaged is a clear concern for the God of the King James Bible (and every Bible). We believe that attending to these things is in the interest of a more just and healthy society, not just for Christians but for everyone.
We're glad that some of our church members are involved in party politics. Local activists, councillors, Assembly Representatives and Members of Parliament of all mainstream parties deserve our interest and our prayers.
We'll never align our church with one political party - there are genuine Christians in all the main parties - and we'll never allow St Mary's to be lazily identified as belonging to one political tribe. We'll continue to relate the Bible's message to the world in which we live. Sometimes the application of the Christian faith to an area of life is controversial and we may disagree from time to time. But St Mary's is a place of wonderful tolerance, grace and generosity, so we're not afraid to explore the things that could challenge our thinking. Our country, borough and parish face difficult choices in the years to come and we're glad that at least some of those who campaign for power or hold it in our name are active, believing, thoughtful Christians. Let's help and encourage them in serving in the best possible way.