The completion of the census form is something we will all have to address in the next week. But the taking of a census doesn’t always get a very good press in the Bible. Although the Lord commands a census to be taken of the children of Israel in Numbers 26 in 2 Samuel 24 census taking is denounced as revealing a lack of faith in God’s providence. There are of course references to census taking in the New Testament but these are associated with the taxation policies of the alien occupiers.
My main interest in the census focuses on one particular question. “What is your religion?”
This is a more difficult question than first appears. There is you see a clear distinction between religion and faith. A religion is a set of cultural and linguistic practices through which a faith is expressed. As Christian preachers we seek to proclaim Christ rather than particular religious practices. Such practices can be reserved to the notice sheet with details of forthcoming meetings and social events.
Christianity is a faith but Methodism or Presbyterianism or whatever might be described as religions. For myself I like to draw on the whole deposit of faith whether it be Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant in proclaiming Jesus as the saviour of the world. I frequently find myself worshipping with other Christians whose religious background is different from my own. When I was a minister in Milton Keynes, where there are many ecumenical partnerships many people wrote ”ecumenical” in the relevant box on the census form. This is not what the census compilers had in mind.
So the first possibility for me would be to write “none”. I have transcended narrow religiosity because I am a follower of Jesus.
Another answer might be to write “Christian” in the space provided. The difficulty about that is that Christianity is not really a religion within the world view of the census writers. They want to know about people’s denominational allegiances be they: Church of England, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical [an umbrella covering an enormous number of Christian groups], Orthodox, Pentecostal or whatever. If I reply that I believe in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, as I do, I can imagine them tearing their hair out.
A third answer would be to write “Methodist” in the box provided. This is a perfectly proper answer within the meaning of the question. Nevertheless it doesn’t really do justice to my Christian faith. But then my faith isn’t really on the line here simply my preferred cultural and linguistic practices by which I express my faith. A wise Local preacher in my first circuit once said to me: “a Methodist is Christian in earnest”. Great line. I’ve often quoted it. Nobody not even a Methodist, I hope, would ever say; a Christian is a Methodist in earnest.
So what to do. Well you could do nothing because the question is voluntary in any case. The case for writing ”none” is simply this. It will serve as a warning signal to the leadership of the churches that they are facing a serious missional challenge and can no longer rely on people feeling a sense of loyalty to their denominations established status, the racial or social class profile of their people or any other form of tribal membership. That’s a good message to send and I am sure that St Paul would agree with me.