One of the aspects of British life that this blog finds hardest to tolerate and justify – aside from our lack of a written constitution, the complete absence of checks on Parliamentary power, our deference to government authority and the eternally unrealistic expectations heaped upon the England football team – is the fact that in the year 2014, our supposedly liberal democracy maintains the absurdity that is an established church (and de facto national religion).
The notion that Britain is a Christian nation has been a laughable, if ubiquitous proposition for many years now. To arrive at the conclusion that the UK is a Christian land, one has to redefine Christianity not as a religion, a set of beliefs, teachings or practices, but rather as some woolly abstract incorporating cherry-picked elements of history, patriotism, nationalism, whiteness, tradition, middle class anxiety and fear of change. The rather more trustworthy indicators such as weekly church attendance, changing census data and the public’s knowledge of basic Christian tenets point stubbornly and persistently in the opposite direction.
David Cameron, always more comfortable on the woollier side of a debate, naturally favoured the abstract markers of Britain as a “Christian” nation when he made his recent intervention, a rare instance of a senior politician addressing matters of faith which also conveniently eclipsed the ongoing media coverage of his incompetent handling of the Maria Miller expenses scandal.
First comes Cameron’s woolliness:
In an article in the Church Times ahead of Easter Sunday, Mr Cameron acknowledged that he is a “bit vague” on the “more difficult parts of faith” but said he has “deep respect” for the national role of the Church.
He said: “I am a member of the Church of England, and, I suspect, a rather classic one: not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith.
And then the pivot toward the bold assertion that despite the fact that Cameron is a religious zealot by today’s standards, “vague faith” such as this on the part of a dwindling segment of the population can be extrapolated to mean broad national consent for the primacy of one religion and denomination over all others:
He said: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.
But the emphasis really is on the word ‘dwindling’. The Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, inadvertently gives the game away when he seeks to explain what he claims are “heartening” church attendance figures:
These figures are a welcome reminder of the work and service undertaken by the Church of England annually – 1,000 couples married, 2,600 baptisms celebrated and over 3,000 funerals conducted every week of the year.
The fact that there were 400 more departures than additions to the ranks of the faithful in his diocese may have failed to set off alarm bells in the head of the Bishop of Norwich, but for the more numerate reader it does illustrate rather starkly the problem faced by the wider church.
Once it has been explained that 2,600 minus 3,000 equals a net loss of 400, the Rt Rev Graham James (and the Church of England as a whole) must concede the fact that a higher number of Christian funerals than baptisms represents a real and existential threat, or else they are essentially admitting that the sacraments of the church are no real way to measure the faith of the people, and that they therefore no longer matter. An admission of the latter seems unlikely.
The response of many – both to the decline in church attendance and in attempts to loosen the Church of England’s disproportionate grip on the levers of power – has been to rail against the damage of that destructive group known as the “militant atheists”, those shadowy PC paramilitaries who fight the War On Christmas and dare to suggest that claiming religious objection does not exempt a person from their contract of employment or license to do business. The Daily Mail leads the charge from this side:
The truth is that there is a new breed of militant atheists who are capable of being as unreasoning as the most bone-headed creationist. Their intolerance is a strange mirror reflection of the bigotry of religious extremists.
‘Intolerance’ here is given the broad definition of the perpetual victim, an insult hurled by those who suddenly find themselves losing their ability to impose their values and lifestyle choices on everyone else.
According to this school of thought, it is bone-headedly ignorant to see anything wrong in the fact that our Head of State has a constitutional duty to defend one faith above all others, or that twenty-six members of that one faith alone are entitled to sit in the upper house of the British Parliament and participate in our lawmaking.
Neither do the traditionalist defenders agree on when, if at all, Britain might no longer be considered a Christian country. Would it be when more people regularly attend another faith or denomination’s services? If so, that ship has already sailed and Britain should once again be pledging fealty to Rome and the Holy See. Or perhaps the moment of severance can be declared when a majority of people no longer agree with Church teaching on matters such as gay marriage or equality for women? But again, that moment has been passed. More likely, their answer would be “never”, simply because they will it to be so.
None of this means that Christianity has lost its place as the predominant religion in Britain – indeed, this is one thing clearly supported by the 2011 census data. It is certainly true that among people expressing a religious affiliation, the vast majority identify as Christians. But there is a huge gulf between acknowledging this fact and deciding that British laws and the British system of government itself should continue to be organised around and influenced by the teachings of a religion that most people only identify with on a nominal, cultural basis.
And it is on this this basis that the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, joined the debate with a proposal to disestablish the Church of England, in order to prevent any more unnecessary harm coming either to that church or to the rest of us.
