This morning, as I was making my way to the Council House, I met a man on the bridge just outside the ICC. He was looking very troubled, so I stopped to ask him if he was okay. He was a successful businessman, with little or no financial worries, but he told me that he was unhappy because of some issues he was facing in his private life. He was contemplating whether it was worth living. I spend a few moments talking with him, then offered to pray for him – he was very grateful for that, telling me that he knew that he was missing ‘something’ at the centre of his life. It was a powerful encounter that actually brought into sharp focus what I want to say to you this morning.
I am privileged and honoured to be asked to address you this morning in the Council House. I have spent many years in Council Houses – just not ones quite like this – having been born and brought up in a council estate in Northern Ireland. Thank you so much for the invitation to address you today.
The Constituent Parts of a Flourishing City.
What is a flourishing city, and what place does ‘faith’ play in such a city? Again, on the way here, I saw some things that articulate the component contributors to a flourishing city. From my hosts’ home I could see the canal – a reminder of the great heritage of commerce and trade of Birmingham. As I looked through the window I could see people working out in the gym on the other side of the canal. I walked through centres of commerce and shopping malls, glanced into the reception of Ballantyne’s Gym, passed the ICC and Symphony Hall and passed some of the centres of political power to get to the Council House. I also passed several churches. On one of the brown tourist signs on the roadside there were directions to the Jewelry Quarter, St Philip’s, St Chad’s, the City Centre and the Symphony Hall. I passed the site of the new library, and outside the Council House saw the BBC news being broadcast on a massive open-air screen, not to mention the Titanic installation just outside. All these things point to some of the constituent parts of a thriving, flourishing city – commerce, statutory services, culture, the arts and media and communities of faith. For any city to flourish we need all of these communities playing their part. Each with their own strengths and weaknesses and each bringing their own identity to the table of the city so that the city can flourish and grow.
A Tapestry of Many Strands.
The Commercial Sector
We need the innovation, flare and resources of the commercial sector. Too often those in business and commerce have been viewed with either suspicion or disdain by the public sector, the arts and culture sector or the faith communities. We must be careful not to miss their vital and vibrant contribution to a healthy and flourishing city.
The Arts, Culture and Media Sectors
The arts and culture sector bring a richness and depth to a city that is incredibly important. When we see them as frivolous, we miss the point of the arts. They create spaces – both physically and in the hearts and minds of citizens, to reflect on the beauty of our lives and the both the strength and the struggles of our communities. Without them, we can turn oil painting of community into a charcoal drawing of existence – life looses its colour. We cut their funding and minimize their importance at our peril.
The Public Sector
The public sector provides a wonderful base for service – and should be at the centre of putting people first. In the many years that I have now been working with elected politicians and public officials, every single one of them originally entered their sphere of work and life because they wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of people in their community. Some may have lost sight of that high ideal, but they all embarked on the road of public service ‘to make a difference’. We should honour them for that.
The Faiths Sector
Then there is the faiths sector. I am proud to count myself in their number. Faith communities bring an ability to connect with harder to reach people, a deeply person-centred approach to life and the longevity of commitment to our communities long after the latest funding rounds have been withdrawn or the initials on community transformation initiatives have changed again. We are in our communities for the long haul. But we bring more than our presence – we bring hope and the space and opportunity for people to reflect on the deeper things of life and society. We are a vital part of a flourishing city. One particular moment in my own life reminded me of this very strongly.
Some years ago I had a meeting in Glasgow with a colleague called Martin. He was working to help the Church of Scotland connect with the poorest communities in the city and I was on my way to meet him to discuss some ideas of how that might work. Having lost my way slightly on the way to the meeting I eventually found the right road, and on the pavement just a few hundred yards from the venue for our meeting, someone had written in large black letters ‘I miss being close to God’. The same thing happened this morning here in Birmingham except this time it was a man on a bridge wondering what to do with his life.
Put bluntly, cities cannot flourish without faith communities. I would go one step further – cities cannot flourish without God. Too often city officials, commercial leaders and those in the world of arts and culture want the activities of faith communities but do now want the faith communities themselves. Let me put it another way. You want what we do, but you are not willing to accept who we are. I am afraid that approach has always failed – and it always will. If you want what faith communities do in a flourishing city – and we do a lot – then you must allow us to be who we are. We cannot apologise for our faith. It is both illogical and unreasonable to expect to have the energy and engine of our activities and services without also allowing us the space to have the inspiration and fuel of our faith. Our faith motivates us – take away our motivation and you will be left with an engine that does not work. Let me explain that further.
Faiths Communities not ‘The Faith Community’.
