The Church in the Public Square?

The response to The Church in the Public Square? conference at the end of January was very encouraging. We had hoped that 100-150 people would attend, but over 260 actually registered for the event. Our three speakers, Professor Donald McLeod, Dr Jonathan Chaplin and John Larkin QC did an excellent job in helping us to reflect on key aspects of the church’s engagement with issues in the public square. All three lectures will eventually be available on both the websites of Union Theological College and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Professor McLeod set out a very thorough and comprehensive picture of the church’s relationship to the public square from an orthodox and Reformed perspective. He emphasised the Christian’s responsibility to support and respect the state, the state’s responsibility to provide security and peace for its citizens, and the church’s duty to speak to the authorities on behalf of those who were unable to speak for themselves. In his closing remarks he referred to the ministry of Thomas Chalmers in Glasgow in the 19th century and the comment that the effect of Chalmers’ ministry was that he “warmed” the city. That, suggested Professor McLeod, remained a goal for the church in his engagement with its community, namely, to bring warmth.

Dr Jonathan Chaplin set out a well-reasoned and compelling argument for “principled pluralism”. Against the background of secularism and pluralism, Christians should adopt this position, which he defined as “a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and fair for other faiths too. Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others.”

In commending this position, Dr Chaplin set out some clear theological foundations on which “principled pluralism” rests, including a recognition of the authority of Christ over all creation and the state’s specific and limited role under God to establish a public order of justice. A Christian presence within a democracy means that Christians may work democratically to bend state policy towards a Christian position by proposing, and not imposing, a Christian point of view. The state does not have the competence to assess the truth of any religion, but should treat all religious viewpoints even-handedly. In the New Testament era, there are no covenanted political nations. The New Testament people of God are part of a trans-national and global community. And while the state may not justify its corporate acts by an appeal to religious or secular faiths, Christians may work to shape the laws and policies of the state in line with their vision of public justice. It is more important for a state to actually do justice than for it to declare formal allegiance to the Christian or any other faith.

John Larkin’s lecture dealt with the issue of rights. His carefully-argued presentation set out the position where the rights of all people, including Christians, need to be recognised and preserved in society. His most interesting example of “the clash of rights” had to do with the case of the Christian guesthouse owners who were found guilty of discrimination against a homosexual couple. Mr Larkin said that he “did not believe that some boor who for his own obscure reasons does not like homosexual people should be able to deny services to them as an expression of his own dislike; the law prohibits such a denial of services, and in my view, rightly so. On the other hand, I do think that a Christian in business should not be placed in a position where he or she must choose between withdrawing from business or being complicit in what the Christian must regard as deeply sinful.”

Overall, this was a stimulating and thought-provoking day of discussion. It has certainly impressed upon us the need for further work and reflection in this area, and how we can best educate ourselves so that as Christians and a church we can respond in a gracious and intelligent way to the full range of issues, and not just the “hot button” ones that make the media headlines.

Already we have plans for another The Church in the Public Square conference in January 2015 when we will be focusing on “end of life” issues. Put 22 January 2015 in your diary and watch out for further details.