Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

25 May 2016

European Union: A latter-day Unholy Roman Empire

Boris Johnson was right the other week when he somewhat haplessly linked the European Union to previous attempts to bring about a Europe-wide polity, stretching back to the Roman Empire via Napoleon and Hitler.

Napoleon’s and Hitler’s attempts to ‘unify’ the Continent through conquest did harp back, quite consciously, to the Roman Empire, many of whose symbols, iconography and self-descriptions they associated with their own political projects: Napoleon’s ‘Empire’ and cult of the Emperor’s personality, and the idea of France as the modern embodiment of a superior, rational, ‘classical’, pan-European civilisation; Hitler’s ‘thousand-year empire’ that passed the flame of imperial Rome on – or back – to a ‘pure’ European race (the Aryans or Teutons) that were supposed ultimately to have originated it.

Of course, the project that is the EU (founded, significantly, by the Treaty of Rome) does not seek its realisation through conquest (although the EU does have aspirations to being a military superpower), nor does it embody ideas of European racial superiority (although it does see itself as the flag bearer for a distinct, essential, and inherently valuable European culture).

But the idea of Europe that the EU seeks to bring about is inspired by Ancient Rome; that is, the pre-Christian and anti-Christian (one might almost say ‘Antechristian’) Rome: the ‘Unholy Roman Empire’, as opposed to the subsequent unification of Western Europe around Roman Catholic Christendom and the various incarnations of the Holy Roman Empire.

Ancient Rome provides the template for the idea of a European polity that underlies the EU – one based on the humanist ideals and achievements of the Greco-Roman world (as viewed through the modern lens), including qualities such as: rationality; Enlightenment; arts and culture; technological advancement; republicanism and democracy; human and citizen rights; engineering excellence; military prowess; social progress; and law.

Never mind that the Roman Empire extended its reach through military conquest, not consent. Or that imperial rule was autocratic and bureaucratic, not democratic. Or that the rights of Roman citizens applied only to citizens, and to some extent freemen and -women, while creating an underclass of slaves with no such rights or dignity. Or that imperial Rome, up until the 4th century AD, persecuted Christians and fed them to the lions.

Roman Law, while one of the finest achievements of Ancient Rome, relied on the workings of an elite class of legislators and legal experts. In its turn, EU law – much reviled by supporters of Brexit – draws heavily upon Roman Law via the Civil Law tradition that informs many of continental Europe’s legal codes. In accordance with this long tradition, EU laws are elaborated and executed by an elite civil service (the European Commission), along with the EU’s Supreme Court, the European Court of Justice. This is in stark contrast to the traditions of English Law, built on the pillars of statute (laws initiated and passed by the democratically elected Parliament) and Common Law (laws shaped and modified by precedent established through judgements in court at every tier of the judicial system, and not just handed down by the supreme authority).

It is not only national traditions of parliamentary democracy, judicial independence and Common Law that are overridden by EU law making and giving, but also the Christian foundations of EU member nations and, in particular, those of England. Throughout most of the Christian era, the nations of Europe were founded on the ‘divine right of kings’: the belief that the absolute rule that monarchs exercised was a duty entrusted to them by God, which needed to be fulfilled in obedience to the divine law and will. While few if anybody now advocate absolute monarchy, this belief in the Christian foundations of political power (meaning literally that power should be exercised in obedience to Christ) lives on in the British monarch’s status as temporal head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith throughout the realm.

Similarly, the other surviving monarchies of northern Europe reserve a religious, if somewhat ceremonial, role for the king or queen as representatives of their countries’ traditional Christian values and as reigning by the grace of God. By contrast, the Catholic countries of Europe have largely got rid of their monarchs, and enforce a separation of church and state. And often, those that have confined the church most forcibly to the margins of political life are those that have styled themselves at some point along the lines of imperial Rome, conquering all of Europe and North Africa before them: the above-mentioned Napoleon and Hitler, to which one could add Generalissimo Mussolini.

The equation here is irresistible: if you reject a Europe of many nations united by a shared Christian faith, under the custodianship of the Catholic Church or of national-Protestant monarchs, the model for a united European polity you look to is inevitably that of pre- or non-Christian Rome. Accordingly, the EU aspiration to end the division of Europe into many, historically frequently warring, nations by uniting them in a new pan-European polity goes hand in hand with the desire to terminate the historic role (admittedly, at times more aspirational than actual) of the Church and of Christian faith as the focus for unity and the foundation of political authority. If you no longer have Christianity as the unifying force, there is only the force of political union.

And so the EU does belong in the line of post-Enlightenment political projects that, like the Rome they mimicked, sought to banish Christianity from the public square in the name of a secular-humanist order harking back to Europe’s would-be ancient roots and core identity. The EU is both anti-national and anti-Christian in its fundamental mission and philosophical underpinnings. And that means specifically that EU membership runs counter to any sort of project to reassert England as a self-governing and (I would say) Christian nation. Christianity and ‘little’ nations no longer belong in the EU’s pan-European-universal-humanist new order.

At root, I believe any true supporter of – one might even say true believer in – the EU project (as opposed to lukewarm, pragmatic supporters) wants to bring about pan-European political union and a secularised society; or, if they are Christians, they are either naïve about the extent to which the EU is counter-Christian or are prepared to accept the marginalisation of Christian faith from political discourse and institutions for the sake of the ‘greater good’ of European unification.

But if you do not want this, and if you want there to be an England in future (whether with a Christian head of state and established church, or not), there is only one option: to vote to leave the EU. The EU is indeed a latter-day Unholy Roman Empire that has set its sight on being the power in our land.

