What more appropriate way to begin the third millennium of the Christian era than with the inauguration of a totally new religion? And who more appropriate to announce its inauguration than Queen Elizabeth II and her Archbishop?
For the benefit of Americans and people who don't care, I should point out that a complex series of historical accidents means that the British head of state (Liz, not Tony) is also the head of the Church of England. This means that Church and State are bound together in complicated ways; however, it makes very little difference since the Queen gets to keep her political and religious powers only on condition that she doesn't use them for anything. (A similar situation prevailed until recently in the Isle of Man: Britain agreed to let them retain the death penalty, and in return, they agreed to not actually execute anybody. It's this kind of clear thinking which makes England what it is to today.) There is a general feeling that disestablishing the church of England—legally separating church from state—would be a bad thing: it would mean that everyone would stop going to church and we wouldn't be able to teach school children about evolution. I mention this only because it gives me the excuse to use the word 'antidisestablishmentarianism.'
Now, according to an ancient tradition dating back to 1940, every Christmas the Queen delivers a Message to the Nation. (Or, rather, to the Commonwealth: the Queen is the only person who knows what, and for that matter where, the Commonwealth is.) It’s a tradition I rather approve of; the whole country gathering in front of the wireless on Christmas afternoon to be greeted warmly by the grandmother of the nation. How nice.
I expect you watched it too. After a boys choir and some preliminary waffle about firemen Her Majesty put on her serious 'I'm descended from Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey' face and did the religious bit:
'At the centre of our lives must be the message at the heart of Christianity and all the great religions. That message — 'Love they neighbour as thyself,' may be for Christians, 2000 years old. But it is as relevant today as it ever was.'
I'm always a bit worried when people talk about what 'all the major religions' agree on. It's difficult enough to find something that all Christians agree on, so bringing, say, Shinto into the equation seems foolhardy. Anyway, what counts as a 'major' religion? Is the decision based on antiquity or number of adherents, or batting average over the last season, or what? If you asked me 'What one thing do all religions have in common,' I think I might go for 'They all think you should go to a particular place at a particular time and sing songs'. 'They all believe in God, gods or goddesses' is no good, since it leaves out some forms of Buddhism and the Bishop of Durham.
'But surely, Andrew…If you are an old lady with a silly hat trying to say something uplifting between the Christmas pud and the Who Wants to be a Millionaire Christmas Special; and if mentioning 'the heart of Christianity' comes into your brief, then surely, you could do an awful lot worse than 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. It's in the Bible. Jesus said it. It is the heart of Christianity. Claiming that the Queen isn't theologically sound is one thing, but claiming that Jesus isn't is something else. Next thing we know, you'll be casting aspersions on Cliff Richard.'
Ah, but there's a problem. When I was twelve I got Grade I Honours at the annual Sunday School Scripture Exam. One of the things you had to do was memorise a passage from the Bible by heart. My memory passage was Mark 12 v 29. I can still remember it:
'The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.'
See, David Blunkett was right: rote learning does have value.
And there is the point. The Queen misquoted. What she claimed as the heart of Christianity, was actually according to Jesus the second most important commandment. Loving God was the most important.
But it isn't only the Queen. The Archbishop of Canterbury also got to Talk to the Nation. His speech was delivered on New Years Day (appropriately enough, a day with no religious significance whatsoever). His take on 'the very heart of Christianity' went like this.
'Each act of generosity and selflessness continues to signal the presence of Jesus Christ in history….It is through the quiet acts of kindness and mercy conducted by often unknown people that the course of history is changed. It was changed forever by the extraordinary life of Jesus Christ.'
My local Vicar also got in on the act. Her Christmas morning service encouraged us to 'consider Jesus as the light of the world.' She explained that we light candles at Christmas in order to remind us that Jesus is brought us light. Candles are, (like so many other things), at the very heart of our worship. 'And the light that Jesus brought into the world' she intoned 'Is the light of goodness. The light of kindness. The light of selflessness.'
Now, maybe I'm attaching too much importance to all this. Maybe spiritual leaders always talk a load of old codswallop on ceremonial occasions. The Queen knew perfectly well that everyone would be feeling very sleepy after Christmas lunch. The Archbishop knew that he was preaching on the morning after the biggest piss-up of the last 1000 years and that in all probability no-one would be sober enough to find the TV remote, let alone push the on button. The Vicar had only got to look along the pews to see that there were a grand total of 24 people in the church, about half of whom were conscious. So you can't really blame them if they didn't spend very long thinking about their sermons. Quite likely, the Vicar could not have told you what she meant by 'goodness,' any more than Tony Blair could tell you what he means by 'new.' Probably we were dealing with bankrupt newspeak: words with literally nothing behind them, a language game in which you go through the motions of saying 'morality, goodness, tradition, society' because that is the kind of thing which people say at times like this. There is a space in your service where you stand up and talk: it wouldn't feel like a real service if you didn't, so I'd better say something—but I don't actually expect anyone to listen.
It is probably very unfair of me to try to derive any theological system from anything that I heard preached at Christmas. But, in the spirit of generosity and selflessness, I propose to do so anyway.
I think that what we are dealing with is the birth of new, post-Christian, post-modern, post-religious religion. The proponents of this religion seek to exhort people to 'goodness.' They see all other aspects of the Old Time Religion– Circumcision, Feeding of the Five Thousand, Slaughtering the Caananites, Cain's Wife, Jesus–as superfluous, un-necessary. Even God is a bit of a liability. The Queen, as we have seen, suppressed the bit about loving God from her New Testament quotation. The Archbishop referred to God once in his New Year piece, and only in order to say that He (God) remembers un-sung heroes who do good works, not only famous people.
