Research associate Peter King considers the role of the national church in contributing to nationalism, and offers practical solutions for the church to instead reflect a trans-national God.

The war makes me more thankful for the Church, which serves no country,
and for a God who doesn’t take sides.

Robert Mcgill. ONCE WE HAD A COUNTRY (KNOPF CANADA, 2013), P. 30

We live in a time when, for many, national borders and national identity are becoming more and more important, with the divisive language of “us” and “them” being used against refugees and asylum seekers and anyone viewed as “other”.   In the days since I finished writing this post we have seen the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are again reminded of just how dangerous unchecked nationalism can be.

National Churches ?

It is in this context that I find myself increasingly concerned about the idea of “national churches”. The description “national church” goes beyond those (such as the Church of England or Church of Denmark) which are formally established to those like the EKD in Germany or many of the various North American denominations, which are nevertheless still “national churches” in the sense that they both have the nation as part of their names and are also seen as in some way contributing to national identity.  

Of course, churches, just like other institutions of society, should in some way be rooted in their context but it troubles me when it seems that the church serves more to reinforce national identity than to encourage trans-national identity.  An interesting example of this appeared a few months ago in a newspaper report on research into religious voting patterns in the 2016 UK Brexit referendum, where it appeared that:

Fifty-five per cent of Church of England followers voted Leave in the 2016 referendum … while 61 per cent of Catholics backed Remain.

The huge disparity is explained by Anglicans having “an attachment to the English heritage and national identity”, according to academics at Brunel and Exeter universities. “Anglicans were very likely to vote leave,” said Dr Stuart Fox, a voter behaviour expert at Brunel University, adding “a typical Catholic would vote to remain in the European Union”.

“Catholics are used to the idea of a cross-national authority, as in the Pope and the Vatican, so, for them, the idea of being governed by an international body like the EU is quite normal,” he said.  “Anglican history, meanwhile, is defined by trying to remain separate from the European superblock, and to do that you need a strong independent nation state.

THE INDEPENDENT

Leaving aside the referendum question itself, I think the article points out just how significant, and formative, national church narratives are, and indicates how a trans-national narrative (as in that of Roman Catholicism) can indeed make a difference to church members’ attitudes and actions.

This is not the only example that could be cited.   Indeed, for much of Christian history, to the delight of some and to the shame of others, God has been invoked to justify nationalistic rhetoric.  Gerhard Lohfink sums up what many would see as the failure of the church in the twentieth century:

The Church did not prevent the two world wars, and could not prevent them. They simply broke over it. But what is disturbing today is something beyond the mere fact of the two wars: the Church is the body of Christ, beyond all boundaries, the people of God among the nations. That in 1914 Christians went enthusiastically to war against Christians, baptised against baptised, was not seen in any way as a destruction of what the Church is in and of its very nature, a destruction that cried out to heaven. That was the real catastrophe.

Gerhard Lohfink, Does God Need the Church ? (Liturgical Press, 1999) p. 315

In both world wars the church largely joined the war efforts of their respective nations.  And it was in reaction against the enthusiastic nationalistic rhetoric of many of his theological teachers at the outbreak of WW1 that Karl Barth formulated his “theology of crisis” with its emphasis on the discontinuity between God and all our human thoughts and concepts.

Yet surely the role of the church should be to relativise nationhood, to serve as a reminder that the followers of Christ form a community which transcends national boundaries ?  Indeed, one of my own formative early experiences of church was as part of a community of volunteers from all over Europe and the USA, and that has always served to remind me that to be a member of the church is to be part of an international community.

Although it is not often proclaimed in our world of national churches, Christian faith radically relativises national identity.  The writer to the Philippians’ claim that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20 NRSV) can be read as a pious longing for the afterlife, but it can also be read as a radical undermining of the nation state’s claim to final allegiance. 