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.

23 May 2013

Gay marriage: a very English muddle

I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill. I have no problems with gay – or, as the PC term is now, LGBT – equality as a general concept, i.e. that LGBT people should be treated equally to any other citizens and should not be discriminated against. However, I do take issue with some of the ways LGBT equality has been implemented in practice, such as the requirement under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 for adoption agencies to take on gay and lesbian couples on an equal basis to heterosexual couples. That has meant that many Christian adoption agencies – which were generally recognised as providing an excellent service – have had to close, as they took the view that it is in the best interests of the child to be adopted by opposite-sex, preferably married, couples. By holding out for this view and not taking on same-sex couples, they would have run the risk of breaking the law.

Gay, or same-sex, marriage had, and arguably still has, the potential to present similar crises of conscience. If marriage is construed, like adoption, as a service that religious organisations such as churches provide to the public, then once same-sex marriage enters the statute books, those churches could be held to be in breach of the law by not offering marriage to gay couples. Section 2 of the present Bill, which passed its reading at the report stage earlier this week, offers churches and other religions protection against that eventuality by requiring religious organisations to opt in to the right to conduct same-sex marriages. In other words, there is no obligation on such organisations to provide same-sex marriage services if they do not agree with them on grounds of conscience.

So, no problem then? Well, the peculiar problem in England is that the Church of England historically has always had the obligation to marry any persons that requested it to do so, so long as the marriage thus solemnised was legal, e.g. not bigamous or prohibited for some other reason. Hence, introducing gay marriage could have put the Church in the position whereby it uniquely, as the established Church, had to offer gay weddings if gay couples asked it to do so. This is why the Bill has resorted to the drastic measure of actually prohibiting the Church of England (and the Anglican Church in Wales) from celebrating same-sex marriages. If it had not done so, there would have been a serious possibility of a legal challenge from gay couples who had been refused marriage by the Church.

As part of this obligation of the Church to marry those who ask it to do so in good faith (if not always in actual Christian faith), there has hitherto been just a single legal definition of marriage in English Law, i.e. no distinction between civil and religious marriage as exists in many countries in the rest of Europe. The new Bill maintains this tradition of recognising only one form of marriage but extends it to gay couples. Thus a somewhat absurd situation has arisen whereby the Church of England is still obliged to marry opposite-sex couples in church, and a single legal form of marriage (straight and gay) that applies to both religious and civil ceremonies is maintained, but the Church is prohibited from providing that form of marriage to gay couples.

This contradiction is absolutely bound to lead to legal challenges. But the fact that the new law will ban the Church from conducting same-sex weddings is intended to deflect those challenges away from the Church (which will have no option but to refuse gay couples) on to the law itself. Hence, the challenges, when they come, will take the form of judicial reviews or appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

This is a very English muddle; indeed, one might even characterise it as very Anglican. England’s Church, and indeed English society, is a broad church, tolerating a wide spectrum of faith, ethics and sexuality. In one sense, the big joke in all this is that gay relationships and couples, involving vicars and bishops in many cases, have been quietly tolerated in the Church of England for decades. The real problem, for the Church, is perhaps that the possibilities of being either obliged to celebrate, or prohibited from celebrating, such relationships forces a resolution of the Church’s ambiguities on the morality of homosexuality. It pushes the issue out of the closet and into . . . the church. Will the Church turn down the wish of its gay congregants to marry in their places of worship, or will it utter a collective ‘I do’?

Well, the answer may soon be taken out of its hands, if indeed there are successful legal challenges to the ban on Anglican same-sex marriage. Ironically, the Church of England is perhaps more vulnerable in this area than other churches and faiths, which historically have not had the obligation to offer marriage to allcomers, as has the C of E.

The problem, as I have indicated above, is the single legal definition of marriage in England and Wales, which will now encompass same-sex unions. Over and above the fact that this may ultimately bring about the disestablishment of the Church of England – if it refuses to provide same-sex marriages once the ban on its doing so is overturned by the High Court or the ECtHR – this is the reason why I oppose the Bill.

I wouldn’t have any objection to gay civil marriage if law and practice made a distinction between civil and religious marriage. Indeed, making a split between civil marriage (open to gay and straight couples) and religious marriage (open by default only to straight couples but, at the discretion of each religious organisation, capable of being extended to gay couples) could have been a way to resolve the parallel muddle that has arisen over civil partnerships: the current civil form of recognition of same-sex unions (‘gay marriage’ in all but official documentation), which the Bill in its present form is neither abolishing nor extending to heterosexual couples – hence creating another anomaly and inequality. Indeed, even if a church or other religious organisation did not choose to conduct gay religious marriages, it could be open to them to conduct gay civil marriages within their own premises: equivalent to celebrating civil partnerships now, as civil partnerships would be ‘upgraded’ to ‘civil marriages’, equivalent to straight civil marriages.

But as the law continues to be based on a single definition of marriage – civil and religious, and now gay and straight – this means that what is at issue is not merely LGBT equality in the matter of civil marriage but English society’s collective understanding and formal definition of marriage per se. By legalising gay marriage, the British parliament is declaring that the official meaning and purpose of marriage in England and Wales are no longer as understood by traditional Christianity, which holds that marriage is the life-long union of a man and a woman, and is the foundation of family life and strong communities. (I’ve written about this extensively in my previous post from the point of view of traditional Christian faith, so won’t go back over this ground here.)

This is what is ultimately at stake for England here: our understanding and beliefs about the meaning and value of human sexuality, and the importance of the traditional family based around the rock of an unshakable union between a husband and a wife committed to each other and their children for life.

