11 November 2010
It is a pleasure for me to have been invited here this evening to deliver this talk which follows, I understand, in a tradition of such events here.
I must confess to you that when I was first approached to do this I was a little hesitant. I am no theologian and my study of history as an undergraduate at Oxford, although one of the best periods of my life was a long time ago. And there is a dangerous tendency of politicians to be willing to pontificate on most things, often with scant knowledge.
But over the 13 years I have been an MP, I have been fascinated, as a practicing member of the Church of England, by the growing debate on the role of religion in society. It’s a subject that has tended to be marked by contrasting responses from different Christian denominations. Challenged by the questioning of that which was previously unquestioned, different responses have emerged. Some are assertive, such as the Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians whose growth has bucked the trend of general decline in church attendance. Others have attempted accommodation with the growth of secularism and religious diversity. All operate in a climate of uncertainty as to the future shape our society and their place within it. It is this that prompted me to accept your invitation as it gives me the opportunity to pull together some personal thoughts on this issue.
I have chosen for my talk tonight the title the Christian Church and British Values. Let me say straight away, and as a careful politician, that in choosing this title, I am not any way suggesting that other faith groups are not contributing to the building of our society and national character. Indeed it would be difficult to do having spent several days of the last fortnight at mixed faith social gatherings, organised to celebrate Diwali. As I shall make clear during my talk I place great store on the contribution people of faith – or of none - have made and are making to our collective wellbeing. But our gathering in this beautiful church, which epitomizes our Anglican tradition of worship makes me want to concentrate on the Christian contribution and in particular its Anglican variant. This again is not to minimize the contribution of other Christian denominations whether Roman Catholic or Non Conformist, or to ignore the fact that Anglicanism is largely the product of one country in the United Kingdom. But as I will try to explain, its influence has been of key importance in shaping our collective identity. This also necessarily requires us to look back on our history to understand how our Christian heritage has shaped us, because it is by doing so that I think that we can also discern the role that Christians and Christian belief can play in our country’s future.
I want to start with the here and now. The detractors of religious belief claim that we now live in one of most secular societies in Europe. They look approvingly at the progressive decline in overall church attendance, the almost total disappearance of Sunday as a day set apart for worship or quietude and the encouragement of Winterval as a substitute for Christmas .
Those who value the contribution of religion can point out that although church going is not such a marked feature of our society as it was, even so, when asked the question a substantial majority of British people acknowledged some spirituality. In the census of 2001 only 16% of the population identified itself as having no religion. In contrast 72%-42 million people described themselves as Christian, this figure encompassing both those holding to the vaguest of Christian traditions and the active Christianity prominent particularly in Black evangelical and Pentecostal churches. And despite the prominence of Islam in the media, only 1.7 million out of 59 million described themselves as Muslim.
We have recently seen this debate played out during the visit of the Pope. Before his visit there was much speculation within the newspapers as to how his visit would be received. What can only be described as a great deal of cynicism was expressed, with much speculation and some gleeful hand rubbing as to which was going to be the more popular – the Pope’s celebration of Mass or the planned demonstrations against his presence. His critics did not just come from the ranks of secularists, there were many critics of the church on a number of issues. Pope Benedict does not benefit from the charismatic attraction enjoyed by his predecessor John Paul II, who was seen as a champion of freedom of religious expression against Communist tyranny.
In the event as we witnessed, this first ever state visit of a Pontiff was rather a success. Thousands turned out to line the streets as he passed. As one newspaper noted “ If there was one place where the predicted crowds simply failed to show these past four days it was on the Nope-to Pope rally in London on Saturday, a damp squib compared to the 50,000 in nearby Hyde Park for the papal prayer vigil” (Daily Telegraph Monday 20 September). But it seemed to me that his visit achieved rather more than just showing the cynics they were wrong. In just a few short days he made many Christians feel good by reminding us not only what we have achieved as a small but vigorous society but also why we had achieved it.
