Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

23 September 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 April 2010

Paedophile Priests And the Possibility Of Redemption

I confess: I’m a Roman Catholic. Being a left-footer is something you increasingly have to apologise about these days; understandably so.

It’s as if being RC is something you have to confess in the other sense of the word – to make your confession about: a sin in itself, as opposed to a particular sin, such as child abuse, which a practising Catholic would ‘normally’ be expected to confess. It’s as if the sins of the Fathers, some of whom actually used the confessional to get to their innocent victims, are now being visited upon all Mother Church’s children.

The world has been turned upside down. Or perhaps, rather, the world is already upside down – sacred things routinely abused and violated – and the Church has ended up making itself in the world’s image, rather than the other way round.

Is there any hope in the midst of this horror? Is there any sign of redemption? Jesus would say, ‘Ask the little children’. But the children are hurting right now; and they’re angry.

For once, the Church doesn’t have all the answers, and it needs to seek redemption – forgiveness – from those it has wronged. But who will hear its confession now?

One supposes that many, but presumably not all, of the paedophile priests confessed and continue to confess their sins in what, since the Second Vatican Council, has in fact been called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And one can only presume that their Confessors gave them absolution, rather than making their pardon conditional on their fellow priests carrying out the penance of going to the police to confess their crimes before the secular authorities, too. The priests hearing confessions about priestly child abuse would have been well within their rights to demand that their brothers first endure the world’s condemnation for their transgressions as a condition of receiving the effects of the sign of divine redemption given to them in the Sacrament (absolution).

But how many instances of priests voluntarily admitting to child abuse down at the local nick have you heard of? Perhaps the other Nick will now take care of them.

The confessional is in fact a fitting metaphor and example of the culture of secrecy and cover-up that has allowed the paedophiles to ply their trade under the priestly cloak of respectability for so long. Indeed, Confession provides the ultimate context in which not passing on information about crimes, which could also prevent re-offending, is justified on sacred grounds: the Confessor (the priest hearing the confession) is sworn to the utmost secrecy and may pass on what he hears in the confessional to no one, without exception, because this is the only way to ensure that the sinner will reveal all and stand spiritually naked before the priest as he does before his Lord, in true repentance. But to what avail if the same sinner abuses the Sacrament to wipe his soiled slate clean, and go on to reveal all and stand physically naked before another innocent conscience?

There’s not much of a leap from the secrecy of the confessional to the view that in no circumstances should a priest report another, child-abusing priest to the police, even if he has suspicions about that priest independent of what he may have learned in the confessional booth. This is especially the case if the Church authorities – the hierarchy and the local bishop – impose other types of vows and duties of secrecy to enable paedophile priests to be dealt with ‘discreetly’, without causing ‘scandal’. Indeed, the confessional might even be the cement that holds the whole edifice of self-contained ecclesiastical ‘justice’ together: consolidating the sense that this sin needs to be dealt with pastorally and spiritually – in the privacy of individual confession, penance and prayer – rather than through the criminal law in the first instance.

But can there be forgiveness without true penance? And what about the Church’s duty to ensure that justice is done by the victims – its own children – and that they, too, may be reconciled to the Church and to their Father in heaven?

Justice has not only to be done but to be seen to be done. And it seems to me that the Church shares collective responsibility with its sacramental representatives for the crimes that have been done to its most vulnerable members. I feel that nothing short of a public confession of its failings – its sins – in this matter will do. At the very least, the paedophile priests should publicly get down on their knees and beg the forgiveness of those they have wronged, in true repentance; and those who effectively allowed them to get away with it by dealing with abuses discreetly, without involving the forces of the secular law, should also lay bare all that they did and failed to do.

Only a Truth and Reconciliation process of this sort can begin the slow, painful work of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation that can restore the Church to the position of love and moral authority it once held in the affections and minds of its faithful children. For once, it is the faithful that must forgive the Church, not the other way round – forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Whether the actual victims of abuse themselves will ever be able to forgive and be fully reconciled to the Church, God alone knows; but without true repentance from those who were supposed to have the care of their souls, that forgiveness will never take full effect.

The mystery of Easter teaches us that new life and hope can arise from the carnage of sin and despair. But we have first to die to our sins.

