// false economies and transformational politics

stockmarket1Interesting facts from revision this week: did you ever realise that the 1647 Westminster Confession was put together with a Civil War raging on all sides? Yep, *that* Westminster Confession. Out of which came the Westminster Shorter Catechism – the one whose start so many people know, the one that asks “what is the chief end and purpose of man?” and meets the reply, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”.

That was composed in the midst of a Civil War, with its own, distinctly political purposes.

Adopted by English law as part of the “Articles of Christian Religion” in 1648; rescinded in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II and the establishment of the 1662 “Act of Uniformity” (although some churches kept hold of it, earning the title of “nonconformists”); and then ratified again by the Scottish church in 1690 when William of Orange took power from James II…

What interests me about that is not so much the side of the Royalist vs. Parliamentarian argument that the Confession comes down on (later in, it asserts, for example, that the Pope is the Antichrist, which is a bit strong), but, actually, the fact that it was created at all. The Westminster Confession has to be seen as a defiant statement of purpose by a group of people who saw it to be a necessary step in their nation; they argued that the prevailing attitude and opinions that had gone before them were obstructing people from true worship, and believed that strongly enough to re-write the documents relating to it. And so that statement, that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”, which always seemed to me to have a kind of ethereal, mystically wise quality, that’s actually an invariably political statement. It’s a mission statement, a statement of purpose. It sets out *everything* else that follows, from that firm original standpoint.

The amazing thing about the Shorter Catechism is not that it was composed in political circumstances, then – as, honestly, what isn’t? Nothing is entirely apolitical. What is really amazing about it is the fact that it was actually printed in political circumstances, as it is so much more than propaganda, stands up as something way more than just a product of its time. Look at Question 26, for example:

Q: How doth Christ execute the office of a King?      
Christ executeth the office of a King, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.

The depiction of Christ here is apparently inseparable from the message that the Parliamentarians wished to deliver to the King; that true monarchy follows the example of Christ. Perfectly understandable, right, given the mess that the Civil War was descending into? But the message of the Confession ends up being something much more radical; this is a question that asserts an entirely different notion of Kingship altogether, and the same is true of Question 39:

Q: What is the duty which God requireth of man?
The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will.

Apologies for the Christian jargon (the Shorter Catechism lists answers to what each of these concepts are, but I’m limited by space), but again, what it finally asserts is that there is something even greater than the King, something *beyond*, a greater truth beyond earthly structures…

Anyway, enough talk about the Civil War for the moment. Skip forward to 2009, and the monarchy is effectively a symbolic body, religion and politics are practically separated, even if not officially so, and so all this talk of Westminster Confession may look like a statement of purpose, but it’s a statement of purpose by some Christians who died over 300 years ago, and it’s ultimately little more than a historical relic, right?


While the circumstances have changed, the fact is that any confession of Christianity is automatically a political statement – and bear with me, because I’m not suggesting the blurring of church and state. What I mean is, any statement that there is something bigger than this world, that the things that this world prizes – money, power, sex, health, life (amongst others) – are not the ultimate goals, that automatically stands out as being radically counter-cultural. Yes, being part of society may practically mean working within the political and social institutions, and there is a great deal within the Bible that relates to being citizens who are obedient and engaged with their societies, but if you look at things and see a higher authority and a higher end working behind the scenes then it demands some big questions.

What the creators of the Westminster Confession reveal is that the conflict that all of us face is not just in the immediate, even though that may be relevant, but it also ends up being between between the attitudes of a world that doesn’t understand anything outside of itself, and a people who are looking to something greater. We talk about ‘looking outside of the box’, but that means looking beyond – asserting that there is more here than just the everyday.

That’s what makes the Shorter Catechism so exciting (and there are some words I never thought I’d write…), and also well worth re-reading, as it reminds its readers that, for all the change in circumstances, the message hasn’t changed. Hey, Paul was effectively saying the same thing as early as the first century AD, asserting that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free… but we are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s not about the dissolution of identity, it’s about re-orientating things to see from a different perspective… and so, when the disciples challenge a court with the words, “speak for yourselves whether we should answer to God, or to you; as for us, we cannot stop speaking about all that we have seen and heard”, they lay out the two sides as clearly as it comes. Choose an economy bigger than yourself, goals bigger than your own, and a society that has a bigger focus than the immediate, or choose the systems, goals and hopes of this world.

The choice that they – and the authors of the Shorter Catechism, to a lesser extent – lay out is just that, and it’s a choice that’s worth thinking about, even if you think you’ve got this all sorted. Just how transformed are you? What shapes your goals? What is the predominant discourse in your life? Where is your focus placed?

Whether you need a reminder or just some food for thought, the Shorter Catechism can be found here – and it’s well worth a look.

Let me know what you think.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: