Saturday, April 25, 2009

St George - Fr Edward Dowler

The whole question of nationalism is one that has become rather more acute in recent years. On the one hand, many people now express concern that, in an era of globalisation, multiculturalism and immigration, we’re gradually losing a sense of English and indeed British identity. In the face of this, the Prime Minister and others have attempted to shore this up with a variety of initiatives and, more worryingly, extreme nationalist groups such as the BNP seem to have taken on a new and frightening impetus in recent years.

What should Christians think about these questions of national identity? Well, overriding all national loyalties for Christians must surely be our loyalty to the Kingdom of God. Our primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God and not to any particular nation state: ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’. However, that’s far from being the end of the story. As Jesus reminded his hearers when asked about whether taxes should be paid to Caesar, we have a duty to give to Caesar what is Caesar. For sure, this is a very limited amount compared with giving God what is due to God’s, but it’s still significant and important. Similarly, St Paul urges obedience to those in authority, and urges Christians above all to pray for those in authority. Christians have traditionally believed that, under normal circumstances, it is right to uphold the law; right to respect the state’s role in keeping the peace and providing the conditions in which we can live our lives in peace; right to contribute willingly in the social and political life of our city and our country, even though we know these are sometimes murky or ambivalent. ‘Given that social life is surrounded by such darkness,’ asks Augustine, ‘will the wise man take his seat on the judge’s bench, or will he not venture to do so?’ ‘Clearly, he will take his seat,’ he replies to his own question, ‘for the claims of human society, which he thinks it wicked to abandon, constrain him and draw him to this duty’.

Moreover, belonging to a national Church like the Church of England puts us in a particular relationship with the country. For clergy, particularly those serving in churches that have an important civic role, will often be called upon to celebrate the national identity of British life, to articulate what is good about it and to encourage a right sense of pride in our national heritage and institutions. These tasks should not be sniffed at, as I myself would once arrogantly have done. They offer invaluable opportunities to present to our fellow countrymen and women a sharply different and more hopeful vision of what membership of this country means to that, say, of the BNP.

The danger of being a national Church, visible at a number of points through history, is that is that we’ll lose our distinctiveness as Christians, and be co opted as an arm of the state; that we’ll only be valuable to the country only if we tell people only what they already know and have decided in advance that they are prepared to hear. A second century writer offered a compelling vision of how Christians might live in the countries where they happened to reside: a way that is not separatist and stand-offish, but which also, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, resists inflated nationalism. I finish with his words:
They do not dwell off somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor do they practice an extraordinary style of life... But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast...the constitution of their citizenship is nevertheless quite amazing and admittedly paradoxical. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners...every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland a foreign country.