Is the Church truly willing to confess its own?

10 April 2009

England Versus Britain: Liberal Christianity Versus Fundamentalist Liberalism

I’ve followed the reaction to the Archbishop of York John Sentamu’s recent sermon on Englishness with great interest. On the whole, the response from the English-nationalist community has been highly positive. This is understandable, as Sentamu’s words add up to a celebration of Englishness, which – he argued – should in fact be formally celebrated by making St. George’s Day a national holiday:

“Let us recognise collectively the enormous treasure that sits in our cultural and spiritual vaults. Let’s draw upon the riches of our heritage and find a sense of purpose for those who are thrashing around for meaning and settling for second best. Let us not forego our appreciation of an English identity for fear of upset or offence to those who claim such an identity has no place in a multi-cultural society. Englishness is not diminished by newcomers who each bring with them a new strand to England’s fabric, rather Englishness is emboldened to grow anew. The truth is that an all embracing England, confident and hopeful in its own identity, is something to celebrate. Let us acknowledge and enjoy what we are.”

This makes such a refreshing change from the continuous diet of Britishness that we are incessantly fed by the politicians and the media that Sentamu’s speech is itself something one feels like celebrating. As he himself says, “Englishness is back on the agenda”. Amen to that!

In view of this, it feels somewhat churlish on my part to point out that the Archbishop himself appears at times to have a weak grasp of the distinction between Englishness (and England) and Britishness (and Britain). This is a point I made in a comment to a posting on Sentamu’s sermon in the Cranmer blog, which I reproduce here:

“Archbishop Sentamu does appear to be confused about the distinction between England / Englishness and Britain / Britishness, slipping seamlessly between one and the other in this sermon. For instance, at the very start of his disquisition on the ‘realities of Englishness’, under the heading ‘England’s Debt to Christianity’, the Archbishop writes: ‘Historically, Christianity has been at the heart of the history of this nation. British history, customs and ethos have been gradually shaped by the Christian faith’. Which is it, Archbishop: England or Britain? And which is ‘the nation’?

“And again, under the heading ‘A Loss of Vision’, Sentamu writes: ‘a more serious development over the past century has been a loss of vision for the English people. Central to that loss of vision has been the loss of the British Empire, wherein England played a defining role. . . . As the vision for Britain became more introspective, I believe the United Kingdom became more self-absorbed’. Again, which is it: England, Britain or the United Kingdom?

“This uncertainty somewhat undermines the important point the Archbishop makes in this section, which is something I very much agree with: ‘there has perhaps never been a better time to re-state this question as to how England might re-discover a noble vision for the future? From my own standpoint I believe that it is vital that England must utilize the challenges posed by the current economic turmoil and in restating the questions posed by Bishop Montefiore, England must recover a sense of who she is and what she is’.

“In restating those questions, England must ask them from the standpoint of England, not Britain. Indeed, the ambiguous interdependency between that nation and that state respectively is very much present in Hugh Montefiore’s sermon to which Archbishop Sentamu refers: ‘I sometimes fear that the people of this great country, having shed an Empire, have also lost a noble vision for their future. How can we rediscover our self-confidence and self-esteem as a nation?’ What is ‘this great country’ and which is ‘a nation’: England or Britain?

“This is not mere semantics but goes to the heart of the question about whether we can rediscover a sense of national identity (‘England must recover a sense of who she is and what she is’) and purpose in the post-imperial age. This is especially critical, as Sentamu argues that we need to draw inspiration from that very imperial past to redefine our mission (including Christian mission) and values for the present and future. But can we succeed in defining and celebrating a distinctive Englishness and vision for England if we do not disentangle the core identity of England from that of Britain, as John Sentamu appears not to be able to do? As he writes: ‘Some English people don’t like to say anything about their heritage, for fear of upsetting newcomers. My question to them is simple: Why do you think we came here? There is something very attractive about the United Kingdom. That is why people stay! As a boy in Uganda, I was taught by British missionaries. Just as foreigners brought the Christian Faith to England and the rest of the UK, so British foreigners handed on the baton to me, my family and my forebears. . . . All I am doing now is to remind the English of what they taught me’. All very fine stuff. But who in fact taught him his faith: the English or the British? And which country is it that foreigners come to and like so much: England or the UK?

