I was told yesterday an amusing anecdote relating to Robert Runcie, the last-but-three Archbishop of Canterbury. Following a Lenten service somewhere or other, he asked people in the congregation what they had given up for Lent. He was met in the main with predictable responses about alcohol and chocolate. One man, however, said he couldn’t reveal what he had given up. “You needn’t be shy”, said Archbishop Robert, kindly, “I’m a priest.” “Well”, said the man, hesitantly, “to be candid, I’ve given up masturbation.” Runcie paused momentarily, then smiled. “In which case”, he replied, “Easter is going to be fun!”
But my favourite quote is this (which I heard him say in a TV interview): “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks, and a source of perpetual embarrassment to the English.” Perhaps the reason I remember this adaptation of St Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth (1 Cor 1:23) is that it captures something of how the English relate to the Gospel, and their supposed tendency to suppress its less comfortable aspects.
I am reminded of this in the context of David Cameron’s speech at the Downing Street Easter reception, in which he revealed something of his own relationship with Christianity. This has caused some to sneer, partly because they read in his words a crude attempt to curry electoral favour with Christians (which frankly strikes me as rather improbable); but mainly because of their slightly anodyne character. He speaks warmly about the Church’s social and pastoral work; he praises its priests and its schools, and he reveals something of his own (rather infrequent) religious practice. He does not mention Christ’s agony on the cross and its meaning. Not once.
His critics were quickly out of the blocks. In the red corner, no less a personage than the Reverend Giles Fraser; and in the blue, Tim Stanley, Telegraph journalist and blogger. Their contributions make some important points and are worth reading. Their gist is that Christianity isn’t just about being nice or “moral”, about helping people, about warm words. It’s about something horribly raw, something life-changing, something overwhelmingly, beautifully true. Of course I agree with them, and am myself impatient of the prissy bloodlessness that sometimes sanitises worship and dilutes witness in the interests of good taste. True Christian faith has dark as well as light, fast as well as feast, sorrow as well as joy – all of which must be faced and entered into by those who would follow Jesus.
And yet I suspect there are many for whom Cameron’s words will have struck a chord. Many who have an associational rather than participative relationship with the Church - who are not opposed to it, who in fact are quite supportive of it, but who are nervous of its perceived certainties, silly internal arguments and what Cameron calls (in a subsequent Church Times article) “doctrinal purity”. These are they who are grateful for the Church’s presence in times of grief and joy, for its benevolent presence in the community, and for the peace to be found, when necessary, in Larkin’s “serious house on serious earth”. I can see that these might well find the meaning of the Cross difficult to grasp. It is quite a journey.
Five years ago this month, I was present in St Paul’s cathedral when the Bishop of London hosted a panel discussion in the “margins” of the G20 conference. On the panel were Gordon Brown (then PM of course) and Kevin Rudd, at that time PM of Australia. Someone asked Mr Rudd to say something about his own faith. Describing himself as a “common or garden Christian”, he gave a simple yet eloquent account of the way in which the Gospel informed his own life and work. When Gordon Brown was asked the same question, he pointedly (and characteristically) avoided it, but referred approvingly to the so-called Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). This is, of course, not a uniquely Christian precept; but it was the nearest he could get to an expression of personal belief. I do not believe this was because he had bought into his predecessor’s idea of religion being toxic in a political context. I wondered, rather, if he had no conventional religious faith, or one that was weak and variable - but was just too hideously embarrassed to say anything that might reveal this.
No doubt full-on, full-blooded Christians will continue to look down on David Cameron’s “religion-lite” (G Fraser). And, as unrealistic as it may be, I would rather he had said something solid about Jesus and about his own discipleship. I would rather he went to church more often. But he has broken a taboo. The British Prime Minister has said something highly positive about religion, Christianity, the Church of England and his relationship to them. He has done so publicly and without embarrassment. We do seem to have moved on.