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.

13 October 2011

Scottish independence could free England to be herself

Scottish independence could be just the tonic England needs. It could set England free to be what she wants to be, to pursue her destiny and return to her roots. In fact, it could free England to be what many would like Great Britain to be today but can’t be, because it is being pulled in too many contrary directions.

England always has been and still is the national core of Great Britain and the United Kingdom: the constitution, parliament, monarchy and established religion of Great Britain and the UK are a continuation of the historic constitutional foundations, parliament, monarchy and established religion of England prior to the union with Scotland in 1707. This continuity is the underlying, ‘objective’ reason why English people traditionally have regarded ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ as synonymous: they have re-imagined Great Britain, and to a lesser extent the UK, as an extension of the English nation across the whole territory of Britain (and Ireland) – as ‘Greater England’. And this is because, at a fundamental, constitutional, level, Great Britain was a continuation of the historic English nation, except with Scotland grafted in.

Through the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland started to be governed via the constitutional and parliamentary arrangements that prevailed for England and Wales, which remained unchanged. This was so much the case that some Scottish MPs at the time were amazed that the Scottish parliament was simply abolished and that the existing English parliament carried on in exactly the same way as before, except with the addition of the Scottish MPs. This was not the creation of a new British nation, distinct from the two nations from which it was formed, but an effective take-over of Scotland by the English state. In modern corporate terms, it was not a merger of equals; and though the new merged company might take on a new brand, it retains the same culture and corporate governance practices – and power structures – of the larger, acquiring entity. Or to take a political analogy from modern times, when West and East Germany were reunified, there were many in the former DDR who hoped this would result in a completely new German state, with a new constitution and identity. Instead, reunification simply took the form of adding the federal states of the DDR in to the existing Bundesrepublik: the identity of the state remained fundamentally that of the former West Germany, even though the united Germany had been created from the merger of two previously separate nations.

Over time, many people both south and north of the Scottish border did begin to see Great Britain as a nation in its own right and ‘British’ as their primary national identity, to which the distinct identities of ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and, to a lesser extent, (Northern) Irish were subordinate and secondary. Perhaps the high point of this British nation was the Second World War, which brought people together from across the UK in a shared fight for freedom from tyranny. In the post-war period, this national-British solidarity took expression in the welfare state and nationalised industries, which were the embodiment of much that the British people had fought for in the war: a fairer, more equal society, with national, publicly owned assets and services designed to ensure productive employment and protection against chronic poverty for all. Alongside this, undeniably, One Nation Conservatism was also influential in fostering the sense that all in Britain were engaged in a shared effort to build a more prosperous, stronger nation; and that the wealthier sections of British society had a responsibility towards the less well-off, whichever part of Britain they lived in.

Since then, and particularly over the last 30 years or so, most of that national-British solidarity and sense of being ‘in it together’ – to quote a phrase – has been eroded, probably irrevocably. It isn’t only devolution that has brought this about. Devolution was in many respects a product of the undermining of a shared sense of national purpose that had taken place over the previous 20 years; but it also undoubtedly accelerated the process of the British nation’s disintegration.

What were the causes of this slow decay? Well, without doubt, the Thatcher government’s assault on the welfare state, the privatisation of the nationalised industries and even the smashing up of union power – unions being another embodiment of the sense of shared commitment to equality and fairness across the UK’s constituent countries – played a considerable role. It has been well documented how the Thatcher revolution contributed to disaffection with the Union in Scotland, as people there strongly objected to the market-economic policies of an ‘English’ Conservative government they had never voted for, and which also chose Scotland to trial the hated Poll Tax.