“As I say, the distinction is far from semantic, as we are living in a political and cultural climate in which England and Englishness are very much being suppressed in favour of Britain and Britishness, and a re-telling of the whole narrative of English history, values and identity is being made as that of Britain. Without defining and affirming an Englishness distinct from Britishness, there will be no English future to build for, the hope for which Archbishop Sentamu expresses at the end of his sermon. Just as he juxtaposes the traditional British patriotic hymn of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with the English hymn of ‘Jerusalem’.

“So perhaps I was right in my previous comment, after all, to say that the CofE needs to work out whether it is primarily English or British in order to be in a position truly to speak for England and express an authentic vision for England – as England”.

Thinking about this further, I wonder if this overlapping of England and Britain in Sentamu’s speech is not so much a case of confusion as a reaffirmation of the very anglo-centricity of traditional Britishness. In my last post in this blog, I described the way in which Gordon Brown’s Britishness agenda draws on English people’s traditional non-differentiation between Englishness and Britishness to enlist their identification with a new Britishness that makes no reference whatsoever to Englishness or England – literally: the words ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’ are erased from the official lexicon, and are replaced by concepts of Britishness and Britain that take over all the characteristics of their English precursors, including that of the sovereign national identity at the heart of the UK state.

This attempt to appropriate English nationhood and sovereignty to a British state that has hitherto been primarily an instrument of English power has brought about a profound schism in the English-British identity, with many English people coming to reject Britain and Britishness altogether because they no longer seem to represent a vehicle and expression of English-national pride and identity. These latter are what John Sentamu has affirmed in his sermon: but not as being ineradicably at odds with Britain and Britishness but as constituting and epitomising all that is best about Britain – in both its imperial past and its multicultural present.

As this restatement of the positive characteristics of Englishness is a reinstatement of Englishness at the heart of Britishness, it is not surprising that the Archbishop’s list of English values closely resembles similar lists of British values that are regularly trooped out: “fraternity, law, liberty, landscape, language, magnanimity, monarchy, a thirst for knowledge, and a reverence for titles and status. But along with these I would also add, an ability to cope and not make a fuss”. Lists such as these are of course highly disputable, both as typifying the English and in relation to whether they are more aptly extended to all the people of Britain, not just the English. However, the point I would emphasise is that even when adduced as a set of British values, qualities such as these are by default ascribed to the English, as it is the people of England that are intended to embody those values most ‘quintessentially’.

Another question, raised by the Archbishop himself, is whether these things are actual characteristics of English / British people or virtues, as the lists often include qualities with a moral tenor such as fairness, tolerance, honesty and respect for the rule of law. And again, are these ‘virtues’ that the English (and / or British) exemplify to a high degree in some way, or are they mainly characteristics that we hold up as ideals to which we aspire but which we very often fall short of in practice? The same could be said of some of the other qualities commonly termed ‘British values’, which are in reality political ideals or civic virtues, such as: liberty (ironically, a favourite of the oh-so un-libertarian Gordon Brown), equality, fraternity (in the Archbishop’s list), democracy, justice, and hard work. Are these typical characteristics of English / British society or do they merely reflect our aspirations for the way we would like Britain to be – some might say, all the more held up as an ideal the more they are in reality absent, as in the case of liberty alluded to above, or hard work, which Gordon Brown hammers on about increasingly as unemployment rises?

Come what may, whether we hold virtues or values to be more important or revealing about us goes to the heart of what we think should be the fundamental principles by which we live our lives as a nation – however much we do in reality live our lives by those principles. And there’s no doubt that Archbishop Sentamu’s intervention is part of an attempt to reaffirm Christian faith and traditions as the prime mover that has shaped the ‘moral character’ of England, and to reconnect English people to Christianity in the present:

“Whilst it has been suggested by some that virtues such as fair play, kindness and decency are part of any consideration of what it means to be English, the question as to where these virtues came from is usually overlooked. It is my understanding that such virtues and those associated with them, which form the fabric of our society have been weaved through a period of more than 1,500 years of the Christian faith operating in and upon this society.”

