There are certain photos which become unforgettable icons of particular movements or moments in history. The naked Vietnamese girl, enflamed by napalm, epitomised the demise of American power in Vietnam in the 1960s, for example.
Perhaps the recent photograph of the Anglican altar dedicated, not to Jesus, but to the NHS, will come to symbolise the tipping point of the capitulation of the Church of England into religious statism, and secular moralism?
The relationship between politics and religion is, of course, a fraught and complex one.
Two religious movements in particular that have ‘transitioned’ into politics come to mind; one Catholic and the other Anglican. They were Liberation Theology with its heyday in the 1970s and the ‘Faith in the City’ movement from the C of E in the 1980s. Both claimed high moral ground. They were presented as antidotes to a right wing brutalism of the poor; both drew on a particular brand of Old and New Testament texts on poverty; both interpreted them politically and materialistically instead of spiritually; both movements heroically failed, collapsing in the entropy of a failed redistributive romanticism.
They suffered from a form of theological or spiritual dysphoria (meaning ‘difficult to bear). It was not that they did not do good. Just that the do-gooding lasted only until the money ran out. But they helped to formulate a new law of metaphysics, which appears to be that the weaker a person’s sense of awareness of the metaphysical and spiritual, the more pronounced will be the political expression of their religious instinct. In the light of Christian tradition, this politicisation becomes not a prophetic vision but a miscategorising of the church’s task.
All societies have taboos of course, but they change. One hundred years ago the great social taboo was sex; not any longer; the social taboo of our age is not sex but death. The Church of England was once very competent with the way in which it interpreted death and offered rites to manage it. But following the flow of culture it has developed an easy facility of talking about sex, and lost its confidence in the face of death.
The great unspoken terror today is dying. As the Government has nudged society into Covid compliance by broadcasting the death figures in daily news bulletins, this fear of death has been seriously exacerbated. The media continues to congratulate the government on the numbers of lives that it has saved through Lockdown. It ignores the fact that a greater number have been lost through the paralysis of the NHS. In fact, government figures suggest that 41% of registered deaths are now considered to be deaths caused by the lockdown in terms of missed appointments with the NHS.
There is no saving of life – only an occasional postponement of death. That of course is where the churches play their trump card. Investing in the prolongation of mortal life by a year or two, or even ten, is less of a priority than living in a way that obtains an ecstatic extension of awareness and joy in the presence of God outside the clutches of time and space. It was thisexchange of a living religion that had eternal life at its heart for one that offered a very temporary extension of life caused such astonishment to Christians.
To practiced believers, one of the most shocking aspects of the Covid crisis was the way in which the NHS was adopted as a form of socio-political national deity (top value) to be honoured and placated; its priests, from doctors to nurses, honoured and venerated. It even canonised a top secular saint in awarding Captain Tom Moore a knighthood for his fundraising. Who can forget the public, street-wide ‘vespers-praise’, which was offered in a cacophony of primitive banging and clanging? “All hail the NHS!”
How did the competition react? The linear descendants of St Alban, St Augustine of Canterbury, St Anselm and St Thomas a Becket slammed shut their doors, giving way to the religious rivalry almost instantly. Where during the Black Death (which carried off a third of the population) the Catholic clergy had remained ever-present with the sacraments, the instinct of the Reformed descendants was safety first, to cancel all worship, to tell their adherents to go private and pray at home and lock the doors.
This was at least comprehensible as a misplaced and misjudged attempt to love the terrified neighbour. Assuming people might contract covid in places where there was often one person to a pew and no one nearer than 15 feet; and assuming (incorrectly, we now know) that Covid could be caught from surfaces of things.
But there was more surprise to come when a Parish Church in Kent went further.
Displacing the cross of Jesus from the altar is often practiced in Anglican churches. It may be that many occasional members of a state church find the immediacy and the beauty of flora and fauna more accessible than a crucified Messiah. But whatever the reason, a C of E Parish Church in Tenterden went all the way: IHS (Jesus, Son, Saviour) was replaced with NHS on the altar frontal.
If it is the role of a national Church to have its ear to the ground in order to offer liturgical and spiritual reflection of its neighbours most deeply held priorities, then all credit to the Tenterden Parish for its rapid reflexes. Surely even a critical friend would want to point out that it was more Erastian than Christian.
The Catholic Church has also had its moments in history when it has placed nationalism before apostolic allegiance. But it could be a good neighbour to the C of E and explain how it has lived to regret it.
Gavin Ashenden is an author and theologian. He is a former priest of the Church of England, and a former continuing Anglican bishop. He was an Honorary Chaplain to the Queen from 2008 -2017
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