In his speech given in Westminster Hall, which I was privileged to hear at first hand, he praised us as a nation for our “national instinct for moderation…a pluralist democracy which places great value of freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law with a strong sense of the individual’s right and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law”. These values he concluded gave us an ethical dimension to policies that produced notable achievements of which he cited the global spreading of our participative government and common law legal tradition. The abolition of the slave trade, he declared, was based on “firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law” and was “a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud”.
What fascinated me about the Pope’s visit is that it took a man of his authority to tell us what we should already know: and that is that religion and people of faith have played and play an enormous if unsung part in the fabric of our society, even though as my colleague Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim, has said, it is deeply unfashionable to say so. It is all the more interesting that this analysis should come from the foreign head of a minority Christian denomination in Britain whose adherents were discriminated against officially until the mid 19th century and unofficially until much more recently.
A peeling back of the superficial secularism that now prevails as a politically correct norm reveals a substantial role for the Christian faith and faith based activity. It is not for the most part oppositional to other faiths or to secularism, or at least it has not been so until very recently-a topic which I shall return to in a moment. Rather it has created a zone of inclusion that seems to be widely appreciated. In a BBC poll in February last year almost two thirds (63%) of those questioned said that the “law should respect and be influenced by UK religions values. A similar proportion (62%) agreed that, “religion has an important role to play in public life. Remarkably the support for this was higher amongst the young than among the middle aged and elderly. Moreover 79% of Muslims polled, and 74% each of Hindus and Sikhs polled supported a stronger role in public life for the UK’s traditional Christian religious values.
Now I suggest that one of the reasons for this positive reaction is the immensely diverse levels of involvement in society that the churches and in particular the Anglican church facilitates. By way of example:
More people do unpaid work for Church of England organizations than for any other, with 8% of adults doing such work.
A quarter of regular churchgoers of all denominations are involved in voluntary community work outside of their churches delivering an estimated total of 23.2million hours of voluntary service.
The Church of England alone provides activities for 407,000 children and young people outside of church worship facilitated by 116,000 volunteer helpers.
Church of England congregations give more than £51.7million each year to other charities. This is I note is more than the amount raised by the BBC’s Children in Need appeal.
And I have not even begun to look at education where approaching one million pupils are educated in more than 4700 Church of England schools.
And so as not to leave out other denominations, it is worth pointing out that the Salvation Army spent over £103million last year on charitable activities and that the Catholic Church educates over 80,000 pupils in secondary schools.
It is I think noteworthy that this plethora of activity appears to command wide public approval. 72% of people polled in a recent survey agreed that Church of England schools help young people grow into responsible members of society and 80% agreed that they promoted good behaviour and positive attitudes.
As an MP I also encounter the presence of Christian religious practice suffusing our national culture at every turn. When the Queen opens Parliament she finishes her address by asking that the blessing of Almighty God should rest on our counsels. Both Houses open their proceedings with appropriate prayers and the Speaker, despite being an atheist of Jewish faith background has a chaplain to lead them. A number of Anglican bishops have a constitutional right to be present and vote in the House of Lords. All major expressions of national celebration or sorrow have a religious aspect and in the coronation of the monarch we have about as complete a marriage of Christian religion with the secular authority of the State as it would be possible to devise.
“Faith and truth I will bear unto thee” promises the Queen at her coronation. Instead of the Social Contract between State and citizen which in theory underpins the operation of the French State, we mark ceremonially the legitimization of our subjection to the Queen’s authority and that of her government on the basis of God’s holy ordinances. And it applies to all including her ministers such as myself who pledge oaths to her personally on appointment.
The relationship between church and state applies at a more local level too with the round of civic services and as you will have had here when your present rector arrived services of installation. In the case of the enthronement of the present Bishop of Oxford in whose diocese my constituency is located, I noted with interest that there were present when I attended, assorted MPs, three Lords Lieutenant, High Sheriffs, numerous Mayors local government chairmen, Judges, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police and various representative members of the armed forces in uniform, quite apart from representatives of other faiths and denominations. In a different setting we will get the same coming together of religion and the State in three days time on Remembrance Sunday.