But the privatisation of state-owned industries, the under-investment in public services and the weakening of the welfare state also loosened the bonds between English people and the British state. English people lost their sense of confidence that the British state belonged to them and was ‘on their side’. If there is ‘no such thing as society’, as Margaret Thatcher once said, can there also be a nation? In other words, the rolling back of the state from the lives of its citizens made Britain less relevant and valuable to English people, and undermined the sense of belonging to a single British nation in which people were prepared to give up more of their hard-earned wealth for the sake of less well-off citizens elsewhere on the island, on the previously safe assumption that the system would take care of one if one needed it to. If it was every man for himself, maybe it should also be England for herself.

Scrolling forward to today, this sense that the British state has abandoned its unwritten promise to treat all its citizens fairly and equally has undoubtedly fuelled the huge resentment in England towards the Barnett Formula: the unequal public-spending formula that enables Scotland and Wales to continue to provide many of the free public, and publicly owned, services of the former British welfare state that have been withdrawn in England. This is of course further exacerbated by a sense of democratic unfairness linked to the fact that the more small-state, market-orientated policies in England have been introduced by Parliament with the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs whose constituents are not affected by them, while the devolved parliament and assembly respectively in those countries have pursued more traditional statist, social-democratic policies. It’s not that England would necessarily have chosen to go down the same social-democratic route as Scotland and Wales if we had had our own parliament, but that we’ve been denied the choice. The British state has pulled away from deep involvement in English public life while denying the English people the freedom to determine their own national priorities. And it compounds this betrayal by lying to the people of England that the old united Britain still exists, and by suppressing references to the England-specific scope of much British legislation and policy, so that English people do not realise how differently and undemocratically they are being treated.

Over and above this situation of fiscal unfairness and democratic disempowerment, the present devolution settlement and English resentment towards it risk tearing apart those essentially English constitutional foundations of the Union. A dual dynamic has increasingly left England without any status or role in the very state that it once viewed as its own. Whereas Scotland and Wales have increasingly established distinct national political and cultural identities (breaking up that sense of a unified Britain of which England thought of itself as the centre), the British establishment has also increasingly sought to suppress the corresponding emergence of a distinct English identity, or at least to restrict ‘Englishness’ to the merely cultural sphere so that it doesn’t express itself in terms of demands for an English-national politics (parliament and government). Such a development would usher in the end of Britain as a nation in its own right, replacing it with some sort of federal or confederal Union of multiple nations or even just a collection of separate, sovereign nations.

I’ve discussed and analysed this dynamic in many previous posts, so I won’t belabour it. However, the essential point I would like to make is that a British Union-state built on the would-be suppression of English political nationhood would ultimately implode because it would undermine its own traditional English foundations: monarchy, Church, parliamentary sovereignty (a principle established through the upheavals of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution in the 17th century), and constitutional and legal principles dating back to Magna Carta in the 13th century. For all their flaws and need of modernisation, English people are deeply attached to these anchors of English tradition and identity. Attempts to strip away these core English elements from the British constitution, motivated by a desire to consolidate an integral British nation to which Scotland and Wales may still wish to belong, will ultimately serve only to undermine the adherence of English people to Great Britain, and their identification as British.

Measures that could bring about such a severing of the organic ties between England and the Union include things like abolishing the Acts of Succession and Settlement, which would probably lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England (because the monarch could then be non-Anglican), and instituting a new British Bill of Rights, which would supersede and hence render constitutionally superfluous core English legal documents such as Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

It seems, however, that repealing or at least fundamentally modifying the Acts of Succession and Settlement – to say nothing of the Acts of Union and the English Bill of Rights – is precisely what David Cameron’s coalition government may have in mind if reports of their intention to allow the monarch to marry a Catholic (proscribed by the Act of Settlement) are to be believed. According to yesterday’s report in the Guardian: “Cameron is . . . proposing that Catholics should continue to be debarred from being head of state [as specified in the Acts of Succession and Settlement], but that anyone who marries a Catholic should not be debarred. The family would be entitled to bring up their children as Catholics as long as heirs do not seek to take the throne as a Catholic”.