I am not a pluralist. I was not brought up in a Christian home, but instead came to faith as a teenager, experiencing a conversion to Christ. I cannot apologise for Jesus and His place in my life because He has never apologized for me. Yet I often find myself in situations, both in central government and in local government, where it is assumed that the various faith communities all believe in the same thing, really – don’t we? There is a deep ignorance of the illogicality of such a position at best and at worst a trivializing and marginalization of the importance of faith in our lives.
Of course I celebrate and welcome partnerships across different communities of faith. There is much that can be done together as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Janists, Baha’is, Buddhists and Zoroastrians work together for the good of the wider community. We each contribute to flourishing cities. But we are not the same. In fact there are glaring differences in different faith communities. To try to make us look and sound the same is like trying to make all political parties look and sound the same. As a Christian, I believe that Christ is the ultimate and complete revelation of God – He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. No other faith community holds this view and it contradicts many of their teachings and convictions. So I do not want to hide my distinctiveness, I want to honour it and be clear about it – but that distinctiveness does not exclude me from playing my part – it simply means that we must be clear about who we are and what we do and why we do it. The religious culture in the UK has long since left the realm of believing that all faiths believe in the same God – we recognize that we do not – but government and others still try to squeeze us all into the dame world. That is a fatal error. Let us be ourselves. Instead of blending us all into some kind of ‘smoothie’ of faith, let the constituent parts of the different communities of faith relate to one another from their positions of distinctiveness. There are important reasons for this
1. The Importance of drawing people into a flourishing city.
As a young man, I remember listening to an interview with John Hulme, who was at that time the leader of the SDLP in Northern Ireland. He was explaining why he had embarked on secret talks with the IRA. When challenged on why he had taken the step he responded by saying that you do not create peace by talking to men of peace – you must also talk to those not yet committed to peace.
The same is true when it comes to creating flourishing cities and communities of cohesion. Often the passion, energy and commitment of people of faith is found in those who have a more traditional and conservative position in their own faith communities. I myself am politically progressive but theologically and spiritually conservative. Those in the conservative ends of different communities of faith need pathways of working with others that enable them to be true to their own convictions about God and His place in their lives whilst at the same time being able to work with others in a whole plethora of activities and commitments.
In effect – if you want to create a flourishing and cohesive city, you must make room for the diversity of people of faith. We need to move beyond the mush of multi-culturalism and enter the much more exciting ground of poly-culturalism, where communities can collaborate but can also celebrate their identity. This is the only model that can pull Europe, let alone Britain, back from the brink of fracture.
2. The Importance of allowing personal faith to express itself publicly.
My faith is, of course, a personal decision, but it has very public consequences. You cannot with any level of clear thinking or philosophical rigour, expect me to have a private faith that has no public consequences. My faith affects every area of my life. I am not a Jew or a Hindu or a Sikh or a Muslim – I am a Christian. It is my Christianity that shapes my view of society, culture, my neighbours and myself. It is my allegiance to Jesus Christ that causes me to understand my role in the world.
It is a failure of philosophical and political understanding to assume that faith is disconnected from wider life. For a umber of years now, politicians have made absurd disconnections between public life and private faith. You can no more separate these two constituent parts of my identity than you can ask me to disconnect my masculinity from my fathering. It is like asking a politician to disconnect their political convictions from their political life.
I think that one of the reasons for this error lies at the root of our challenges as a society – that is the confinement of our understanding of morality and ethics.
3. The importance of a larger moral framework.
There are many people here today whose whole worldviews have been shaped by our faith – indeed if your faith does not shape your worldview, I wonder really what impact your faith has had upon you at all? Housing, education, employment, healthcare, the environment, international relations, foreign policy etc. are all ‘moral’ issues. I cannot lock my faith away in a box and pretend it has nothing to do with my life and my view of society any more than I can lock my lungs away from the rest of my body and expect to live!
Morality affects every decision we make and every view we hold. It includes, but is not confined to, traditional issues of sexual morality and issues of personhood.
It is precisely because I believe in the dignity of all people and the importance or right contexts for relationships, behavior and conduct that I commend my colleagues in the House of Bishops for their comments around marriage a few weeks ago. Morality is not a dirty word – and we must be careful not to turn it into a political or behavioural football.
4. The importance of understanding tolerance properly.
Ironically, in our pursuit of becoming ‘tolerant’ we have shown the greatest and strongest intolerance toward those who have a conservative view (in the ethical rather than political sense of the word) of issues such as sexual conduct, marriage, and the right to life. In a week when we have seen the morality of tax-avoidance hitting the headlines as well as the issues of economic collapse across Europe and the raging debate around same sex marriage my observation would be that to label some of these issues as ‘moral’ discussions and others as nothing to do with ‘morality’ is nonsensical.