Some may argue that all this is but a decorative relic of an earlier age when the role of the Church was much more important-a sort of state sponsored Shinto. But it does illustrate the astonishing extent to which the Christian religion and in England its Anglican variant forms key building blocks of the collective expression of national identity. And Britain being a country where tradition is not prized beyond the point where it is irrelevant, the continuing flourishing of public manifestations of Christian belief and values must be because the tangible benefits of Christianity in education, charitable works and social cohesion, the good neighbourliness that binds us together and helps relieve some of life’s trials and problems remains such a potent force in our society.
The Church-State link is, I believe important as it provides a moral framework to the role of the State in relation to its citizens and a moral authority when the State acts. While we may now live in a rights based society with the ECHR to protect us, it reflects the Christian ethics of its drafters.
And it is I think of particular significance that the Church of England remains the vehicle of choice for most faith groups to bring people together at a time of difficulty. The ability of the Archbishop Canterbury to do this immediately after the 7th July 2005 was noteworthy.
Yet it is also clear that there are trends in place undermining the role Christian belief has played in our society. The State has in its anxiety to preserve harmony and civil society in an environment where been prompted by these differences to legislate more to regulate the way we behave towards each other and to try and ensure equality between competing individuals and groups.
Thus the Equality Act and its recent predecessors has created real uncertainty for Christians and for others where faith about how to reconcile their conscience with the demands of the law. The law itself seems to be accompanied by underlying demands that all adhere to more prescriptive codes of social behavior and “political correctness so as not to cause offence to others.
And in a country with a long history of protecting the right to freedom of expression we have witnessed a reversal of that trend. The Public Order acts have been used by the Police on more than one occasion to threaten individuals with prosecution, who express criticism of certain behaviour as sinful. A street preacher from my constituency was told by the local Police that he was allowed to preach the Gospel but that it was harassment to warn people that they might go to hell if they did not repent of their sins and that he would then be arrested! A couple of years ago the President of the National Secular Society Mr Terry Sanderson argued for the right of the State to dictate Christian doctrine. In response to two senior Roman Catholic leaders warning that catholic politicians who support abortion might be denied Holy Communion, a not it seemed to me unreasonable statement in view of its teachings on the sanctity of human life, Mr Sanderson said “There is an implied call to Catholic politicians and health workers to place Catholic doctrines above the wishes of the electorate. This is undemocratic and unacceptable.”
While this is happening, Islamic fundamentalists argue that there can be no division between state and religion and seeks to achieve this congruence through political action and to suppress all plurality of views other than its own once it has done so. It is highly demanding of special privileges in the meantime, with pressure for the introduction of State recognition of Sharia law to regulate family matters and demands for blasphemy laws to protect the tenets of their faith from criticism they deem offensive. Other religious groups have shown some similar trends with the violent protests by some Sikhs over the play Behzti echoing those over that occurred after Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was published.
It is important to note that the visibility and impact of these groups is disproportionate to their numbers. Many Muslims request reasonable adjustments to the law to live their lives. Sikhs constitute for the most part one of the most tolerant and active groups in our society as I know in my own constituency. But moderate voices receive much less prominence than extreme views. There is an uneasy sense that it is those who demand the most by way of “rights” who get what they want and those who ask for nothing who find their freedom of expression and action curtailed in the name of social cohesion.
One consequence is that we have seen some Christian groups become much more vocal, with a greater assertiveness in the face what has been seen as the erosion of the ability to manifest their beliefs. As the measure to introduce an offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of religion was amended against the wishes of government, so as to ensure that freedom of religious expression was maintained, a demonstration of singers from mainly black Pentecostal Churches sang outside Parliament. This episode also brought together a highly effective lobbying campaign under the umbrella of the Evangelical Alliance. Since then we have had the representations by Lord Carey, Bishop Nazir Ali and others arguing that Christian principles and ethics are being undermined in a tide of State prescribed secularism-a theme also picked up by the Pope on his visit.
