Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

30 September 2010

Why gay sex is wrong, from a Catholic perspective

This is something of a departure from my normal themes; although some of my recent posts have had an explicitly Christian, indeed Catholic, subject matter. I think a defence of Catholic teaching on homosexuality still falls within the remit of this blog, however, in that it involves challenging one of the sacred cows of contemporary Britishness: the view that, unlike certain benighted parts of the world, we in Britain have a rational, tolerant and, by implication, correct attitude towards homosexuality.

Clearly, this subject could generate vast tomes, as it’s so complex and controversial. I’m going to try to cut through some of that by means of a direct assertion: the wrongness or otherwise of active homosexuality (gay sex) is bound up with the nature of the life of faith itself. It’s impossible to understand or accept Church teaching on homosexuality without an appreciation of what faith is, which in a sense requires that you have faith.

If you don’t have a faith, whether Christian or that of any other ‘God’-centric creed, then the centre of your universe and of meaning in life will probably be your self: your personality, relationships, life experiences, aspirations, career, family, beliefs, etc. The purpose of a life lived without faith could be variously described as to fulfil your potential, care for those you love, be successful (or rich, or famous), make a difference in the world, pursue your dreams, do whatever you want, make the best of what you’ve got, etc. What these goals have in common is that they are all centred on the self, which is not necessarily the same as self-centred: who I am, what kind of person I am, self-discovery, self-fulfilment, self-realisation. If you’re a gay person without faith, then it’s obvious that one of the main goals in your life is to be true to yourself as gay and to express your sexuality in your relationships. End of discussion.

However, the life of faith is not centred on the self in this way: it is, or should be, centred on God. And that’s the living God and risen Lord, as Christians know him, not some random, patriarchal giver of archaic homophobic laws, or the prime mover of creation, or other contemporary caricatures. For people without faith, or of another faith, those words – living God and risen Lord – could also appear to be a cliché and caricature. But they don’t do, cannot do, justice to the lived experience of Christian faith, which ultimately is centred on a direct, personal encounter with God. All I can say is that, for me, the love of God in Christ is real and is the most powerful motivating force in my life. When your life has been touched by that love, then the best part of you wants to live out that love and be true to it in all that you do. And you’re carried forward by the conviction that that’s precisely what God wants for you: that your life should be in every aspect be a visible, tangible expression of the love of God, for yourself and everyone you relate to.

That means that God has a purpose for each and every one of us; and that purpose is love. And as God himself is love – the source and centre of all human love and life – then that purpose is also to draw us into an ever deeper union with (communion with and in) his love and being. This means that sexuality and sexual activity also has a divine purpose and meaning. And that’s not only procreation and, for that reason, necessarily heterosexual. The purpose is to share in God’s love and in what that love does, which is to bring new life into being and to bring mortal life into his eternal being.

Therefore, sex is not just for procreation, but it is for life and for marriage, defined as the life-long union between a man and a woman in Christ via the sacrament, or sacred mystery, of matrimony. Sacraments enact and express the union between God and humanity in Christ. Therefore, the union between a man and a woman in marriage is both bodily (as expressed in sex, among other things) and spiritual, just as Christ is both incarnate and pure divine Spirit. In that union with Christ, and with each other in Christ, married couples are called by God to live out and manifest in human form the very nature and action of God himself known as a Trinity: two – God the Father and God the Son – being united in love for each other, and in that very love (a love also known as God the Spirit or the Giver of Life) giving rise to and sustaining the whole of creation. By analogy, the married couple, in their union of love lived out both spiritually and physically – including through sex – are intended to become a father and a mother giving new life of themselves and of that love in the form of their children, who they are called not only to procreate but to guide into the fullness of life that is Christ. Like Christ himself, the new life that results from that union is literally the love of God incarnate.

