Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.



  1. With honest respect David from a fellow Catholic who hopes for a better Church.

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

    If the Cross means women’s rights, gay rights, tolerance, the end of the demonisation of contraception, real condemnation of child abuse, condemnation of holocaust denial, the rejection of Hell (God’s eternal death camps), the rejection that only the few can enter Heaven – then the answer is Yes!

    If it means going back to women as second-class, demonisation of homosexuality, the cover-up of child abuse, etc – then the answer is No! England has enough to deal with without going back to the Dark Ages.

    Comment by Peacekeeper — 25 September 2010 @ 9.41 pm | Reply

    • I agree with you that the Church has seriously got to get its house in order with respect to how it deals with and talks about issues of sexuality and gender. Only a much greater honesty and realism in these matters can help eradicate endemic child abuse, which prospers under the cloak of secrecy the Church throws over all sexual matters that it doesn’t wish to acknowledge.

      However, I’d say two things about the catalogue of Church ‘errors’ that you present: 1) they replicate widespread anti-Catholic prejudice and clichés – for instance, I don’t think women’s inequality over the centuries can be laid solely or even mainly at the door of the Church, nor can the demonisation of homosexuality – these were general societal and cultural phenomena, albeit ones reinforced by Church teaching in different ways; 2) I don’t think the Church can or will ‘drop’ core doctrines simply because they’re too inconvenient or shocking for the modern era, such as the existence of hell or, indeed, the sinfulness of gay sex. This very fact is probably enough to put many off the Church altogether, including many of its actual adherents. But the Church has to find a different language to express these things: an authentic language that genuinely deepens our understanding of these teachings, rather than merely ‘marketing’ them in a way modernity finds acceptable.

      So, for instance, hell isn’t “God’s eternal death camps” but, in my understanding, the possibility of a rather terrifying spiritual death that can follow on from physical death when the soul has radically rejected God’s offer of eternal life. My fear – and the fear that has underpinned the Church’s core mission to save souls over the centuries – is that it is really possible for the soul to do this, for instance by not seeking God and accepting his offer of love in this life, and living one’s life in total disregard for the moral Law, which teaches us how to live in the love of God. An active gay sex life lived out in a spirit of defiance and rejection of not just ‘Christianity’ but Christ, and finding expression in narrow-minded and clichéd atheistic misconceptions about God, could be just such a form of fundamental closure towards the love of God (although I accept that many, many gay people are both sexually active and believers, and also lead love-filled (hence, God-filled) lives).

      Hence, the Church would not be doing gay people any favours by not continuing to expound the Gospel of salvation. The Church, after all, is enjoined upon to preach the Gospel both in season and out of season. Clearly, the present age is an out of season time.

      Comment by David — 26 September 2010 @ 2.14 am | Reply

  2. I’m with you on this; a spiritual reawakening is something to be prayed for, and one might at least expect a bit of spiritual searching accompanying the process of re-imagining the English. Some of us Anglicans see ourselves as a continuation of the pre-reformation Church and of being part of a less ultramontane Catholicism (there was at one time even a possibility, now sadly receded, of reunion between the C of E, because of its Anglo-Catholic credentials, and the Eastern Orthodox). If I may paddle my own Christian dreamboat alongside yours, it would be interesting for English identity to see an Anglo-Catholic revival, disestablishmet and a different accommodation with Rome…

    Comment by Julius Whacket — 28 September 2010 @ 8.14 am | Reply

    • Well, quite: perhaps some sort of Anglo-Catholic Uniate Church, as offered by the present pope, might be the vehicle for a deeper return to communion of England with Rome.

      Comment by David — 28 September 2010 @ 12.22 pm | Reply

      • Except that submission to Papal authority, acceptable though that may be to some Anglo-Catholics, isn’t obviously be conducive to English nation-building.

        Comment by Julius Whacket — 28 September 2010 @ 4.53 pm

      • Depends how you view ‘submission to papal authority’. As a Catholic, I’m subject to papal authority in matters of faith. But that doesn’t stop me being a freeborn Englishman and English nationalist, demanding freedom of conscience along with all the other freedoms. In fact, I think that, under the right conditions, England’s return to the fold could help re-establish its distinct identity, separate from that of the British state.

        Comment by David — 28 September 2010 @ 6.20 pm

  3. David, do read this. It’s from a Marxist atheist and puts the child abuse scandal in perspective:

    Comment by shane — 28 September 2010 @ 6.35 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the link, Shane. It’s a good article. I, too, am wary of the new atheism, which is often simplistic, narrow-minded and prejudiced towards religion.

      Comment by David — 30 September 2010 @ 11.20 am | Reply

  4. Well, as Thomas Merton observes, Christian faith is full of paradox.

    Comment by Julius Whacket — 29 September 2010 @ 6.45 am | Reply

  5. This is a persuasively-written piece, and I find your suggestion that an abandonment of Catholicism led to England’s near-vanishing within the political construct of ‘Britain’ intriguing. However, I would posit that England was always a more sophisticated nation-state than one whose identity was solely grounded in religion. Our understanding of ourself was also formulated by literature (Shakespeare was the inspiration for the concept and construction of England as we are aware of it today) and also by class, the monarchy, the tireless work of individuals, the anonymous work of many hundreds of thousands of unremembered members of the labouring classes, by our astonishing Armed Forces etc.

    Furthermore, it is my belief that if Christianity of any denomination or division truly relishes its place in the constituency of England, it must aggressively assert its heritage, demonstrate how it has been fundamental to our ancestors, and furthermore, demonstrate its continued relevance as an antidote to and antithesis of vacuous capitalist dogma. The Pope made an impassioned case on his recent visit, but I fear that the present Archbishop of Canterbury, the Blair of the Church of England, is only setting the cause back.

    Comment by Byrnsweord — 2 October 2010 @ 7.55 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Byrnsweord. I agree that there have been countless other influences on English identity than Christianity, and Catholic Christianity in particular. Having said that, Shakespeare’s writing very much reflected the old medieval Catholic world view about the state of the temporal sphere reflecting that of the metaphysical (divine, spiritual) order, with the authority of kings being based on a sacred calling to ensure that Christian principles were respected in the country’s governance and laws. Indeed, some critics and biographers have suggested that Shakespeare may have been from a recusant Catholic background. Arguably, too, today’s monarchy and the English class system have their foundations in the medieval world order; and the endurance of these things to this day in England suggests a deep, continuing emotional adherence to them on the part of the English.

      As for the CofE today, I think it’s too beset by internal divisions, and too compromised by secular liberalism, to serve as a powerful symbol of an alternative and enduring value system for England. The child abuse scandal has seriously weakened the Catholic Church in this respect, too. The country seriously needs a model of Christian principle and rigour it can look up to. I guess we’ll just have to pray that someone will come along. Actually, Archbishop Sentamu (from Nigeria!) is probably the nearest thing, in my view. But I think the CofE is just too establishment and too liberal for anyone to make an impact from that quarter.

      Comment by David — 2 October 2010 @ 12.46 pm | Reply

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