Until recently most of the Church of England has shown a marked reluctance to get engaged in this debate. We have been true to our principles of moderation and tended to avoid assertive argument. It is only in the last couple of years that a parliamentary liaison officer has been appointed to talk with interested MPs and Peers and seek to influence key issues before Parliament. When the proposal for an offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of religion was first proposed there were a number of bishops in the House of Lords who welcomed the proposal for its capacity to curb offensive remarks about any religion and saw this as more important than the implications of the proposals for freedom of speech. Insofar as the Church of England has been perceived by outsiders as controversial this has been associated with the increasingly intemperate language expressed at General Synod by factions for and against the appointment of women bishops!
Some have argued that the Church of England’s approach is a sign of its weakness or its irrelevance. For others assertiveness in this difficult area of competing rights and values raises difficult issues of Christian ethics and runs counter to the need to maintain love and tolerance of one’s neighbour. I must admit to finding it difficult at times to escape the conclusion that the Church of England is in danger of being marginalized over this important debate on national values. Relentless agonizing is certainly not an effective response to the challenge we face of nurturing and preserving those values the Pope identified in his Westminster address as being our key contribution to human development. We have good reason to be proud of the fact that the Anglican version of Christianity has played an important part in developing our national character and values. For much of what the Pope praised is intimately linked to our distinctive version of Christianity.
The history of our country is in important measure about the harnessing of Christian religious ethics to promote ethical standards within State and society. As was highlighted by the Archbishop of York when he said, “our identity as a nation owes more to our Christian heritage than many care to admit. Writing in the 8th century the Venerable Bede, the father of English history, wrote not only of how the English were converted, but how the Gospel played a major socializing and civilizing role in this country by uniting the English from a group of warring tribes and conferring nationhood on them.”
But that inestimable benefit still left us 500 years ago as a royal autocracy underpinned by religious orthodoxy that suppressed dissenting views with the energy still displayed today in Iran. The move from that state to the pluralist democracy we have come to enjoy today came about through a process of religious polemic, debate, failed attempts by the State to try and control the process and some violence-not one suspects what Henry VIII had in mind when he decided to assert the Royal Supremacy over the Church to resolve his problem in obtaining a divorce! We owe however to his daughter Elizabeth Ist to have injected a pragmatism into our religious affairs which while seeking to establish a single national church attempted to allow the maximum of flexibility to its adherents. As she famously said “I have no desire to make a window in to men’s souls”. Her strange combination of Protestant doctrine with the maintenance of many aspects of the old religion from sung liturgy in her Chapels Royal to the three fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons marked an experiment in moderation that has remained with Anglicanism ever since.
Elizabeth’s attempt at a broad church failed. But it recognized the need for some compromise. So gradually and often through much personal forbearance and gritted teeth we have achieved a condition where the tolerance of the beliefs of others was seen as more advantageous to our wellbeing than imposed solutions and persecution. The Vicar of Bray may be a figure of fun, but his ability to accommodate himself to different regimes and the willingness of those regimes to allow him the latitude for accommodation is more imprinted with traditions of Christian charity and forbearance than the views and ultimate treatment of the Millenarian extremists who took part in the Putney debates and were denounced by Cromwell as “poor fantasticals” before some of them ended their days executed by him against the walls of Burford church. The courage of the jury in the Penn- Mead trial in 1674 to uphold the right of a jury not to be directed to return a verdict and to do so in favour of members of an unpopular sect of Quakers shows perhaps how well the lesson was being learnt that coercion of conscience was pointless. It is not an accident that there are pubs in England called the “Live and let live”.
