Conviction and Consensus - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Conviction and Consensus

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Amidst all the avalanche of comment and reporting following the death of Baroness Thatcher last week, one little anecdote caught my attention. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, paying his tribute in the House of Commons on Wednesday remembered Mrs Thatcher's reply when asked whether she believed in consensus. 'Yes, but it should be a consensus behind my convictions.' That witty but telling response, encapsulates so much about not just her and the tensions of our political and social life, but also raises questions about how we are to operate as a church. Lady Thatcher was undoubtedly a towering figure of the 20th century, but she was also a divisive figure. Her immense self-certainty and self-belief made some people loathe her, but many more admire her. And let's not forget that her self-belief was framed and supported by a strong Christian faith. She believed in capitalism and free enterprise, but she believed it had to operate within a moral framework. The Parable of the Talents was at the heart of her belief in free enterprise. The Parable of the Good Samaritan captured for her the obligations she believed we had to our fellow citizens. More than any other Prime Minister of the 20th century she sought to link explicitly her political ideology to her Christian faith.

But I want to reflect briefly on that remark of hers about consensus and conviction, because it is relevant to how the institutional church operates today. It raises the question - should we work to bring about consensus - with a focus on unity and with the danger of compromise - or should we boldly assert conviction, even at the cost of division, disagreement and for some disillusion? This is not just a theoretical question.

It is an issue that became a reality for Rowan Williams when he became Archbishop 10 years ago. A natural liberal, he suddenly found himself ambushed by the female bishops and gay relationships issues. Whereas temperamentally he would probably have been permissive and followed his personal convictions, for example in relation to the Jeffrey John issue, as Archbishop, and with pressure from conservative evangelicals at home and conservative Anglicans abroad, he compromised his liberal principles to try to achieve a consensus and maintain the unity of the Church of England/Anglican Church. Was he right to do so? In my view, probably not. But I recognise the pressures there are when you are trying to hold everything together and keep the ship afloat, and keep people relating to each other.

The problem with conviction leadership is what do you do about those who don't share your convictions? During Margaret Thatcher's premiership her conviction politics had a direct impact on the church and the result was that the Church of England under Robert Runcie became, in effect, the voice of opposition, speaking up for those who felt marginalised or who were paying the economic price for her government's policies. Out of that came the report 'Faith in the City' (1985) and the Church Urban Fund, still active today. Dismissed at the time as 'pure Marxist theology' by Norman Tebbitt, the Church at that time in the 1970s and early 80s was expressing its commitment to a form of social democracy with a human face, which it saw as a corrective to the individualistic and 'there is no such thing as society' approach of the government.

Conviction politics, in church and state, tends to polarize opinions and make some people or sections of society feel left out, but without conviction, we are in danger of a lowest common denominator approach that fudges issues and compromises belief. The answer to the concensus/conviction conundrum is surely that we need both, just as we need both ideals of equality and liberty for a civilized and healthy society.

And in the Church today - especially the Church of England with its historic commitment to being comprehensive and inclusive - now that we are living in a post-Christendom, secular society, where we have to struggle to make the voice of faith heard in the market-place - perhaps we can learn something from Margaret Thatcher's combination of a strong Christian faith and her willingness to speak her mind fearlessly and freely. Conviction, in an increasingly secular age, is vital for the Church if it is to be respected and listened to.

As the Iron Lady herself said in an address to the Church of Scotland:

There is little hope for democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves. Political structures, state institutions, collective ideals - these are not enough.We parlimentarians can legislate for the rule of law. You, the Church, can teach the life of faith.

That, the life of faith, is our conviction and we are called to summon people to that life of faith because for us it is The Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen.

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