If this is what Cameron is really thinking, then it reveals constitutional and ecclesiastical illiteracy of the highest order. There’s an absolutely irreconcilable contradiction here: the temporal head of the Church of England (the monarch), no less, marries a Catholic and then brings up his or her children as Catholics; but then, when it is time for the first-born (male or female, as Cameron is also proposing to scrap primogeniture) to inherit the throne, they are expected to renounce their faith (and become Anglican, or not?). Here’s how this does not stack up:

  1. The monarch as temporal Head of the Church of England cannot possibly marry a Catholic and bring up his children as Catholics. How can someone who stands guarantor for the fact that the faith of the land will remain Anglican (fidei defensor) bring up his own children in another faith? He or she is head not only of the Church of England but of his own spouse and family, so his or her faith must be the faith in which the family lives and is raised.
  2. However, in order to be permitted by the Catholic Church to marry a Catholic, the husband and wife would have to give a commitment that the children would indeed be brought up as Catholics. Therefore, the Head of the Church of England, and king or queen of England – or Great Britain, if you prefer – would be subject to the authority of the Church of Rome in spiritual and domestic matters, as would his or her heirs.
  3. Is it then reasonable or even possible to expect the rightful successor to the throne to renounce the faith they have been brought up in in order to inherit the crown? Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church: if you’ve been baptised and confirmed in the Catholic faith, you remain subject to the spiritual authority of the Church, and are considered by the Church as remaining one of her members, no matter what alternative declaration of faith or unbelief you might subsequently make. It’s up to the Church to unmake a Catholic through excommunication. And you can’t decide to allow the monarch to marry outside of the Church of England, and allow first-born females to automatically become first in line to the throne, on the grounds of non-discrimination and then decide to debar first-born, Catholic children of the monarch from inheriting the crown.

As stated above, this is clearly an absurd plan; but that won’t stop constitutionally illiterate and anglophobic politicians from seeking to implement it. These proposals would inevitably lead to the disestablishment of the Church and the abolition of the provision that the Head of State must be Anglican, in order for him or her to be able to serve as temporal Head of the Anglican Church. And all of a sudden, the entire, English constitutional foundations of the British state would crumble: no longer officially an (Anglican-) Christian country; no longer at root the continuation of the historic English state; the monarch no longer inheriting the sacred duty of English kings to ensure that the Church (of England) remains the established religion and that the (Protestant) faith is upheld throughout the greater British realm; the monarch no longer having an absolute claim to the loyalty and devotion of his or her subjects, which is founded on the monarch’s fidelity to this sacred oversight over the kingdom’s spiritual weal; and similarly, the very sovereignty of Parliament fatally undermined because Parliament’s absolute power and moral authority derives from that of the monarch (it’s the sovereignty of the crown-in-Parliament), which in turn derives from the monarch’s status as God’s appointed representative for England / Great Britain: the roles of head of state and Head of the Church being absolutely indivisible.

So, no Act of Succession / Settlement = no Christian underpinning for the state = no basis for preserving the monarch and Parliament as currently constituted = no England as the heart beat and core identity of Great Britain.

But if Great Britain were no longer fundamentally a continuation of England’s most cherished traditions and constitutional foundations, why would English people wish to remain part of it?

Why undertake such a radical overhaul of the English foundations of the British state now, at this point in history, when the existence of Great Britain is threatened as never before by the drive towards Scottish independence? Is Cameron’s urge to eliminate marital inequalities of every kind (the debarring of gay persons from marriage (as underpinned by the Christian foundations of English law), and the debarring of kings and queens of the UK from marrying non-Anglicans) in fact at heart motivated by a wish to recast and transform for ever that other marriage of unequals: Great Britain itself? Why, after all, should a British monarch, and his or her family, have to belong to the English religion at all? Why could they not be Scottish Presbyterian, Welsh-Non-Conformist, Catholic or, while we’re at it, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or of no religion at all? Why should the Church of England be hard-wired into the British state as its official religion by means of this ‘discriminatory’ law that prevents the king or queen from marrying, and indeed being, a non-Anglican? Why indeed?

