Banishing the bishops

The church’s strategy is now clear – that if it is to have a hope of maintaining its privileges, it

Predicting the future is always a precarious business. But when it comes to the relationship between Christianity and public life there are some pretty clear trends which provide enough evidence to make at least a few credible assertions about what the next few years may hold.

With Gordon Brown signalling he wants to end the involvement of Number 10 in the appointment of bishops, the UK will soon be in the situation where 26 places in Parliament are reserved exclusively for men (and they can still only be men) appointed unchecked, by a separate, undemocratic institution. The system will look not just absurd, but entirely unaccountable, and it is surely just a matter of time now before the bishops are banished forever from the Second Chamber.

The public also seems less and less willing to tolerate the special exemptions and privileges afforded Christianity in the context of the state funding it receives for its community projects and institutions. Religious charities will soon have to show that they produce some public benefit beyond simply being ‘religious’ in character - currently the requirement to gain charitable status. The right of church schools to legally discriminate in both employment and admissions in favour of church goers, must also soon end. As yet another survey reported just this weekend, church schools routinely treat less favourably the 95% of the population who pay the taxes to fund them but who do not attend church. Catholic adoption agencies have already lost their battle to continue their particular brand of discrimination. Church schools must inevitably follow. Slowly but surely the religious slant in the playing field of public funding will be levelled off.

But as the adoption saga demonstrated, these things will not disappear without a fuss. The established church in particular will continue in its attempts to hold onto its privileges by appealing to the ‘Christian’ history and identity of the nation. It will do this whilst simultaneously claiming to speak for all faiths to give it greater authority. This was the approach employed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his recent address to the Church’s Synod following the Sharia controversy. We should expect to hear a lot more of that sort of argument.

Williams has acknowledged that the blasphemy law - which protects only the Christian religion - must go. But in its place he has urged additional measures to protect the sensibilities of all religions. The church’s strategy is now clear – that if it is to have a hope of maintaining its privileges, it must try to get them extended to other religions too.

This of course, is something that other religions are very happy to support. But whoever holds them, the few remaining vestiges of Christendom look at best anachronistic and at worse to perpetuate grave, and unacceptable injustices. Even if successful, the strategy of creating a multi-faith settlement won’t provide a long-term solution. The church is running out of justifications for the various anomalies it clings onto, and it is just a matter of time before they go completely. And neither will their disappearance be lamented by all Christians.

Jonathan Bartley is co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia. He lives in Streatham in South London, and when he not discussing religion and politics, he plays in the blues band the mustangs www.themustangs.co.uk
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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.