Interviewed for the second part of Matthew D’Ancona’s two-part Radio Four series on Britishness (which is basically a plug for a book on the same theme D’Ancona has co-written with Gordon Brown – play-back available only till Tuesday 14 April), the soon-to-retire Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy-O’Connor also emphasised the precedence of Christian virtues over secular values. This was, O’Connor explained, because virtues were unchanging principles that give order and meaning to people’s lives, while secular values are continually evolving in line with changes in social mores and material circumstances. A solid core of belief in timeless virtues thus provides a sense of rootedness in a world that can otherwise appear alarmingly mutable and unstable. From a Catholic perspective, these universal principles by definition transcend the individual nations that attempt to live by those principles. All the same, one implication of Cardinal O’Connor’s words was clearly that the principles of Christian faith make at once a higher and deeper claim to our allegiance than the merely civic and secular values that Brown and D’Ancona identify as the founding principles for a multi-cultural 21st-century Britain.

What was even more thought-provoking was D’Ancona’s interview with the leading cleric in the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. This was firstly because of what it left out. On the preceding Sunday, on the Radio Four programme of the same name, they played an excerpt of D’Ancona’s interview with Williams where the author was trying to get the Archbishop to talk of the ways in which Christianity had helped mould Britain’s ‘national identity’. Williams deftly side-stepped this trap by agreeing that Christianity had been formative of “England’s national identity, let alone that of Britain” right from the very start of England’s history as a nation, when it helped to bring together the different Anglo-Saxon tribes into a unified kingdom – a history which Archbishop Sentamu also makes reference to in his sermon. So Rowan Williams refused to allow the Church of England to be used to support D’Ancona’s Britishness agenda by confirming a narrative whereby England’s Christian history had been one of many strands contributing to the development of something such a British national identity and set of values today – which would in fact confine the Church and England to the status of historical entities, rather than as continuing communities with beliefs and traditions distinct from those of modern secular Britain.

As I say, D’Ancona’s interview on the Britishness programme itself was revealing through its omissions, one of which was this very excerpt, which was conveniently edited out of the final broadcast. The part of the interview that D’Ancona chose to focus on in the programme was where Williams was making out a case in favour of the Church of England retaining its established status. Williams argued that this actually helps to anchor a multi-cultural society as it provides a solid foundation of core values, mutual respect, and a model for interaction between all the different ethnic groups – whether or not they fully subscribe to the religious basis for those principles. Indeed, Williams maintained, it was his experience that those of other faiths and of none often told him they valued the established status of the Church of England for this very reason. Clearly, those coming to England – especially those with a strong religious background – value the fact that there is a religious voice and an ‘official’ faith at the heart of the British Establishment. This corresponds to the experience of their own cultures, where there is often a formal, state religion, or certainly a majority religion; and it also constitutes something like a formal set of fundamental English beliefs that enables them to better understand how some of their own cultural and religious practices might conflict with English traditions, and to negotiate a path of integration into British society based on respect for its most deep-rooted norms and values.

Conversely, the absence of a strong religious centre to English and British life can engender a lack of respect and even fear towards our society on the part of migrants, which can lead migrant communities to retreat into their own ghettoes, and may in extremis even contribute towards fanatical jihadist ideas that Islam should become the dominant faith of Britain. Similarly, a lack of a grounding in true Christian principles – including loving the stranger and welcoming those of other faiths from a position of security in one’s own faith – can increase misunderstanding and hostility to those of other faith traditions, obscuring the fact that there is often more in common between people of different faiths (at least with respect to ethics and social values) than between those of any faith and those of none. This touches upon what Archbishop Sentamu means when he writes about ‘magnanimity’ as both an English characteristic and a Christian virtue. This goes beyond the mere tolerance that Gordon Brown and the Britologists spout on about, a quality which can imply division and lack of engagement with those of different backgrounds that one is tolerating. By contrast, magnanimity implies an openness towards the stranger, and a proactive effort to engage with them, to share with them what one has and is, and together to create community.