Reducing Christianity to mere ethics is no very new thing. I suspect that if you took an opinion poll you would find that nine out of ten cats who expressed a preference thought that Jesus was a Very Good Man who taught the wicked Jews the totally new idea that they should be nice to each other, and that God is a divine headmaster who dispenses smacked bottoms to bad people and sweeties to good ones. But New Christianity goes beyond even this. New Jesus is less specific even than the Lovely Man who told everyone to be Nice, or the Moral Teacher who told everyone to abstain from drink, drugs and dancing. The New Jesus is a Gnostic figure; an abstract figure. He's not even a metaphor: he's a buzzword. When you do something good, Jesus is there: when you do a kind act, that is Jesus. Whenever you were going to say 'Goodness,' just say 'Jesus' instead. It will make your remark seem much more profound.
It is in the nature of heroes that, over time, it becomes harder and harder to remember what they were heroes for. I can remember when Nelson Mandela was a political figure, someone with specific beliefs, tactics and agendas which you could agree with or disagree with, depending on where you thought the line between armed struggle and terrorism was drawn. Sometime in the last decade he became canonised in the popular perception as an icon of generic goodness. 'Why do they give knighthood's and OBEs to politicians' rant newspaper letter-writers 'Instead of to people who really deserved them, like Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela?' Mother Theresa is on the fast track to actual Roman Catholic pope-approved canonisation so she probably doesn't care about knighthood one way or the other. (In any case, 'Dame Mother Theresa would sound too much like a character in Jack and the Beanstalk.) But of course, when people say 'Well, I'm no Mother Theresa,' they don't mean 'I don't hold the specific, and highly controversial, set of Roman Catholic beliefs which informed her career', but 'I do not claim to have achieved the level of perfect goodness which we all agree that she has.' Carry on far enough, and you eventually fall off the end.
Take the Jesus of the Gospels. Drop the claims to divine status. Drop the hellfire preaching, the moral inversions, the exorcisms and the fig tree. Invent some stories about little children running to him because he loved them so much; and about how he was a perfectly well behaved middle class child who never cried once and loved and watched the lowly maiden in whose gentle arms he lay. Focus, not on the scary doctrine of the god-man but on the warm Victorian father figure with the chestnut hair and the blue eyes that follow you around the room. Eventually, let even that slip away: remove the face, and be left with sheer Goodness. Where there is good, where there is compassion, that is where we can find Nelson Mandela. We can discover Mother Theresa for ourselves, in the mince pies at Christmas. Princess Diana lives in my heart. We are all, in a real sense, Indians, because so many of us follow Gandhi's core beliefs about taking in the milk for our next door neighbours. There's a guy works down the chip shop swears he's Elvis.
This new religion has some obvious problems with it. You can go home edified by the idea that Good came into the world at Christmas and that although Bad People tried to kill Good, there is still, in fact Goodness in the world which proves that they failed. However, unless your tell me what Good means, I can't do very much about it. (Does it mean hanging homosexuals, or giving all my money to the poor, or becoming a vegetarian, or not cheating on my taxes, or what?) In order to answer that question, you either have to offer me an ethical programme, in which case you have got back to an old fashioned 'thou shalt not covet thy neighbours adultery' kind of religion; or you have to tell me that Christ is a supernatural being who will change my behaviour if I let him, in which case you have got back to the fundamentalist evangelical ye-must-be-born-again kind of religion. New Christianity, Ethical Gnosticism, only works so long as you limit yourself to saying nothing.
There is also a real problem that most of the hymns and Bible readings which people like were written by proponents of Old Christianity. This is embarrassing. People come to church to be told that Jesus is the Good Which Everyone Carries Within Them and that the Starlight Express is No More Or Less Than You, Brother, You and find themselves singing hymns which go on and on about God making the world and coming down from heaven to forgive sinners. After a perfectly good sermon about how Jesus was born in a manger to show us we have love homeless people (although not, of course, let them into our nice church), you go and spoil it by singing dreadful old carols full of all that superfluous Nicene stuff about 'very God, begotten not created.' Worst of all are funeral services. Pity the New Vicar, who tells the congregation that all good dogs go to heaven, and then has to read out from the pesky prayer books about 'Whosoever believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live..'
Nevertheless, the advantages of New Christianity outweigh the drawbacks. There is no doubt that, when old Christianity went wrong, it went very badly wrong. A religion that tells you specifically what 'good' involves and asks you to do something about it risks producing Torequemada or Mary Whitehouse. A religion which talks about God visiting earth in a particular disguise can very easily produce crusades, witch burnings and people knocking on your door to ask if you want to invite Jesus into your life. A religion predicated on such a difficult idea as The Incarnation can get caught up in 1000 years of hair splitting about dividing the unity and confounding the substance, or possibly vice versa. New Christianity throws all this out. You can't be fanatical about finding goodness in your own heart. You can't possibly want to convert your neighbour if everyone who has done a 'good' deed has already known the presence of Christ. And you can't argue about theology in a religion which has no beliefs.
And it has one advantage above every other. Because Good/Christ is not defined, and because Good/Christ is equally present in everyone, everyone can, in some sense, be a Christian. Every man, as the Bible would say if we were still reading it, can be a law unto himself. You follow your conscience and do what seems good to you and you are, by definition, following Christ. There is no need to listen to the teaching of a holy man. There is no need to perform rituals and ceremonies. There is no need to follow a particular ethical code. There is no need to read the Bible. There no need to come to church.
Which explains, of course, why no-body is.