Disestablishmentarianism

A poll of Evangelicals at the last general election revealed that the developing world was at the to

A couple of weeks ago I bumped into a theologian who had just heard me on the radio debating the disestablishment of the Church of England with the Bishop of Liverpool.

To my surprise she told me that the discussion had changed her position. She now supported a separation of church and state. But before I became too caught up in illusions of my own debating prowess, she quickly added that it was the bishop’s lack of any credible argument which had finally persuaded her.

Her view is one that seems to be growing amongst many Christians. In the past it has been proposed that disestablishment would condemn Christianity to the private realm. More are now realising that it needn’t signal the end of the church’s engagement in public life.

An analysis at the composition of the House of Commons reveals that MPs who align themselves with the Christian groupings within the three main parties (the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement and the Lib Dem Christian Forum) make up around 15% of the House of Commons. Christians who have pursued more democratic routes are disproportionately overrepresented when compared to the church-going population at large.

Outside Parliament too, one of the paradoxes of the last thirty years has been that whilst church attendance has declined, the number of Christian campaign groups has increased exponentially. The end of Christendom appears to be the catalyst for growth in political Christianity.

The reasons for the political engagement vary. For some it is the fear that the culture is becoming ‘de-Christianised’. Often taking on a more conservative or right wing character, these Christians, like their brothers and sisters in the US, tend to focus on issues of sexuality, marriage and abortion – lamenting the supposed decline in Christian morality. From the campaigns of Mary Whitehouse to the opposition to Jerry Springer: The Opera, the groups hit the headlines because of their censorious or reactionary approaches.

But others are experiencing a more positive radicalisation. Finding themselves freed from Christianity’s previous alignment with culture and the social order, they are far more willing to point to injustices in the world around them, and campaign for positive change. Whether it be as part of the Fairtrade movement, the Jubilee 2000 coalition that led to the MakePovertyHistory campaign, the opposition to the invasion of Iraq, initiatives for the rights of asylum seekers or new approaches to criminal justice, their agenda is broad and widening.

And it is this latter movement which appears to be winning the hearts and minds of the churches. A poll of Evangelicals at the last general election revealed that the developing world was at the top of their political priorities, rather than any obsession with sex – a healthy departure many inside and outside the church would observe. Of course it will take time for their new political perspectives to mature. Old habits die hard. But like it or loathe it, Christian involvement in public life seems here to stay – regardless of what happens to the loosening ties that still bind church and state.

Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green party. He was formerly the co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia. 

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.