The tolerance of Protestant dissenters in the late 17th century, Catholic emancipation in 1829 and Jewish emancipation in the 1840’s each unlocked the possibility for them to participate in the public sphere, something from which we have all benefitted. And the promotion of good works emphasized by John Wesley in the 18th century was a powerful force of social transformation. It links directly with the work of William Wilberforce in the Anglican tradition of harnessing Christian belief to bring about change for the better. Today we remember him principally for the abolition of the Slave Trade against powerful resistance from within the established Church where some Bishops were slave owners. But his work in seeking the reform of public morals set a benchmark for action that was taken up across Christian denominations in the 19th century, as was shown by the extraordinary work of Cardinal Manning in this sphere, now largely forgotten. Yet thousands, touched by his work for poverty-stricken dockers and his contributions o the Royal Commission on housing, attended his funeral in 1892.
None of this however happened without polemic and discord. Free of the modern constraints of political correctness and “Equality of esteem” between denominations and faiths, our 19th century forebears did not conflate tolerance of the rights of others to hold a viewpoint as inhibiting their denunciation of that viewpoint if they chose. Gladstone’s hostility to the doctrines of Roman Catholicism went hand in hand with co-operation with its adherents on social and political projects. He and Manning, friends since oxford, would meet regularly at their club. The Christian socialism of John Ruskin and William Morris was very different from the work of Lord Shaftsbury, a Conservative, in promoting “Ragged Schools” and social improvement. Yet today we can see them as very much within the same canon of Christian principles. Indeed it seems to me to be one of the benchmarks of our national tradition that Christian faith and action go hand in hand. When William Wilberforce questioned whether political activity was compatible with his deepening faith it was his friend William Pitt who told him. “You are deluding yourself into principles that have but too much tendency to counteract your own object and to render your virtues and your talents useless to yourself and mankind”. Pitt went on “If a Christian may act in the several relations of life must he seclude himself from all to become so? Surely the principles and practice of Christianity are simple and lead not to meditation only but to action”.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in looking at charitable activity in our country. A Charitable purpose was first defined under Queen Elizabeth Ist when the object of the promotion of religion was entirely confined to the Church of England. But on the back of emancipation of all denominations and faiths and without any legislation these purposes have been extended by the courts to the activities of all religious groups. Thus a torrent of good works has been released which in many cases benefit the wider community. Faith schools, Anglican, Roman Catholic and then Jewish, charitable foundations for the relief of poverty, hospitals, children’s homes and of course international aid, an activity that transcends faith groups and is a defining characteristic of our national values with £9.9 billion contributed in the last year, all through a legal vehicle unique to our common law tradition and created with specifically Christian values at its origin.
I trust you will excuse me for this excursion into the past. But it seems to me essential to have done do in making an analysis of what contribution Christian belief may make to the future of our country and the values that we may take forward and develop.
We are currently being told repeatedly that we live in a post Christian age, a country permeated by either non belief or non Christian belief as evidenced I suppose by the recent instructions to the police as to how to behave correctly and respectfully if they stumble on a witches coven. But as I have attempted to demonstrate this evening I think this is a gross oversimplification of the position. Religious and social pluralism, the fruit of the growth of tolerance based on Christian principles so firmly rooted in the core values of our faith has indeed created an astonishing variety of religious and secular beliefs some of which are extremely challenging to the maintenance and development of a tolerant society.
But equally the reach of Christianity, as a result of exactly the same values, has in its social and political achievement in the lives of people in this country remains colossal in scale. Moreover respect for Christian ethical principles is very high even for those who do not share its beliefs or more pertinently only half share them. In this context it seems pretty clear that church attendance levels are not the only way in which faith is expressed. In 2001 41% of those who did not go to church nonetheless told an opinion survey that they prayed. Of the one third of respondents classified as “unreligious” in a British Social Attitudes Survey in 2008 49% considered that religious belief was beneficial in helping people find inner peace and happiness. And as we know from many diverse examples, if the formula of worship and involvement is right participation, through church attendance can grow, as shown here in this parish and in others with good leadership. And if overall regular church attendance continues to decline, 85% of the population of our country has attended a church in the course of a year, whether for a service- a wedding or a funeral or just as a quiet place to sit and think. The Church of England’s role in this is crucial because alone of all churches it has the reach and commitment to provide a universal service of spiritual support to those wanting it. Some in recent years have questioned this and suggested we might do better if we closed ourselves off through disestablishment and concentrated on our core support group. I cannot see how such an approach could help promote the values we share.
