When the Queen accepted an invitation to hobnob at Lambeth Palace with selected representatives of “the eight faiths” she could have little idea that she would be stepping into a fraught public debate over the status of religion — and especially Christianity — in the public sphere. But yesterday she capped a bizarre few days with her own defence of the importance of religion and the role of the Church of England in defending it.
Most of it was fairly anodyne stuff — “rich cultural heritage”, “the ancient wisdom of our traditions”, “not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging”. She has never pretended to be Richard Dawkins. More striking was her claim that the role of the Church of England was “not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions” but rather that it had “a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” Indeed, it had “created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely.”
The Queen has sixty years’ practice reading whatever is put in front of her, and her words undoubtedly reflect the current C of E leadership’s view of its own role. Anglicanism long since lost its religious monopoly, and in a multi-faith society even Christianity no longer has an automatic claim to be the country’s spiritual basis. Hence the increasingly anguished insistence by the Christian rights lobby and some politicians that the UK remains a Christian nation whose values and laws were shaped by Christian principles, and that we jettison these at our peril.
In a religiously plural society, an established church has to adapt to survive. The Church of England now likes to think that it speaks on behalf of Christians generally, and more broadly on behalf of “faith”. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently justified the continuing presence of bishops in the House of Lords, for example, by stressing that they were uniquely able to “bring to bear their experience of all aspects of civil society in their own diocesan area,” and that the Church of England had “a capacity to express common values in a way that no other organisation is placed to do.”
Now this all sounds very benign and well-meaning and, indeed, inclusive. But it’s hard not to see it as a subtle attempt to preserve a status for a church that no longer commands the active allegiance of the majority of the population (whichever box people tick on Census forms). No longer a monopoly supplier of faith to the British people, the established church can still be primus inter pares of the wider community of religions and the Archbishop of Canterbury CEO of Faith Inc. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others can shelter in the capacious folds of his archiescopal cope, confident that he will defend their interests against the common enemy, the “militant” secularists.
In such a context, it becomes politic for the monarch — whose own role is supposed to embody unity rather than division — to assert that the established church has been responsible for Britain’s tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism. Historically, however, this is at best misleading, at worst a deliberate distortion.
In truth, the Church of England fought for centuries to preserve, first its religious monopoly and later its privileged position in society. The right to worship — or not to worship — freely was wrested piecemeal from unwilling Anglican prelates. Well into the nineteenth century Roman Catholics and Jews had limited civil rights. Until the University Tests Act of 1871 — that’s 1871 — non-Anglicans were barred from fellowships at Oxford and Cambridge (though not at University College London, which was founded in 1826 on the radical principle that higher education need not be a monopoly of the established Church).
The first openly atheist MP Charles Bradlaugh was elected four times by the people of Northampton before finally being allowed to take his seat without swearing a religious oath. The change in the law that permitted him to make a secular affirmation was passed in the teeth of entrenched opposition from the Church of England. The Queen’s own coronation in 1953 was an exclusively Anglican affair, with the monarch swearing to uphold the “Protestant reformed religion established by law”, to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England” and even to “preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England… all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them.”
It’s true that Anglican supremacism was more political than religious. Following the lead of the first Queen Elizabeth, who famously declared that “we do not make windows into men’s souls”, it prioritised outward conformity over inner conviction. Its tradition of pluralism within the church has its own legacy in modern debates over gay clergy and women bishops, as people with widely divergent beliefs and attitudes contrive somehow to remain within the same ecclesiastical structure. This has no doubt made it easier for modern Anglican prelates to rebrand themselves as spokesmen for religion generally while preserving their own special status. The change is, nevertheless, a profound one.
Prince Charles once expressed a desire to be “defender of faith” rather than “Defender of The Faith”. But when the faith in question is that of the Church of England, as the Queen’s words yesterday demonstrate, these days the two phrases amount to more-or-less the same thing.