Sex is therefore intended by God to be a means for human beings to be united in and with his own love and being, and in the fruits of that love, which are life itself. What are called the ‘unitive’ (a man and woman becoming one in Christ) and ‘procreative’ purposes of sex as lived out in marriage are integral to each other: if the sex is not both unitive (sacramental, matrimonial) and open to procreation it cannot fully express and embody God’s love. That’s the common reason why gay sex, unmarried straight sex, non-genital straight sex, and marital sex using contraceptives are all viewed as sinful by the Church: ‘sin’ meaning when, in our actions and thoughts, we close ourselves off to the love of God. In sexual life, that love is intended by God to be realised most fully in the loving union between a man and a woman in marriage from which new life comes.

So it’s not just gay sex that is, on this view, ‘wrong’, i.e. immoral and sinful. All sexual activity that we engage in with either the deliberate intention to ignore what the Church, speaking words inspired by the Holy Spirit, teaches us to be the true meaning and purpose of sex, or in ignorance of that teaching, is to a greater or lesser extent sinful, because it means that our will and our actions are directed to the ends of our self rather than to God’s purposes and love. And the more we structure our lives around the ignoring and ignorance of God, the more we are in danger of being unable or unwilling to turn to God and welcome his love into our lives.

Therefore, what is essentially ‘wrong’ about gay sex is that it is sex without any reference or regard to the divine purpose of sex, which is one important way, but not the only way, to share in the love and action of God in the world. That doesn’t mean that gay sex is necessarily or always without love, which it manifestly isn’t: gay couples are often just as loving, if not more so, than many straight ones; and their relationships just as long-lasting. But gay sex is an imperfect expression of the love of God – but, let’s face it, which one of us is perfect? – insofar as God intends that love to be expressed in sex: it cannot be either unitive (a man and woman becoming one body in Christ) or procreative (giving of new life). And, for that reason, gay sex can never be the realisation of a divine calling: God doesn’t call gay people to have sex, because gay sex cannot in itself serve God (bring God’s life into the world, and be an expression of his intentions in creating sex, and creating through sex). Gay sex is ultimately an expression of what the self wants – ‘I’m gay, so therefore I want sex and am going to have it’ – rather than of God’s purpose for sex and for the gay person him- or herself, which is to share fully in the love and being of God.

So gay sex is ultimately, from the Catholic perspective, a potential barrier to the gay person in responding fully to God’s offer of love and eternal life: it can orientate our will and our actions towards the pleasures and goals of this life and of the body, in opposition to the Christian calling to open our hearts, minds, bodies and souls to the love of God for us in Christ. And gay persons are therefore called upon to be celibate, not out of an arbitrary, servile and ignorant submission to a homophobic prohibition on something to which gay people’s personalities naturally attract them; but out of the need – which all of us share – to put God’s love before all other needs and desires.

And that’s because God’s love is both the true purpose of our life in this world and its eternal destination.

29 September 2010

Ed Miliband addresses the country – only not by name

The BBC website provides a useful word cloud for Ed Miliband’s keynote address to the Labour Party conference yesterday. Here it is:

Two things immediately stand out: 1) after ‘generation’ (frequent references to a ‘new generation’ of Labour politics), the most frequently occurring word is ‘country’ (37 instances); 2) there is absolutely no reference to ‘England’ – not one.

On the one hand, this lack of engagement on the part of the new Labour leader with the idea or reality of England should and does not surprise us. It would be more surprising if Ed Miliband had talked at any length at all about ‘England’ and the need for the party to address the concerns of ordinary English people. On the other hand, the total absence of ‘England’ from the speech belies the new leader’s attempt to differentiate himself from New Labour, as the lack of an English dimension to Labour’s vision of and for ‘the country’ represents a strong thread of continuity with New Labour days. Instead of ‘England’, Miliband resorted to the stock term, ‘country’, that politicians and those in the media employ to avoid being specific about whether they are talking about Britain as a whole or England only, or both.

