The Public Square Group

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Author
Richard Truss

IntIntroduction: The germ of the idea for setting up this group has its roots in the Modern Church annual conference held at High Leigh in 2019 with the title, ‘Theology in the Public Square’. A criticism of the conference was the insufficient opportunity to explore potential practical outcomes of the ideas expressed at High Leigh. Nevertheless one person attending the conference was inspired to create an ecumenical Lent Course, ‘Christianity in the Public Square’. After two successful sessions, this course sadly came to a halt last March due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus. It is hoped, that if the pandemic subsides by Lent 2021, there will be a chance to resume the course, although a considerable amount will have to be rewritten in the light of what has happened since! On a positive note, the pandemic has actually increased the relevance of the course. Indeed, we believe our thinking deserves a wider audience which of course includes reflecting on issues that were requiring discussion and action well before the pandemic. These are listed below.

Issues before and after the Pandemic:       

  • Brexit Whatever our views, whether we supported leaving the EU, or remaining in it, we would agree the ensuing debates have frequently been acrimonious and exposed deep divisions within British Society. Examples include the real possibility of the break up of the UK, the North/South divide in England, differences include those between young and old, urban and rural, and tragically too, between black and white. Most of us hope a no deal Brexit won’t happen. However, whatever the outcome, much fence building will need to take place, so what we need to learn quickly is how to find better ways of dealing with difference differently, be it racial, religious, sexual or gender-based .
  • Post Pandemic The future is very uncertain, and will only become a little clearer once an effective vaccine is found. Nevertheless, there is a strong likelihood for quite a time ahead that there will be considerable unemployment, especially for the young. There are serious economic challenges ahead and we mustn’t allow a lost generation of unemployed young people as happened in the 1980s.
  • The Environment The challenge is still with us internationally, if anything more urgent as has been argued in the media. We must ensure we maintain a genuine biodiversity. For the world to continue we need to re-establish a strong interconnectedness with the whole of nature. The dangers of course of damaging climate change still exist.
  • Global disunity The current international situation isn’t one that inspires much confidence if nations are really serious about finding a solution to protect the environment. Britain will have to continue to work with the EU and all the countries that are making this a priority. The UN needs to be strengthened if we’re to have any chance of settling the present international disputes which do not seem to be going away, and the serious refugee problem is still there.
  • Populism This could be really dangerous, reminiscent of the 1930s, especially if Trump wins the US Presidency. Tragically most of the churches failed to challenge populism then, in some cases colluding with it, and we know what happened! There are even signs of it within the UK government with a diminution of democracy, revealed in a desire to remove the checks and balances that previously were considered absolutely necessary for the good governance of Britain. Examples include attacks on the Civil Service and the Judiciary. There are also some extraordinary notions about sovereignty as if in our modern world it should be absolute in the UK. If it was, we would mean being totally isolated from every other country, hardly the way to solve our current problems!
  • Individualism Linked with the above, there has been a growth in individualism which doesn’t  fit well with the interconnectedness we are commending. It is true that since the Enlightenment there had to be a corrective to an earlier held view that much of the human race weren’t capable or even allowed to think freely for themselves. However, this individualism has to been seen as a balancing act between human freedom and responsibility, both for the individual and society. A false idea of individualism did creep into some versions of Christianity such as the ‘Prosperity Gospel’. Here there was an emphasis placed on personal and individual belief at the expense of any true notion of corporate and social responsibility. Reinhold Niebuhr made this point very clearly in his book, ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society.’ It is also worth mentioning that confession of our sins in our worship, should also include corporate sins, usually the good things we’ve failed to do, locally, nationally and globally.
  • Hospitality has long existed in the Judeo-Christianity and in other faith traditions. However, apart from the present refugee crisis, there has been an increase in migration from the southern to northern hemispheres. Ensuring there is spirit of hospitality rather than hostility is going to be crucial if such movements of people are to be managed positively.     

Churches:

  • The Laity This is the natural place to speak about how churches respond to the current situation. From a wider perspective there is little hope of the Church achieving anything in its mission and ministry if the laity is not allowed to play its full part because the ‘professional’ clergy don’t really want them to! So often a state of ‘immature dependency’ exists in the congregation because their vicar ‘knows best’ for them! Clergy have to be properly trained to create a ‘mature interdependency’ in the churches they serve, actually akin to the interconnectedness we’ve been talking about. This also applies to senior clergy to enable everyone to realise their full potential.
  • Power So much of this comes down to the proper use of power exercised by church leaders,  and on reflection perhaps it could help them on those occasions when they feel called to speak truth to power in the secular realm. There is much to commend more collective speaking from   church leaders, which would certainly add to its effectiveness when speaking truth to power.
  • Ecumenism It is unfortunate that churches seem less inclined to work ecumenically as they once used to, considering the great strides in ecumenism made in the last century. There was a time when the voice of the British Council of Churches was taken seriously, whereas, sadly, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland appears to be emasculated through no fault of their own. Ecumenical cooperation is also frequently lacking at the local level where self preservation seems to be a much higher priority. However there is a chance for the Church, locally, nationally and globally to start afresh. More than that, we should be reaching out to other faith communities and also to people with no faith but who share our vision.

Conclusion However, we have to be realistic; there can never be a ‘Utopia Vision’. Christians have tried this is the past and it has almost ways come to nothing. Even so, Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, ‘Fratelli Tutti’ isn’t a thousand miles away from the things we have been saying. Nothing will ever be straightforward, try as we must, but making a contribution to saving our planet, physically, mentally and spiritually is worth an attempt!  Our plan is to set up a ‘Public Square’ group to explore the viability of the issues raised, that if there is sufficient agreement we can then embark on the difficult search for allies with whom to collaborate. From a practical point of view, the group should not be too large, but certainly to include people outside Modern Church who would like to share in this exploration. We are on the lookout for such people!   

Anyone interested in joining or knowing more about the Public Square initiative should contact Canon Richard Truss, [email protected]

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