Making Britain great

Like many, I often have to decide which events to be involved in and miss out on lots that I could attend because of the need prioritise, mindful there are many pressing things, often more mundane, I really ought to deal with first. The same goes with Christian meetings, but when it came to the one I went to last Saturday, which involved the author, Wale Babatunde, of the recently published book: “Great men and women who made Britain great” that had the subtitle: “How Christians can change society”, I felt this was one that I should attend. My own community mantra is that of a conservative, evangelical, orthodox, gospel preaching Christian who believes it is right and proper to be involved in the community, as part of the divine mandate to “love my neighbor”, and with the longer term goal of seeking to serve and transform it.

While I did not presume he would buy into all I hold dear, especially the more thorny issue of working, sometimes closely, with those not of the faith, I did sense here was a kindred spirit. Pertinently, the author, who also spoke that evening, has been encouraging others to do many of the things I have been advocating for many years and has something worth saying we don’t hear said much. As one who is inspired by how Christians went about engaging with their communities in times past, I decided I had to go. While I was disappointed at the poor turnout, and the meeting was a little flat as a result, I was glad I attended, not least because I got to take away a copy of the book, more of which later.

Regarding the turnout, the only white people in attendance were myself and my friend, Paul, from the Christian bookshop (more later). The rest, at a guess, were African from the speaker’s World Harvest Christian network, which he leads, and they made me feel welcome. The speaker himself is Nigerian in origin, having emigrated to this country several years back. One of the stories he told was of the Mary Slessor, a single lady, pioneer missionary, that served in Nigeria, for most of her life, and made a great impact, such as stopping the slaughter of newborn twins due to one the many superstitions held at that time. Wale and his associates are doing the reverse in terms of mission, and we should be thankful.

Many will not be aware of the number of predominantly African Christian congregations that exist, including in Southend. I ruefully reflect having recently upset one of them when I made a comment to the effect that it was nice seeing immigrants contributing to the wider community (as they were), and which was made against a backdrop of a good deal of anti-immigrant sentiment in our society that I wish to challenge. What was meant as praise and endorsement was regrettably interpreted as racist condescension. But I see in Wale and those associated with him, people who are doing the very things that need doing, and it is this that I am keen to encourage.

Earlier, I commented on our prime minister’s statement that we are a Christian country and Christians should be more evangelical in living out their beliefs. As for the Christian country bit, that is a moot point. On one hand, we have a huge Christian heritage, a lot of which most are unaware off, and, if the 2011 Census is to be believed, over half of the adult population regard themselves as being Christian. On the other hand, most of the population aren’t regular churchgoers or consistent practitioners of the faith or “born again” or “saved”, the freedom to act according to conscience is being increasingly undermined and there is plenteous evidence of un-Christian behaviour in our culture, and thus cannot regard our country as Christian. Both Archbishop Welby and the former Archbishop Williams have pronounced on the subject, in measured yet clear terms, as to what extent we are a Christian country.

My gripe with our church leaders though is their having not been more robust in calling the people of this country to return to the Christian heritage that has been such an important factor for the general good and by not calling our leaders to account. My gripe with Mr. Cameron is regarding his exhortation for Christians to be more evangelical, yet in doing so I sense it is with the proviso they don’t rock the boat by truly preaching the gospel (which is the “evangel“) along the lines detailed in this website, but rather concentrate their efforts on doing good in the community.

While I suspect it might be worse if one of the other major political parties were in power (the possible exception being UKIP), the situation by which the government could have done something about, when Christians were evangelical about their faith and thereby ran the risk of losing and, as recent history has shown, did lose their livelihoods, makes a certain mockery of this statement and the idea that we are a Christian nation. The recent interview with the nursery nurse that was sacked for expressing traditional Christian views on homosexuality to a colleague is rather telling.

Some of the secular backlash to Mr. Cameron’s statements makes interesting study. In particular is that contained in the letter written by 50 prominent secularists, which the Daily Telegraph titled: “David Cameron fosters division by calling Britain a ‘Christian country’”, arguing we are not a Chrstian country but rather “we are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society” and “although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs”.

While I have some sympathy with the notion that Christians and Christianity should not necessarily be favoured over those who do not subscribe to those beliefs, I do take issue with their statement: “at a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces”. While it is true there are many good things being done these days, including by those who are decidedly non-Christian in their affiliation, we live in a society in which babies are aborted, there are too many teenage pregnancies, too many people are destitute and are consigned to sleeping rough on our streets, we discover old people that are being abused and neglected in care homes, marriages are breaking down in record numbers, families are disintegrating, children and other vulnerable persons are being abused, anti-social behaviour in a whole variety of contexts is rife, the gospel of equal opportunities is replacing that of righteousness, our nation’s influence for good in the world is being eroded and where the culture is now largely to do with hedonism, among many other things; all of which bears testimony to the idea that those forces are NOT for the better.

