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Dorothy Sayers Challenged the Church to Transcend Politics

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Dorothy SayersDorothy L. Sayers was a mystery writer, dramatist, and faithful member of the Church of England for the first half of the 20th century. She is well known for her writing, not least for her essay, “Why Work?” She also presented a helpful perspective on the role of Christians and the church in culture and politics—one that is an important reminder for us today.

Seeking the Welfare of People

As an artist, Sayers had a nuanced vision for the way Christians should interact with the world around them. Sayers was a “cautious transformationalist.” That is, she encouraged Christians to be actively involved in changing the world for Christ, but warned them about losing their distinct Christian identity.

When asked to address the question of the proper relationship between the church and the state before the Archbishop of York’s conference, Sayers offered a vision of a “disinterested” church. The speech was later published as an essay of the proceedings of the 1941 meeting of that conference, which was held in Malvern.

Her message is striking since it was spoken to representatives of the state-authorized church. Though remarkable in the context of a state-supported church, Sayers’ comments are helpful for Christians committed to engaging in the public square for the common good.

In a “disinterested” church, Sayers is not saying uninterested. She notes that some in her time were surprised to find that,

…in certain devastated areas of our cities, the only people who could get things done, bursting through red tape and indolence, were a number of parish priests and clergy.

The reason why, she explains, is that these individuals were both engaged and disinterested. They were engaged in seeking the welfare of the people, but disinterested in gaining power through their actions.

In fact, Sayers believes that the Christian worldview is the only one true to reality, and thus the best fitted for human flourishing. Therefore, it’s appropriate and necessary to help people see things in a more Christian fashion. But in doing so, Christians must avoid being identified with the world—or in other words, conformed to it. Otherwise, they would lose their effectiveness.

When the Church identifies or involves herself with government, or indeed with the law in either its secular or its moral manifestations, the compass-needle of her witness is bound to be deflected from its true North to lie along the axis of policy.

So, Christians are to continually point toward truth—the truth that only comes into this world through special revelation. That is, we should point toward the truthfulness of the gospel. No law can overcome greed, but the church can transform the world by pointing to the one who can free all people from avarice.

The Church is Not a Political Action Committee

This does not mean that individual Christians should disengage from politics, but that the church as an institution should steer clear of political advocacy, which might cause it to become entangled with the state. However, both the church and individual Christians retain a duty to stand against injustice whenever possible.

Cautioning against entangling the church with governance, Sayers writes:

If, then, the Church commits herself, as a Church to the support of any particular form of political government, and especially if she uses her influence to bring that government into power and keep it there, she will find herself insensibly adopting and maintaining, not only its secular organization, but also its underlying assumptions, which may be very strongly in conflict with her theology.

What may start out as simply the church pushing for what it views to be the best government available may end up distorting the gospel and thus perverting the very nature of the church.

Additionally, the opposition may view itself as pushing back against Christianity as well as a political party. Worse yet, the church may end up pushing for policies that undermine the ethical demands of the gospel itself.

The church—and the individual Christian—must pursue justice in both personal relationships and institutional systems. The church must stand for the good, the true, and the beautiful in all situations. To fail to do so will diminish the gospel-centric witness of Christians and dampen our prophetic voice to a world that desperately needs the restorative message of the gospel.

Transformation vs. Confrontation

In her plea for cultural engagement, Sayers seems to be arguing along the lines of Paul in Romans 12:2a:

…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Like Paul, Sayers assumes Christians will be attempting to change the world for Christ. Like Paul, Sayers recognizes the temptation of power, comfort, and custom to lead to conforming, which reduces our effectiveness.

Sayers’ cautious transformationalism strikes a careful balance that does not neglect doing good deeds, but seeks to remain focused on doing good for goodness sake. In the end, our efforts will be much more likely to achieve their desired ends—the good of the world around us for the glory of God.

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