In the West the place of faith in the public square is still, just, contested. For many, of course, there is no doubt. Often unaware that they are taking on a position which is, itself, ideological, they state as though it is a matter of uncontested fact that the place for religion is in ‘private’. If someone were to say to them that their left-of-centre liberal secularism was something to be left at the door when they went about their daily business, they would be offended – and rightly so; how can a person’s core beliefs be separated from their daily actions? Yet, ironically, it is precisely that which they ask of people with religious faith.
The terms in which such people often discuss faith suggests that their understanding of what it is they are objecting to is minimal. The liberal use of terms such as ‘sky fairy’ and ‘imaginary friends’ is, if they but knew it, language which simply exposes a level of ignorance of which, applied to any other field, the user would be ashamed. Their one excuse might be that to listen to some of the loudest voices in the public square, one might imagine that Christians believed in the atomised individualistic ethic which has come to dominated our politics in the West. The Church has not preached such an ethic.
From the earliest times Christians have lived in communities and formed communities. Salvation is for each of us, but the Church has never seen it as a purely individualistic process. Those who were brought to the faith by St Paul did not imitate our friend Bosco here, and say they were ‘saved’ and then move on as individuals, they lived as part of a community of ‘saints’. Until relatively modern times we lived in communities. Even in a country like England, where centralisation was an early development, and where London assumed a position of immense importance from medieval times, the local community was where most people experienced governance. The Church was a central part of such communities, not simply because it provided a place where life’s rites of passage were carried out, but also because it was the one place in villages and towns where people could meet as a group and where they could celebrate the ordinary every day causes for joy, as well as the more heavenly ones.
The forces of industrialisation, urbanisation and latterly modernisation, broke up those communities, creating larger ones where the rhythms of work were not attuned to those of nature, and where, increasingly, the norms by which people lived were questioned. All of this had a profoundly alienating effect on those subjected to it. Losing those daily interactions and that sense of the Church at the centre of things, we created instead first a State-dominated system, and then one on which individuals were supposed to find their own way to whatever the secular equivalent of salvation might be. Of the getting of ‘things’ there was to be no end. Through the accumulation of material wealth ‘happiness’ was supposed to come.
As we stand and look at the society thus created, there is clearly a profound sense of disillusionment and disappointment. Those of us who are Christians, far from leaving our faith at the door, are here to say that the roads down which we have travelled for so long as a society lead nowhere. Only through a rediscovery of the sense of community can we begin to prevent our polities dissolving. Identity politics, like class politics, is simply a distraction from what life is really for – which is recognise in each other the image of the living God, and as we pray for redemption and as we repent, to recognise that in order to do so, others need what we need – which is that sense of community St Paul’s churches possessed.