Nonetheless, Miliband’s speech does represent a break with New Labour practice in that ‘Britain’, too, appears to have lapsed into disuse: ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ garnered only 16 mentions. At least, we’re now not getting ‘Britain’ thrust in our faces at every turn when a Labour politician is talking about purely English policy areas; but that’s partly because there was very little on policy as such in Miliband’s speech, nor was there expected to be. So ‘country’ has come to replace ‘Britain’ as well as ‘England’, probably for the same reason: it allows you to avoid being specific about which country you’re referring to in different contexts, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of having to say ‘Britain’ when everyone knows that what you’re referring to is relevant to England only, but you can’t say so because ‘England’ is the ultimate taboo word.

This lack of references to the name(s) of the country or countries being evoked, and even to particular regions or parts of the country (such as the North or the South), creates a strange impression of non-specificity: a vision for the ‘country’ that is not grounded in any geographical, indeed geopolitical, reality. This is Labour’s, or Ed Miliband’s, vision for ‘society’, ‘the economy’, ‘government’ and ‘politics’ (all among the most commonly used words, as the word cloud illustrates) where the national collectivity and context that are implied and invoked in these terms remain completely nameless during large parts of the speech: as it were abstracted out of the vision. ‘We’ and ‘our’ (as in the endlessly intoned ‘our country’, ‘our society’, ‘our economy’) are among the most frequently occurring words in the speech (not shown in the word cloud, which is limited to nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives). But it’s never spelled out who are the ‘we’ thus addressed. In the end, the inescapable impression is that ‘we’ is above all the collective consciousness of the Labour Party in its aspiration to re-take ownership of ‘the country’:

“The optimism of Tony and Gordon who took on the established thinking and reshaped our country. We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world.”

Far from reaching out to the British people, let alone the English people, this is Labour talking to itself about Labour’s vision of ‘the country’ – as it were the ‘Labour nation’, which can be set out in its pure form, untainted by the all-too recent realities of Labour in government, only because it abstracts itself from any real national context.

But if you don’t name the country you’re talking about, can you really espouse and re-connect with the aspirations and priorities of ordinary people, who want their leaders to set out believable visions for their country – England – and, perhaps more importantly, want them to acknowledge ways in which they’ve let down their country in the past. Ed Miliband had a little go at this when he owned up to the failings of the outgoing Labour government in areas such as tuition fees and immigration policy:

“I understand why you felt that we were stuck in old thinking about higher and higher levels of personal debt, including tuition fees”

“this new generation recognises that we did not do enough to address concerns about globalisation, including migration. All of us heard it on the doorsteps about immigration. Like the man I met in my constituency who told me he had seen his mates’ wages driven down by the consequences of migration. If we don’t understand why he would feel angry – and it wasn’t about prejudice – then we are failing to serve those who we are in politics to represent. I am the son of immigrants. I believe that Britain has benefited economically, culturally, socially from those who came to this country. I don’t believe either that we can turn back the clock on free movement of labour in Europe. But we should never have pretended it would not have consequences. Consequences we should have dealt with.”

Note the tic of referring to the sensitive issue in each case almost as an afterthought introduced by ‘including’: including tuition fees (just another personal debt issue); including migration (just another fraught consequence of necessary globalisation). In fact, this is not really apologising for old New Labour’s policies in these areas at all. He’s not actually saying Labour was wrong to introduce tuition fees, just that these were an unfortunate extra debt burden on people. And then his expression of ‘understanding’ about migration turns into a defence of it – including his own personal background – as being overwhelmingly of benefit for Britain and in part a consequence of something regarded as essentially positive: the “free movement of labour in Europe”.

But it’s England and Wales specifically that were burdened by tuition fees and then top-up fees, thanks to the votes of Labour’s Scottish MPs, whose own constituents were exempt from both. It’s English voters who were mainly affected and concerned by immigration, as England has borne the brunt of it. Immigration may have enhanced the stock of Britain, in every sense, including that of the Miliband family, but what has it done for England? Answer me that, Ed. (And that’s an open question, but not one Ed Miliband is really prepared to address.)

