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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”