A Believing, Professing Christian
Our view of politicians who profess to believe in Jesus is cynical to say the least. The reason is that Messiah means many different things to different people. All Unbelievers weave and construct a doctrine of Christ after their own lusts and prejudices. Their Christ is made after their own image. These comments are even more true of politicians and public figures than ordinary people.
Nonetheless there is something different, we believe, at least thus far, with respect to the present UK Prime Minister, Theresa May. It is sufficiently unusual to warrant The Guardian publishing an article on the subject.
As the only child of a vicar, Theresa May’s early Christmases inevitably revolved around the parish church. She attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and was back in church the following morning, with her mother playing the organ and her father preaching the sermon. After church, her father often had pastoral visits to make to lonely or bereaved parishioners. Little Theresa – and her presents – had to wait.May clearly has a faith which has shaped her practice over many years. She was a practising Christian before her political elevation. That practice has continued, so that the latter builds upon and conforms with the former. She has spoken three times recently about her personal commitment to Christ and His Church. Not, please note, to an extrinsic ethic, or an ideal, or a tradition, but to her identity as a Christian. She has been publicly professing her faith. All Christians immediately grasp the significance of such an act.
Life in the rural Oxfordshire vicarage, and the religious devotion of her parents, Hugh and Zaidee Brasier, had a profound impact on the girl who would grow up to be prime minister. May’s Christmas interview with the Radio Times marks the third time in just over a week that she has spoken publicly about her Christian faith, suggesting she may be more ready to acknowledge her personal beliefs than her immediate predecessors. . . .
The third occasion on which May publicly referenced her faith came at last week’s prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons. Responding to the MP Fiona Bruce, who asked about the freedom of Christians to speak openly about their faith, May said the issue was an important one “which matters to both her and me”. May told the House of Commons: “Our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of.” [Emphasis, ours.]But critics see dangers for May in this. The reason is that she will been seen as out of step with secular, modern, unbelieving Britain.
Until she became prime minister earlier this year, May was a regular member of the congregation at St Andrew’s church in Sonning, part of her Maidenhead constituency. She had been “a valued and very supportive member of our church family for the last 20 years”, said the local vicar, Jamie Taylor, on her elevation to No 10. “I believe she is well placed to lead our nation.”
Two years earlier, May had spoken on Desert Island Discs about her faith, saying it was “part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things.” But, she added, “I think it’s right that we don’t flaunt these things here in British politics. But it is a part of me, it’s there and it obviously helps to frame my thinking and my approach.” Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, said May felt she had been called to lead the country, with a strong sense of vocation and destiny. “She is a genuinely devout Anglican, and has real convictions about the common good, duty, service – those traditional Anglo-Catholic virtues,” she said.Another "expert" frames it as a non-story about nothing significant at all really.
“Why does she feel the political imperative to tell us this? It’s tied up with the Tories’ core constituency and with Brexit – people who want to have those views affirmed. Brexiters were disproportionately likely to be Church of England, so May is appealing to an important block of voters. It’s reassuring to say she stands for those values. But in the long term, it’s a dangerous strategy. The country is increasingly non-religious, so it could alienate people. It’s fine now, but it won’t be in another decade.”
Margaret Thatcher was the “most religious prime minister since William Gladstone”, according to Eliza Filby, the author of God and Mrs Thatcher: The Battle for Britain’s Soul, and lecturer in modern British history at King’s College London. But May was much more pragmatic than the ideologically driven Thatcher. “Margaret Thatcher set out a biblical justification for neoliberal economics. There’s no way May would do that. She’s not a preacher,” said Filby.Time will tell. For Christians, however, who have increasingly been made to tread the "long dark of Moria" it is the first breath of fresh air in a very long time.
The prime minister was a sincere High Anglican whose “Christian foundations have shaped her belief in a country built for everyone”. Talking about her faith gave her “personal legitimacy. Even in an irreligious country like ours, we like our politicians to give some sense they adhere to a higher power rather than just political expediency,” said Filby. “But it also appeals to a cultural conservatism, an idealised vision of what England used to be like, and a rejection of social liberalism.” . . .
May’s repeated references to her faith and Christian upbringing over recent days was not overly significant, said Filby. “There are two times a year when politicians talk about faith – Christmas and Easter. No one would listen at any other time.”