5 tips for #hristians in the #public square – inspired & taken from a @TheosThinkTank report

These ideas are taken from Doing good: a future for christianity in the 21st century published December 2016 – a 76 page Theos Thinktank publication. 


Uisng some of my own words and headlines and many from the report I’ve summarised below the points in it that struck me. 


Recent history & christianity


Over recent history there has been a decline in church attendance as the default identity for those born in the UK has moved from ‘Christian’ to ‘no religion’ (page 11).  








For the majority this loss of Christian identity has not been replaced with atheistic certainty but rather with a personalised spirituality.  The way forward for church is to engage with this deep-rooted human curiosity in ‘things eternal’ through the demonstration of love in ‘things temporal’.  


Some views of the church’s past, present or future only describe it in numbers. They are detached from any sense of “life to the full” or of the true meaning of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came preaching (page 11).  


The one trend pertaining to Christianity in contemporary Britain that runs against this narrative of decline is that of ‘social action’.  Levels have risen considerably over the last ten years. There may be fewer people on pews but there are many more running luncheon clubs, and mums and toddlers’ groups, and foodbanks, and homeless charities, and debt advice centres, and drop-in centres, and the like. Christians are ‘doing good’ (page 12)


Doing God, Doing Good & Social Liturgy


The report suggests a view for the future for UK Christianity where “Doing God” is inextricably linked to the practice of “Doing Good” (page 10).  This is service as witness firmly rooted in and unashamed of its faith in Jesus Christ.  


This “Social Liturgy” is a way for Christians to demonstrate their faithfulness to the two greatest commandments – loving God and loving your neighbour – in a way that is both distinctive and inclusive (page 7).  


Social Liturgy is a deliberately unfamiliar phrase.  Leitourgia – the New Testament Greek word can be used to mean both priestly service within the Temple and public charitable activity.   So Social Liturgy is adopted to capture the idea of charitable public action that is also priestly, or directed immediately at the divine (page 12).  It is a simultaneous expression of love of God and of neighbour.  A way of worshipping God through finding and serving him in others. 


The phrase is not simply a return to the admirable but ultimately discredited methods of the social gospel movement of the past.  Social liturgy is just another way of worshipping God in public.  It is this kind of ‘Doing Good’ by which we will “Do God” in the 21st century (page 13)


God has offered every one of us a new start which requires us to show others that they are loved by God (page 11).  This ‘Doing Good’ is about coming alongside other people, not as technocratic experts and still less as people whose own lives are fully sorted.  But rather as people who are themselves disciples, or ‘learners’ alert to their own fallibility and need for love and healing. It is not about delivering services but more about developing mutual service between persons, not ‘fixing’ poverty, or problems, or people, but building relationships of common care that recognise, humanise and heal (page 10).  


Christians don’t have a monopoly on social action.  People engage in social action for any number of reasons: duty, enlightened self-interest, personal need, undiluted selflessness, and religious conviction. 


We need to guard against the deadening idea that all social action is – or should be – inspired by depersonalised and disinterested motivations, and which sees a ‘hidden agenda’ in anything that appears to deviate from this supposed norm.  All social action should ideally be authentic, true to its own motivations, and that is no less the case for “Social Liturgy”. 


Social liturgy should be authentically Christian, marked, among other things, by commitment, love and recognition of the personal nature of all social encounters.  


Other Theos research has indicated that persistence, relationality and localised engagement are just three ways in which the authentically Christian nature of forms of social engagement can manifest itself.  Others – such as an emphasis on hospitality, or hopefulness, or unconditional acceptance – might also apply.  Just as those Christians and churches motivated to serve their communities will do so for authentic theological motivations, they will also need to do so in ways that embody – that really live out – those motivations (Chapter 3).


Dealing with the why questions – why do this – why do it this way?


Knowing the logic that underpins Social Liturgy and enabling that to inform what and how it is done, leads to the need for honest answers to others questions about ‘why are you doing this?’ and ‘why are you doing this in this way?


The answers are ones that are easier to get wrong than to get right. If Christians are doing this because of their Christian faith, they owe it to others to say so.  That, however, can easily send them across the spectrum into the other pitfall which is seeing the curious question as an invitation to deliver a sermon or apologetic lecture.  If there is real potential in the idea of Social Liturgy, there are also problems – or at least potential problems ….. proselytism, pluralism, public legitimacy and public reasoning.  