Similarly some question establishment in the context of Church-State relations and express the view that disconnecting the two would be desirable. But Christian faith and the Church of England are not rivals to the body politic of our country. They complement each other, brought together by shared history and as I tried to show earlier, provide a vehicle for relations between state and all faith groups that are immensely valued. There will of course always be some tension in the relationship but that is not a good reason for abandoning it. The danger at present is that faced with growing religious, moral and cultural diversity the State responds through increasing controls to regulate the way individuals relate to each other in the name of preserving civil society. It is a serious error, because it tends to push moderate religion out of the public and political sphere altogether. Shackled by bureaucracy it is deterred from carrying out work of wider public benefit. Anxious about transgressing rules of political correctness it does not speak out on important ethical issues. This leaves the field clear to those of exclusionary viewpoints. They are not inhibited by the rules. They can hog the limelight of debate with confrontational views. This means that constructive debate between Christians and those of other beliefs and none in the public sphere are much less likely to occur. I think this matters a great deal, as it is through such contact that we moderate each other’s attitudes and behaviour by exchanges of information, opinion and ideas. This is as true in the realm of faith as it is in that of politics. Thus by this historical process our practice of Anglicanism, although linked by tradition with that of earlier generations is obviously different from that of 16th century Englishmen. The same can be seen with the Islam practiced by Ismaili Muslims prompted into dialogue and involvement in western public life at the instance of the Aga Khan or current Roman Catholicism and Judaism. The danger of over regulation of society is that it institutionalizes difference. Christian churches and Anglicans in particular have a key role in continuing the dialogue that has so successfully shaped our present values. To quote Pope Benedict again “Religion is not a problem for legislators, but a vital contributor to the national conversation”.
It is also clear that there are going to be considerable opportunities in modern society for Christian groups to develop their social participation. Indeed research by the Hooper Institute suggests that people who are religiously observant give more overall in this area than their secular or non practicing counterparts. Thirty years ago the view was that the State would increasingly replace the voluntary sector as the provider of services. Yet the present Coalition government has recognized that voluntary action is a vital part of community empowerment. It is part of our freedom of expression and should be valued as such. Through it people can voice and act on their concerns and priorities independently of the State. By so doing the development of social capital can be promoted and flexible and tailored responses made to new, as well as established social ills. This is the thinking behind what has been called the “Big Society”. It is not of course a new concept at all because it is what churches have been doing for generations. But if it works then it is hoped it will lead to an attitudinal change so that people will be freer to do what they do best: help each other according to their own instincts not those prescribed by the State. It offers I believe another area of opportunity for the churches to influence values and the Government has already recognized that the Church of England is likely to be able to play a key role in this process because of its statutory duty to be accessible to all on is cure of souls principle and the wide respect it enjoys as a result. The Government’s“Presence and Engagement” strategy now to be extended in the “new neighbours programme” which will do even more to build constructive relationships between people from different faiths is of great interest to my Department of Communities and Local Government colleagues
The question for us therefore is whether we as Christians see the glass as half empty of half full. If the first, then gloom at the pace of change, and the challenge of religious and cultural diversity, will become a self fulfilling prophecy of failure. But if the latter we are in the midst of a world of opportunity to promote our faith and our values in the face of new challenges and do it as successfully as we have been doing it her for the last millennium and a half. If at times our Anglican tradition may seem weak and be lampooned for its searching self doubt it is because our response to historic events has been based on the belief that the search for divine truth involves not only faith but sustained and logical argument and a willingness to respect others points of view. It is a tradition that has great strength and if we make good use of it and are self confident with it we will do much more in years to come to help shape our national identity and seek the common good.