Cameron, as we know, is desperate to avoid being the last prime minister of the UK as currently constituted, i.e. as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But by tearing out the English foundations of the state, he ironically risks de-constituting the UK. A United Kingdom, even some sort of secular British nation, might well emerge from the carnage; but it would not be the UK that Cameron ostensibly seeks to defend: one that has England at its heart, and which English people, still today, hold dear to their heart.

But if it is those core English elements of Great Britain that one is seeking to preserve and carry forward to posterity – monarchy, Church, Parliament and English liberties – why go to all the trouble of re-casting them as something new, secularised and non-English British when it looks increasingly likely that Scotland will decide to leave the UK anyway? And perhaps that would be the best thing for all concerned. Perhaps it would enable England to retain its cherished traditions, institutions and constitutional foundations as English – and as part of a renewed English settlement – rather than trying to fall over backwards to create a de-anglicised settlement that the Scots don’t want anyway.

I’m not saying that England should maintain all of her ancient constitutional foundations unchanged should Scotland decide to go her own way. But it would be England’s choice whether to remain a Christian kingdom and how to translate that core identity into her laws, customs and institutions. Personally, I envision an England that would return to and deepen its Christian roots, perhaps going further than the historic Anglican settlement to reconnect with her ancient Catholic, but not necessarily Roman Catholic, heritage. At the very least, the new England would be a country where we could once again be proud of our Christian and non-Christian, English traditions, and not be ashamed of them or afraid to express them openly out of some misplaced desire not to offend our non-Christian and non-English fellow citizens – but equally not foisting our beliefs and practices on to others in a way that fails to respect their liberty and freedom of conscience. As for the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, this is something that probably does need to be transformed or at least redefined, such that the sovereignty of parliament more truly expresses, and is subject to, the will of the people, rather than being simply heir to the sovereign right of kings over and above the people.

But the point is it would be England’s choice how to take forward England’s constitution to an English future. And this could ironically be the surest way to preserve what many unionists now cherish most profoundly about Great Britain and the UK.

By contrast, Cameron’s way of de-christianising and de-anglicising the British state could be the quickest path to its total implosion.

  English parliament

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.

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.

23 March 2008

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill: The Catholic Church Attacks Brown’s Achilles’ Heel

It intrigued me that it was the Catholic Cardinal of Scotland who chose this Easter to lead the campaign to persuade GB [Gordon Brown] to allow MPs a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Why was it the Scottish Cardinal, Archbishop Keith O’Brien, and not the Cardinal for England and Wales, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor? At least if it’s O’Brien, that means the legislation itself must relate to Scotland as well as England and Wales, I thought to myself. This fact couldn’t be taken for granted, as nowhere in the coverage did it mention which countries of the UK the bill related to. I felt compelled to check; and, indeed, in the bit of the bill headed ‘Extent’ (section 67 of 69), it did indicate that the legislation would extend to “England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.

I was pleased that it mentioned all the nations of the UK individually instead of saying ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. But any illusion that this did constitute a reference to England as a distinct entity was brutally swept away by the thought that this phrase in fact acknowledges only three legal entities, or rather three jurisdictions: those of a) England and Wales, b) Scotland and c) Northern Ireland. Well, let’s console ourselves with the thought that at least in law England still exists as a formal entity, albeit joined at the hip to Wales, which shares its legal system.

But I digress. So, given that the bill related to retained matters (science, social equality and medical ethics), there was nothing untoward about the fact it was a senior Scottish Catholic churchman who was selected to voice the Church’s criticism of the bill and demand a free vote. But why choose a Scot in particular? Because, over and above Catholic MPs, particularly Labour ones, it was Scottish Catholic, and more generally Christian, voters who were being targeted. The Cardinal was not only urging GB to concede that MPs should be allowed to vote with their consciences but was stating that, in conscience, no Catholic MP could do anything other than vote against the bill. And if, despite the Church’s round condemnation of the bill as being un-Christian in its ethical principles, GB still insisted on whipping the vote, then, by implication, the Labour Party led by GB could not take the Scottish Catholic vote for granted in subsequent elections.

