This is a strange and poignant day, and traditionally in this country a quiet one. It is some years since for many Good Friday became a ‘normal’ shopping day, and, advocate as I normally am for healthy economic activity, I do think it is a matter of regret that it is now much harder to ‘feel’ the difference between Good Friday and any other holiday day.
Having said that, there have been some welcome positive contributions in the media on the theme of Christianity, in particular from the Prime Minister. He wrote a widely reported article for the Church Times (http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2014/17-april/comment/opinion/my-faith-in-the-church-of-england) which talks in warm terms about the role and contribution of the Church and Christianity not just to society but to the lives of believers, even those who might consider themselves to be less than ardent Christians. Despite the sometimes strained relationship between the churches and the government of late, it is encouraging to see this recognition of the contribution of faith to our national and individual lives.
The article particularly makes reference to our need to be “more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations”, and given the importance of the churches, and the Church of England in particular, in providing education, and the contribution of people of faith to it, one must assume that this means a continued encouragement for the involvement of the Church in the sponsoring and running of schools. Indeed, later in the article, David Cameron notes that “my children benefit from the work of a superb team in an excellent Church of England school”, as will of course Michael Gove’s daughter in September.
Welcome as the Prime Minister’s article is, I cannot help remarking that it is very focused, perhaps understandably from a politician, on the altruistic values and virtues which Christian faith inspires: “responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility”. Nothing wrong with any of those, of course. However, I would want to say, on Good Friday above all days, that one needs to go deeper than this in an appreciation of what Christianity actually is. The source of that self-giving altruism which makes such an important contribution is, of course, a faith in a living and self-giving God. Awkward and un-English as it may seem to talk about such things, without that faith at its heart, Christianity becomes a kind of ‘Christianity-lite’, a set of worthy principles, but without a reference point, without a well-spring.
David Cameron notes that he is not one for “doctrinal purity” and says that those who are not Christians can lead moral lives (and one might add those who are can, sometimes, lead very immoral lives). However, I would want to say that even in our apparently secular age, the ‘modern’ values on which our Western civilisation is built – equality, the dignity of each person, the value of each human life – we owe directly to the Christian message of the ‘lovableness’ of every person, however errant, by God. The ancient societies into which Christianity was born held no such view, and arguably it took the best part of two millennia, with lots of backslidings along the way, for that insight to mature and to suffuse our civilization. There is no guarantee we would have got there without Christianity. Christianity is, in one way at least, in our social DNA, like it or not.
However, that source of all we value and take for granted in our enlightened Western civilization is fragile. Without the anchor point which Christian faith provides, I think there is a real danger of what I would call ‘values drift’, and such a drift would take us into dangerous territory. We already see glimpses of it on issues to do with the value of each human life.
So a resounding ‘yes’ to the Prime Minister’s welcome for the role of Christianity and the churches in our national, local and individual lives, and a welcome to his call for us to be more confident in our Christian identity. But we need also a reminder that what he refers to as the “more difficult parts of the faith” – which perhaps include the really very ‘difficult’ events of the first Good Friday – are the heart of Christianity from which the values, virtues and good works spring, and the reference point for our collective morality. We ignore them at our peril.