Scanning the news items over this Easter holiday I was interested to note the Media headlining the PM’s assertion that the United Kingdom is a “Christian country”, and they’ve contrasted this with a cautionary letter, signed by an impressive cast-list of writers, broadcasters and intellectuals who say it’s not. The letter suggests that the repeated assertion by politicians that the UK is a “Christian country” is merely pandering to right-wing conservatism, that it is divisive and a retrograde step for any progressive, multicultural society. But rather than running for cover, the government came out fighting this morning, the PM’s comments being backed up by a couple of party big-guns, reminding us that the foundations of British social and constitutional history are indeed quite demonstrably “Christian”.
I feel the waters have been rather muddied with all this stamping about, but I agree that, since the narrative of my own past is at least nominally Christian, this is likely also to be true for many British people, and certainly those who are of middle age today. It is also more likely to be true the further one goes back through the generations. But regardless of whether we call ourselves Christians, surveys do indicate the majority of us now actually practice no faith at all. So, while the political view is that the UK is, or should be, morally and constitutionally “Christian”, intellectually, culturally and socially, it isn’t – at least it isn’t any more. Only when extrapolating the data backwards do we see a more religious, Christian, faith-based society; extrapolating the trend forwards, we see it declining still further.
The narrative of the UK, like much of the western world, is secular. Its public face is business-like and pragmatic. Only in private do its citizens express their religious views, if they have any. That a politician, a business leader, or indeed anyone else, attends church every Sunday and holds fast to traditional Christian beliefs is a matter for them, part of their private, rather than their public life, in the same way as their sexuality and their ethnicity should not be seen as having any bearing on their ability to do the day-job.
I recall it’s not the first time the PM has spoken out on religious matters. Recently, he was urging Christians to be more confident in expressing their faith. I think we need to return here to the distinction between those who actually practice Christianity, and those who merely accept the label for want of any other. Those practising Christians of my acquaintance certainly lack no confidence in matters of faith, so it’s unclear to whom the PM is addressing these remarks. Meanwhile, of the overwhelming majority of “nominal” Christians among my friends and family, I’m sure none could care less about religious matters, so long as the vicar can still be persuaded to marry them in church.
A decent country needs decent, energetic, intelligent and competent people in charge, but such qualities do not come with a religious, sexual or ethnic label. I have known practising religious “Christian” people who, outside of the church, were very cruel and stupid, and it makes me pause when I contemplate what possible political motive there might be in trying to render the “C” word once more synonymous with positions of power and influence. Whilst as a spiritual philosophy Christianity, or indeed any other faith, holds a profound spiritual wisdom for those in search of it, as a social authority, or an instrument for control or influence of large populations, “Religion” in general is very much a tainted brand, and politicians should be careful how they handle it.
When I filled out my census forms in 2001, I probably entered Christian in the “faith” box, as I had always done previously, but this was purely out of convention rather than conviction. As a child, I went regularly to the Anglican church because my nearest school was faith based, and it was therefore “expected”. This has coloured my view of religion somewhat, and rendered me sensitive to carrying out any action merely for the appearance of things. Throughout those attendances as a child I was not really a Christian, because it takes much more to be a proper Christian than an hour a week. But in the mill-villages of the North of England, certainly in the sixties and early seventies, there was still a stigma attached to unfastening that label. When a people are defined by the badges they wear, there is something rather daunting about openly admitting one has no badge, no belonging. It’s like saying you are nothing, that to be faithless is also to be tribe-less; it is to risk being cast out into the wilderness, without protection.
I have not attended church services regularly since 1971, when I left the faith based education system to enter the bosom of a shaggy haired secular comprehensive. There, God was irrelevant in the day to day, and was presented to us in religious education classes more as a private matter, than with any evangelical zeal. There I found myself with half remembered bible stories and a wad of certificates for Sunday school attendance, while seriously lacking proficiency in basic mathematics – a handicap that took me many years to catch up. Still, it was not until the 2011 census and, in the absence of anything more descriptive, I finally entered “none” in the faith box.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to leave the bosom of the communion by so simple an act as ticking a box, but then my parents were fond of telling the story of my christening being bundled through by a vicar who, in a hurry to go picking blackberries, got my name the wrong way round, so the State has me down as one thing and God quite another. Thus it was with casual indifference on the part of God’s representative, and helplessness on my own, I was accepted into the faith in the first place, so perhaps I should have fewer qualms about the reciprocal casualness with which I have subsequently cancelled my membership, some fifty years later.
Such at least is the experience of one middle aged UK citizen in his nominally Christian country.
This is not to say I have abandoned the spiritual quest, nor do I suggest that it is in any way unimportant. Indeed, paradoxically, spiritual thinking is now more than ever central to my approach to life, though hardly in a way that anyone could describe as religious – it’s just that there’s no box that will define it on the census forms. The secular world is remarkably dynamic and productive, but without a moral compass it can easily founder. Religion alone can do nothing to address such shortcomings, and when it does get involved it usually ends up making things worse. It is the human spirit in its most sincere manifestation, and in whatever language it is expressed, that will move the mountains and clear the path to a better world, and it is from the human spirit, unfettered by dogma and ritual, we derive the moral compass that is universal to all cultures.
Regrettably, in all this Media fascination with religion and politics, in the sound bites, the muckraking, mudslinging, feather-preening and tub-thumping, I note that matters of the spirit are entirely absent. Whether the UK is a Christian country or not is, I believe, entirely irrelevant in addressing the challenges we face as we go forward into the twenty first century. For myself, the thought of a half-century time-slip back to the Christian conservatism, and the back-stabbing religious hypocrisy of a sixties mill-village, is not one that I particularly relish.