Defending the Faith

The Queen says the C of E is the defender of pluralism. But Anglican supremacism has always been mor

When the Queen accepted an invitation to hobnob at Lambeth Palace with selected representatives of "the eight faiths" she could have little idea that she would be stepping into a fraught public debate over the status of religion -- and especially Christianity -- in the public sphere. But yesterday she capped a bizarre few days with her own defence of the importance of religion and the role of the Church of England in defending it.

Most of it was fairly anodyne stuff -- "rich cultural heritage", "the ancient wisdom of our traditions", "not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging". She has never pretended to be Richard Dawkins. More striking was her claim that the role of the Church of England was "not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions" but rather that it had "a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country." Indeed, it had "created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely."

The Queen has sixty years' practice reading whatever is put in front of her, and her words undoubtedly reflect the current C of E leadership's view of its own role. Anglicanism long since lost its religious monopoly, and in a multi-faith society even Christianity no longer has an automatic claim to be the country's spiritual basis. Hence the increasingly anguished insistence by the Christian rights lobby and some politicians that the UK remains a Christian nation whose values and laws were shaped by Christian principles, and that we jettison these at our peril.

In a religiously plural society, an established church has to adapt to survive. The Church of England now likes to think that it speaks on behalf of Christians generally, and more broadly on behalf of "faith". The Archbishop of Canterbury recently justified the continuing presence of bishops in the House of Lords, for example, by stressing that they were uniquely able to "bring to bear their experience of all aspects of civil society in their own diocesan area," and that the Church of England had "a capacity to express common values in a way that no other organisation is placed to do."

Now this all sounds very benign and well-meaning and, indeed, inclusive. But it's hard not to see it as a subtle attempt to preserve a status for a church that no longer commands the active allegiance of the majority of the population (whichever box people tick on Census forms). No longer a monopoly supplier of faith to the British people, the established church can still be primus inter pares of the wider community of religions and the Archbishop of Canterbury CEO of Faith Inc. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others can shelter in the capacious folds of his archiescopal cope, confident that he will defend their interests against the common enemy, the "militant" secularists.

In such a context, it becomes politic for the monarch -- whose own role is supposed to embody unity rather than division -- to assert that the established church has been responsible for Britain's tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism. Historically, however, this is at best misleading, at worst a deliberate distortion.

In truth, the Church of England fought for centuries to preserve, first its religious monopoly and later its privileged position in society. The right to worship -- or not to worship -- freely was wrested piecemeal from unwilling Anglican prelates. Well into the nineteenth century Roman Catholics and Jews had limited civil rights. Until the University Tests Act of 1871 -- that's 1871 -- non-Anglicans were barred from fellowships at Oxford and Cambridge (though not at University College London, which was founded in 1826 on the radical principle that higher education need not be a monopoly of the established Church).

The first openly atheist MP Charles Bradlaugh was elected four times by the people of Northampton before finally being allowed to take his seat without swearing a religious oath. The change in the law that permitted him to make a secular affirmation was passed in the teeth of entrenched opposition from the Church of England. The Queen's own coronation in 1953 was an exclusively Anglican affair, with the monarch swearing to uphold the "Protestant reformed religion established by law", to "maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England" and even to "preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England... all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them."

It's true that Anglican supremacism was more political than religious. Following the lead of the first Queen Elizabeth, who famously declared that "we do not make windows into men's souls", it prioritised outward conformity over inner conviction. Its tradition of pluralism within the church has its own legacy in modern debates over gay clergy and women bishops, as people with widely divergent beliefs and attitudes contrive somehow to remain within the same ecclesiastical structure. This has no doubt made it easier for modern Anglican prelates to rebrand themselves as spokesmen for religion generally while preserving their own special status. The change is, nevertheless, a profound one.

Prince Charles once expressed a desire to be "defender of faith" rather than "Defender of The Faith". But when the faith in question is that of the Church of England, as the Queen's words yesterday demonstrate, these days the two phrases amount to more-or-less the same thing.

 

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech on the arts in north London on September 1, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Labour MPs force Corbyn to bring back shadow cabinet elections?

It is not up to the parliamentary party whether the contests are reintroduced. 

Soon after Jeremy Corbyn became the frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, it was reported that he intended to bring back shadow cabinet elections. But as I later wrote, that's not the case. Corbyn has resolved that he will maintain the right to appoint his own team, rather than having it elected by MPs (as was the case before Ed Miliband changed the system in 2011). As he wrote in the NS: "Whoever emerges as leader on 12 September needs a shadow cabinet in place as soon as possible. I will appoint a strong, diverse shadow cabinet to hold this government to account from day one."

Now, ahead of his likely victory a week on Saturday, Corbyn is under pressure from some MPs to reverse his stance. Barry Sheerman, the former education select commitee chair, told me that he wanted a "serious discussion" within the PLP about the return of the elections. While some support their reinstatement on principled grounds, others recognise that there is a tactical advantage in Corbyn's opponents winning a mandate from MPs. His hand would be further weakened (he has the declared support of just 14 of his Commons colleagues). 

But their reinstatement is not as simple as some suggest. One senior MP told me that those demanding their return "had not read the rule book". Miliband's decision to scrap the elections was subsequently approved at party conference meaning that only this body can revive them. A simple majority of MPs is not enough. 

With Corbyn planning to have a new team in place as soon as possible after his election, there is little prospect of him proposing such upheaval at this point. Meanwhile, Chuka Umunna has attracted much attention by refusing to rule out joining the left-winger's shadow cabinet if he changes his stances on nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation (a lengthy list). Umunna is unlikely to remain on the frontbench but having previously pledged not to serve, he now recognises that there is value in being seen to at least engage with Corbyn. Were he to simply adopt a stance of aggression, he would risk being blamed if the backbencher failed. It is one example of how the party's modernisers recognise they need to play a smarter game. I explore this subject further in my column in tomorrow's NS

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.