Atheists for Jesus!

If even Richard Dawkins is a “cultural Christian”, why don’t we guard this heritage more carefully?

For me, possibly the saddest part of The Faith of Generation Y, a Church of England-produced book that came out last week which details how little most people born after 1980 know about Christianity, was this. Pop songs are now increasingly played at funerals, it says, "because the young congregation did not know any hymns".

Historically, English music has been slightly embarrassed about its failure to produce a world class classical composer - a Beethoven, a Verdi, a Debussy, or a Liszt, say - on a par with those our continental cousins can boast. The closest we come is Elgar, and magnificent though much of his oeuvre is, the whiff of imperial bombast about him has made us ambiguous advocates of the great Edwardian.

Where we are almost unmatched, however, is in our church choral tradition. Going back to William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, right up to John Taverner and John Rutter today, the glories of our cathedral, college and many parish choirs have more than made up for the lack of - perhaps diverted the energies that might otherwise have gone into - the opera house culture common in Germany and Italy.

If the anthems of the choristers are the sophisticated high-end, the hymns are the sturdy yeomen that bear the weight of this tradition. Not only do Hymns Ancient and Modern or the Methodist Hymnal contain many fine, lusty tunes (especially compared to the Teutonic stodge of Lutheran chorales), but also superbly stirring words, such as John Bunyan's "Who Would True Valour See" - "Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit, he knows he at the end shall life inherit" - as well as the almost hilariously militaristic: "Christian dost thou see them, On the holy ground? How the hosts of Midian, prowl and prowl around. Christian up and smite them" etc.

To lose this corpus - if the survey does not suggest it is already too late - would be to let go of a rich seam in our history, culture and literature, as I have pointed out before. Hymns are a good marker for this transformation, for singing them does not necessarily involve any religious feeling or reflection, nor is it only Christians who would mourn their passing.

The philosopher and atheist, Mary Warnock, for instance, was once described by Melanie Phillips as a "passionate despiser" of religion (as well as "one of the most titanic and dangerous egos of our troubled age") but she devotes a significant part of her recent book, Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics, to her affection for Christianity. This is partly the music associated with it. She quotes the composer Howard Goodall as saying: "Christianity has had a considerable if not decisive influence on the music of Western Europe - in some respects it is our music's midwife", and spends two pages discussing Bach's St Matthew Passion. But, she also writes: "Religion may not be necessary, but it may be good... not only children but all of us learn through stories, and the stories of the New Testament may teach morality as nothing else can, in vivid and memorable form... Though Christianity may not be necessary to morality, indeed may often stand in its way through undue dogmatism, yet it can be a rich source of morality all the same."

Perhaps this is a matter of generation, for 86-year-old Warnock's near contemporary (in fact her junior by seven years), and fellow philosopher, Sir Anthony Kenny, takes a similarly friendly view of religion - even though when he married his wife in the 1960s, as a laicised Catholic priest unreleased from his vow of celibacy, he was officially excommunicated, which is rather drastic in anyone's book.

I interviewed Kenny when his memoir, What I Believe, was published a few years ago, and noted that although an agnostic, in it he thanked "the Christian communities who have allowed me to join in their worship without acknowledging their authority". His reply:

"I don't think as an agnostic one wants to jettison a whole religious tradition that has offered so much to literature and art and philosophy. One could take the traditional statements about God and the history of salvation not as a literal narrative but as forms of poetry." He acknowledges that this would not satisfy a believer -- "but I don't think it's a great downgrading of the value of religion, because I think framing one's life within a poetic narrative is important".

Even the much younger Richard Dawkins, whom many suspect of being against anything that smacks of religion (he can shoulder some of the blame for this misleading impression having gained currency, I think), is sympathetic to this view.

"This is historically a Christian country," he said in a BBC interview in 2007. "I'm a cultural Christian in the same way many of my friends call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Muslims. So, yes, I like singing carols along with everybody else. I'm not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history."

If such distinguished atheists and agnostics as the three I quote can see something valuable in the Christian traditions and culture that are part of this country's heritage, why is it that opposition to religion seems to focus so often on the outward manifestations and rituals that need hardly involve any theological discussion or commitment - such as daily acts of worship in schools or Christmas Nativity plays?

Hymn-singing most definitely comes into this category. Perhaps there are those who will cheer the fact that the survey I mention above indicates it has nearly died out among those under 30. For others who do not believe in the Christian God, but cherish the traditions that have been associated with that faith in this country, this represents the vanishing of what was a common and important bond until very recently. They may be glad that rationalism has triumphed over belief (if it is that, rather than indifference or ignorance). But if this supposed gain has been accompanied by the loss of such a glory, it is surely a dismaying case of finding the baby gone when the purpose was only to remove the bathwater.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.