It is a great pleasure to have been invited here this evening to give this talk.
I must confess to you, however, that when I was approached to do it, my first reaction was that I was not qualified for the task at all. I enjoyed seventeen very happy years practising full time at the Bar before I went into Parliament. But despite my chambers having produced such luminaries of ecclesiastical law as my friends Tim Briden and Mark Bishop and despite, I have to admit, having been tempted to learn more myself, the lure of politics claimed me before I could do anything about it, beyond the rudimentary knowledge needed to be a deputy churchwarden. As Attorney General, matters of Ecclesiastical law were, in the circumstances, mercifully few.
I was assured however, that I might speak on any topic of my choosing, provided it could fit with your broader objectives as a society dedicated to both the Christian religion and the law. Here I saw a possibility. As we are in the season of Advent, which was supposed once to be a quietly and anticipatorily reflective time before it was hijacked and turned into a yuletide bacchanalia, I thought I might try to reflect on some of the issues with which we are faced as a country, not just from the usual Westminster political perspective, but taking into account the place and role of both Religion and Law in addressing them because they are issues which have grown in importance for me in my recent years in office as Attorney General. I apologise at the outset if, in doing this, my talk is seen to dwell principally on the Church of England on whose contribution I particularly want to focus. I am very conscious that both Roman Catholics and Non-Conformist and free churches and indeed other faiths have made and make a distinctive contribution in this area.
At the start of each day’s sitting of the House of Commons prayers are spoken by the Speaker’s chaplain for the benefit of those MPs who wish to be present. Apart from the Lord’s Prayer, the principal prayer is “Lord the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her Government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility the guidance of your spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please or unworthy ideas but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind, so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed.”
It’s a powerful statement. The prayers seem to have been in this form since 1662 and regular prayers have been held in the House since at least 1567. In a recent discussion which took place in the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, of which I am a member, it was pointed out by one of the lay member that there exists no job description whatsoever for MPs and that the only guide available for what might be expected of us were the oath of allegiance we take after election and this prayer. Some secular MPs have of course wanted prayers discontinued, but the Bideford Town Council case has indicated an interesting backlash and there is no sign that this will happen.
The prayer has always appeared to me to be an articulation of the need to seek the “common good” a term which has been in our language for a very long time. But while viewed as a positive term I am uncertain that its meaning has until recently been much discussed outside of religious circles. At present it seems to be enjoying something of a revival in our political discourse and is increasingly used by politicians in trying to characterise desirable and respectable political goals. In a recent debate on the role of religion and belief in British public life which took place in the House of Lords on 27th November, a retired diocesan bishop, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, urged those of faith and none to combine to develop a “concept of the common good” that could challenge a society dominated only by the value of individual choice.
In the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, where great attention is given to the common good, it is described thus: “The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains common, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard to the future.” (Compendium 164). Its pursuit and attainment is seen as involving all members of society. It is also described as the reason why political authority exists “to ensure that the government of each country has the specific duty to harmonise the different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice”.
When in 2002 the Queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee, she made a speech in which she reflected on the changes in British society that had taken place during her reign. She spoke rather kindly of the work of politicians in guiding her kingdom through changing times and expressed the view that Britain could take quiet pride in its progress. She praised a tradition of public service and the willingness to “honour one another and seek the common good” which of course mirrors the Book of Common Prayer.
From what I saw of the public reaction at the time it looks as if a broad swathe of the Queen’s subjects agreed with her. On every key indicator, the reduction in poverty, in slum accommodation; the increase in life expectancy and quality, health and overall material comfort, our country had progressed well during her reign. I would add that we had also managed to avoid major war and to absorb many newcomers without substantial social dislocation and to live in peace if not entirely in perfect harmony with our nearest neighbours-no mean achievement in itself.
Despite the adversarial side of politics, we could perhaps therefore congratulate ourselves on our achievements.
In 2011, polling was carried out into the sense of wellbeing of United Kingdom citizens. We were rated above average in our sense of satisfaction with life, although interestingly we were below the European average in some key areas such as neighbourliness, making ends meet, and how we saw our own state of health. We thought ourselves less healthy than the average EU resident when in fact our health was and still is above the European average. Nevertheless overall our measurement of wellbeing identified us as a reasonably happy lot.
