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  1. Long reads
9 July 2009

God help the Queen!

By Elliott Visconsi

The 17th-century archbishop of Canterbury William Sancroft privately wrote of his desire to disentangle the church from the aggrandising government of James II. Three centuries later, his successor Rowan Williams may have inadvertently staked out the middle ground in modern struggles over constitutional reform. In his recent lecture “Faith in the Public Square”, Williams proposed that England was “a society haunted by religion and not at all clear what to do about it”. Far from exorcising the ghost of religion, however, his ambition – as in his notion of English sharia courts – was to sketch out an affirmative role for religion in public life.

The key to Williams’s system is “interactive plurality”, an equitable consensus of believers and non-believers gently facilitated by the state. Such pluralism scarcely requires an established church, and even he has acknowledged that disestablishment has some functional appeal.

The separation of church from state, inevitable with the end of monarchy, need not be understood as the crushing triumph of secularism over faith and religious privilege, if it is accompanied by an endorsement of the idea of an English “civil religion”. In America, civil religion is a non-sectarian pattern of beliefs, rituals, customs and symbols – a shared public language for the expression of collective religiosity. Thus the pledge of allegiance includes the phrase “one Nation under God”, not “one Nation under Jesus”.

An English civil religion would allow the state to recognise formally the historical and moral contributions of religions both past and present while maintaining a transparent, secular and singly comprehensive rule of law.

Elliott Visconsi is the author of “Lines of Equity: Literature and the Origins of Law in Later Stuart England” (Cornell University Press)

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