God save the Queen

Anglicans have good reason to be grateful to Elizabeth II. But will the church-state link be quite s

The Church of England has announced its plans to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee later this year. It is hoping that all its 13,000 parishes will involve themselves with initiatives including The Big Jubilee Lunch, which "will see millions across the country joining together to have lunch on the afternoon of Sunday, June 3rd", and The Big Thank-You, in which churches and cathedrals will invite members of the congregation to add their names to a collective thank-you letter to the monarch. Containing an introductory paragraph by diocesan bishops, the letters "give the public a chance to say a few words in appreciation of 60 years of loyal service."

In some ways, this is the Church of England doing its job. The Establishment "deal", as conceived centuries ago, gave the Anglican church immense privileges within society (bishops in the House of Lords, for example) in exchange for the church giving its moral backing to the state. The monarchy remains the most visible symbol of the church-state link. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Queen receives the "homage" of bishops on their appointment and even ordinary parish priests are expected to swear an oath of allegiance to her. Prayers for members of the royal family are offered daily in every C of E church in the land. (Francis Galton, the Victorian scientist and inventor of eugenics, once did a statistical analysis of the life-expectancy of members of the royal family and concluded that the prayers didn't work.)

The Queen promised in her Coronation Oath to "maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England" and to "preserve the rights and privileges" of Anglican clergy. But her formal religious duties are in fact fairly limited. She distributes symbolic coins to worthy pensioners at a cathedral each Maundy Thursday, and offers a prayer at each State Opening of Parliament that "the blessings of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels." Her presence at the annual Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph might also be regarded as a religious occasion. At least technically, certain church appointments (such as parishes within the Duchy of Lancaster) are in the direct gift of the Crown. By and large, though, the monarch's position as head of the Church of England is a purely symbolic and ceremonial one.

But there's no doubt that the present Queen has taken a close personal interest in the religious aspect of her job. She is, by most accounts, personally devout. Certainly, her Christmas messages in recent years have been increasingly explicit in their Christian content. In the most recent, for example, she pronounced that "God sent into the world a unique person ... a Saviour, with the power to forgive" and offered a prayer that "We might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord." The Archbishop of Canterbury's own New Year Message contained rather fewer mentions of God.

So the Church of England's leaders have reason to be sincere in offering a "Big Thank You" to the Queen, not least for living and reigning for so long. Things might not be quite so straightforward under the next Sovereign. Prince Charles's interest in religion is well-known, but it would seem very different from the uncomplicated and quiet Anglicanism of his mother. He has famously expressed a desire to be "defender of faith" rather than "Defender of the Faith", a distinction that may seem more appropriate in a multi-faith society but which also implies a more problematic desire to involve himself in theological debates (as well as leaving atheists and agnostics seemingly undefended). Some of the more traditionally-minded clergy objected to his divorce and remarriage in a civil ceremony. A few even questioned its legality.

The next coronation, if indeed there is a next coronation, is unlikely to be an Anglican monopoly like that in 1953. Will the new king be expected, or willing, to swear to uphold "the Protestant reformed religion established by law"? It seems unlikely. But it seems even more unlikely that the Church of England would give up its official status easily, or even that it will be seriously questioned. I suspect that the C of E will be offering prayers, and even Big Thank-Yous, to monarchs for as long as the monarchy persists. Anachronisms survive best if they stick together.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear