My ecclesial tradition (the United Reformed Church) would proudly claim its dissenting and non-conformist heritages. This is the primary reason why we moved to this community. Today, I can hardly recognise this heritage in any form of habitual practice. It is becoming one of the most risk-averse organisation around. I am sure at the local and individual level – there are stirrings of dissent. Our strapline of ‘walking the way: living the life of Jesus today’ seen through its resource hub (online) will direct you to an excellent set of resources. It is not insignificant, though, that the one least populated is that of our prophetic vocation – becoming prophetic in practice. Is there a link between church decline and loss of the dissenting tradition in the URC?
Good, necessary and timely as these are, we have been effectively chained to all sorts of health and safety, safeguarding and legal requirements making it more and more difficult to dissent. This is not to deny the multiplicity of resolutions in our churches that would make some of prophets of old nod in appreciation. These, though, are so well and carefully crafted that they ensure that the organisation is in the first instance protected from any libel or being hauled before the courts. With very few exceptions we would struggle to find any Ezekiel or Jeremiah-like kick-ass protest and dissent. I can see my ecclesial tradition (of which I am a part) with its current rulings and proclivities as most likely capable of siding with Pilate and the establishment (to play safe) as we re-crucify Jesus. Am I too harsh, unfair and unsympathetic to my ecclesial community? Some may think so.
The demise I am trying to ‘call out’ is not happening in a vacuum. Protest and dissent have been facing a clampdown for years now. Now the control of public space – speech – the right to protest or dissent is increasingly under attack from all sorts of arbitrary state intervention aimed at stopping unapproved political expression. Some refer to this as the ‘colonising of civil society’ – paralysing us with overwhelming paperwork, playing the unpatriotic and terrorism naming card, creating suspicion about the dissenters (their honesty or motive) and much more.
A test for democracy has always been some free space as a set of crucial rights where to dissent. To draw from and paraphrase George Orwell: wherever there is enforced orthodoxies and rulings – good writing and dissent are being stifled. Everywhere, the space to protest and dissent is being squeezed. And as investigative writers would note, repressive tools abound – including a variety of administrative regulations – restrictive legislation – misuse of anti-terrorist measures – surveillance – border controls – heavy handed policing – arbitrary arrest and imprisonment – murder – manipulation and more. Even ecclesial bodies are more concerned with letting you know about its disciplinary process, in the first instance, than encouraging a protest, especially if an arrest would be imminent.
‘Freedom is for freeing’: I can hear the voice of the late Philip Potter booming-out. Today (as in the past I suppose), such freedom is quite fragile. It is under threat. The 1% is effectively ‘running things’ as the status quo serve their ends. The danger is that centralized representative governance is ‘up the creek – swimming in some crappy sludge’. And so many are refusing to vote and if they do, they go for all the other alternatives (some good but many dangerous). The established political groups, which like church that has lost its teeth, cannot attract new members. There is massive disconnect between espoused values we stand for and the reality of our practice. Where dissent is viewed as illegitimate, outlawed, closed-down then participative democracy will never happen (be it Church or Politics).
I return to George Orwell, specifically his 1946 essay on ‘the prevention of Literature’. He wrote that in the Protestant tradition ‘the idea of rebellion and the idea of intellectual integrity were mixed up’. The outlook of the rebel or heretic was summed up in the words of the very familiar Revivalist hymn: “dare to be a Daniel/Dare to stand alone/Dare to have a purpose firm/ dare to make it known”. Orwell then goes on to note that in 1946 what would have been more appropriate or true was to add the word “don’t” at the start of each line. He writes: “Daring to stand alone is ideologically criminal as well as practically dangerous. The independence of the writer and the artist is eaten away by vague economic forces, and at the same time it is undermined by those who should be its defenders”. What has changed?
May 3, 2019