Sunday, 4 May 2014

Easter 3: Is England a Christian country?

Is England a Christian country? A topic of some recent debate. Apparently, some people consider the very suggestion "offensive." Then, some people find the suggestion that England is a monarchy offensive, too, but like it or not, their sense of offence doesn't alter the fact that it is so. For my part, I don't quite recall when the British electorate voted to change our nation from a self-ruling Christian monarchy into the multicultural vassal state of a secular Europe, but then, my memory is notoriously poor. Of course, we have an established Christian church, but detractors say that it is so only in a "narrow, constitutional sense." Again, the parallel with the monarchy comes in: one might say we are a monarchy only in a narrow, constitutional sense. The reality of the Church is that only a minority associate themselves with it, and the reality of the state is that the monarchy is a figurehead with no real power. Power is of the people, and the people by and large aren't practising Christians. So, we are not really a Christian country, and not really a monarchy, either: we may be so in law, but not in reality, in principle, but not in practice. So the argument goes.

I suppose it's partly a question of how you see things. Do you see things in terms of principle, of ideology, of transcendent ideas, or is this all too airy-fairy? Should we not be more commonsensical, everyday, practical, down-to-earth? After all, we are a Christian country only in terms of our constitution as a nation, and that is a constitution which is not even written down, but is tied in with the Crown as head of state. It seems quite a long way off from life down here on the ground. Things look rather different from below than they do from above. So like I say, maybe it's a question of how you see them.

Seeing is a key feature of today's Gospel. Or rather, eyes are. Jesus walked alongside the disciples along the Emmaus Road, but "their eyes were kept from recognising Him." He reveals the Scriptures to them, but still they do not know Him until, at the end of the story, He takes, blesses, breaks and gives them bread. "Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him;" but as soon as they saw Him truly, Luke tells us, "He vanished from their sight." So the Gospel starts with the disciples' eyes being prevented from seeing Jesus, and opened to true vision only when He makes Himself known in the breaking of the bread.

I've been reading Dostoevsky's "Karamasov Brothers" recently for the first time, I'm ashamed to say, and some words from the fictitious homily of a dying monk struck me as particularly pertinent to this theme of seeing and unseeing:

"Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world ... if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it."

You see, Jesus can appear to His disciples in the flesh, talk to them about the Scriptures until the cows come home, but it's only in that ritual action of breaking the bread that He opens their eyes to the reality of who He is. Even standing among them and taking to them, He is concealed from their sight, hidden; but in breaking bread, He makes that connexion to His death and Resurrection, that bond to something beyond everything we can merely see but which somehow, nonetheless, we can sense with the eyes of the spirit.

And I truly believe that there is that sense. I am sure I have felt it and many if not all of you have, too. A sense of something beyond all being, something greater than anything we can normally perceive: perhaps you sense it in works of great art, or music, or natural beauty. It's there most fundamentally in the Eucharist: after we've exhausted our means of prayer - confessing our sins, hearing the Scriptures, making our intercessions - in the end, it is in that wordless action of receiving bread and wine that we get the fullest, unspeakable sense of God's love being shared among us and between us, that moment when Christ dwells in us and we in Him, in unity. That's the sense I think Dostoevsky is talking about.

But what happens if we lose that sense of God in life? If we lose the sense that there is anything beyond what we can see with our own two eyes? Dostoevsky's monk says we become indifferent to life, maybe even start to hate it. And I think that's right.

Apply it more widely, not just to us as individuals, but to us as a society, a nation, and I think that's exactly what's happening when people take offence at the notion of being a "Christian country." I think it's what's happening when we deny that our earthly Kingdom has a mystical bond to the unseen Kingdom of God. The ideology behind the Crown is that the monarch, anointed by the Church, represents one single aim for both Church and State, and that aim is the life of the heavenly Kingdom. What the actual king or queen is like is not so important: it's the principle of the matter, that just as Christ is the cornerstone of all existence, so the Crown is meant to represent Him as cornerstone of our nation.

Maybe this is just a narrow, constitutional concern, just ideology, without any underpinning in reality. Maybe I'm a dreamer. But it is an ideology that says, among other things, that all people are equal in the eyes of God, that we are to see each other with God's eyes and so see that every person is our brother or sister in Christ, that we are to serve one another as He served us in the breaking of the bread and by His death on the Cross. Take that ideology away, and politics becomes little more than an argument over how best to redistribute wealth. Secularists may mock the Christian dream, but they have yet to show us a just order built up by themselves without Christ. So which is the pipe-dream, the idle fantasy: their vision, or ours?

 You must make your choice. Be sure to make it with your eyes wide open.

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