More recent polling, however, has been noteworthy in that it provides some compelling instances of the country’s concerns and anxieties. While the monarchy, the armed forces, the Police and, interestingly the BBC were rated above average in our estimates of trust, all politicians whether they were operating at a local, national or European level were rated low. The Westminster government was the lowest of all.
Certainly the recent results of the Clacton and Rochester by-elections confirm that all is not well for mainstream politicians and politics. Some argue that voters are just having some sort of temporary tantrum and will return to their more traditional allegiances quickly. But I think this assumption is questionable. The evidence is that a substantial number of them will currently register deep dissatisfaction with the political system by voting, in the case of these by-elections, for a political party whose policies are on their own admission sometimes internally contradictory and being made on the hoof. There are also other parties available and popular with those with deconstructionist aims for our body politic. This is rather challenging for those of us in established and conventional political parties, as is the sudden surge of interest in strange populist mavericks such as Russell Brand. My constituency mail bag bears this phenomenon out. In recent years I have started receiving a growing volume of correspondence from deeply unhappy constituents. They are full of pessimism, with the writers telling me the country is finished and that they would like to emigrate if they could.
Now part of this mood clearly relates to the biggest financial and economic crisis of modern history. Governments have had to make savings in public expenditure of a kind not previously attempted, with resulting terminations of employment for half a million people in the public sector. The recent Autumn Statement provides for yet more of the same. Standards of living are largely static and for some have slipped. And the debate that developed last weekend over the need for Food Banks highlights how welfare changes have at times generated serious problems of hardship in their implementation. But we have had no mass unemployment and a reviving private sector economy has generated nearly 2 million jobs. We spend, although still not meeting demand, some £12.5billion more on the NHS than in 2010 and with another £2billion promised. This climate of austerity is also accompanied by declining crime rates and little current evidence of a significant rise in acute want or of social breakdown. A recently published Cabinet Office survey shows that in 2014 43% of people expressed satisfaction with their local area as a place to live, much higher than the 30% in 2009. 85% thought their community cohesive compared to 80% in 2003.
But this in itself has not made people contented. On the evidence of those by-election results, the Scottish referendum and the mail bag, I cannot think of any period of recent British history when the sense of disconnection between government and governed has been greater. The same survey shows significant reductions in levels of civic participation, down 11% in a very short period. The belief of people that they can influence decisions is down from 44% in 2001 to 34% today. There is a feeling of contempt for politicians as a class fuelled by memories of the Parliamentary Expenses scandal of five years ago which has now merged into a wider criticism of ineffectiveness. More worrying, it seems to me is the extent to which national institutions, be it Parliament, the press, local government or banks and even some professions are all found wanting, mired in stories of self-seeking activity at the expense of those with less influence or voice. As the process of globalisation has developed-a process described repeatedly by political leaders as inevitable and beneficial to our material wellbeing, so the reluctance of sections of the population to share in enthusiasm for this has grown. In an age of individualism it is often difficult for people to appreciate any benefit from changes with no obvious gain for them personally in the short term. For example, in the little bit of England I represent, anger centres on government policies to promote infrastructure and housing development to cope with a surge in population prompted, in large part, by foreign immigration into the South East. These measures, which have at times seen local planning decisions overridden, are juxtaposed with previous promises of greater localism in decision making. But the malaise is I think more generalised. A dark vision of a violent world illustrated by horrible images from the Middle East and the global mass movement of peoples prompted by poor economic and political conditions has appeared at our door to create fear and uncertainty. With this comes those letters full of cultural despair and lamentations for a vanishing sense of identity.
In attempting to find solutions to this growing discontent, we politicians are divided. The desire for addressing the discontent is genuine, but we often seem to lurch from efforts at promoting optimism based on economic indicators to hand wringing expressions of sympathy with our electorate’s concerns. We have developed populist agendas such as promises to render Human Rights less accessible to those considered undeserving. We raise our rhetoric against institutions with which we can conveniently share our electors’ resentments, such as bankers, multinational corporations or the EU whilst in reality most of us are well aware that our future is intimately intertwined with them. We strive to promote a sense of national identity and then fall into comical discord over trivia. In the most recent case of the tweeted flag of St George during the Rochester by election we have been taking things to the point of a Monty Python sketch. There seems little sign at present that any of these exertions are really helping restore the nation’s confidence in existing or reformed political processes and institutions.
