Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

28 January 2015

Women bishops in the Church of England: The sadness of hope deceived

It may have passed you by, but on Monday of this week, the Church of England ordained its first female bishop: Libby Lane, the new suffragan Bishop of Stockport. What was clearly a momentous day in the history of the Church of England was evidently just a minor story in the British national news, and most people were probably unaware of the event.

While many supporters of women bishops like to say that the consecration represented a brave new start for the Church and a great day for womankind in general, society at large seems largely unaffected by this Good News. It is not clear that having women at the helm of the Ship of the Church will in itself significantly enhance its work of spreading the gospel, nor has it been primarily talked of in such terms. And there would appear to be many more, and much more serious, examples of inequality, violence, exploitation and poverty faced by women throughout the world.

Clearly, though, the significance of the ordination in terms of gender equality was mainly symbolic: removal of one of the last bastions of patriarchy and a kind of ultimate recognition – at symbolically the highest level: the Church as representative of Christ – of the equality of women and men.

That’s all well and good, and I won’t go into the many arguments around the difference between equality and sameness, and between authority and power in the Church; and the reasons why the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have not yet instituted female bishops.

This latter fact is one reason why Monday’s ceremony was an occasion of sadness for me personally. The Church of England has now severed the universal basis for its claim to have the ‘apostolic succession’: the unbroken line of succession linking today’s bishops directly back to the first Bishop of Rome, St Peter, via the laying on of hands during episcopal consecrations.

According to traditionalists who maintained until Monday that Church of England bishops were still in this succession – and hence were authentic bishops – the succession was broken by Monday’s ceremony. On this point of view, not only was the consecration of Libby Lane invalid (as she cannot be a true bishop by virtue of the unbroken tradition of male bishops linking back to St Peter and the original, all-male Apostles) but the episcopacy of all the bishops who laid hands on her has also been cancelled out, as they have been involved in a heretical consecration that directly subverts the principle – the apostolic succession – that confers validity to their own episcopacy.

This is why the part of Monday’s ceremony in which numerous bishops gathered round to lay hands on Libby Lane put me in mind of one of those murder mysteries in which a group of people all take part in a murder in order to assume collective responsibility. This was indeed a case of the bishops in attendance making sure they all participated in the act, and that if any one of them was going to jeopardise their episcopacy, they were all going to. Would it be too unkind to suggest that, having left the murdered corpse of the Church of England (as a member of the Church Universal) lying in the Cathedral, the Church of England is now marching on, zombie-like, to a marginal future as the Church of liberal progressivism or of British Values?

Even if you do not accept the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church’s previous claim to have the apostolic succession – which I do not, in fact – the Church had at least retained a form and basis of ordained ministry consistent with that of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and had maintained it intact ever since the Reformation. I had hoped, in fact, that the Church of England might one day be reconnected to the universal apostolic Church as part of a renewal of faith in the land. Maybe this will still happen – everything is possible to God – but the Church of England has just made its journey back into the fold that much longer and bumpier.

In essence, the Church of England can no longer really claim to be a catholic Church, other than in the non-episcopal sense of sharing in the universal faith in Christ that unites all Christians. The Church of England has become a Protestant denomination. For some, that will be no bad thing. But for me, the Church of England is becoming increasingly irrelevant as it remodels itself on the image of modern secular society.

For me, therefore, Monday’s event brought only the sadness of hope deceived.

15 January 2015

The leaders’ debates and the failure to imagine England

In the row about what format if any the party leaders’ debates in the upcoming general election should take, one factor that has consistently been ignored is the England-specific framing of the discussion. By this, I mean not just that the possibility of an England-specific debate – focusing on the type of ‘English matters’ on which many have recently advocated that only English MPs should have the right to vote – has simply not been considered; whereas separate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish debates have been offered. But also, the fact that the whole frame of reference for defining what constitutes ‘major UK parties’ is effectively English – or at least Anglo-British – has failed to be acknowledged.