Let’s not be under any illusions here. The most ardent and determined LGBT-equality campaigners won’t be content with mere equality under the law: they want society not only to hold and propagate the view that gay sex and marriage are equal to their straight counterparts, but that they are equivalent to them, morally, socially and spiritually. They want to marginalise and stigmatise anyone who stands up for the traditional understanding of marriage, and brand them as bigots and homophobes. Indeed, that’s what they’re already doing. You wait for the challenges against churches, and church and other religious schools and their teachers, to come in.

Now that it’s law, it’ll become mandatory PC speak to acknowledge the ‘equal value’ and importance of gay and straight marriages. And what will inevitably be next is demands for ‘reproductive equality’: the equal ‘right’ for gay couples, especially if they’re married, to access ‘fertility services’ enabling them to have children (which, after all, is what marriage is supposed to be all about, they might say). So fertility clinics will not be allowed to give preference to straight couples having difficulty becoming joint parents in the natural way over gay or lesbian couples requiring treatments such as artificial insemination or surrogacy enabling one of them to become a parent, even though neither could become a parent under any circumstances if left to nature alone. Equal adoption and marriage rights: equal fertility rights – watch this space.

Would it matter if the traditional family disappears under the impact of an increasingly secularised society’s obsession with enabling every individual – gay or straight – to pursue and fulfil the same goals in the name of equal rights? Well, I think it does matter. Society needs people who are prepared to place their commitments to other people – wives, husbands, children, families, communities – above their dedication to pursuing their personal life goals and sexual, or other, destinies. And, I would say, society needs faith: the belief in, and commitment to, some thing or some being higher than oneself. Is this need met by changing society’s understanding of marriage so that it is merely the affirmation of two people’s love and passion for each other, and of their pursuit of personal fulfilment, divorced from the broader social and familial context?

Well, I guess we’ll muddle through. I hope so anyway. Maybe those who want dogmatically to insist we all acknowledge the equal value of gay sex and unions will not in fact win their ultimate victory, and English society will continue to tolerate diversity, even if hypocritically in some contexts, such as the Church.

The fact that the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill is such an unholy English muddle gives me a sort of desperate hope.

3 February 2013

Why I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill

The British government’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales – the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill – received its first reading (a formality) in the House of Commons the week before last and is due to receive its second, more significant, reading this coming Tuesday. The bill is likely to be passed into law during the course of the year, as the great majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs are thought to support it, and enough Conservative MPs appear to be in favour. Indeed, one article identified only 118 Tory MPs that were on record as opposing the measure, one of whom has said he will abstain. Nonetheless, this is a sizeable Conservative backbench rebellion and may wipe out any temporary kudos Mr Cameron may have gained from his recent speech promising a referendum on the EU.

I’m opposed to the Bill on two main grounds. Firstly, I believe it’s morally and ontologically wrong: there is, and can never be, any such thing as true same-sex marriage. The basis for this belief in my case is Christian faith, which teaches us that marriage is by definition the lifelong union of a man and a woman, a union which both symbolises and enacts the union between God and humanity in Christ. One of the intrinsic purposes – but not the exclusive purpose – of this union is the raising of children. It’s something both sacred – transcendent – and natural, in the way that Christ himself is both divine and human, and that all humanity is called to share in the divine love in Christ.

Therefore, on this basis, marriage actually is something: it’s a real state or condition, ordained by God, and not a mere socio-cultural convention or legal contract that we are free to modify as society and its mores change. One could as it were no longer have same-sex marriage as two persons of the same sex could naturally procreate.

Well, why not then introduce a form of secular, civic gay marriage that is legally distinct from religious or Christian marriage? That would in theory be a way round the religious objections. But the trouble is that English Law, owing to the establishment of the Church of England, makes no distinction between civic and religious marriage. This is in contrast to other jurisdictions on the Continent, such as France, where the legal form of marriage is civic, and anyone requiring a religious marriage has to have a separate religious ceremony additional to the civic wedding.

The stupid thing is that we could have had effectively a form of civic same-sex marriage simply by making a modest tweak to the law on civil partnerships: by enabling them to be referred to as ‘same-sex marriages’ as an alternative name to ‘civil partnerships’ in official and legal documents and contexts. Indeed, this seems to have been the intention of the Conservative Party in its ‘Contract for Equalities’ published just before the 2010 election as an annex to its manifesto. This stated: “We will also consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage”.

The government’s somewhat preposterous ‘myth buster’ about same-sex marriage tries to make out that this equates to a ‘mandate’ to introduce same-sex marriage. But there is no such pledge in the Contract for Equalities. On the contrary, that particular document talks about supporting civil partnerships and recognising them in the tax system as the way in which a Conservative government would advance the equality of gay people. The plan was to ensure that civil partners had the same rights as married partners, and that civil partnerships could formally be called ‘marriages’ while remaining legally civil partnerships. By contrast, the present Bill extends the existing institution of heterosexual marriage to same-sex couples while preserving civil partnerships for gay people only. This is not the same as was stated in the Contract for Equalities, nor is it especially egalitarian! And besides, only the manifesto is generally taken as setting out the commitments for which a party considers it has a mandate if elected into power, not a subsidiary annex that receives hardly any publicity during the dying days of an election campaign.