It was a fascinating and inspiring discovery recently to read the various statements from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation, and to see how they articulated a theology of the church and nation in the vulnerable and dangerous boundary situation of Nazi occupation:

The Church of Jesus Christ should certainly be very thankful for, and live in close community with, the nation in which it is planted, a nation grown up in history and wishing to preserve its own peculiar characteristics; but the Church should always remember that in the first place it belongs to the new nation gathered by Christ from the whole human race and protected and upheld by Him. It has the duty continually to call its own nation to this new nation, this new community.

‘Pastoral About the National Socialist Philosophy’ (1943) in Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, The StrugglE of the Dutch Church (WCC, 1945)

Earlier in the same Pastoral Letter, the writers observe that for the Nazis ‘the nation is declared to be absolute and divine’, becoming ‘a mythical power’ for which ‘to live and die … gives human existence its true meaning’.   Such a claim is not far from that found on many UK War Memorials and implicit in the words of a Remembrance hymn, “O Valiant Hearts” still used in some English churches, where the death of the soldier in warfare is likened to the death of Christ.

The “mythical power” of nationhood is manifested in the ways in which the nation becomes an object of almost religious devotion.  Sometimes, tragically, the church itself is complicit in this, and although the consequences may not be as serious as those faced by the Dutch church, the church allies itself with nationalism at its peril.

In a UK context, Sociologist Franziska Kohlt observes how observance of Remembrance rituals each November (not least the wearing of red poppies) has, through the historic influence of Christianity,

become part of a performance of British culture – a ‘code of behaviour’ which it is perilous to transgress.

[Furthermore,] Even though such practises and language may have lost their primarily religious significance in the current setting, they perform a culturally powerful, persuasive, and performative function, to indicate what its right or wrong, good, or virtuous, as they align Christian, with military and national virtues, as seemingly affirmed by a notion higher than that of a national government.

FRANZISKA HOLT: “OVER BY CHRISTMAS”
“Earthrise”, taken by Astronaut Bill Anders from Apollo 8 on December 24 1968 (Public Domain)    
Common Sense ?

Coined by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) the term “cultural hegemony” refers to those things which people take for granted as common sense even when they know little about why it is common sense or even what the viable alternatives are.  As one commentator puts it:

Part of the power of cultural hegemony lies in its invisibility. Unlike a soldier with a gun or a political system backed up by a written constitution, culture resides within us. It doesn’t seem “political”, it’s just what we like, or what we think is beautiful, or what feels comfortable. Wrapped in stories and images and figures of speech, culture is a politics that doesn’t look like politics and is therefore a lot harder to notice, much less resist. When a culture becomes hegemonic, it becomes “common sense” for the majority of the population.

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for revolution

For many, the myths of nationalism, and its “code of behaviour”, have simply been taken for granted.   Indeed, it could be said that the very concept of a nation is itself an example of cultural hegemony.   One scholar speaks of what he terms “Banal Nationalism”, by which he means the myriad ways in which national identity is daily formed in us unawares, for example:

In routine practices and everyday discourses, especially those in the mass media, the idea of nationhood is regularly flagged. Even the daily weather forecast can do this. Through such flagging, established nations are reproduced as nations, with their citizenry being unmindfully reminded of their national identity.

Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (Sage, 1995), p. 154

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that, as Benedict Anderson puts it, a nation is essentially an “imagined community”.   This is so, he suggests, for the simple reason that

the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (Verso, 2006), p. 6

A nation is an imagined community because imagination is the only way in which one’s consciousness of being part of the whole can be nurtured and reinforced.  

So, even the idea of the nation state is an example of the cultural hegemony of which Gramsci so perceptively warns us.  This isn’t to say that such a self-understanding is necessarily unjustified or illegitimate, but it is important to be aware that to a quite considerable extent one’s national identity is manufactured by those in control of the myths and symbols.

From a theological perspective, in his early work The Presence of the Kingdom (1948), lawyer and lay theologian Jacques Ellul put his finger on the illusion at the roots of western society and observed how women and men are effectively manipulated in their view of the world:

Our contemporaries only see the presentations which are given them by the press, the radio, propaganda, and publicity. … [and] … modern man, submerged by this flood of images which he cannot verify, is utterly unable to master them.