Back to the book, firstly to say it is definitely worth reading. It is also very readable, being aimed at the common people rather than scholars and academics. Those who know me know that I am an avid reader on all sorts of subjects, often having several books on the go at any one time and these days being something of a dabbler and a skim reader. But in this case I read it from cover to cover over two days because the content was worth reading, well presented and was about something important that particularly interested me as a community activist and as a Christian preacher and teacher.

While some of the content I was already aware of, there was much I didn’t know and there were several surprises. Having read the book, I can now reflect in awesome wonder at the contributions of Christians in the past, in this country and to the ends of the earth, have been phenomenal. For one thing, I don’t imagine they took the easy route but they did something we should all be thinking of doing – leave a worthwhile legacy. Besides presenting some powerful quotes and recounting numerous anecdotes, the author makes many helpful and insightful observations, as well as coming to some logical conclusions that we do well to take heed of. The book is full of examples of people making important differences in the life of this country, a lot of which I was not aware of before, for example:

  • The person who began the famous Guinness drink did so to provide a healthy alternative to combat the evils of gin drinking, which itself was part due to the lack of hygienic drinking water.
  • The founder of Boots the chemist, wanted to provide cheap medicines that poor people could afford and came up with a strategy based on mass marketing beneficial products to do this.
  • The BBC, in its early days was strongly influenced by Christians, led by Lord Reith. It was founded with a vision statement “Nation shall speak peace with nation” and later adopted a motto “Quaecunque” – (whatsoever), to do with providing wholesome content for the masses, both of these strongly Bible based.
  • Many football teams, including famous ones such as Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa, Southampton and Manchester City, in today’s Premier division, were founded by churches that saw how football could be used as a means to tackle social issues.
  • The Clapham sect comprised individuals prominent in many different spheres of public life, yet did much to propagate social reform and effect national transformation.

I could give many other examples from the book, as it looks at Christian contributions made in many spheres of public life, such as education, health, medicine, science, politics, social reform, family life, business, art, media, sport etc. that will have deeply touched every individual and family and has impacted hugely throughout the world. The author writes in a way that details well what is the title of the book, and along with calling us to make an appropriate response when it comes to engaging with society, we still need to be true to our calling to worship God, practice righteousness, preach the gospel etc. Christians should be about transforming a society that desperately needs to change for the better, and what happened in the past should inspire us to follow in the footsteps of those who did just that. My hope and prayer is for there to be more Christians who will take to heart the messages from this book.

As a footnote, and directed specifically at those living in my own area of Southend, the book is available at just over half price at the Southend Christian Bookshop, and is one I would heartily recommend. In a day that is seeing a decline in the High Street and people reading books, especially those with serious content, and with a new approach to commerce given the popularity of the Internet and online shopping etc., I would encourage folk to support the Bookshop, which not only sells important, good, wholesome books and other Christian related “bits and bobs”, much of which can’t be brought elsewhere in the town, unless brought online, but because it reaches out to the needy in our community, without receiving payment, and in ways most of us are unaware.

As a further footnote, I wanted to somehow bring in Elijah from the Bible, who after defeating the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, which is described in 1Kings 18, he faced despondency thinking he was the only one sticking up for what was right before God, only to be told by God, in 1Kings 19, there were 7000 others doing likewise. As a keen historian, I lament when it comes to celebrating, learning from and building on what has happened in the past that was of God, Christians are not always forthcoming. Such things are still taking place, the world over, including much we may know little of and have little influence over, yet should encourage us. Society, being what it is, often honours the wrong people, but we should honour those who honour God and who God honours, and just as they left us a legacy, let us do so for those who come after us.

Locally, I am thinking of the Revive movement that among other things looks back at past moves of God in the Essex area, such as the Peculiar People in the nineteenth century and the Elim and Charismatic movements in the twentieth, and the heritage tours conducted by the elderly Counties evangelist, John Martin. I mention this for two reasons: firstly, we need to be humble and recognise that none of us have a monopoly on transforming society (and sometimes it is unlikely people, like black immigrants and little known women, who lead the way) and all of us can learn from the past, including where good people went wrong or by concentrating on certain areas missed out other important areas and, secondly, we must learn the lessons from the past and move forward, building on the good things that went on before, even if in quite different ways, according to needs and opportunities, maybe doing what no-one else is doing, recognising that only God has the full big picture. It is God’s work after all and his glory is all that truly matters.

In closing, I recall some years back, a pastor, in Southend, part of Wale’s church network, coming out with a statement along the lines that “readers make leaders”. I would encourage people to read widely in order to become educated and in doing so acquire much needed wisdom, knowledge and understanding. While we need doers, we also need readers who are leaders. My dream is for there to be a new generation of godly, community activists that will influence for good all areas of public life, leading by example, in churches and all other areas, and churches will nurture such people, boldly preach the gospel and help in transforming society. God willing, I will hang around a bit longer to help make this happen.