Now, ironically, the government has just announced that it will not give married couples a special tax break during the forthcoming financial year. This was a manifesto pledge, as was the commitment to recognise civil partnerships in the tax system. The obvious inference is that the government is delaying or reneging on this commitment because it knows it will be legally, or at least politically, obliged to extend any married-couples tax allowance to gay married partners as soon as the same-sex marriage passes into law. A pledge that was initially intended as a means to reward married couples and parents who stick together in adversity, and who thereby help reduce the huge social and financial costs of family break-up, would then be diverted into providing what most Tory voters would probably see as a completely unmerited tax break to gay couples, the great majority of whom are without the responsibilities of children.

This gives the lie to claims, including in the afore-mentioned ‘myth-buster’, that “the principles of long-term commitment and responsibility which underpin [marriage,] bind society together and make it stronger” are exactly the same in the case of straight and gay marriage. The life-long commitments to family – to each other’s families and to raising a family of their own – that a husband and wife make as part of traditional marriage are in no way equivalent to the merely long-term mutual commitment of a gay couple to one another, however much in love they may be at the time.

And this brings me to the second main reason why I oppose the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill: it depreciates and further undermines traditional, straight marriage, whether you see this institution as predominantly a religious thing, or as a universal phenomenon of human civilisation and cultures. True marriage – involving a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman to one another – is about so much more than the mutual commitment of two persons of the same gender, however beautiful and loving this can be in its own way. Marriage speaks to the nature of human beings as male and female: the two sexes as complementary to one another, and as having differing as well as mutual responsibilities towards one another. It involves the whole mystery and beauty of procreation and parenthood, and is what encapsulates and channels the primordial reproductive instinct into a cohesive social structure – the family – and gives it meaningful, ritualised and standardised forms of cultural expression: making it and us human in the process. It is about the rich, cultural meanings that have built up around the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, and ‘father’ and ‘mother’, and which are bound up with what I have just described.

And it is family that marriage is above all about. Marriage is the cornerstone and foundation of family, and not just in the purely causal sense of children deriving from exercising the conjugal rights. Marriage is essentially the glue that seals the family together at each generational link in the chain: it is what turns us into members of a family, and by extension of the human family and of society, as opposed to being mere random assemblages of competing genes. But there is absolutely nothing in the present draft of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill about the family. Indeed, the word occurs only once in the whole document in a legalistic point regarding the parental rights of a married or civil partner over his/her own children or those of his/her partner.

Apart from the fact the complete absence of any discussion of family from a bill that seeks to extend marriage to gay couples completely destroys any confidence that the bill has anything to do with authentic marriage, what message is this sending out to existing or aspiring straight married couples and their families? If the government will not recognise in law the interdependence of marriage and the family – as it has just refused to recognise it in the tax system – how is this going to encourage the sort of responsible, sustainable relationships between mature men and women that are needed to produce cohesive, caring families and communities?

And don’t even get me on to the fact that the bill completely evades any question of what constitutes the consummation of a gay marriage, for the obvious reason that gay unions cannot conform to the traditional definition of consummation as genital-penetrative sexual intercourse open to the possibility of conception. So are we to assume that there is no consummation test for marriage per se now, even for straight couples? I don’t think this is the case, although this is open to interpretation, it seems to me. The reason I don’t think it’s the case is that adultery within a same-sex union is defined by the bill as involving sexual relations only with someone of the opposite sex, not someone of the same sex. In other words, if there is no same-sex adultery because there can be no same-sex consummation in the first place (nothing officially being defined as gay ‘intercourse’ for the purpose of the bill), the fact that there is still heterosexual adultery implies that there is still such a thing as consummation of a straight union.

But not only is this not equal, and not fair in different ways to either gay or straight married couples; but it also gives the lie to the claim that gay marriage can also be equivalent to – the same as – straight marriage, existentially and socio-culturally. Same-sex marriage will not have the same meanings or the same role in society; and it will not have the same forms of expression or the same impact on gay married partners as marriage has traditionally had on straight couples.

The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill is therefore wrong on a number of levels. Same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms: inauthentic as well as incoherently and inconsistently defined, if indeed it is at all, in the bill. It also involves an impoverishment of our understanding of the core meaning and importance of marriage, reducing it merely to a mutual, loving commitment by two persons, rather than as the cornerstone of the family and by extension of society as a whole.

And there is one last reason why this Bill, if it becomes law, may need to continue being opposed. This is that it relates to England and Wales only; and yet it is the UK parliament as a whole, including the 77 MPs from Scotland and Northern Ireland, that will be voting on it. The Bill may end up being another instance whereby a law relating only to England, or in this case England and Wales, relies on the votes of MPs representing constituents not affected by the legislation to be passed. This is all the more likely in this instance, in that 52 out of Scotland’s 59 MPs represent either the Labour Party or the Lib Dems. And these MPs will mostly vote in favour of the Bill, despite the fact that it does not relate to Scotland, and that a draft bill to legalise same-sex marriage has separately been presented to the Scottish parliament. Indeed, I’m tempted to think that one of the main reasons this particular shoddy Bill is being rushed through Parliament is that David Cameron wants to ensure that the UK parliament gets gay marriage on the statute book first, ahead of Scotland, in part to demonstrate to the people of Scotland that the Union can embody the so-called progressive values that supporters of Scottish independence feel could best be realised in a stand-alone Scotland.

Whatever the reasons the prime minister does have for cutting off his backbenchers to save his liberal-unionist face, you can rest assured that if this misplaced and ill-devised Bill does become law through the votes of MPs representing countries not addressed by it, this writer will not remain silent.

27 December 2012

Census and gay marriage: England remains a Christian nation – for now

Earlier this month, two interesting events took place in the same week. First, the results of the 2011 Census of England and Wales were published. Among many interesting findings, this reported that the proportion of the population of England and Wales stating that their religion was Christianity had fallen to 59.3%, from 71.7% in 2001: a drop of 12.4%. There was an almost exactly opposite rise in the number of those claiming they had no religion, from 14.8% to 25.1%: up 11.3%.