Therefore, women and men all-too-readily take on board the prevailing “explanatory myth”:

But what is evidently very serious is that modern man has no other means of intellectual coherence or of political investigation than this myth. If he abandons it, he cuts himself off from the world in which he is living.

Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (SCM, 1951), pp. 101 – 103

For many of our contemporaries the “explanatory myths” of nationalism are indeed “common sense”, it is, quite simply, “who we are”.  And there are certainly many in whose interest it is to maintain the myths.  But it doesn’t have to be like that !

Seafront Mural, St Leonard’s on Sea.  Photo: Peter King
Beyond “Common Sense”

No culture, however, is completely hegemonic. Even under the most complete systems of control, there are pockets of what Gramsci …  called “counter-hegemonic” cultures: ways of thinking and doing that have revolutionary potential because they run counter to the dominant power.

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for revolution

One of these “pockets” should be the Christian community.   After all, the parables of Jesus are largely counter-hegemonic.  Many of them shock or disturb us because of the way they appear to defy what we have been brought up to think of as “common sense”.   The parable of the workers in the vineyard, for example, is disturbing and annoying for many people because it seems unfair that those who have only worked for an hour get paid as much as those who have worked for a full day.  The same applies to much of Jesus’ teaching.  His teaching on nonviolent resistance, though more complex than might be thought from a face value reading, again defies what many would regard as “common sense”.    In a similar way, much of his life would seem to subvert the “common sense” of his time – eating and drinking with the disreputable, mixing with “undesirable” or “unclean” women, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.  From all these examples, and more, it would seem clear that Jesus embodies, in his life and teaching, an example of a counter-hegemonic culture.

What then is the role of the Christian community in offering a counter-hegemonic alternative to the symbols and myths of national identity ?   Perhaps the most important role is to ask questions, to challenge those things that are simply taken for granted, to suggest that things could be different. If a nation is essentially an “imagined community” then, at its most basic, it is surely the task of the churches to evoke a community of the imagination which transcends national borders.

I remember meeting the late peace activist Jim Forest at a Pax Christi talk in London a few years ago.  Talking to him afterwards, he told me of his idea that we might wear badges with a photo of the earth from space as a reminder of the planet we share and our commitment to live together in peace.   I have never forgotten this conversation, and continue to think about it.  This, surely, is just one small example of a way in which we might begin to evoke that wider community of the imagination which church is all about.

Beyond that small gesture, to practically address the “mythic power”of nationalism, it seems to me that there are a number of things that we can do.   For a start, here are two.

Firstly, we can offer a trans-national narrative, which actively seeks connections with those who worship the God of Jesus in other parts of the world.  In many cases we already do this, but usually in the form of specially chosen “Mission Partners” rather than simple expressions of solidarity with churches around the world.  Now that so many more of us are familiar with the likes of Zoom due to the pandemic all sorts of possibilities open up for church twinning or prayer or study groups transcending national borders.

Secondly, we can resist the seductions of nationalism, and the expectations of the nation-state.  There has been much debate in some parts of the church about the role and future of Remembrance in the UK.  Maybe it is time for the churches to set the agenda, to challenge the “code of behaviour” Kohlt so helpfully identifies in her article,  and push for a recognition that all lives are equal and that it is not the churches’ place to contribute to the nationalistic narrative which so often accompanies Remembrance but rather to work towards something like an International Day of Remembrance which transcends national boundaries and goes beyond “sides”. 

We are all citizens of one world.   But where then can we turn for global leadership, looking beyond the interests of our own tribe to the interests of all ? Perhaps this is the role of the church.  Although we too are implicated, and our institutions are also numbered amongst the principalities and powers, at their best they offer a vision of the world which transcends national and even species boundaries with a vision of justice and peace for all.  Perhaps it is time for our churches to begin to live out the world citizenship integral to our calling.


Peter King trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education.  Peter’s work for the CSBV includes producing Bible study resources such as these, and running our preacher’s blog Sunday Sermon Monday Mourning.


National Churches & Trans-National God
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