Faith and Society in the UK

By Symon Hill

Last month, four women calmly stood up during evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, walked to the front and chained themselves to the pulpit. They read out a statement about economic injustice and urged the Christian Church to take sides with the poor. Outside, several other activists – myself included – unfurled a banner reading “Throw the moneychangers out of the Temple”.[i]

The actions triggered national media coverage and internet discussion. The messages we received included support, challenges, friendly disagreement and outright abuse. Somebody sent me a tweet threatening to “rip your head off” for not showing “respect” to the church.

One crucial aspect of the story was difficult for parts of the media to grasp, and deliberately ignored by others: Most of the people involved in the protest were Christians.

The protests were planned jointly by members of Occupy London and Christianity Uncut, a network of Christians campaigning against the UK government’s cuts agenda.[ii] The decision to act in this way was not taken lightly. It followed a year in which we had become increasingly frustrated by the failure of the cathedral’s leadership to live up to their own rhetoric about economic justice.

A year earlier, Occupy London Stock Exchange had set up camp outside St Paul’s after police prevented protesters from getting closer to the stock exchange. The proximity of the camp to Britain’s best known cathedral turned Christianity’s relationship with politics into headline news. Cathedral staff responded with a tortuous series of U-turns and three clergy resigned in the ensuing controversy. In the end, the cathedral authorities not only backed the forced eviction of the camp but allowed the police to drag away Christians who were kneeling in prayer on the cathedral steps during the eviction.[iii]

The controversies involving St Paul’s Cathedral, Occupy and Christianity Uncut say a great deal about wider developments in British society around the relationship between Christianity, power, and activism.

For hundreds of years, Christianity was at the centre of power in Britain. Like much of Europe, it went through various forms of Christendom, in which the state gave political backing to the official Church, while the Church provided moral sanction to the state. As Christendom fades in a multi-faith society, British Christians have reacted in widely varied ways. I suggest that there are four broad approaches that Christians in the UK are now taking to the relationship between faith and society. This is a rough model and these are approximations. I am not arguing that the approaches are exclusive. They frequently overlap.

Firstly, there are those who respond by revering the cultural shell of Christendom. This is the attitude that turns cathedrals into tourist attractions, expects to see nativity plays at Christmas and wants people to hold their weddings in churches that they never otherwise attend. It is the approach of people who last year celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible solely because of its linguistic and cultural significance, as if the quality of a text could be considered independently of the message it conveys.

Secondly, there is the charitable approach. Churches and Christian agencies are at the forefront of work to alleviate poverty in the UK: running shelters for homeless people, providing services to older people, giving advice to those who have lost their jobs. While a few of these bodies have an agenda of converting their service users to Christianity, many have no such motive. Some combine charity with campaigning, for example, by providing services to homeless people while campaigning against government policies that are increasing homelessness.[iv] However, some have a charitable focus only and there is a danger of both central and local government relying more and more on such agencies as ever deeper cuts are made to public services.

A third approach is fear and prejudice. Some cling desperately to the remains of Christendom, such as privileges for church schools, opt-outs from equality legislation and the presence of bishops in the House of Lords. Right-wing lobby groups such as Christian Concern and Christian Voice believe that Britain is in danger because of homosexuality, secularism and Islam. They argue that Christians as a group are facing discrimination in the UK. Like many people who lose privileges, they mistake equality for an attack on their own freedom. They risk reducing Christian identity to the holding of certain views on sexuality.

Fourthly, there is the radical approach, that seeks to emulate Jesus’ example of siding with the poor and marginalised. At its most progressive, this includes welcoming the end of Christendom as an opportunity to move on from churches’ collusion with wealth and power and to turn again to the subversive teachings of Jesus. This approach has been promoted for some time by the Ekklesia thinktank and the Anabaptist Network.[v] It is now inspiring activist groups such as Christianity Uncut. Several other groups, such as Church Action on Poverty and the Student Christian Movement, may not promote this theology explicitly, but still make a priority of struggles for economic justice.

Of course, the approach to politics taken by many Christians, churches, and Christian groups is a combination of more than one of the above. Many denominational leaders sit uncomfortably between all four of them. Some Church of England bishops have spoken out powerfully against government cuts to welfare benefits for the poorest people in society, but are still ready to defend their unelected seats in the UK parliament or to oppose equal rights for gay and bisexual people. Methodists, Baptists, and the United Reformed Church have taken a firm stand for nuclear disarmament but are compromised by their provision of armed forces chaplains who are subject to military discipline and control.[vi]

This is not to say that the political actions of national church leaders are not helpful. But it does suggest that denominational institutions have too much baggage left over from Christendom to pioneer a new Christian approach to politics at a time of economic crisis and spiralling inequality.

Indeed, the growth in Christian activism appears to be taking place at a grassroots level – from both the left and the right. On the one hand, we have Christian groups organising nationwide campaigns against same-sex marriage and welcoming cuts as an opportunity to increase the influence of churches through providing basic services. On the other hand, there are thousands of Christians opposing cuts, inequality, and the arms trade while speaking up for LGBT rights.

My tentative prediction is that British Christian activism will become increasingly polarised between these two ends of the spectrum, with denominational institutions playing less of a role. In this context, the behaviour of St Paul’s Cathedral is not so much of a surprise. Certain church institutions may become even more absorbed in maintaining cultural traditions and tourist attractions, as the real struggles of faith, money and power continue outside them.


[i]    Alexandra Topping, ‘Occupy protesters chain themselves to St Paul’s pulpit’, Guardian, 15 October 2012. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/oct/14/occupy-protest-st-pauls-pulpit-cathedral?INTCMP=SRCH.

[iii]  Jerome Taylor, ‘Police letter reveals St Paul’s Cathedral involvement in Occupy eviction’, Independent, 25 May 2012. See http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/police-letter-reveals-st-pauls-cathedral-involvement-in-occupy-eviction-7788730.html.

[iv]  A prime example is the organisation Housing Justice. See http://www.housingjustice.org.uk/pages/about-us.html.

[v]   Simon Barrow, ‘Learning to think without tanks’, Movement, October 2007. See http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5942.

[vi]  I have gone into these contrasts further in my article ‘Sex and Nonviolence’, published in Third Way, November 2010. See http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13591.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Religion and Activism

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