The proportion of those identifying as Christian in England alone – 59.4% – was pretty much identical to that for England and Wales combined. However, the proportion of those indicating they had no religious affiliation at all was significantly higher in Wales than in England: 32.1% versus 24.7% respectively. The main reason for this divergence is that there is a much higher share of non-Christian religions in England than in Wales, reflecting the greater extent of immigration to England. In particular, the Muslim share of the population in England was 5%, compared with only 1.5% in Wales. Across England and Wales as a whole, the Census reported that the proportion of the population claiming affiliation to Islam had risen from 3.0% in 2001 to 4.8% in 2011.

On this measure at least, England is still a Christian country. Indeed, the greatest threat to Christianity in England comes from secularisation not ‘Islamisation’, with the English Muslim population still being only 8% of the size of the Christian community. It seems to me that this is one of the paradoxes of anti-Muslim organisations such as the EDL or the BNP: that while they ostensibly seek to defend England’s / Britain’s Christian heritage against a perceived Islamic threat, many of their adherents are far from Christian in their own beliefs and lifestyles. It is really the broad Christian heritage and culture of England / Britain that they see themselves as defending. But the truth of the matter is, as the Census shows, that many people who previously categorised themselves as nominally Christian now no longer do call themselves Christian. That does not necessarily mean they do not believe in God, or even that they do not consider their beliefs and values are compatible with Christian faith. But the fact that they no longer feel they can definitely describe themselves as Christian nevertheless marks a profound culture shift.

Another profound culture shift that has taken place over the past ten to 15 years is in attitudes towards gay sex and relationships. I’m not sure if this is a generational thing, but until very recently, it used to be regarded as something noteworthy, unusual and even a bit distasteful for many heterosexuals if someone you knew was openly gay or in a gay relationship. But nowadays, it’s just regarded as part of normality: more ‘oh yes, and he’s gay’, rather than ‘he’s gay, you know’ – nudge nudge, wink wink.

Take these two trends together, and it’s not surprising that a moral consensus has grown up in favour of legalising gay marriage in England and Wales; and that a nation whose Christianity is increasingly vague and non-doctrinal seems to think that this is compatible with Christian values, and hence that there might be plenty of churches out there that will be happy to embrace their new ‘freedom’ to marry gays. This is the other event that took place earlier this month: the government’s announcement that it would proceed with legislation to introduce gay marriage in England and Wales.

Of course, in reality, gay marriage is far from compatible with mainstream Christian belief. While some have drawn parallels with the issue of women bishops, gay marriage is not at all in the same category. Most churches do not even have bishops or regard them as essential, let alone women bishops. This is simply not a point of common Christian belief across the denominations. By contrast, virtually all Christian churches regard gay marriage as a contradiction in terms, as marriage is by definition regarded as a union between a man and a woman. Indeed, most denominations still view gay sex itself as sinful: a belief that is at the origin of society’s repudiation of homosexuality until recent times.

As society generally no longer regards gay sex, or at least loving gay relationships, as morally wrong, so it seems to have assumed there can be no reasonable objection to gay couples choosing to affirm their relationships through marriage. But marriage isn’t just about de-culpabilising a sexual relationship: a mutual commitment – gay or straight – somehow being less complete, and therefore potentially more selfish and morally imperfect, outside of marriage. It isn’t in fact just about the commitment, which is of course to be welcomed in any relationship: it’s about the union constituted by marriage. In traditional Christian belief, marriage creates something new: marriage is a real – spiritual and bodily – union between a man and a woman, which reflects, restores and re-enacts the original unity of male and female in God: of male and female as created in the image of God. By definition, then, it has to be a coming together of a man and a woman. And the fact that the marital union embodies the union between God and humanity in Christ also means that the purpose of marriage reflects the nature and action of God in the world: as creator and redeemer. Hence, marriage is also intrinsically about creating new life – through procreation – and about dedication to guiding those new lives to faith, and ultimately to the eternal life of salvation.

This view of marriage is, however, very far removed from society’s increasingly secularised understanding of it as primarily a mutual commitment between a man and woman, and – if mutual commitment is what it’s all about – why not also between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman? Nevertheless, the government’s legislative proposals stopped short of imposing an obligation for churches to conduct gay weddings if they were requested by gay couples to do so. And in the case of the Church of England and its Welsh counterpart, the Church in Wales, the government proposes to actually prohibit those churches from carrying out gay marriage ceremonies, even if they, or individual parish churches, wish to do so.

The fact that the proposed legislation compels the Anglican churches of England and Wales not to marry gay couples, whereas other churches and religions in those countries can choose whether or not to do so, is linked to the Church of England’s established status. This means that Canon Law – the Church’s own internal legislation – is part of the law of the land. You cannot therefore have a situation in which statute – parliamentary legislation – and Canon Law are in conflict. This would have been the case if Parliament had allowed the Church of England to conduct gay weddings, whereas Canon Law forbids it. Of course, Parliament could have chosen to engineer such a conflict with the Church, in order to persuade or coerce it into bringing Canon Law into line with statute, rather than the other way round. However, if there had been resistance to this change within the Church – which there certainly would have been – this could have risked triggering the disestablishment of the Church. And this is a risk which, it seems, Parliament was not prepared to take at this stage.