You may not agree with what I say – but to tell me I have no right to say it is quite another thing! That strikes me as the greatest and most challenging threat to our democracy and our flourishing possible. To dismiss bishops or Christians such as me because you disagree with us and to label us as ‘intolerant’ is to display the greatest intolerance of all. Not only that, but it also runs the deep political and social risk of abandoning debates about right and wrong, conduct and ethics or what is morally acceptable or unacceptable to the wider landscape of political and religious extremists. We do this at our peril. It was that pathway that led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic in the inter-war period in Germany.
If we are to create genuinely tolerant, flourishing and cohesive cities and communities across the UK, then we must accept that there is a valid and vital discussion to be had with those of us who believe that one of the reasons that we face the challenges we do is our abandonment of some core moral principles and a an inherently Judeo-Christian framework. That framework inherently connects societal health with community morality and in turn links community morality with personal ethical and moral choices. This connected trail is fractured at our peril. I wonder if the reason we face the societal crises that we do is precisely because we have tolerated and condoned this separation for too long.
You can move a building, but you cannot move its’ foundations.
In 1953, when Elizabeth the Second was crowned, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland gave her a bible. The words spoken to her are important to remember:
“Our gracious Queen: to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.
Here is Wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.”
My challenge to you this morning is this: in the sixty years of her reign, the Queen has not wavered from her promises and commitments that she made in her coronation. Twelve successive Prime Ministers and their governments, of every political hue and colour, have led the United Kingdom to forget these important truths. We have neglected the truth of the words of the coronation at our peril. We have, in the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘multi-culturalism’ tried to change the foundations of our society. The truth is that we have lost our moral and ethical centre and called it ‘progress’.
A flourishing city means many things but a city can never fully flourish until its people flourish – and people cannot flourish whilst their spirituality is downplayed. And we downplay spirituality most dangerously when we make ourselves the centre of our own moral universe.
The Importance of the Church.
Whilst not wishing to defend the many errors of judgement of the church over the years in Britain, I do want to celebrate our contributions to our nation. We are at the heart of welfare services, social care, youth work, community development and education. We run some of the best programmes, schools and support packages in the country. Without us, the UK welfare structure would collapse and in every region of the United Kingdom, our departure would lead to social breakdown and a crisis of such proportions that the economic challenges of the last few years would look like a minor trifle.
We are committed to playing our part in the UK. We want to be at the heart of a flourishing Britain, not just a flourishing Birmingham. The issue is not our willingness to serve; it is the political fear of discussions about what is actually wrong with our nation. You cannot gag the church in the areas where you disagree with us, then ask us to contribute as a ‘service provider’ in your programmes. We want to be partners with government, the commercial sector and the arts and cultural sector – but be careful you do not turn our desire to partner into either making us a miniature form of yourselves or a cheap and rather embarrassing cousin at the family table where we discuss and deliver the vital components of a healthy society. You need us – and we are committed to serving you – but you can’t dictate to us.
We operate in the presence of government and in the presence of the commercial sector and in the presence of the arts and cultural sector – but we are not in your pockets. We need each other.
Conclusion – A Better Conversation.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered for many years because of his faith in Christ. He would not deny his allegiance to His Saviour. Amongst the many challenging things that he said, let me remind you of two.
Firstly, when asked to explain what he thought had happened to Russia that brought the country to the state it found itself in when he was imprisoned, he replied that he could sum up the collapse of Russian hope and morality in one simple sentence – ‘Men have forgotten God’. My deep fear is that the same can be said not just of Britain, but also of Europe – ‘We have forgotten God’. The UK is like a boat sailing desperately close to the rocks of moral bankruptcy. We are being navigated by men and women who themselves appear to have either lost their compass or broken it. What is far more dangerous is that they are covering their ears and ignoring the warnings of those who can see the rocks and do not want the ship to go down. What is true of Britain is true of Europe.
Secondly, however, we must remember another quote from Solzhenitsyn. The line between good and evil, he argues, does not separate nations or tribes or even religious communities. The line between good and evil passes through every human heart. That includes my heart and yours.
Our nation needs a better conversation. One that is humble enough to accept that much of our moral experimentation of the last fifty years has led to greater enslavement not greater liberation. The idols of materialism, greed, sexual liberation and individualism have left us dangerously close to the rocks.
If we are ever to flourish then now, more than ever, we need to rediscover this simple truth: we need each other but we need God.
Malcolm J Duncan
June 22nd 2012.
Facebook / Twitter: MalcolmjDuncan
 My book. ‘Building a Better World: Faith at Work for Change in Society’ (Continuum, London, 2006) unpacks this further.
 For a fuller expansion of the role of the local church in community transformation please see my book, ‘Kingdom Come: The Local Church as a Catalyst for Social Change’ (Monarch, Oxford, 2008)