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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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