It is indeed ironic that it is the very established status of the Church of England that exempts it from a measure that Parliament regards as fair and even as consistent with Christian values. And this is to say nothing of the anomalous situation that the Church in Wales finds itself in. Unlike the Church of England, the Welsh Church is not established; and yet it finds itself subject to the same prohibition of gay marriage as its English counterpart. This appears to have happened with very little if any consultation with the Church in Wales. It seems to have been the case that, as the gay marriage Bill applies to both England and Wales, it would have been even more anomalous and potentially unsustainable to completely ban the Anglican church in England from marrying gay couples while allowing the Anglican church in Wales to do so if it wished.

In the end, though, the inconsistencies surrounding the Bill are effectively no more than a manifestation of the contradiction involved in thinking that gay marriage is consistent with mainstream Christian faith, which it is not. Parliament is effectively wanting to have its secular-liberal cake and eat its established-religion cake, too: a secularisation of values, yes, but not a secularisation of the state – at least not yet.

So the Westminster politicians have shied away from pushing the liberal gay-marriage agenda to the point where disestablishment of the Church of England could have ensued. Were they motivated by a dim awareness that – as the Census showed – England remains a broadly Christian country, and that there was insufficient popular support for a confrontation with the Church on this matter, let alone for disestablishment? Or were they terrified at the prospect of disestablishment and of all the unforeseen consequences this might have, and reluctant to be the Parliament that overthrew more than 450 years of constitutional history?

I maintain that one of the consequences of disestablishing the Church of England is effectively the abolition of England as a civic nation. The Church of England is arguably the only English-national institution remaining at the heart of the British establishment: a body that confers a specific responsibility towards England and the English people on those at the heart of power, including the monarch and the Parliament that governs in the name of the monarch. Really, in some respects, the Church of England represents the spiritual heart and conscience of the English nation: its own doctrinal vagaries reflecting the increasingly loose and ill-defined ‘Christianity’ of the English nation at large.

So in this formal sense, too, England remains a Christian nation; and the continuation of the Church of England as not just the national-English church but the UK-state church has ensured in this instance that the laws of England, made by the UK parliament, remain true to England’s Christian tradition and faith. But if Christian faith in England erodes to the same extent as it has done since 2001, who knows for how much longer there will even be a Church of England? And with the removal of the Church of England from the British establishment, will England cease not just to be a Christian nation, but a nation in any sense?

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

5 August 2011

Are we off our heads? Capital punishment is back on the agenda

Judging from the hype, it seemed likely yesterday morning that the first e-petition to garner the 100,000 e-signatures required to qualify for a debate in Parliament, under the government’s new system, would be a demand to restore capital punishment. Specifically, the petition reads:

“We petition the government to review all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of Parliament to restore capital punishment. Following this review, the Ministry of Justice should map out the necessary legislative steps which will be required to restore the death penalty for the murder of children and police officers when killed in the line of duty.

“The findings of the review and the necessary substantive legislation to be presented to House of Commons for debate no later than 12 months after this petition passes the acceptance threshold.”

This petition was set in motion by the blogger Guido Fawkes and has now been triumphed by the Daily Mail, that paragon of enlightenment.

I’d previously lazily assumed that the petition was calling for a referendum on capital punishment. Instead, as is evident from the above text, it calls for Parliament to decide on the merits of the case and to pass the necessary legislation. It’s somewhat ironic, to say the least, that a blogger who has devoted himself to discrediting Westminster and the political establishment – deservedly so, to a great extent – should now be crediting Parliament with the wisdom to decide on such a matter. Perhaps this is an example of the same sort of bad faith that Parliament itself displays when it sends young men and women into battle to kill on our behalf: transferring to the ‘professionals’ the dirty work it wouldn’t wish to do direct. Similarly, if it’s Parliament that restores capital punishment, not the people in a referendum, then Parliament can be seen to carry the ‘guilt’ for any actual executions, not the broad mass of people that has demanded those executions take place.

For all the ethical complexities surrounding the issue of capital punishment (capably explored elsewhere), for me it comes down to this: you shouldn’t support capital punishment unless you yourself would be prepared to stare into the eyes of the condemned man, tie the noose around his neck, pull open the trap door and let him swing. If you thought it was right for the condemned person to die but couldn’t yourself kill them, then it is hypocritical to expect someone else to do the dirty work for you. And if you were willing to take on the role of executioner out of a sense of social responsibility, then I would doubt your humanity and capacity for compassion.

Similarly, if you yourself were condemned to death but were innocent of the crime attributed to you, you shouldn’t support capital punishment unless you believe it would still be right for your life to be taken under those circumstances.

I think many, perhaps most, of those who demand the restoration of capital punishment would be unwilling to apply the penalty to others – directly, face to face – still less to themselves.

Again, I think it’s rather ironic that this petition is being sponsored by someone whose historical predecessor – the 17th-century Guy Fawkes – was himself executed for high treason. Would the 21st-century Guido advocate the death penalty for a plot to blow up Parliament today? Presumably not, as only murdering children and police officers – not terrorism or murdering MPs – are on his petition as meriting the final sanction. Why this selectivity? If you’re going to bring back hanging, why not apply it to all murders, conspiracy to commit murder and manslaughter resulting from armed robbery? Why stop there? Why not terrorism? Why not the arguable treason committed by Parliament itself in handing over so much of its and our sovereignty to the EU without our permission?

The trouble is, where do you stop? Would Guido think that driving a man to suicide by ruthlessly exposing his misdemeanours and hypocrisy merited the death penalty because it constituted a form of indirect murder? Presumably not, as this is a ‘crime’ that he himself is perpetually in danger of committing. Ultimately, it’s pretty arbitrary which crime you feel does or does not constitute a capital offence, and society is effectively playing God when it ascribes to itself the right to take life in some grave circumstances but not others.