The role of Law
Part of the problem, I believe, is that the changes we are going through at present go far deeper than just budgetary restrictions. For some politicians their response to both financial constraints and the public malaise with government has been to argue that our problems might be best addressed by changing or by-passing established and fundamental legal or procedural frameworks for the sake of greater efficiency.
In the last seventeen years we have as a nation been through a major series of transformations in our framework of governance. We can see this in the creation of devolved parliaments or assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland intended to bring government closer to the citizen but which have then led to the failed attempts at regionalising England and now to the claim for English votes for English laws. It is present in the changes carried out to the Planning system earlier in this Parliament to speed up decisions and respond to the urgent need to build more houses and in the way Benefit Tribunals now work and assess cases. It has also been apparent in the State acquiring more powers to ensure security by administrative restrictions on liberty rather than through the criminal justice process. It could almost be said that we are moving from law to administration. We need to consider the link between these changes and the sense of disempowerment I have outlined. The sense that the citizen is unable to influence and moderate outcomes now seems to me to be linked to a general lack of public confidence in a good future for our country.
During my four years as Attorney General my principal role was to try and ensure that, in accordance with the Ministerial Code, the Government acted lawfully and in compliance with our international obligations in its decisions. I also had to try and act as guardian of the public interest in upholding the Rule of Law in its multiple manifestations including the protection of charities; the referral unduly lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal for review and prosecuting newspapers abusing their power, for contempt of court.
My experience over the four years have reinforced for me the paramount need for the law to provide a framework in which social and commercial relations between individuals and their relations with the State, can be conducted with transparency and predictability, removing the fear of being disadvantaged by inequalities of power, which things lie at the root of all justice. Yet whether it is the reduction in the availability of Legal Aid or the gradual slowing of the evolution of the common law noted by Dame Hazel Genn, of UCL, in a lecture some six years ago, resulting from the reduction in cases being determined in a court of record and the consequential loss of precedent, or the developing concern, of many, that suitably qualified advocates will cease to be available to conduct publicly funded litigation because of inadequate remuneration, the institutional and legal structures which facilitate participation of individuals at every level in protecting their own legal interest and thereby the common good are in danger of being eroded at the very moment when those governance changes are at their greatest.
It is very much in the interests of the development of a thriving civil society that both a fair and active system of Justice and the Rule of law should be upheld and supported by those in authority and particularly by those who by the exercise of coercive powers require others to do so. It is Shakespeare who spoke in King Lear of the “dog in office”. Financial constraints may make this at times difficult but they must not make it impossible. And while all law is a man-made construct, we should be careful not to undermine or reject that which is occasionally inconvenient to those with power.
As you will know, there have been calls by my Party to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. This, it is accepted, would lead to our leaving the Council of Europe as we could no longer act compatibly with the Convention as interpreted by the European Court of Human rights in Strasbourg, because it is intended that certain rights would be qualified to prevent their abuse by members of society seen as undesirable and their access to its protection restricted.
Now it is not my purpose this evening to go into this topic in any detail. I delivered my critique of it last week in a talk at University College London. But I think this proposal is illustrative of a growing trend, which affects successive governments irrespective of Party. Those in power are failing to look at issues in the round and in the long term. Without this the common good cannot be readily discerned and then promoted. In the pluralist society in which we live, where individuals will have widely divergent views on some subjects, established frameworks that allow unpopular or minority views to be heard and which protect fundamental rights and liberties and exclude no one as a class of human being from consideration are of great importance. So are frameworks for resolving difference which command good levels of acceptance. Reducing the capacity of such mechanisms to save cost or to assuage public irritation at individual outcomes is a course of action that I believe will bring diminishing returns. Any quick surge of Press or public approval will soon pass. There will always be a new target for public criticism to emerge. But the wider confidence promoted by an enduring and encompassing framework of rights will be gone. Our judiciary are already suffering the consequences in one very practical sense in the increase in self representation
In the case of the ECHR there are also serious consequences for our ability to promote a wider common good by causing potentially fatal damage to the most effective international treaty for promoting human rights in existence in the world today.