The Guardian reports:
Nick Clegg has said the church and state should be separated, a view he has expressed before but one that is likely to gain fresh currency after David Cameron described Britain as a Christian country.
Clegg, an atheist, said he would like to see the disestablishment of the Church of England, which would lead to the Queen’s removal as the head of the church.
“In the long run it would be better for the church and better for people of faith, and better for Anglicans, if the church and the state were over time to stand on their own two separate feet,” the deputy prime minister said on his LBC radio phone-in show. He said he did not think this would happen overnight.
Heads will surely explode at The Daily Mail, and the likes of Cristina Odone will stay up late into the night to pen angry rebuttals, but in fact here is a very sensible proposal that would help to keep the church out of some of the more hot-button political and social debates affecting the country as a whole, while going a few steps toward establishing a more sane, comprehensible constitution for the United Kingdom.
Indeed, many of the reasons given by apologists for why the UK is a Christian country are symptoms of an established church, not justifications for continuing to tolerate one – artefacts such as the Queen’s role as the head of the church, or the presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords, for example. But this is akin to claiming that an Egyptian mummy is a living, breathing human being – sure, the body parts are in the right place (just as the constitutional elements are in place for a British theocracy) but the heart does not beat, the blood does not flow and the brain does not think like a living person.
Nick Clegg goes on to claim that the Church of England would “thrive” if disestablishment were to occur, and this may well be the case. At present, the Church has to walk a tightrope with doctrine on one side and popular opinion on the other, making it appear weak and indecisive, and pleasing to no one. Unshackled from the state, however, the church could continue to discriminate against gays and women (or more hopefully recognise their equality) without dragging the rest of the country into the debate.
Naturally, David Cameron disagrees:
Mr Cameron said: “I think our arrangements work well in this country. We are a Christian country, we have an established church,” adding that disestablishment was “a long term Liberal idea but it is not a Conservative one.”
This is conservatism of the bad kind, the reflexive hanging on to tradition not because the alternative is untried and the status quo works well, but simply out of a reluctance to rock the boat, upset the party base or start a real, informed debate. Cameron believes that the current constitutional arrangement “works well”, but take this with a pinch of salt – he also believes that parliamentary oversight of the security services works very well indeed, though it transpired that they were undertaking far more extensive and intrusive surveillance than the public had ever been aware of or given their consent.
The New Statesman naturally comes down on the side of disestablishment, and they come armed with the words of the most recent former Archbishop of Canterbury:
Religious believers who oppose such a move should look to the US, where faith has flourished alongside the country’s secular constitution. Indeed, in an interview with the New Statesman in 2008, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, (who went on to famously guest-edit the magazine) suggested that the church might benefit from such a move: “I can see that it’s by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh synod, it didn’t have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.”
What Rowan Williams delicately calls a “certain integrity” is actually just plain old democracy, properly executed, with each citizen having a voice and no powerful interests able to sway policy based on their own narrow interests. Both church and state can make decisions in their own interests without running to each other for contentious debate or rubber-stamp approval.
The British people, usually so quick to voice their distaste for money in politics and big donations from wealthy individuals, corporations or trades union, should ponder this simple fact: of all the business moguls, special interest groups and union barons jostling to influence British government policy in their favour, only one organisation is powerful enough to boast twenty-six loyal, paid representatives ready to do its bidding in the upper house of the British Parliament. Britain’s 100 biggest employers, ten largest unions and her wealthiest people combined do not have the lobbying and legislative clout of the Church of England, an organisation that commands a weekly attendance of just 1.8% of the UK’s population.
To say all of these things does not imply a hostility of any kind to religion and faith-based organisations, despite the misleading accusations of the traditionalists; regular readers will know that this blogger is a practicing (if somewhat Cameron-vague) Catholic. Indeed, disestablishment of the Church of England, combined with a loosening of the government’s hand on all matters of faith, can only benefit religious organisations, schools, charities and initiatives through the plurality that would immediately be created.
But even if disestablishment would cause difficulty or a degree of harm to the church, that alone is not a sufficient reason to preserve the status quo. It is not the business of government to pick winners and losers, to favour some more than others, and institutions (corporate or otherwise) who rely on state aid of any kind tend to fail regardless in the longer term.
Christianity – and the Church of England – have formed a huge part of who we are as a country, influencing our laws, culture, art and traditions. We should be very grateful for this – just ask anyone who suffers or whose life prospects are narrowed or extinguished under a modern day Muslim theocracy. But we should not be content merely to be better than Iran or Saudi Arabia – the time has come to do away with an established state church entirely.
In the year 2014, it is time to finally remove the theological shackles from the British constitution, and to take the state church off life support so it may live and breathe unaided. Committed Christians and Church of England members should have the confidence in their faith and institutions to accept, if not actively welcome, this change.