While we’re on the subject of God, I feel that, from a Christian perspective, one has always to try to imagine what Christ would want and say if he were walking among us as a man again. Would he be an advocate for capital punishment? Not likely. I couldn’t see Christ urging others to do something – kill criminals – he wasn’t prepared to do himself. And, lest we forget, Christ was that innocent man who was condemned to death and executed. Yes, he submitted himself to that ordeal and assented to his Father’s providential purpose in the matter. But that doesn’t mean he regarded his execution as just or right in itself, from a purely human perspective. Quite the opposite: it was the perfect expression and symbol of the injustice and sinfulness of mankind. And the crucifixion reveals the true meaning of execution: that it’s the deliberate destruction of the image of God incarnate in a human being.

But if the death of Christ is the archetype for all executions, could we not argue that capital punishment fulfils a redemptive, restorative purpose? Christ was crucified alongside two actual criminals – though thieves, not child or ‘cop’ murderers – one of whom expressed remorse for what he’d done and was told by Christ that he would enter paradise that very evening. Is not the prospect of being executed precisely what hardened criminals need to concentrate their minds on their misdeeds and to come to repentance: to offer their death, Christ-like, as an atonement for their sins and ours, and a plea for divine mercy?

Well, I do actually believe in restorative justice. Punishment for crime should be used not just to satisfy society’s need to avenge wrongdoing and protect itself from wrongdoers, but as a means to bring home to offenders the harsh reality of the suffering they’ve inflicted on their victims: to lead them to repentance and atonement, and to eventually encourage reconciliation and forgiveness between the perpetrator and the victim. But few of those advocating capital punishment today view it in that redemptive light: they want to restore it, but not because of any restorative purpose it may fulfil. It matters little to them whether the executed man is like the thief who comes to repentance or the thief crucified to the left of the dying Christ, who expressed no such remorse, and merely voiced anger about why Christ did not save himself and them. It does not matter to today’s supporters of capital punishment whether the condemned person goes to their death expressing genuine repentance and hope in divine mercy, or cursing God and society in a state of non-reconciliation: they should both die, and we should not concern ourselves with what happens to the condemned persons’ souls ‘beyond’ death, if there is such a thing.

This only goes to show how godless and mean-spirited we have become as a society; and those arguing in favour of capital punishment generally neither do so nor can do so out of Christian conviction.

In fact, there was a third man who was spared as a result of Christ’s crucifixion: Barrabas – an actual brigand and murderer – whom the baying masses had the chance to send to his death instead of Jesus. But under the instigation of their leaders, the people insisted on Christ’s execution, meaning that Barrabas was freed. This also expressed God’s providential purpose: Barrabas was in effect shown mercy by God, indirectly through the workings of imperfect human justice. Barrabas was given the opportunity and the time to come to repentance and reform his ways. We should do no different: lock murderers up, yes, to protect society and penalise wrongdoing; but use the punishment of imprisonment, and make that punishment as severe as necessary, to bring offenders back to their senses and repent of their sins.

Well, I can’t see our present-day penal system adopting such a Christian approach to punishment in the too-near future, either. But I’d still rather we showed mercy to murderers by sparing them the execution they meted out to their victims, whether they deserve that mercy or not – because God forgives the virtuous and evil man alike, and we should do no other. Fortunately, enough people seem to agree with me that, as I write, a petition to retain the ban on capital punishment is outpolling Guido Fawkes’ petition to restore it by over 80%.

Mercifully, perhaps, we are not as off our heads as a society as those who’d have murderers’ heads off.

1 March 2011

It’s official: English law discriminates against Christianity

Yesterday, a black Christian couple were told that Derby City Council had been right to bar them from fostering children because of their refusal to tell children in their care that the practice of homosexuality is a good thing, which contradicts their Christian views about sexual ethics. The ruling of the High Court in London stated that laws protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation “should take precedence” over the right not to be discriminated against on religious grounds, and that if children were placed with carers who objected to homosexuality and same-sex relationships, “there may well be a conflict with the local authority’s duty to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare’ of looked-after children”.

This ruling may well be correct in law – I’m not qualified to judge – but if it is, it does legalise discrimination against Christians and those of other faiths. The very wording of the ruling implies this: if there’s a conflict between discrimination on the grounds of homosexuality and discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, then it’s better to discriminate against the people who hold the religious beliefs in question rather than (merely appear to) discriminate against gays.

Why? Apart from debatable technical reasons (i.e. “there may well be a conflict with the local authority’s duty to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare’ of looked-after children”), the only reason for privileging sexual orientation over religious belief is that the moral rectitude, or at least the absence of immorality, of same-sex relationships has become unquestionable and uncontestable (including in law), whereas religious beliefs are now regarded as fundamentally questionable and are no longer accepted as resting on absolutes, either moral or epistemological (i.e. as being based on an objective theory of knowledge).

As the BBC’s religious correspondent Robert Pigott, writing yesterday, put it: “This was the most decisive ruling against the idea of Christian values underpinning English law since judges ruled last year that to protect views simply because they were religious would be irrational, divisive and arbitrary. Today the message was that courts would interpret the law in cases like the Johns’ according to secular and not religious values”. So not only do the laws themselves enshrine secular values and philosophically sceptical views towards religion – including Christianity: England’s traditional faith – but secular interpretions of the law will ‘take precedence’ over religious ones where there is a conflict.