So I want to emphasise in this talk that well founded institutional structures which command respect and assent are in my view critical to addressing this deficit in the electorate’s confidence.
And this brings me to the role of the Church. What of the Church and in particular the Church of England in promoting the common good?
It was fashionable for a long time to argue that the Christian churches and in particular the Church of England were declining in their relevance to the lives of people in our country. Some argue they still are and point to the continuing fall in regular church attendance in parishes on a Sunday, even if a growing number are attending services in cathedrals in mid-week. There was some shock at the census statistics in 2011 on the fall in the number of people describing themselves as Christian down to 64% of the population in England and Wales in a decade and the surge in the number of those stating they had no religion rising by 11% in the same period. But these statistics do not I suspect reflect a rise in atheism, but rather an increasing unwillingness on the part of individuals to define themselves by religious belief in an era where expressions of faith are seen as divisive because of the rise in the public profile of fundamentalist faith groups.
This rather reductive analysis also misses out the big picture of the continuing massive social, moral and educational involvement in our society of the churches and in particular of the Church of England. Many, even if not themselves regular church goers or even ignorant of the Christian faith, still look to the Church in times of difficulty for comfort and support. Of all the professions, the Church of England clergy with a public legal duty to minister to all resident in their parishes, whether it be in the remotest countryside or the most deprived urban setting, have been able to give the church its unique insight, as an informed observer of society. As the Archbishop of Canterbury put it ‘vicars are as uncloistered as they come”. And in its ministry the Church attempts, on the order of Christ himself the promotion of the common good – archetypally by encouraging good neighbourliness, both personal and through voluntary and charitable activity for the betterment of the community and for supporting those in need and indeed through campaigning, as for example was the case with respect pay day lenders.
The evidence entirely bears out these perceptions. Faith based social action has a rich and varied history. We only have to look at the work of our great hospitals and of individuals, some portrayed on bank notes such as Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Thomas Barnardo and William Booth to see its depth and range. A few years ago the Charities Aid Foundation put together a table of charities rated by the amount of money raised in a year. Christian and other faith based charities were heavily represented including Christian Aid with £104 million, the Salvation Army £96million the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development £41 million and the London Diocesan Fund with £25million.
There is also social action at a local community level, from the individual whether it be voluntary work in a charity shop or serving in a youth organization or helping in a one off community project in a Deanery or Diocese such as those for rough sleepers in winter or to the carefully organized and permanent, such as schools, food banks and counselling services. At my parish level I note the diligence with which the sick and elderly are visited and social contact kept with them. In my constituency the availability of food banks, linked into Sure Start projects run out of community libraries is heavily dependent on churchgoing volunteers. The Trussell Trust a charity founded on Christian principles estimates that 900,000 people have been helped by their food bank network. The most recent report on food banks and their underlying need is a joint Parliamentary APPG and Church of England effort.
The churches are also playing a leading role in multi faith engagement to bridge cultural divides and help promote inter faith understanding and community cohesion. The clergy in multi faith areas are in my experience usually the lynchpin for bringing people of different faiths and none together. The work in cities like Leicester led by the Church of England is a model of its kind.
Perhaps most important of all is the contribution to education with 7000 state funded faith schools with 26% of primary schools being run by the Church of England and 10% of Secondaries being Roman Catholic. This tradition has facilitated the extension of free schools to include other faiths. But as noteworthy has been the ability of the Church of England to open new schools. The Samway Academy in Leicester has premises, which also include the parish church and a community hub, in a deprived neighbourhood. It has proved far more successful than its failing secular predecessor school in achieving an ethnic and religious mix in its children.
It is no surprise therefore that the Government’s Near Neighbours scheme is deliberately based on the Church of England’s national framework, in recognition that the Church can be relied upon to build productive local relationships between peoples of different faiths on the ground. People of different backgrounds coming together, not just elites sitting round a table talking, but neighbours acting together to tackle shared social problems. These are the building-blocks on which the vision of the Big Society is based.