Take the statement yesterday by the Green Party’s Australian-born leader Natalie Bennett claiming that the Green Party (of England and Wales) was one of the five major parties “in Britain”. Well, no, it’s one of the five largest parties in England. If you really mean ‘Britain’, or the UK, then you’d probably have to rank the Greens as sixth, with the SNP clearly in third place, both in terms of party membership and likely parliamentary representation after the general election.

Then you get into meaningless semantics about what constitutes a ‘national’ party: whether it means standing candidates in every single British, as opposed to UK, seat – leaving aside the fact that the Greens, Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems all have separate ‘Scottish’ parties, so that, technically, UKIP is the only major UK-wide party that qualifies. Unless, of course, by ‘national’ you mean every English seat. Because that is what, in this debate about the debates, ‘national’ effectively does mean: it’s whether parties are standing everywhere in England that counts, and hence whether their leaders’ performance in the debates are of relevance and interest to an English TV audience.

Of course, this is not being acknowledged, and cannot be acknowledged, as politicians and media would then have to admit that, in this supposedly UK election, involving UK-wide issues, there are really multiple elections: those in the devolved nations, where the issues properly concern only policy areas reserved to the UK government, and where nation-specific parties need to make their respective pitches about how they intend to look after the interests of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people within the London parliament; and then, in contrast, there is the election in England, where both reserved matters of great importance such as the economy, the EU, security and immigration are at stake, along with England-only matters such as the NHS, education, social care and cuts to local government – among many others.

Instead, politicians and the media are seeking to maintain the pretence that there is a single UK electorate, and single set of policy issues of equivalent importance and relevance to that ‘national’ audience: the NHS alongside the economy; education alongside immigration; social care and housing alongside welfare. There is of course a single national audience affected by the parties’ positions in all of these areas – but it’s the English audience, not the British one. And the ‘English’ parties – in my sense – certainly shouldn’t make a pitch to viewers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the (English) NHS, education system and local government, as if they were of equal relevance to viewers in those countries as those parties’ policies on the economy, defence and immigration. In fact, to do so is tantamount to fraud, as those parties wouldn’t be able to do anything in devolved policy areas if people in those countries voted them into power in Westminster.

The only way to be fair and proportionate about this is to split the debates into reserved and devolved matters; to have separate debates in all four of the UK’s nations on the latter; and have one or more debate on reserved policy areas involving, in some way, all the major parties of each nation. Then, by all means, the Green Party of England and Wales should be included, at least in the separate English and Welsh debates; and the Scottish Greens should be included in the Scottish debate.

The way I’d split it, to keep it manageable and useful to voters, is as follows:

• A first debate, aired UK-wide, featuring just David Cameron and Ed Miliband: as the PMs in waiting. This would deal only with reserved matters, given its UK-wide transmission

• A second debate, aired UK-wide, featuring the leaders of all the parties that could end up as coalition partners to the Conservatives or Labour, or as holding the balance of power, i.e. the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the DUP. This debate should also be on reserved matters only and should exclude the Tories and Labour in order to counterbalance the potential bias from limiting the first debate to them. Although only UKIP and the Greens are ‘national’ (i.e. English) parties, it would be relevant to English voters to have the leaders of the main nation-specific parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appearing on the platform, as these parties may form part of UK governments legislating for England. The debates would therefore give voters in England a chance to find out whether these parties would ally themselves with Labour or the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament; and what their stance on matters such as English votes for English laws, constitutional reform for England, and other issues of concern to English people such as immigration and EU membership would be. That might make a real difference to voting intentions

• Four further nation-specific debates should also then happen, including UKIP and the Greens in England, and the single nation-specific parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, the debate should reasonably deal with both England-specific and reserved matters, but with a greater emphasis on English issues, as reserved issues would have formed the focus of the previous two debates. Devoting a limited amount of time to reserved matters would enable, say, Nigel Farage to debate the EU and immigration with David Cameron, and Natalie Bennett to debate energy policy alongside the environment (England-only) with the other leaders.

But I strongly doubt that a truly equitable solution such as this will be adopted: equitable to the people of England, that is, rather than to the purported national-UK parties that are in fact no such thing.

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