In fact, Miliband – at least as exemplified in this speech – is not prepared to ask the English question itself, let alone suggest an answer to it, as this passage amply demonstrates:

“The old thinking told us that for 300 years, the choice was either the break up of the United Kingdom or Scotland and Wales run from London. We should be proud that Labour established the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. And we should make sure that after next May’s elections we re-elect Carwyn Jones as the First Minister in Wales and we elect Iain Gray as the new First Minister in Scotland. And I am so so proud that, against all the odds, we helped deliver peace in Northern Ireland. And it will be one of Tony Blair’s great legacies to this country and we owe our gratitude to him.”

So devolution as enacted by New Labour is something to be proud of. No hint of a suggestion that it might have left England just a tad short-changed and that it raises questions about the governance of England. Here above all, Ed Miliband is keeping faith with the old New Labour certainties and with the former Labour Lord Chancellor Derry Irving’s assertion that the best answer to the West Lothian Question is not to ask it! He can’t even bring himself to mention the ‘E’ word in the one passage throughout the whole speech where the English question is absolutely begging. But that’s precisely it: it’s begging a question he isn’t prepared to even engage in.

So England might as well just not exist at all in Ed Miliband’s vision of ‘the country’: ‘our country’, Labour’s country. And the unwillingness to even pronounce the dirty ‘E’ word signals a failure to acknowledge the ways in which New Labour profoundly let down England specifically – indeed, as we have seen, Miliband actually defends and justifies the outgoing government’s record in English matters even as he appears to acknowledge its failings.

So perhaps we should give the last word to the new leader himself. Nothing changes, really: new generation, same old new Labour and same old new Britain. For ‘the country’, you can in fact read ‘Britain’, or at least Labour’s fictitious, rose-tinted vision or version of it that air-brushes England out of the picture. Yes, you’ve guessed what the last word in the speech, and the last word of the speech, is:

“We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world. Optimistic about the power of politics. We are the optimists and together we will change Britain.”

23 September 2010

Is it time to reclaim the cross at the heart of England’s flag and identity?

Is England standing on the verge of a Catholic revival? Ludicrous question, many would say; longed-for reality, many others would echo. You have to know how to read the signs of the times. The trouble is the signs are pointing in too many contrary directions. Who is the one who would “prepare the way of the Lord” and make his paths straight?

The visit of Pope Benedict last week would be viewed by some as at least a sign of hope that England was being pointed back in the right direction. I say ‘England’ advisedly, as the Pope was visiting two countries with respect to the pastoral mission of his visit; even though, when in England, he diplomatically tended to refer to “Britain” and the “United Kingdom” as the name of ‘this country’.

‘Pastoral’ is perhaps not quite the right word and doesn’t fully capture the ultimate significance of the pope’s unprecedented visit. This was a case of prophetic witness: the spiritual successor to Saint Peter drawing ‘the nation”s attention to the centrality of Catholic-Christian faith, ethics and tradition in the history and identity of England, and hence to the vital role it should continue to play in informing our leaders’ efforts to deal with the social, moral and environmental challenges of the present age. As the pope said toward the end of his speech to assembled dignitaries and former prime ministers in Westminster Hall: “The angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling of this ancient Hall remind us of the long tradition from which British Parliamentary democracy has evolved. They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation”.

Alongside the angels, one Englishman who bore witness to the primacy of faith-informed conscience over state power might well have been gazing down from heaven at the proceedings last Friday: Saint Thomas More, as he’s known by Catholics, who was condemned to death on the very spot where the pope delivered his speech for refusing to repudiate the authority of the pope as the supreme governor of the Church in England. Indeed, the present pope’s reference to Thomas More was the sole explicit mention of ‘England’ in his speech in Westminster Hall: “I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first”.

In a way, More’s stand was just one in a long line of English acts of rebellion against the absolute authority of monarchical rule from Westminster, stretching from Magna Carta through to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The narrative of British history has not tended to view it as such, because More was defending the Catholic faith of his fellow Englishmen against the absolutist imposition of the Protestant religion, whereas the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution involved the defence of different versions of reformed Christianity against the absolutist re-imposition of Catholicism. Indeed, through the wars of resistance to Catholic pretenders during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot under James I, the cause of English independence and freedom came to be associated with suspicion and hostility toward Catholic Europe. By ensuring that a Catholic could never again ascend to the English throne, the Act of Succession, and the Acts of Union between England and Scotland, finally consolidated this transfer of authority in matters of faith from the pope in Rome to the monarch in Westminster at the same time as they ironically consigned the separate kingdom of England to the history books.