The Importance of Establishment
Underpinning all the work by the Church of England and distinguishing it from that of other churches and secular groups is its legal establishment-a topic that I recognise generates controversy, with some within the Church advocating separation as a step that will free energy for Mission by breaking the social constraints that Establishment imposes.
I think however that disestablishment would be a mistake with profound consequences. Those who argue in favour lose sight of the important constitutional contribution this makes to the nurturing the Common Good both nationally and locally.
I take as my starting point the focal point for shared action which the Church of England can foster in a locality. In the case of the enthronement of the last Bishop of Oxford, in whose diocese my constituency lies, I noted with interest that there were present, assorted MPs, three Lords Lieutenants, High Sheriffs, numerous Mayors and local government chairmen, Judges, the chief Constable, representatives of the armed forces and of every other mainstream faith and denomination as well as representatives of many other groups and organisations. Some, such as Professor David Starkey, have suggested that this is just a form of state sponsored Shinto! I disagree. But even he entirely accepts that, whatever it is, it is very valuable. I have never in my work met a minority faith representative who does not find participation in such a constitutional enactment reassuring and did not welcome it. The ceremony and many others such a civic services are an outward manifestation of the Church’s power and capacity to create an inclusive space for relationships and dialogue and for developing programmes for social action in a way that a purely secular State cannot on its own replicate. It is this constitutional engagement which contributes so much to our national conversation.
The presence of bishops in the House of Lords, playing an active part in the consideration of legislation and the work of committees is another aspect of this. They inevitably and explicitly introduce into political debate and decision making principles derived from Christian ethics, doctrine and morals.
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 and this also extends to all major expressions of national celebration or of sorrow. “Law and Justice in mercy are to be executed in all my judgments” 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 have at least ceremonially the legitimisation of our subjection to our Sovereign and her government on the basis of the observance of God’s holy ordinances. It may be seen by some as archaic and irrational but it is in practise the bedrock of the State’s legitimacy, frequently acted out in ceremonies and oaths up and down the land. In it we recognise that it is the task of every citizen as it is of the Church and of Parliament to enable the monarch to discharge her Coronation oath. In 2010, after the last election, I, along with other government ministers pledged oaths of service to her and kissed her hand on my appointment as Attorney General. This cascade of obligations to serve and thus promote the Common Good applies to every office holder including the judiciary, MPs, bishops, incumbents and police constables.
The Church and the Law
The role of the Church of England, is not just the result of unstructured activity born of generalised feelings of humanity and goodwill or even a taste for pageantry. Indeed it is underpinned by a framework of substantive and procedural rules, sometimes, as I knew as a Churchwarden, to the great frustration of parochial church councils who complain about excessive bureaucracy. From the canon law which determines how doctrinal change may occur and what is acceptable in worship, to the Faculties required to re-order the interior of churches or sell off church property and which cause some of you here so much exasperation when the rules are not followed, to the principles of Synodical government, the Church of England strives to take reasoned and reasonable decisions within a framework of law where decisions can be challenged wrongs remedied and mistakes corrected. Whether it be the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved that meets to resolve doctrinal matters, or questions of discipline heard by the Archdeaconry Courts and the Commissary Court of Canterbury or the work of Diocesan Chancellors on Faculties there is available a strong constitutional structure of scrutiny and redress, which can be activated by any citizen through the parishes. Furthermore its finance, activities and social outreach are facilitated and regulated by a Charity law which itself owes its origins to the Elizabethan settlement and the personal concern of the first Queen Elizabeth, as a Christian, that the work of the pre Reformation church might not wither. This has unlocked over the centuries the most remarkable cascade of philanthropic activity in the fields of education, the relief of poverty, the very promotion of the common good which I have just described. It started with a statutory preamble of an entirely Anglican Christian character but, through the flexibility and pragmatism of the English common law, was able to evolve to embrace the work of non-conformist protestants and after Roman Catholic and Jewish emancipation, to be extended to the work of all faiths and indeed of entirely secular humanitarian organisations. It is a unique inheritance and the Church of England is steeped in its principles and deeply involved in its development. It is also, in an era of centralised government, often intensely local in its character. In turning out for the bishop’s enthronement or in coming together in the attendance at civic or community services there is an acknowledgement of the key role the Church plays in the outward life of the area of its Mission. It also reminds the wealthy and powerful that we are all, at all times and in all places in need.