Matthew D’Ancona insidiously characterised Rowan Williams’s thoughtful reflection on the value of an established faith as ‘clever’ – implying that it was a sort of casuistic attempt to make out that the Church of England could provide a more pluralist, tolerant and even liberal basis for a modern multi-cultural society than the form of secular liberalism that D’Ancona clearly wishes to set up as the fundamental credo of a 21st-century British ‘nation’. This was clear from the end of the Britishness programme – immediately after the edited interview with Rowan Williams – where D’Ancona himself goes into sermon mode, arguing that it should be possible for secular British society to agree a set of fundamental moral and philosophical principles (“lines in the sand”, as he put it) that are non-negotiable. These would constitute a similar set of core British values to that which has hitherto been provided by the Church of England (as Rowan Williams would argue) and fulfilling the same sort of function – providing an ‘official’ statement along the lines of: ‘this is Britain; this is who we are and what we believe’ – enabling those of other backgrounds who settle here to understand and respect British society, and adapt to it.

The difference is that these new values are profoundly secular and liberal; and D’Ancona’s new British nation-state would undoubtedly be secular in its constitution – not an established religion in sight. Indeed, I would characterise these values as ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘absolutist’ liberalism. For instance, two examples of non-negotiable values that D’Ancona skirted past in his final flourish were gay rights and women’s rights. No objection whatsoever on principle. But the anti-religious thrust of D’Ancona’s argument suggested that what we would end up with is more of what we have already endured under New Labour: certain so-called gay and women’s rights overriding and even obliterating the rights of religious groups to believe and do otherwise, and to preach and teach against certain practices – at least, from a government-sponsored pulpit. The ‘right’ of gay couples to adopt children taking precedence over the conscientious objection of Christian adoption agencies, forcing them to close; the ‘right’ of Lesbian couples to both use IVF to conceive children and be registered on the birth certificate as the genetic parents (even if neither of them actually are), obliterating the right of the child to a father; the ‘right’ of women to abortion, to the extent that – and this is quite conceivable – medical staff who refuse to support or carry out abortions could be prosecuted or struck off.

These and more are the kind of ‘British values’ that D’Ancona and Brown would have as the underpinning of their cherished ideal of a ‘Nation of Britain’ – indeed, Brown voted for them all, plus hybrid human-animal embryos, in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, where he came very close to forcing Christian conscientious objectors among the Labour ranks to support the government or else lose the whip. This is ‘tolerance’ of extremes of Brave New World social, and indeed genetic, engineering pushed to such a degree that it tips over into intolerance towards those who dare to disagree out of adherence to more traditional beliefs and models of society. This is liberal fundamentalism, which relativises any claims to absolute truth, and any statements of fundamental right and wrong, other than its own.

And this is a Britishness finally stripped of any fundamental affiliation to the Christian faith and tradition. The English Christian faith and tradition, that is. To tear the English heart out of Britishness, you have to de-christianise Britain; and to de-christianise Britain, you have strip out its English centre. And that is because England is a Christian nation. The large majority of English people may no longer attend church services on a regular basis; but English mores and the English character have been moulded by the faith over centuries. And an England in touch with its roots is an England that recognises how much it owes to the Christian tradition.

Perhaps, then, the reawakening of a distinctly English national consciousness will also lead to a re-evaluation, indeed a renewed valuing, of England’s Christian character and heritage – its virtues even, and its vices. If so, the Church of England may feel increasingly empowered to speak out on behalf of England and in England’s name, and so provide the moral leadership that is necessary in the fight to resist both the total secularisation and the ‘Britishisation’ of our proud and Christian land.

27 September 2008

Abolishing the Act of Settlement: again, it’s all about getting rid of England

The Guardian newspaper yesterday carried news of constitutional proposals drafted by Chris Bryant MP, who was charged with reviewing the UK constitution by Gordon Brown. The main ideas are that of abolishing primogeniture (the principle whereby the male children of UK monarchs take precedence over the female ones in the line of succession to the throne) and reform of the Act of Succession: the 1701 law that bans Roman Catholics, or those married to Catholics, from taking their place in the line of succession, i.e. ultimately from being king or queen. Curiously, the proposals are also reported to include limiting the powers of the Privy Council: a shadowy body, which is in theory the monarch’s private advisory committee, but which is in reality a branch of the executive and answerable to the Cabinet. One of the roles of the Privy Council is to arbitrate in disputes between the UK government and the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales.