You could argue, therefore, that Henry VIII’s expropriation of the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England was the beginning of the end not only of Catholicism as the national religion of England but of England itself as a distinct nation state. Far from liberating the English people from the absolute power of a corrupt and oppressive Church, Henry reassigned the moral authority for the exercise of absolute power to himself as temporal ruler, an authority that was subsequently transferred to the soon-to-be British Parliament during the Glorious Revolution, and which has remained with Parliament to this day. The unaccountable rule that Westminster exercises over English affairs in the present is a direct consequence of the establishment of the new state religion and religious state of Great Britain over three hundred years ago, given that Parliament still wields the absolute authority of the queen as head of the British state and earthly head of the Church of England.

But does England have to return to its ancestral Catholicism in order to rediscover its distinct identity and reassert itself as a sovereign nation in its own right? Let’s put this question another way: if the people of England did undergo a collective spiritual conversion to and renewal of its erstwhile national faith, would this of necessity also entail the unravelling of the British state as we know it and the re-establishment of England as a sovereign nation? The answer to that question is almost certainly ‘yes’. The rule of the British state over England is perpetuated by the profound identification of the people of England – as historically symbolised and embodied by the Church of England – with the institutions and symbols of British statehood, an identification that is personified in the figure of the monarch: British ruler and defender of the English faith. If, on the other hand, the English people no longer literally invested their faith in the British state but began believing in a higher authority than Parliament and the monarch, then the old idolatry of British-parliamentary sovereignty would no longer hold sway.

But surely, I hear you say, such a re-conversion to a form of dogmatic Christianity in which even its followers are losing their faith is both unlikely and undesirable. The ongoing erosion of English people’s faith in the British settlement is far more likely to be accompanied by the continuing unravelling of the old Anglican verities without being replaced by new Catholic certainties. Well, maybe; but would the state that resulted from the break-up of Great Britain in such circumstances really be the great English nation we all long for, or would it end up as just some multi-cultural, faithless and rootless Rump Britain? Is not the very identity of England inherently bound up with its great Catholic-Christian history and tradition? Do away with the Church of England without reviving the Church in England and you run the risk of finally bringing about the ‘end of the end’ of England.

Clearly, though, it’s impossible to artificially resurrect a medieval faith destroyed by the earthly ambitions of British monarchs, imperialists and republicans, combined with the philosophical assaults of science and Enlightenment secular humanism, simply in order to provide a touchstone for a new English-national identity. In the first instance, such a revival could only be the work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, it has to arise from our hearts and not our ideological blueprints for a new England. England can be a Christian democracy only if the sovereign English people desire to be Christian.

But we are, at root and at heart, a Christian people. Our very national flag holds aloft the Cross of Christ washed in the blood of our redeemer. There are perhaps troubled times ahead: spiritual and, who knows, perhaps physical warfare in which competing creeds and centres of power will struggle for control over our lives and our land. Perhaps Britain as we know it must die; but will England be reborn in its place?

We are approaching the 2,000th anniversary of the crucifixion of Christ – perhaps that’s another ambiguous sign for us in this time of uncertainty for ourselves and for England. I for one, though, am content to gaze upon the cross of Christ and the Flag of England as a sign of hope that, through it all, Christian England will endure.

17 September 2010

What does the pope’s visit mean for Britain?

Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI, aka Joseph Ratzinger, arrived in Britain for a four-day state visit: the first ever such state visit – i.e. as leader of a political state as well as church – by a pontiff, either since or indeed before the Reformation.

To be more precise, the pope arrived in Scotland yesterday and has now moved on to England, where he will be spending the remaining three days of his stay.