It is this unusual and indeed privileged position that has fuelled the arguments of so many secularists against the Church’s established role in our constitution and in our society. This has been most marked in the field of education with calls for the State to abandon support for faith based schools and to move to an entirely secular based model or at least not to promote new ones. This argument has never been accepted by any Government, because the participation of the Church in education has been so successful. I would add that there would also be the most interesting and horrific arguments about property if there was any attempt to abolish church schools. But it would be rash to say that the risk does not exist. One of the key problems I identify is that the need in a multicultural society to accommodate other faiths and offer them an opportunity to participate on equal terms with both the Church of England and other well established Christian churches is straining the State educational system to breaking point.
In my own constituency for example, the decision of the Secretary of State for Education to facilitate the opening a Sikh faith based Free School to serve the needs of both Sikhs in the area wanting faith based education and non-Sikh children needing a local community school has provoked the biggest storm of protest that I have experienced in my time as an MP. In a multicultural area with growing religious and ethnic minorities and a tradition of exceptionally good integration and community cohesion, there has never previously been a problem with faith based education. Indeed my Church of England primary schools have consistently been a magnet for children of all faiths and of none. But in this case, despite, I am sure, the benevolent intentions of the trustees there is no acceptance that this school can deliver a level of inclusivity that will embrace non Sikhs. Furthermore the controversy is causing people to call into question the entire basis of faith based education in the state system. A significant number of those who have contacted me about it argue that the State should have nothing to do with faith based education at all and suggest that its time may now be up. This view is reinforced for them by stories of non-faith based state schools being hijacked as in the case of the Trojan horse scandal in Birmingham, by small religious groups eager to promote their own narrow agendas. That Church of England schools such as Sir John Cass in Whitechapel appear, whatever the reality, to be being converted to the sole promotion of Islam is astonishing to many. And these are responses intimately bound up with one of those fundamental fears I have already identified that reveal themselves in the gloomy outlook that many now have of the possibility of any integration of the diverse cultural and religious groups now settled in our country.
It may be that this problem of perception amounting in extreme cases to paranoia will settle of itself as our society adjusts to change. But I wonder if the problem is not also contributed to, by the relative absence of transparent legal structure that some new faith groups bring with them and the presence for them of rigid doctrinal rules that may be entirely at odds with the carefully developed principles of inclusivity and respect for other beliefs that have characterised modern Church of England and indeed Roman Catholic state supported schools. This is linked to the existence of a developed rules based system which you are routinely applying in your work as ecclesiastical lawyers.
When my colleague, a previous Home Secretary Charles Clarke, who is an atheist, started a debate through Theos on the role of faith in British society in 2011, he touched on this when he gave a lecture in Lancaster. He suggested that it would be desirable to bolster the strength of “mainstream faiths” outside of Christianity which promote the Common Good and accept the values of British society. He proposed this as a form of “establishing” a faith by giving it a particular status in law and governmental practice. He was tempted by the idea of having, as in some countries, a Ministry for Religious Affairs and a more formal relationship with many faith communities. He then wanted to see public funds being more readily channelled through faith led community organisations and the State offering financial support to the education and training of faith leaders.
I am not sure that I am attracted to this model, which smacks to me too much of a form of nationalisation of all religion. I know Maynooth College in Ireland was part funded by the UK government in the 19th century. But my experience of involvement with minority faith groups is that they are far too diverse and have far too few internal structures of their own to successfully tolerate such a framework. The Muslim Council of Britain, for example was set up with the encouragement of a previous Home Secretary Michael Howard to act as an umbrella group for different Muslim congregations and groups. But it has so far struggled to cope with reconciling the diversity of viewpoints within it. You will doubtless think of other examples.