What follows are some thoughts on getting our answers right to the “why” questions and how they affect these 4 areas.


Proselytism – Some will argue that if Social Liturgy is seen as a future for the church doesn’t that mean it is a merely a way of growing the church.  There are two responses to this accusation that bear careful repeating. 


Firstly such an approach is explicitly and repeatedly censured in Christian teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ is about as clear on the dynamics of gift and service as it is possible to be. Those who claim to follow him should not give with strings attached. Generosity should be generosity, not a covert exchange, whether for favours, social approval or converts.  


Should those engaged in Social Liturgy seek, then, to make ‘disciples’?   They should aim to do what it is there to do – help, heal, counsel, feed, clothe, etc. – and to be open about the theological reason behind it.  If that intrigues and engages people who then proceed to ask questions and enquire about Christianity – good: that is the right moment to respond intelligently and sensitively to any questions asked. If, conversely, it does not intrigue and engage people, who move on without ever wondering about Christianity – good: a genuine human need has still been served and a public good achieved. 


Pluralism – some will argue that in a religiously plural nation like the UK specifically religiously-inspired projects risk destabilising that pluralism and fracturing the concord that underpins any society that is criss-crossed by substantive differences.  


There have been many examples of how Christian public action has worked to calm, rather than provoke, community tensions.  The 2013 Theos report, Making Multiculturalism Work put further empirical evidence on the theoretical bones – “the central criterion for participation is that an organisation must show that it is willing and able to work with people from different backgrounds and perspectives”.


Public Legitimacy – some will argue that a church which is part of the establishment already – but only attracts 2% of people each Sunday – already has too much of a voice in the public square and indeed have forfeited their right to seriously shape our common life which properly should be the right of the other 98%.   


But of course there is no other 98%.  The fact that around 15 million adults call themselves Christians  – even if many rarely darken the door of a church is not immaterial and if it denotes anything it is surely that they have some kind of loose sympathy with the Christian worldview.   More importantly, however, the other 98%, or the other 60%, does not comprise a homogenous whole, whose view is coherent and consistent. 


For all that people formed by different cultural and ideological commitments will disagree about the nature (and even the existence) of a common good, the practical reality tends to be different. Few people actively think that it is wrong to visit the lonely, look after children, provide lunch clubs for the elderly, offer support to the bereaved, provide rehabilitation for addicts, steer drunks from the gutter, give up space for community ventures, support asylum seekers, and host foodbanks, jobs clubs, and debt advice centres. Such activities show a concrete commitment to the public good that you have to try very hard to deny.  


So on this logic, public legitimacy is at least informed by concrete commitment to a palpable public good. The answer to the question ‘why should we pay any (special) attention to what you say?’ lies not in the fact of establishment, nor in the fiction that the non-religious view is homogenous and represented by vocal secular groups. Instead the answer to the question should rest on the demonstrable fact of contributing to the public good. It is those who are doing good – irrespective of whether they are also doing God – who merit most attention in a plural public square such as ours.


Public Reasoning – some have a concern about religious reasoning in public life that draws on textual (e.g. the bible) or institutional (e.g. papal) authorities.  Put simply such authorities are’nt accepted by many others and tend to be unsupported by the evidence. .  Thus it is perfectly legitimate to offer explicitly religious reasons in presenting public justifications for laws or public policies.  Of course although legitimate this does not mean such justifications are necessarily sensible or advisable.  


But we also need to tackle the myth that there is some neutral and universally acceptable way of reasoning.  We all come from somewhere and in part that affects our reasoning. The reality is there is no ‘everyone’ from whom we should expect principled agreement concerning the foundations, logic and language of our argument. Liberal secularism, while priding itself on making space for pluralism, in fact contains unacknowledged exclusivist tendencies that work to close down legitimate diversity. 


In the public square we should expect dissensus rather than consensus, not least about debateable issues.  Public reasoning must pay due attention to the genuinely plural conceptual nature of the public square.  We should not expect agreement on key issues nor should we expect agreement on how to talk about them.  


Arguments need to be grounded in practices.  However just because an institution is delivering a palpable good through society doesn’t mean that its theoretical arguments on that particular topic should win through. ‘Doing Good’ is no substitute for serious arguments and clashing of ideas in the public square.  


Yet if all people are doing is arguing about issues they risk missing the reality of the lives and situations involved.  Arguments are about people and problems, and those arguments that are clearly built on concrete responses to genuine needs should have a particular legitimacy in public debate.

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