God's Peculiar People

British identity is much less linked to religion than it used to be - where does this leave the established church?

What does it mean to be British?  For most of the 18th and 19th centuries - even to some extent into the 20th - there was a clear answer.  To be British was to be Protestant.  It was to read the King James Bible and Pilgrim's Progress, to share in a national myth of a heroic people, almost a new Israel, set apart and protected by God, and it was to not be Catholic.  Protestantism linked grand English cathedrals, plain Calvinist kirks and ecstatic Welsh chapels.  For most British people, Protestantism provided shared language, hymns and cultural references, while Catholicism provided a shared enemy, otherwise known as The French.

As Linda Colley argued in her classic study Britons, protestantism was "the foundation that made the invention of Great Britain possible."

There never was a single Church of Britain.  Attempts by 17th century monarchs to impose a uniform type of Protestant Christianity in England and Scotland failed.  The two established churches remained distinct in organisation, in culture and to some extent in doctrine.  Even within England, the Anglican church always had to compete with a multitude of dissenting sects: Puritans, Quakers and Baptists in the 17th century, Methodists (who went on to dominate religion in Wales and much of Northern England) in the 18th.  And, of course, there were always competing strands of practice and belief within the Church of England itself.  

Yet this diversity was itself distinctively Protestant.  Even Anglo-Catholics, who convinced themselves that the Church of England was not, in fact, protestant at all, preferred to stay and argue for their position as a minority within the established church rather than follow their own logic and submit themselves to the "foreign" jurisdiction of the Pope.  For the British, Protestantism was always as much an expression of national identity as it was one of religious belief.

These days relatively few people in the UK, whatever their religious affiliations, feel much attachment to this style of Protestant identity, or if they do it is one of nostalgia rather than of belief.  It's no accident that some of the strongest supporters of the King James Bible are atheists like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens.  As for anti-Catholicism, that is going out of fashion even in Northern Ireland.  Indeed, the fierce attachment of Ulster unionists to traditional expressions of Protestant British identity have long been a source of bemusement and embarrassment on the mainland. That version of Britishness now seems frankly un-British to most Brits, whose remaining anti-Catholic instincts are sated by laughing at some papal pronouncement on birth control or observing the (let's face, it, deserved) predicament of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Modern Britain is, of course, secular (indeed irreligious) in tone and institutionally committed to embracing many different faiths.  Indeed, Catholic Emancipation in 1829, when most of the laws discriminating against Catholics were done away with, can be seen as the first of many steps away from a Protestant society and towards a multi-faith one.  Only a bare majority of the population now describe themselves as Christian; increasingly "None" has begun to replace "C of E" as the default option of the unsure when asked about their religious affiliation.  Millions of us no longer know the words to once-familiar hymns or have more than the basic knowledge of Christian doctrines.  It's unlikely that Michael Gove's generous gift of a King James Bible to every school in the land will do much to stem the tide of apathy.

How has all this affected the established churches, and in particular the Church of England?  In some ways, the Church has managed the transition with remarkable success.  Its churches are still popular venues for weddings and its clergy continue to officiate at the majority of funerals.  A third of England's state schools are faith schools, the vast majority of them either Anglican or Roman Catholic.  There are still bishops in the House of Lords.  Anglican services still form the heart of many national events, as shown recently during the Diamond Jubilee.  The Church has shown itself to be adaptable and at times ruthless in defence of its considerable social and constitutional privileges.  And there's no doubt that its image of woolly, good-natured, slightly shambolic harmlessness has been central to its success in retaining the affection of a large proportion of the religiously uninterested population.  The modern Church of Scotland, too, is these days much less dourly Protestant than it reputation south of the border would suggest, or than John Knox would have approved of.

In particular, the Church of England has cannily positioned itself as the linchpin of a multi-faith society, presenting for example its bishops in the House of Lords as spokesmen for religion in general rather than for Christianity in particular.  This has, of course, involved a considerable rewriting of history.  The Queen, for example, suggested in a speech made at Lambeth Palace in February that "gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely." It's true that Anglicanism has always been something of a fudge, of course, but Her Maj rather overlooked the fact that in previous centuries, the Church fought hard to preserve its monopolies against Catholics and even against Protestant dissenters.  Times have changed, however, and the Church of England, as usual, has changed with them.

Has it, though, changed enough?  There are dangers for the Church in embracing an enhanced multi-faith role in a society in which strong religious commitment is waning.  By speaking out on behalf of faith, forming alliances with other churches and religious groups, it risks losing that comforting and liberal image that has, until now, made it a source of national unity rather than division.  It risks losing that vague connection with the people without which it ceases to be in any proper sense a national church and becoming once more a bastion of religious conservatism and even prejudice.  

By coming out so strongly against same-sex marriage, for example, the Church leadership has made itself look to many people out of touch and divisive, including to many of its natural supporters, including to many of its practising members and even clergy.  It's hard to believe that the C of E has much of a future as the Daily Mail at prayer.  

The United Reformed Church built by Sit Titus Salt in Bradford. Photograph: Getty Images
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Zac Goldsmith has bitten off more than he can chew

In standing as an independent, Goldsmith may face the worst of both worlds. 

After just 48 years, we can announce the very late arrival of the third runway at Heathrow. Assuming, that is, that it makes its way past the legal challenge from five local councils and Greenpeace, the consultation with local residents, and the financial worries of the big airlines. And that's not counting the political struggles...

While the Times leads with the logistical headaches - "Heathrow runway may be built over motorway" is their splash, the political hurdles dominate most of this morning’s papers

"Tory rebels let fly on Heathrow" says the i's frontpage, while the FT goes for "Prominent Tories lead challenge to May on Heathrow expansion". Although Justine Greening, a May loyalist to her fingertips, has limited herself to a critical blogpost, Boris Johnson has said the project is "undeliverable" and will lead to London becoming "a city of planes". 

But May’s real headache is Zac Goldsmith, who has quit, triggering a by-election in his seat of Richmond Park, in which he will stand as an anti-Heathrow candidate.  "Heathrow forces May into Brexit by-election" is the Telegraph's splash. 

CCHQ has decided to duck out of the contest entirely, leaving Goldsmith running as the Conservative candidate in all but name, against the Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney. 

What are Goldsmith's chances? To win the seat, the Liberal Democrats would need a 19.3 per cent swing from the Conservatives - and in Witney, they got exactly that.

They will also find it easier to squeeze the third-placed Labour vote than they did in Witney, where they started the race in fourth place. They will find that task all the easier if the calls for Labour to stand aside are heeded by the party leadership. In any case, that Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds have all declared that they should will be a boost for Olney even if she does face a Labour candidate.  

The Liberal Democrats are fond of leaflets warning that their rivals “cannot win here” and thanks to Witney they have one ready made.  

Goldsmith risks having the worst of all worlds. I'm waiting to hear whether or not the Conservatives will make their resources freely available to Goldsmith, but it is hard to see how, without taking an axe to data protection laws, he can make use of Conservative VoterID or information gathered in his doomed mayoral campaign. 

But in any case, the Liberal Democrats will still be able to paint him as the Brexit candidate and the preferred choice of the pro-Heathrow Prime Minister, as he is. I think Goldsmith will find he has bitten more than he can chew this time.

This article originally appeared in today's Morning Call, your essential email covering everything you need to know about British politics and today's news. You can subscribe for free here.

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