But this does emphasise for me the uniqueness of the Church of England. We are undoubtedly diverse within it. I worship in an austere Anglo-Catholic tradition in a Fulham parish where our neighbouring parishes range from traditional mainstream to modernist evangelical of both liberal and conservative persuasions. There are several Anglo-Catholic parishes nearby that would consider us too low for their taste. Our area Bishop Paul Williams, who I first met when he was Rector of St James’s Gerrards Cross, an evangelical powerhouse, performs remarkable changes of approach and dress as he ministers sensibly but robustly to us all.
It seem to me that the very foundation of the Church of England’s ability to do this, exemplified by the way in which the question of female bishops has recently been handled is that because it is established its members are not just subject to common rules by contract but part of a body which itself is intrinsically part of our Constitution. The Church is bound by Law and that where exceptionalism occurs it too is provided for in canon law, such as the possibility of separate oversight for those parishes that will not accept the consecration of women bishops. Some in the Church dislike these compromises. But I think it is an astonishing constitutional achievement and I believe it is one of the reasons why the Church has shown itself to be so effective in the promotion of its own institutional common good but of the national Common Good. It is constantly having to undertake the essentially political activity of identifying the good that is shared and beneficial for all or at least the majority of the members of our own national Anglican communion and to reconcile difference. Detractors may view this as its Vicar of Bray moment, with principle abandoned for expediency or worse, self advantage. But such a characterisation is a travesty of the Church’s necessary inbuilt tolerance and adaptability.
Furthermore the Church is also having to equate its national interests with its international responsibilities. In doing so it represents our values globally. The Archbishop of Canterbury is doing well to remind us all that the Anglican Church is a multi-national organisation which includes some 165 countries, 2,000 different languages and 500 distinct cultures. Most people in this country do not know that the profile of the average Anglican member, as opposed to Church of England, is a sub-Saharan black women in her 30s.
Shortly before he left office Archbishop Rowan Williams gave an Advent address to MPs in which he questioned whether the Christmas surge in church attendance might not owe more to a search for and assertion of national identity and less to an exercise in spiritual searching after divine Truth. I think he was worried about this, but I don’t think he should have been. Anyone drawn to us will soon discover that we are not exactly exponents of simplistic national certainties.
I do worry however when I hear it suggested that the Church would generate greater popular dynamism if it freed itself from its constitutional role and consequent legal constraints and became disestablished, released from forced engagement with an increasingly secular minded State. But it would probably lead to fragmentation on doctrinal and other grounds, to our collective loss as a Church but more fundamentally as a nation.
The constitutional anchor which the Church provides in a rapidly changing world to which all in spiritual and physical need may hook to find the safe and peaceful space and resources to resolve difference and identify common objectives and solutions for themselves and their communities, would be dragged by such forces leading to shipwreck.
I have tried tonight to explore a little how, in a country such as ours with no written constitution, the civil institutions including the Church of England which are our shared inheritance are the essential props of our wellbeing. As Churchill rightly said, “we shape our institutions and they then shape us.”
We are fortunate that in our churches of many denominations, a shared history of struggling with difference and at times State persecution has helped produce a climate of tolerance and a desire for wide social engagement that has had such a profound effect on the promotion of ethical standards within both State and society. As the Archbishop of York has pointed out, it goes back a long way reminding us that the Venerable Bede “wrote of how not only were the English converted but how the Gospel played a major socialising and civilising role, by uniting the English from a group of warring tribes and conferring nationhood on them”. It is still going on all around us and as the General Synod said in its address to the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee.
“For our part we reaffirm the Church of England’s commitment to serve all the people of England who seek its ministry, wherever possible in co-operation with other Christian churches. We shall endeavour to maintain a Christian presence in every community, through our congregations, our ordained and lay ministers, and our church buildings and to contribute to the education of the next generation through our church schools. We shall continue to strive for greater cohesion in local communities, for better understanding between Christians and people of other faiths and for the improvement of relations between all peoples”
Long may this work continue. But for it do so, the Church must accept the difficult engagement with law, politics and communities of other faiths and none. Politicians of all parties in their turn must accept that the critique of their actions from the Christian Churches and other faiths will often be very uncomfortable. But as we moderate each other by our engagement, we can develop our ideas far better than if we do it apart and can help create the conditions where individuals can both more readily identify the common good and cooperate to achieve it.