Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Is Britain Christian?


All HallowsYes, no, maybe? If you think Britain is Christian, perhaps you’re a patriotic Christian, but you have an uncomfortable bed fellow in racist Nick Griffin. In Thursday night’s Question Time, the BNP leader mentioned ‘Christian Britain’ three times, most prominently in the midst of a homophobic rant. If you think Britain is not Christian, perhaps you’re missing the many subtle and not-so-subtle influences of Christendom in this country’s past. Perhaps it’s maybe: Britain was Christian, but we’re not sure now.

Since Henry Tudor jr, England has dealt in caesaropapism: the ruler’s religion is the nation’s religion. So, the answer used to be easier, as we could point to a Christian monarch as a sign of out Christian nation. Gradually, though, we have secularised state power, so where is our sceptred signpost of national faith, and does it matter? Perhaps modern democracies can no longer be assigned a religion, especially one based on a ruler’s personal belief or constitutional obligation to have one.

Jonathan Bartley of Ekklesia has written an insightful article about what Nick Griffin’s expression of ‘Christian Britain’ means for those of us who regularly practise both Christianity and Britishness, occasionally simultaneously. That Griffin wraps himself in the rhetoric of ‘Christian Britain’ to support his and his party’s homophobia should send a warning message to the churches of Britain that maintain outright or systemic homophobia, including the Church of England. For their words and actions prove Griffin’s hateful point, that ‘Christian values’ applied to politics means state-sanctioned homophobia. As Bartley’s article points out, the churches have been particularly promiscuous at abusing the concept of ‘Christian Britain’ whichever way suits their argument. The churches have furnished the BNP with this platform, and we need to do some good old-fashioned public penitence for this one.

Of course, what Griffin means by ‘Christianity’ emphatically bears no relationship to the teaching of Jesus Christ. What it is is a rattlebag of historical authoritarianism and moralising mixed with the myth of the English idyll, all neatly packaged in the English Perpendicular. In the run up to the European elections, the BNP put up a poster featuring Jesus on the cross and quoted him saying, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15.20). They have founded a ‘Christian Council of Britain’ (mainly a vehicle for attacking Islam), called for the archbishops to repent for going astray from ‘true Christianity’ and called for a ‘National Day of Prayer’. On Wikileaks you can peruse the leaked BNP membership, detailing a number who are clearly involved in Christian organisations and churches.

We in the churches of Britain can counter this deluded hate on two fronts:

  1. Eliminate all ground for hate in our speech and actions; root out the homophobia, racism and jingoistic nationalism
  2. Emphasize Christianity’s moral imperative for justice and equality; defend multiculturalism within secular democracy and the freedoms it brings for all

There must be no half measures, no half clinging to old fancies of Christendom and Crusaders.

I apologize if the poster below outlining the disgusting comparison between Jesus and Adolf Hitler put about by a past BNP member offends.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

6 thoughts on “Is Britain Christian?

  1. Hmm … I have to say I didn’t find Bartley’s article insightful. He seemed to me to be using this to bang his favoured drums of disestablishment and the abolition of church schools.

    • What can I say, Doug? I gained insight from it. I suppose it helps that I am with him on the issue of disestablishment. So far, he is the only person to highlight major problems with keeping up this ‘Christian Britain’ tag. He pointed to the way our churches, particularly the C of E, claim majority support when we want to dictate terms to society (the idyll of bombastic exceptionalism of Victorian Christianity), and then switch to low attendance figures to claim equal support as a threatened minority (playing multiculturalism to win). Neither point is entirely true, and we have been tying ourselves up in knots over it. I think there are strong theological grounds for us reevaluate our understanding of the deep demographics of religion in the UK. The BNP’s claim to ‘Christian Britain’ is a church own goal just as much as their electoral success is a New Labour own goal. So, I plead guilty to falling step to Bartley’s drum.

  2. We need to separate out “cultural religion” and “faith”. And to reassert Jesus as the heart of truth, love and justice. I blogged on a related issue, homophobic violence, in a similar vein:

    • The distinction between faith and religion is popular in certain church circles. I don’t buy into it, mainly because I do not think it’s a true perspective of either faith or religion. It’s a distinction that upholds the spiritual against the physical, a dualism that denies our total human experience, and, ultimately, denies what we can read about Jesus’ total human experience in the Bible. Religion is the body inhabited by faith, and swathed in its cultural clothing. I think of various churches that have attempted in the past to purify their faith from religiosity. It’s a bit like banks trying to bundle together their toxic assets. St Paul speaks of handing down what was handed to him, and so I view tradition as a precious gift from the past for the present.

      I think what we see far too often, is church leaders reacting to cultural trends and societal events, and trying to bring church influence to bear. I believe we are called to bring a prophetic response from the heart of faith, rather get stroppy because no one simply does what religious leaders say any more. The reaction we get is a bit like playing the man rather than the ball.

      In this case, the abuse of church rhetoric about society’s Christian values by a homophobic fascist shows us how dangerous our reactionary tinkering can be.

  3. Hmm. Interesting thoughts. I do absolutely agree with your view about abuse of church rhetoric. I also think your point about valuing tradition as Paul valued that which was handed down to him is good. But I don’t agree that the distinction between “religion” and “faith” is necessarily unhelpful. In fact, in a society where what I would describe as a “living faith in Christ” is (at least by the secular majority) not distinguished from “religion” in the pew-filling cultural tradition that’s seen the deadening of so many of our churches, I think some sort of distinction badly needs to be drawn.

    Moreover, we can’t help but use point of reference which are dualisms to help us to understand the world around us. Our whole God-given system of language is bound by dualisms, and that’s reflected in the Bible and in biblically based concepts of truth and or morality. I agree that dualisms can be unhelpful, I would argue that we need to recognise their dangers but also to work with them.

    How we handle and (ab)use church, the bible and so forth is difficult and important subject-matter, however. The debate I blogged about today, regarding a protest by evangelical Christians against the depiction of Jesus as a transsexual woman in a play currently showing in Glasgow, is one example of where both sides are, I suspect, getting things wrong. I wonder where Jesus would stand on the matter if he was in human form today? What do you think?

  4. Most understandings of dualism that are any good at describing our world and our self need a point of connection between the material and the ideal. There has been a long-running tendency in Christianity to purify it of the material. I think that is problematic when we look at the physicality of the incarnation. This makes me wonder whether this purification drive owes more to arguments from Greek philosophy and gnosticism than the Christianity as received in the canonical gospels. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s evangelicals who often follow this non-gospel tendency. I define ‘religion’ as what faith does. If you define ‘religion’ as something that isn’t based on faith, what drives its actions? If you use the term to stand for a kind of cultural contamination of the ‘faith’, I think the definition is problematic.

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