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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No, William Hague, there's nothing anti-democratic about opposing Brexit

The former Tory leader appears to be suffering from a bout of amnesia. 

William Hague just made an eyecatching claim in the House of Lords during the debate over Article 50. He attacked those Remainers still seeking to restore Britain’s European Union membership in general and Tony Blair in particular, saying that if he had called on voters to “rise up” against New Labour after he lost the election, Blair would have told him to listen to the voters.

To be fair to Hague, it has been sixteen years since he went down to crushing defeat to Blair, so he may have forgotten some of the details. Happily, the full text of his resignation speech the morning after is still online.

Here’s Hague, 2001:

"The people have spoken. And just as it is vital to encourage everyone to participate in our democracy, so it is important to understand and respect the result. The Labour party have won the election and I have already congratulated them on doing so. But they have done so without great public enthusiasm….It is therefore a vital task for the Conservative party in the coming parliament to hold the government to account for the promises they have made and the trust people have placed in it.”

And here’s Blair, 2017:

“I want to be explicit. Yes, the British people voted to leave Europe. And I agree the will of the people should prevail. I accept right now there is no widespread appetite to re-think. But the people voted without knowledge of the terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. Our mission is to persuade them to do so.”

And here’s Blair’s last line which has so offended William Hague:

“This is not the time for retreat, indifference or despair; but the time to rise up in defence of what we believe – calmly, patiently, winning the argument by the force of argument; but without fear and with the conviction we act in the true interests of Britain.”

This is funny, because here’s William Hague’s last line in 2001:

"I wish I could have led you to victory but now we must all work for our victories in the future.”

 Here’s what the “you lost, get over it” crowd have to explain: what is the difference between these two speeches? Both acknowledge a defeat, acknowledge the mountain to climb for the defeated side, but resolve to work harder to secure a better result next time.

It’s particularly galling when you remember that taking Britain back in would not require a second referendum but a third: because the Brexiteers, far from losing in 1975 and getting over it, spent four decades gearing up to take Britain out of the European Union.

There’s a more valid criticism to be had of the value of a continuity Remain campaign which appears to hold many of the people who voted to Leave in distaste. Certainly, at present, the various pro-Remain forces look more like the unattractive fringe that lost in 1975 than the well-disciplined machine that won the replay in 2016. But the fact there was a replay in the first place shows that there’s nothing anti-democratic about continuing to hold on to your beliefs after a defeat. What is anti-democratic is trying to claim that the result of any electoral contest, however narrow or how large, means that everyone who disagreed with you has to shut up and pretend you were right all along. 

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