How significant a factor would the loss of the Catholic vote be to Labour, particularly in Scotland? It is the case that most Catholics in Scotland have traditionally voted Labour. More generally, it’s been suggested that the Catholic vote throughout the UK helped Labour secure its third term. The Church in Scotland has threatened before to urge its members to withdraw their support from Labour for creating a “morality devoid of any Christian principle”. Objections to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill have been voiced in similar terms. In an interview on BBC Radio Four’s World at One programme on Good Friday, Cardinal O’Brien referred (and I paraphrase) to the weird, un-Christian ethics that New Labour was promoting. This is what I would call its – and, in particular, GB’s – secular-British values of economic, social and technological progress. Labour spokespersons who have defended the bill have spoken of the benefits the research using hybrid human-animal embryos would procure in terms of treating chronic illnesses, of the importance of advancing (British) science and of the leadership position that permitting such research now might give Britain in the market for the new therapies that could result (partly because many other leading developed economies have banned the research on ethical grounds). All well and good; but the ends don’t justify the means: if what is being proposed is fundamentally morally wrong, then we should just try to achieve those economic, social and scientific goals by other means.

But could the Catholic Church actually deliver this transfer of electoral allegiance away from Labour on the part of its adherents? Well, it has to be said that the condemnation of the Bill in Cardinal O’Brien’s sermon today, and particularly the attack on GB for sponsoring the Bill, pulls no punches. One passage in particular contains a series of sentences unambiguously attributing responsibility for the ethically condemned aspects of the Bill squarely to GB:

“He is promoting a bill which will add to the 2.2 million human embryos already destroyed or experimented upon.

He is promoting a bill allowing scientists to create babies whose sole purpose will be to provide, without consent of anyone, parts of their organs or tissues.

He is promoting a bill which will sanction the raiding of dead people’s tissue to manufacture yet more embryos for experimentation.

He is promoting a bill which denies that a child has a biological father, allows tampering with birth certificates, removing biological parents, and inserting someone altogether different.

And this bill will indeed be used to further extend the abortion laws.”

Any Catholic hearing or reading this would be left in no doubt that GB and New Labour had put themselves morally beyond the pale if they push through this Bill by denying their MPs a free vote. And this could be an electorally significant factor, especially on GB’s Scottish home turf. Significantly, the SNP has not missed the opportunity to make it clear that their MPs will be given a free vote.

And it’s not just Catholics who will be urged to take a long hard look at Labour from an ethical perspective. I doubt, for instance, if many of the God-fearing folk of Kirkcaldy will be too impressed by GB’s wholehearted support for measures that are repugnant not only to most believers but to the much-vaunted British senses of decency and fair play – in this instance, fair play not just towards embryos but to children denied a right to a father (see my previous discussion). Will the son of the manse be going to the kirk this Easter Sunday morning, I wonder?

So all of this places GB in an uncomfortable double bind: carry on denying his MPs the right to vote against the Bill on grounds of conscience, and risk being seen as un- (if not anti-) Christian, and losing the Catholic and Christian vote – particularly damaging in Scotland; or back down, and again be seen as indecisive and as not having the courage of his convictions owing to his obsession with ensuring Labour can be re-elected into power next time.

Happy Easter, Gordon!

8 March 2008

New Labour, Brave New World: Equality for all – except children, fathers and conscientious objectors

Are we witnessing the start of ethical mono-culturalism? I had a mini-debate on ‘mono-culturalism’ with Gareth Young on OurKingdom the other day. For me, this term refers to the would-be imposition and engineering of a new secular-liberal Britain and understanding of Britishness, as part of the creation of a unitary British national identity and its supporting value system. This involves potentially riding roughshod over conscientious objections – often but not always based on religious conviction – to things like adoption by gay couples or abortion, both of which are proclaimed as ‘human rights’.

