Should the Church work for social or political change?
This is a question I’ve been wrestling with a lot over the last few months, and in Copenhagen it became a lot more of a sharp issue running around in my mind, as it did in the row on this blog over Women’s Roles in the Church. Social change does not involve a decision by a ruling body, it involves shifting the consensus, convincing a wider group of people to make smaller attitude and behaviour changes.
I suppose first of all, I should define politics for the purposes of this post. I’m not talking about political parties for a start. I’m talking about politics as in the process of making collective and institutional decisions. I realise this isn’t my only use of the word, as I often use it to refer to any and every human interaction or choice.
Therefore, if one seeks a political decision in a church, one tends to approach the church council, for an Anglican church its the PCC, or in cases its the Elders who decide. But however its done, its done selectively. But if one seeks social change within the church, one must be communicating with the entire membership of the church, either directly or through ripple effects. And Social Change inside the church is something that is necessarily a component of the church creating social change in wider society, especially given how much the inside of the church often reflects the outside on many issues.
There is, therefore, a need to have debates as a church. These need to be held in a Christian way; they must be honest, all emotions must be revealed ‘in love’, neither pretending not to feel angry or hurt, nor presented in a threatening way. There need to be what activists sometimes call moments of “encounter”, where we see each others troubles in a new light and thus gain a new understanding of the world. To some extent, this requires a process to be available through which such a debate can occur, but it also requires times of fellowship in which people can raise issues naturally and deal with them as they see fit.
Social Change within the Church would mean individuals resolving to respond to each other’s needs and support each other’s gifts in more positive ways. Social Change isn’t about changing structures, processes or other tangible goals so much as changing attitudes and culture. In a slightly distorted “humans trying to reflect God’s awesomeness” way, its what Jesus did. His sermon on the mount didn’t involve laying out crimes and punishments, but instead extolling people to rethink their relationships with one another.
And just as the shifting of opinion on slavery eventually resulted in such a rejection of the trade by British Society that the British Government outlawed slave trading 200 years ago, perhaps we need to challenge and shift opinions again, and on many different issues.
The church needs debate to continue rolling around the aisles in order for it to keep refreshing itself, so that it might continue proclaiming the Gospel afresh in each and every generation. I do wonder how we think we’re going to achieve that goal with so little dialogue and discussion, or indeed how we value our members whilst giving them no where to voice their opinions, and more importantly their experiences, on the church and the world around them. If we don’t, how will we manage to make history, other than by falling into utter irrelevance and decay?
I’m sure there are firm arguments for focusing on Political change. We can use less resources by simply cuddling politicians and hoping we get our own way (usually only when it bares a remarkable similarity to the desires of the richest or to authoritarianism). And there are times when I think political change is necessary. But we are meant to transform the world through the bringing of the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth. This means transforming society, not just Westminster, Washington or Brussels. And its that transformation of society, not into some politically repressed authoritarian model of biblical legalism, but into people who love their neighbours as much as themselves, and that act out that love in daily life.