By The Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali
First published by Telegraph.co.uk: 4:47PM GMT 26 Dec 2009
By any reckoning, Britons have had an uncomfortable and anxious year. Even as the implications of the financial crisis sank in and the belt-tightening began, news broke of the ride for which we had been taken by our political masters, via their expenses forms. The war in Afghanistan claimed the lives of more than 100 British soldiers. The Copenhagen summit raised awareness of environmental problems, but left it unclear what would or should be done about them. And attacks on the traditional family continued, with claims by ministers and "experts" that no one form of the family was to be preferred to any other.
It has been tough for everyone, but Christians in particular have found themselves under pressure. Nurses have been told not to pray with their patients; registrars ordered to conduct civil partnership ceremonies in spite of conscientious objections; evangelists forbidden to spread the word in "Muslim" areas; and permission for Good Friday processions refused on the grounds that they are a "minority" interest and do not warrant police time.
Given the sea of troubles with which we are faced – at home and elsewhere – what can we look forward to as we face 2010? First, we need to accept that the financial and political crises are not primarily about the failure of procedures and regulation. The angst about the war in Afghanistan, similarly, is not just about the sad loss of life. The broader problem is that there has been the loss of a common narrative, a story which underpins our national life. In the past, this was provided by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, derived from the Bible. This narrative has been at the root of those values which we regard as particularly British, whether to do with the dignity of the human person, with fundamental freedoms of belief, speech and assembly, or with equality – which is not about "sameness", but a recognition of the image of God in others.
This tradition has also provided us with the virtues for which we have looked in vain in our economic and political leaders. The best of British business and politics has been characterised by a sense – largely derived from the Bible's teachings – of responsibility, of trust, justice, fairness and truth-telling. In recent years, these virtues have been jettisoned, so that we can be more "competitive" in a cut-throat world, or engage in a more adversarial form of politics. We, and the generations to follow, will have to live with the consequences of this dissolution of a moral and spiritual framework for our common life.
But while the task of reconstruction must begin immediately, it cannot be just about tinkering with the expenses system at Westminster, or the regulation of the City. It has to be about moral and spiritual education in our schools and universities. Future leaders must be taught that the public have the right to expect selflessness rather than greed, service rather than arrogance, and even sacrifice for the greater good of the organisation, or the nation.
To this end, one of the best things to happen in 2009 was the publication of "Every Family Matters", a report from Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice – because it did not just describe the dire state of the family in contemporary Britain, but outlined what we can do about it. It urged government to recognise the unique place of marriage in ensuring that a child has a stable family life. For the sake of society, it is time to say quite clearly that sharing a fridge, or even a bed, does not necessarily make you a family. There is abundant evidence to show that children develop best when both mother and father are present. This is not to minimise the role which grandparents and other relatives can play, nor to devalue the heroic way in which many single parents bring up their children. But this should not be used as an excuse to neglect the recognition and support of marriage in the tax and benefits system.
Furthermore, while government needs to ensure that all citizens are treated fairly, the consciences of religious believers must also be protected. We will soon hear more and more about the Equality Bill, which will make it unlawful to discriminate in terms of employment and access to goods and services on the basis of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. There is much in this Bill which believers should support, but they cannot be compelled to act against their consciences, just as a religious organisation cannot be expected to act contrary to its ethos. The Bill will have to make room for such beliefs, if Christians and others are not to be forced to say that they must obey God rather than Caesar.
In terms of climate change, whatever we believe about the human contribution to it, we can all agree that we have responsibility for the world in which we live. The Judaeo-Christian worldview gives mankind special responsibility for the care of the planet, because of the greater powers we have to alter it. Our stewardship is grounded on being God's representatives on Earth. It follows, then, that as stewards, we will be called to account. It is not, surprising, therefore, that even unbelieving scientists have been urging a return to some sense of being judged for our actions by a power higher than ourselves. This indicates that ecological responsibility needs to be anchored in a spiritual view of the world, and of our place in it.
Finally, there is Afghanistan, where 2010 is bound to bring further loss of life and limb. This is, of course, a matter for great sorrow – but it should also renew our determination to see that the war achieves the purposes for which it was undertaken. In the past, a grand narrative of service and sacrifice enabled us to make some sense of the horrors of war. Even if such a narrative was misused in the past, this should not make us cynical today. The two British soldiers killed this month while protecting Afghan children and others from suicide bombers sacrificed themselves not for kith and kin, or for the nation, but for complete strangers – just as Jesus died not only for his friends, but for his enemies as well, so that all might be free to live as God's children. Our aim in this war should be not only to protect Britain from terrorism, but to ensure that the Afghan people are kept free from tyranny.
Like 2009, 2010 will undoubtedly have its own challenges. We will be better able to face them if we can recover the narrative that made this nation, and gave its people and institutions their character. We need not only to identify our values, and to live by them, but also to acknowledge the basis for them. Above all, in this election year, we need leaders who possess those fundamental virtues, and show themselves to be worthy, once again, of public trust.
The Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali is president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, and was until this year Bishop of Rochester.
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