Without wanting to get into the whole argument about whether or not such things are indeed rights or not, another intimation of the rise of mono-culturalism has come in the last couple of days with the news that the parliamentary Labour Party was intent on ‘whipping’ the vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill: forcing Labour MPs to vote in favour of the government-sponsored bill, even though it contains measures that many MPs object to on conscientious grounds. These contentious provisions include allowing the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos for the purpose of medical research, and removing a legal obligation to respect a child’s ‘need for a father’ so as to allow both partners in a Lesbian relationship to be registered as the parents of children born through assisted conception.

The nature of the conscientious objection to each of these provisions is different. In the former case, it involves reference to concepts of the sanctity and integrity of the human person, which extends even to the embryo. In the latter instance, this involves reference to a child’s ‘right’ to have a father, based on an understanding of human nature and, for religious persons, of humanity’s place within a divine order of creation. It’s this particular topic I’m interested in discussing here because it involves a secular concept of equality and the attempt to impose this concept over and above the moral objections to it.

The heart of the matter, from the ethical and egalitarian perspective, is the bill’s proposal that licensed agencies providing IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) and other fertility treatments to women in same-sex relationships (whether civil partnerships or not) no longer need to take into consideration the ‘need for a father’ on the part of the resulting child. The intention behind this is to enable lesbian couples or individuals to have equal access to this form of fertility treatment to that afforded to straight couples.

You could argue that the removal of the reference to the child’s need for a father is merely a legal technicality clearing the way for Lesbian IVF. But can something so fundamental be literally written out of the legislation simply to facilitate an extension of ‘reproductive equality’? Do children not in fact need a father? And do they not have the right to a father founded on this basic human need? This belief, in essence, is the basis of the conscientious and / or religious objection to the measure.

In addition to the ethical arguments, which are highly complex in themselves, there are at least two problems from the egalitarian perspective with this effacement of the ‘need for a father’:

1) it sets a legal precedent, whereby a piece of legislation explicitly minimises – even discounts altogether – what could be seen as a universal human need. Subsequent legislation or legal cases could draw on this precedent to discredit the notion of a child’s need for a father in other circumstances; for instance, in child custody cases where a bias in favour of the view that children’s need for a mother is naturally greater than their need for a father could be unfairly decisive

2) the proposed legislation actually goes further than merely expunging the reference to the need for a father: it creates a right for the lesbian partner of the woman who gives birth to the child to replace the genetic father on the child’s actual birth certificate. This means, potentially, that two women (and at least one of the women) could be registered as if they were the child’s biological parents, even though it’s possible that neither of them are the genetic parents (in the case of IVF involving donor ova from a third woman, for instance). Indeed, should the donor ova come from the lesbian partner who is not carrying the baby (genetically, the mother), it is not her but the birth mother who will be registered as the real mother. The second parent in both cases – the one who fills the vacated space of the father on the birth certificate – is not registered either as ‘the father’ or as a second ‘mother’ but as a ‘parent’.

While the different possible birth-registration scenarios are mind-boggling with respect to their twisted terminological logic and ontological distortions, the point in relation to the child is not only that it is considered to not have a valid need for a father but, in legal terms, not to have a father at all. This is, contradictorily, despite the fact that the law also continues to recognise that children resulting from lesbian IVF do have biological fathers and, once they reach the age of maturity, they have the right to learn who they are and to try to contact them if they wish. But the difference is that, officially, this donor of the sperm that has created the child is just that: a sperm donor and not a father in either an emotional / social sense (such as with an adoptive father, for instance) or genetic sense: where the lesbian partner is registered as the ‘parent’, the genetic father loses his right in law to be considered even as the genetic father.