Why should we be worried or even bothered about these proposals to repeal such seemingly archaic and irrelevant features of the UK’s eclectic constitution? As far as primogeniture is concerned, it does seem rather unimportant and discriminatory to insist that if the first child of a reigning monarch is female, she should should be relegated behind any younger brothers in the line of succession. Probably most British people who are still attached to the monarchy would not be too concerned by scrapping this rule; and those of an anti-monarchic bent probably couldn’t be bothered.

For me, however, it seems like an assault on one of the last bastions of an idea about authority in society that is Christian at root: that authority is ultimately vested by God in male persons. This is authority, not overweening power or a blank cheque to do as you wish, and is really in fact a form of service: the duty to represent and uphold God’s authority and truth in the land, to serve him and try to ensure that his will is done.

This idea of the divine role of the monarch as a servant of God is closely linked to the reasoning behind the Act of Settlement. As the Guardian puts it, quoting from the words of the Coronation Oath, the monarch’s constitutional duty is to “maintaine the Laws of God the true profession of the Gospel and the Protestant reformed religion established by law . . . and . . . preserve unto the bishops and clergy of this realm and to the churches committed to their charge all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain unto them or any of them”. The monarch has to be Anglican because of this combined duty to ‘maintain the Laws of God’ (i.e. to ensure that secular laws as well as church governance reflect God’s law) and to defend the established Protestant religion. This latter duty involves both the monarch’s role as the Supreme Governor and Head of the Church of England, and a general responsibility to uphold the Church of Scotland (the established church of that land), even though the monarch is not the formal head of the Kirk.

If you remove the requirement for the monarch to be Anglican, then he or she cannot exercise this role as Defender of the (Protestant Christian) Faith, nor can (s)he be the Head of the Church of England. Consequently, as the Guardian article states, reforming the Act of Settlement would probably lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Again, why should this matter? There are many supporters of an English parliament or English independence who would be happy to see the disestablishment of the Church of England and would prefer England to be constitutionally a secular country, without any established religion. However, they’re missing something here. The talk is only of disestablishing the Church of England and not the Church of Scotland. Admittedly, the Church of Scotland is not an established, state church in the way that the Head of the UK state’s simultaneous headship of the Church of England makes that church a state religion. But nonetheless, the Church of Scotland is the official, ‘national’ church of that land, with statutory duties to tender to the pastoral care of all the Scottish people, whether they belong to that church or not. Equally, as I have indicated above, the British king or queen still has a constitutional responsibility – as contained in the Oath of Accession – to “defend the security” of the Kirk.

No one, to my knowledge, is presently talking about ‘disestablishing’ the Church of Scotland in the sense of stripping it of its formal status as Scotland’s ‘national’ Church, its legal responsibility for the pastoral care of all who live in Scotland, nor its royal protection. Nor, certainly, is anyone talking about allowing the Church of England to retain a similar status and set of responsibilities in the event of its disestablishment; i.e. that it should continue to be, in some sense, the national Church for England and to retain its age-old responsibility for the ‘care of souls’ in every parish in the land. That land being England.

And it’s England’s status as a nation that is ultimately at stake. The Church of England is perhaps the only remaining institution that preserves any sort of constitutional status for England as such. Through the Church of England, the head of the UK state and hence the state itself is constitutionally bound to have care and exercise governance over a real, established entity known as England and her people. If you sever the link between the monarch (and the state) and the Church of England, this means that there is no longer any established body that has jurisdiction over England as a nation. This would then mean that the UK monarch would have no particular constitutional duty to defend England as such – whether in a general or merely spiritual sense. And, accordingly, the UK state could decree that England as such was history, as there is no other constitutional, legal or political framework or institution that belongs to England only and exercises governance over England only.

In a context of constitutional reform in which England’s status as a nation was assured and protected by things such as an English parliament – or even just the political will to acknowledge the nation and governance of England as precisely that and not treat it as just a territorial jurisdiction of UK governance – such an untying of the organic links between the state, the Christian faith and England would not be so grave a matter. But a comprehensive reform package of this sort is not what is on offer; far from it. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the idea of any kind of English self-governance is not remotely on the government’s constitutional-reform radar, as they have no model of governance other than that of UK-parliamentary sovereignty, to which England is absolutely subject, while any idea of English national, popular sovereignty is seen simply as a non-sequitur. And England would be even more subject to, and constitutionally indistinct from, the UK state as it currently stands if the Church of England were disestablished as there would be no national English Church to look out for us, and no head of state that was constitutionally bound to care and pray for England as such.

