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.

 

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Women's bodies should not be bargaining chips for the Tories and the DUP

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights

When Members of Parliament are asked to pass laws relating to when and whether women can terminate their pregnancies, women’s rights are rarely the focus of that decision-making process. You need only look at the way in which these votes are traditionally presented by party leaders and chief whips as “a matter of conscience” - the ultimate get-out for any MP who thinks their own value or belief system should get priority over women’s ability to have control over their bodies.

Today’s vote is no different. The excellent amendment that Labour MP Stella Creasy has put before the house reveals not just the inequalities experienced by women in different parts of the UK when it comes to being able to make decisions about their health, but also the latest layers of subterfuge and politicking around abortion. 

Creasy’s amendment seeks access to the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales from Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Right now women in Northern Ireland are pretty much denied abortion by legislative criteria that limits it to cases that will "preserve the life of the mother" - (that’s preserving, not prioritising) - and pregnancies under nine weeks and four days. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not included as grounds for termination. The thousands of women who thus travel to England are refused free abortions on the NHS - confirmed by a recent Supreme Court ruling - on the grounds that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. 

The idea behind devolution is that power should be more evenly and fairly distributed. It is not intended to deprive people of rights but to ensure rights. In refusing to exercise the powers available to him, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is rightly acknowledging a difficult history of power imbalance between Westminster and Stormont, but he is also ignoring a wider imbalance of power, between men and women.  

There is so very much wrong with this arrangement. But a further wrong could be done if, as reports suggest, the Conservative Party whips its MPs to vote the amendment down in order to protect the regressive alliance with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is keeping their fragile minority government in power.

Instead of taking this opportunity to respond to the demands of women of Northern Ireland, this government is setting out the parameters of its complicity in refusing to listen to them. 

It is not the first time. In 2008 it was reported that the Labour party struck a deal with the DUP to leave Northern Ireland’s abortion laws intact, in exchange for their support over detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days. Labour said at the time that it was concerned about the impact on existing UK abortion laws if the debate was opened.

But not one woman has equality until all women have equality. Women’s bodies are not chips to be bargained and we should not be bargaining for one group of women’s rights by surrendering the rights of another group. The UK parliament has responsibility for ensuring human rights in every part of the UK. Those include the rights of Northern Irish women.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop playing politics with women’s lives. Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights – a fragility that was dismissed by the Conservatives as they drew up a deal with one side of the power-sharing arrangement.

It’s time to confront the fact that nowhere in the United Kingdom – taking Northern Ireland as a starting point rather than an end in itself – do women enjoy free and legal access to abortion. Even the UK’s 1967 act is only a loophole that allows women to seek the approval of two doctors to circumvent an older law criminalising any woman who goes ahead with an abortion.

As long as our rights are subject to the approval of doctors, to technological developments, to decisions made in a parliament where men outnumber women by two to one, to public opinion polls, to peace agreements that prioritise one set of human rights over another – well, then they are not rights at all.

The Women’s Equality Party considers any attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights an act of violence against them. This week in Northern Ireland we are meeting and listening to women’s organisations, led by our Belfast branch, to agree strategy for the first part of a much wider battle. It is time to write reproductive rights into the laws of every country. We have to be uncompromising in our demands for full rights and access to abortion in every part of the UK; for the choice of every woman to be realised.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.

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