This means that the child that is being deprived of its right to have a genetic father that they do not know, even during childhood. This is in contrast to the circumstances of IVF children who have parents of both sexes where the genetic father is not the social father, or adopted children. In these instances, the child is still entitled and able to know that they have a genetic father even if they know next to nothing about that person. The child with two registered female parents, however, does not even have this right and existential possibility. Setting aside the fact that this makes the law not just an ass but a liar (because the child in question does have a genetic parent), this is also an inequality compared to other children who don’t know their biological father. Who knows what psychological harm could be caused by this sort of officially sanctioned deceit? It’s surely far more likely that children in this situation would be damaged by the absence of a father than if the existence of a biological father can at least be acknowledged. So in the name of equality to lesbians a potentially egregious inequality towards IVF children is to be legally sanctioned.

In addition to treating lesbian-IVF children unequally, the proposed bill is also grossly unjust towards the fathers concerned. Admittedly, children resulting from such procedures retain the right to seek out their genetic fathers when they reach adulthood. But even then, the fathers have no legal right to call themselves fathers, even though they are so in biological terms. Their status remains that merely of sperm donors. Of course, these are highly exceptional cases; but they could have huge ramifications for the legal status of fathers in general. I’ve suggested one example above (reference to the rights of fathers in child-custody cases). But how about male gay couples becoming parents through assisted conception? Could it not be argued that, in the name of equality, they should have the same ‘right’ to be considered as the two legal parents and that, accordingly, the law should include no formal recognition of a child’s ‘need for a mother’. Similarly, why should donors of sperm to lesbian couples be treated differently to donors of sperm to straight couples, where the sperm donor retains his legal right to be recognised as the biological father?

But clearly, something such as the removal of legal recognition of children’s ‘need for a mother’ would not, and should not, be accepted: children do need mothers and have a right to know that they have a mother, even if they do not know who she is. But why does the reverse not apply equally? If fathers can be legally relegated to the status of mere sperm donors, why shouldn’t women be legally relegated in analogous circumstances to the status of mere ovum or womb donors? The unequal provisions of the proposed legislation do indeed appear to imply that motherhood is deemed to be somehow more integral to the processes of conception, birth and child rearing, and their associated emotional needs, than fatherhood. In the specific context of the bill, the ‘need’ to be a parent on the part of lesbians is accordingly recognised as being at least equal to that of straight couples also seeking IVF and other fertility treatment. But as a consequence, the ‘right to motherhood’ of lesbians is being prioritised over the child’s ‘right for a father’ or the father’s ‘right to be recognised as the father’. And so, in the name of equality, notions of the sanctity of fatherhood (its sacred character as decreed by God) or simply of father’s human rights are being overridden, as are the sacred / human rights of children who need fathers.

But defenders of the government would point to the fact that Catholic MPs who object to aspects of the Bill have been given a get-out clause that enables them to refuse the whip and vote with their conscience. Well, maybe; but this does in fact apply only to Catholics, not to members of other Christian denominations, of other faiths or of none who have ethical objections to the Bill. So not only are some women’s rights to equality greater than the rights of the children and men affected by those women’s choices to be treated equally to other children and men in similar circumstances not involving lesbian parents; but also, some conscientious objections (those of Catholics) are considered as carrying more weight than others.

Apparently, then, under New Labour, some women are ‘more equal’ than some children and some men. And the secular concept of equality that is behind this unequal egalitarianism proceeds from an assumption that if an individual has a ‘need’ that society recognises (e.g. lesbian women’s ‘need’ to be mothers), this need must accorded equal ‘treatment’ by society and the medical profession. But in the recognition of these needs, the equal needs or conscientious objections of others are overruled. Unless you’re a Catholic, that is: the New Labour secular-liberal orthodoxy has not (yet) decided to tackle the Catholic Church head on. Doubtless, many of the most ardent advocates of New Labour’s British-secular-liberal orthodoxy would like to see it do so.

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