And this is why the as yet unspecified proposals to reform the Privy Council appear particularly sinister to me. If the Privy Council’s powers to arbitrate in disputes between the UK state and Scotland or Wales were limited, presumably, this means that a body that currently has a constitutional duty to consider the interests of England – through its ties with the monarch and its exercise of the royal prerogative in matters such as the appointment of Church of England bishops, for instance – would no longer have as much influence in matters to do with the relationship between retained (UK-wide) and devolved governance. If decisions in such grey areas were left to the Cabinet and / or to parliament, rather than the Privy Council, there would be no need or duty to consider the interests of England at all, because parliament and the executive do not represent or govern any entity known as England but only the UK. So there would no longer be a third party – England – that could be seen as being affected by disputes between the UK state and the devolved nations. Constitutionally, there would be, in fact, only Britain and the devolved nations.

So these proposed measures could signal nothing less than the beginning of the end, or even the end of the end, of England.

Don’t let it happen. Please sign the ‘England Nation’ petition, if you haven’t done so already. Thank you.

23 December 2007

Saint Tony becomes a Catholic: a conversion of heart and mind?

Commenting on Tony Blair’s reception into the Catholic Church on Friday, the Vatican is reported to have stated that the decision by someone as authoritative as Tony Blair to join the Church can “only arouse joy and respect”.

Speaking as a Roman Catholic myself, I have to say that while I respect the former PM’s decision, it doesn’t fill me with joy. I’m with Ann Widdecombe, the Tory MP and Catholic convert, who wonders whether Mr Blair has now changed his mind over the many decisions he took and supported that ran contrary to Church teaching and advice.

Mr Blair is a profoundly ambiguous figure from a moral perspective: hero or villain; morally courageous or moral coward? The decision over which he faced the biggest moral dilemma – and over which he has been most condemned – is of course that of taking the UK into the US-led war in Iraq. What I’m concerned about is that Tony Blair’s acceptance into the Catholic Church could lend the impression, especially in the Middle East, that the Church endorses that decision. In fact, almost every senior figure in the Church, including the late Pope John Paul II, spoke out against the war and affirmed that it did not meet the criteria for a Just War.

Tony Blair is known to have prayed over his decision back in 2003. While this fact, or at least the public admission of it, provoked a combination of shock, derision and outrage on the part of many non-religious people in the UK, this behaviour is the minimum that would be expected of Christians contemplating doing something that would inevitably result in the loss of many thousands of innocent lives. Even so, Mr Blair went ahead with the war, ignoring the personal advice against doing so he’s known to have received from the late Pope along with the consensus in the worldwide Catholic Church and the opinion of most senior Anglicans.

Moral courage or moral cowardice? Probably a bit of both. Who knows, really, what motivated Mr Blair’s decision? Judgement is mine, says the Lord. All I can say is that, in my opinion, informed by my own Catholic faith, it was a profoundly wrong choice, both morally and strategically. It was not a Just War; it did result in the needless loss of hundreds of thousands of lives; it has destabilised Iraq and the whole Middle East; it undermined the political consensus and moral authority behind the USA and Britain in the ‘war on terror’; and it has increased support for so-called Islamist terrorism.

Elsewhere, I’ve expressed the hope that there may have been nobler, hidden reasons for Tony Blair’s backing for the USA in Iraq, such as the need to be ‘in’ with George Bush in order to exercise influence over his choices and steer him away from even more disastrous courses of action. Also, I wondered whether Mr Blair’s new role of Middle East peace envoy had been taken on partly out of a wish to make reparation for the damage to the whole region and the escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for which the Iraq War has been responsible. Mr Blair is a highly intelligent man, and his decision to become a Catholic demonstrates he’s also a man who is finally having the courage of his convictions. He must know that it’s the divisions in Israel-Palestine that are the ultimate source of Islamically inspired terrorism; and that bringing peace in the Holy Land, rather than bringing war to the Middle East, is the only way to defeat the terrorists.

Blessed are the peacemakers. The proof of Tony Blair’s religious conversion will be if he can show that he is one.

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