I suppose one should not complain too much if the law and its interpretation reflect general changes in society, and its views on ethics and faith. But my point is that, as a result of yesterday’s ruling, this is likely to result in egregious discrimination against Christians and those of other faiths, which ought to be prevented in law not defended. For a start, the Johns – the couple at the centre of the case – were not adjudged to have committed any act of discrimination against gays: they weren’t actively trying to prevent gay couples from fostering; although many people, not just Christians, would regard a married couple like the Johns as more suitable foster parents than a gay couple.

So in reality, it’s just the Johns’ beliefs that were regarded as discriminatory and as therefore potentially being a ‘bad influence’ on the children committed to their care; i.e. as encouraging children to take on similarly ‘discriminatory’ views, thereby damaging their welfare, which the Council is statutorily obliged to safeguard. But is the Court, and society in general, really saying there is such a thing as a totally neutral, non-discriminatory environment in which children can grow up? The ruling appears to imply that it’s wrong for Christian foster carers to tell children that gay sex is morally bad but it would be OK for atheist couples to tell children that Christianity is wrong, both morally and in terms of its claim to truth. Is that what we’re saying: it’s wrong for Christians to tell their foster or adopted children (and their own children, too?) that gay sex is wrong, but it’s OK – in fact, positively a good thing – for non-believers to tell their charges that Christianity is wrong?

Besides which, the Johns weren’t even insisting on the right to tell children in their care that gay sex was ‘wrong’, only that they couldn’t tell a child that “the practice of homosexuality was a good thing” [quote from Mrs John’s speech after the ruling]. In other words, the Court has decided not only that foster carers shouldn’t preach their Christianity to their children but that they should preach the ‘virtues’ of a gay lifestyle, i.e. actively promote homosexuality.

Let’s try to imagine a real-world situation: a child being looked after by the Johns is asking them about sex and relationships and, in the interests of that child’s rounded development, they’re supposed to tell him or her that it’s not only perfectly all right to be gay but that gay relationships are a positively good thing – just as good and valid as marriage (if not more so?) – even though the Johns don’t actually believe that last point to be true and their own lives are lived out on different principles. What nonsense! How is the child to make sense of that? ‘So, you’re telling me it’s OK for me to have gay relationships, even though you don’t think they’re right?’ How is that providing coherent moral guidance for kids?

No, what they would of course do is say that it’s OK to be gay (which virtually all Christians believe nowadays) but that, in their opinion, the practice of homosexuality is morally wrong and that the child should wait till he or she had grown up a bit more and was sure about their sexuality before deciding to enter into a relationship; and that after the age of 18, they would in any case be completely free to make their own decisions and that, whatever they decided, they would still be loved. This is being honest with the child and presenting him or her with moral guidance consistent with their own lifestyle, which the child can react against or not when they reach maturity. Plus it’s no different from what most loving parents would do, even in the case that their child came out as gay rather than just seeking guidance on matters of sexuality: they’d prefer their children not to start having sexual relationships until they were 18 and / or had left home.

If the Court thinks that providing children with strict moral guidelines together with loving care, up until the time that the child is legally old enough to make all his or her own decisions, represents a threat to the child’s healthy development, then it is the Court that is out of touch with English social mores, and it is the Court that is being discriminatory, not people like the Johns. Does the Court really think it would be more in the interests of a child’s welfare for its foster parents to say: “being gay is a good thing, and we’d be perfectly happy for you to start having a same-sex relationship just as soon as you’re over the age of consent”? That would appear to be what is being implied by the ruling: better to give children the ‘moral guidance’ that gay sex, and indeed any sex, is fine and proper so long as it’s legal. So one of the unintended (or perhaps intended?) consequences of this ruling will be to undermine the authority of parents to give their children any moral guidance about sex that might appear to limit their sexual freedom once over the age of consent.

And there are other apparent unintended consequences or implications to this ruling:

  • The Court appears to be saying that it’s ‘better’ for children to be fostered and adopted by gay couples than by Christians with a strict moral code
  • A same-sex relationship is therefore ‘better’ than a conventional marriage lived according to Christian principles, as being brought up in such an environment is potentially damaging to children
  • It’s wrong to tell children that gay sex is wrong, but it’s OK – indeed, a good thing – to tell children that Christianity and other faiths are wrong
  • It’s legitimate in certain circumstances to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religious beliefs, even when those beliefs do not result in discrimination against other people or beliefs
  • The legislature for England now gives greater ‘precedence’ to secular-liberal principles – even ones which conflict with general custom and practice in society – than Christian principles
  • The views of working-class black-English Christians are treated as less worthy of respect than the ideology of middle-class British liberals: would the Johns have been treated with the same contempt had they been middle-class white Londoners? Maybe; but maybe not.

In making its ruling yesterday, did the Court intend to imply all of the above statements? If not, an urgent clarification is needed – and, indeed, the Johns have called for a public enquiry on the issues raised. There are two fundamental issues at stake: the welfare of children and the law’s attitude towards those with religious beliefs. Without further clarification, yesterday’s ruling strongly implies a discriminatory attitude towards traditional religious faith: that it is somehow ‘objectively’ wrong, both morally and philosophically; whereas the belief in the moral rectitude of gay relationships has somehow been elevated into an unquestionable objective truth. On what basis? Are we really saying that if foster, adoptive and even genetic parents have strong religious views and moral principles, and they pass those on to their children, they are thereby damaging those children’s welfare and development?

Well, one unintended consequence of this prejudiced, stupid and ill-thought-through ruling is that the law has once again shown itself to be an ass: and an ass that, in matters of faith versus homosexuality, has got it completely arse over tip.

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.

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