So what, you might ask? What’s so important about a visit from the leader of a brand of Christianity that even most Christians in this country reject? And what’s so important about making a distinction between Scotland and England?

To that question, I’d reply with another: which country, or countries, does the pope think he’s visiting? Sure, from the perspective of worldly politics, this is the head of the Vatican State visiting another state, the United Kingdom. But from an ecclesiastical and pastoral perspective (pastoral in the sense that the pope is the supreme pastor, or shepherd, of the Church’s respective flocks in Britain), the pope is visiting two distinct provinces of the Church of Rome – two distinct ‘countries’: Scotland, and England and Wales. The visit does indeed recall and hark back to a time, before the Reformation and the Acts of Union, when what we now know as Great Britain comprised two Christian kingdoms, not one United Kingdom. From the point of view of the Church, that is, they still exist as such – as fully distinct entities.

This fact alone ought to give pause to those English men and women among us who are inclined to rail against this invasion of damned ‘popery’: the very distinction between Scotland and England that is so important to patriots in both countries is a continuation of the ancient separation of the two lands into distinct ‘Roman provinces’ – in the Empire and Church of Rome – that persists to this day in the Roman Church. In secular life, that distinction was carried through to the present in part as a result of the very different course taken by the Reformation in Scotland and England & Wales, resulting in two established churches with radically distinct characters: the more Protestant, Presbyterian Church of Scotland, without any supreme head; and the more Catholic Church of England (and its Welsh counterpart) that still to this day acknowledges the King or Queen of the United Kingdom as its Head – continuing the role that a King of England, Henry VIII, expropriated for England from the Bishop of Rome. The same Bishop, in fact, who acknowledged Henry as ‘Defender of the Faith’, a title reproduced to this day on the side of British coins showing the monarch’s head.

Ultimately, therefore, the present British state owes the whole authority of its leaders, the spiritual focus of its identity and the ground of its sovereignty to a sacred mission originally conferred on an English king by the pope in Rome, and taken over by that king in his own name: to defend the Catholic Christian faith in this land.

As English men and women, we should therefore pause to reflect whether, in rejecting out of hand the Catholic faith and its unfashionable doctrines, we are not also in a profound sense conspiring with the ruin of England’s identity, indeed its soul. In ‘dogmatically’ asserting liberal and anti-Catholic (or at least, anti-Papal) views – perhaps in our own way out of adherence to what we regard as infallible secular ‘truths’ – on matters such as condom use, ‘gay rights’ and abortion, do we do so in the name of a secular Britain that is poised on the verge of wiping out Christian England?

Those liberal beliefs and values do not necessarily need to be articulated as ‘British’; they could be claimed as English, too. But I guarantee that during the pope’s visit, the clash of values will be presented as one between Roman Catholicism and British multi-culturalism, pluralism and secular modernity. The secularists of the present age are trying in many ways to complete the work begun in the Reformation: to smash up the Church of Rome. But in so doing, they would also finally wipe out the Catholic Christian heart of England, in the name of Britain.

So when the pope, in England, urges us to be mindful of our Christian heritage, the spiritual abyss of radical, atheistic secularism against which he is warning us does not just involve moral self-destruction but the annihilation of England as a Christian nation. Radical, anti-Christian secularism is a form of universalist humanism that has not only veered away from the very Christian roots of liberal humanism itself (‘radical’ meaning ‘at root’) but also does not recognise the validity and importance of distinct national traditions and cultures – unlike, ironically, the Universal (Catholic) Church.

The pope’s visit is, therefore, very much a call to England to value and return to its Christian roots, including as they are expressed in tolerant liberal humanism – just as the Church itself symbolises and takes forward in the present the Catholic tradition in Britain’s two great Christian realms: Scotland and England & Wales. This thought should persuade us to at least give the pope a hearing, even or perhaps especially if we find much of what he says challenges our present-day values – and to hell with the outright rejection and prejudice the anti-English British secularists would rather greet him with.

One essential precondition for killing England is to dethrone its official Christian faith and wipe out the memory of the medieval kingdom of England. Let’s not conspire in our own downfall.

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