The latest data on whether the public considers the UK to be a 'Christian nation' doesn’t hold too many surprises. But I hope it can help us to think more deeply about what it really means to be a Christian.
The data, from a ComRes survey by the Faith Research Centre, showed that just 31% of young adults aged 18-24 considered Britain to be a Christian country, compared to 74% of those of pensionable age: 41% of the young adults thought Britain had no religious identity.
Whether or not you consider the UK to have a Christian identity depends somewhat on whether you consider the terms 'Christian' and 'British' to be compliments or to be pejorative. A militant atheist who considers the term Christian the same as 'narrow-minded bigot' is not likely to identify with it. So it’s not surprising to see that as atheism has become more popular in the younger generation, so has describing Britain as 'Christian'.
But for us who believe, is Britain really Christian? To my surprise, nearly three quarters of the people who defined themselves as Christian do still consider Britain to be a Christian country, according to the survey. (Interestingly, our last Prime Minister David Cameron falls into this category of someone who defines themselves as Christians and consider the nation to be Christian. And there's every reason to think Theresa May would say the same.)
It’s common to hear notions such as: "Yes! The UK is Christian country, because of its wonderful values of tolerance, compassion, freedom, democracy and human rights" or "No! The UK is not Christian, because of the terrible deeds of inequality, abortion, injustice, war, loose morals…" - though what is said to be good and bad seems often to be heavily influenced by a person’s politics.
But doesn’t this miss the point of what an identity in Christ really is?
The heart of the matter
Yes, many devout Christians played a role in the UK’s most important political reforms: Wilberforce’s campaign to end slavery, Lord Shaftesbury’s legislation to improve the lot of the mentally ill and child workers for example. Christian theology undoubtedly contributed something to the enshrining of concepts of freedom, law and justice in our system, and to some commonly held notions of morality. But do these things, good as they are, require the term 'Christian'? Do they produce a more 'Christian' nation?
Jesus often taught that what mattered was the state of your heart and the motivation, rather than the deed itself (though there’s no doubt he also considered deeds to be important). He saved his harshest words for those who appeared to be good: "You are like whitewashed tombs - beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Matthew 23:27-28).
His concern for the heart, rather than the outward appearance, seems very relevant when we’re thinking about what 'Christian' means.
For some, the British fight for legislative justice: for labour rights, for homes for refugees, to give more in welfare via higher taxes, to fight against the evils of Naziism, or to ban abortion, makes or made us more or less Christian. Yet Jesus wasn’t most concerned about what we told other people to do, or forced them to do via the law, but encouraged us to practice what we preach (Matthew 23:3-4).
For others, the UK is Christian because the Queen is head of the church and mentions God each year in a speech, that the House of Lords has Bishops, and privy councillors must swear "by Almighty God to be to be a true and faithful servant unto the Queen’s majesty", and other ceremonial traditions. Jesus didn’t value this kind of outward religious behaviour however, unless it came from the heart:
"These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God." (Mark 7:6-7, quoting Isaiah)
Actions done on behalf of a nation, such as social reform, justice in the courts, the acknowledgement of God by our politicians – you may think them good or bad, depending on your interpretation of the Bible and your politics. But are they 'Christian'?
Jesus’ advice was not to dress up the outside with pomp and ceremony, producing an appearance of righteousness, but to get the heart clean. "First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too," he said. (Matthew 23:26). He said it was the state of our heart that defiles us (Mark 7:15). So our spiritual condition is what matters – and when this is sorted, good deeds and physical and structural transformation should flow, according to John 15:1-17.
At the end of the fiery Matthew 23, Jesus points us to what would have produced this cleansing of the heart, as he laments over Jerusalem: "How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me." (Matthew 23:37)
If we were more concerned for the hearts of our fellow countrymen – in other words, to what extent they have allowed Jesus to gather them in – I feel certain that we’d see the fruit of it in our society, in good things such as lower crime, more compassion, and justice in the courts.
As it is, until all our hearts have been cleansed, healed and transformed through Jesus, and he is really in charge: I wouldn’t dare to call our country 'Christian'.