In one of the January columns I spoke warmly of the Christian content of the Queen’s Christmas message, and said that in this Jubilee year we should pray that other occasions might arise when she could speak equally firmly about the Christian faith. Last Wednesday (15th Feb) she was present at a multi-faith reception at Lambeth Palace, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was, as the Archbishop said, one of her first public engagements to celebrate her Jubilee year. She met with and addressed representatives of eight non-Christian religions – groups from the Baha’i, the Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian religions. This inevitably was going to be a difficult challenge for her to negotiate. The speeches were short; one from the Archbishop, a response from the Queen and a thank-you from the Archbishop.
The speeches provided a robust affirmation of the validity of religious faith generally over and against the increasingly militant atheism in our culture. The Archbishop paid just tribute to the Queen when he said to her in his opening address, “You have been able to show so effectively that being religious is not eccentric or abnormal” (a common accusation of contemporary secular atheism). He went on to speak of “Your Majesty’s commitment in the name of God to your vocation”, underlining the spiritual dynamic of the Queen’s great sense of duty. These are sentiments which would be endorsed by large numbers of people. Noticeably, however, the Archbishop stopped short of speaking of her Christian faith, speaking only of her “religious” faith. This seemed unnecessarily over-cautious.
The Queen responding made it clear, as Monarch and Head of the Church of England, that there was to be genuine religious liberty in the nation and no intolerance. People can and must work together for the benefit of the whole. Her words were, “The Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all other faiths in this country”, and, “The Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely”. That was important statement in a world racked with religious and ideological intolerance. The Christian church has learned over a period of some three centuries of inter-Christian conflict that violence and intolerance was not the way to settle differences, and that tolerance was essential. Christians have learned that the gospel is essentially non-violent and non-repressive; its Founder died on a cross, not on a battle field.
An Uncompromising Gospel
At the same time, however, the Christian gospel can never compromise its distinctive teachings. If the church has a duty to protect religious freedom against repression, it has an equal duty to make plain that there is only one God and only one Saviour. Idolatry remains abhorrent to the Creator God. The gospel simply does not see other faiths as a legitimate route to eternal life. On the contrary they lead to darkness and oppression. Jesus remains the “Light” and the “Truth”. The church has to walk the tight rope of being loving and tolerant to people and yet firm on what it has had revealed to it in Jesus. If it does not speak firmly, then it is not faithful to people and cannot be a vehicle of salvation. The problem here, of course, is that the true proclamation of Jesus and the Cross inevitably brings offence no matter how gracious the church may be.
The Queen had clearly been advised to follow a similar line to the Archbishop and to talk about religious faith as such and not Christianity in particular. No offence was to be risked. But her advisors went too far in this direction and lost the balance. Whilst it was not obviously a setting in which to deliberately cause offence, neither was it a setting in which to affirm the essential validity of other faiths. The general tenor, however, was to do just that.
Perhaps the most obvious example of that affirmation was the invitation to the different faith groups to bring a sacred object pertaining to their faith and around which they each might gather. These objects were seen as a rich and beautiful cultural heritage and commended by the Queen, but unfortunately they included idols and the like. The spiritual naivety of Lambeth in making such an invitation is astounding. The objects were certainly not just cultural artifacts to those who brought them; they were highly symbolic and powerful religiously. It was a totally unnecessary gesture on Lambeth’s part, since the gathering would have been perfectly adequate without them. Interestingly enough the Christian religious object comprised two implements used in anointing the Queen at her coronation. These are important in their way and may have been offered as a delicate gesture to the Queen, but they are hardly symbolic of the essence of the Christian faith. Why not a cross? Why not the New Testament? Either of those would have put the Christian exhibit on a par with the faith groups who made no apology for putting on display objects absolutely central to their beliefs, including texts. It is precisely at such a point that the Christian inter-faith stance is seriously at fault in its integrity and its legitimate boldness. It reflects a profound “wooliness” about the true nature of God and about call of the church to witness.
Despite these features I’m so glad that the Queen met the faith leaders. I’m left feeling, however, how much she needs our prayer in her desire to do her Christian duties wisely and with integrity.