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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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A better jubilee

As a priest in the Established Church I believe it is important that the leadership of the church upholds Christian values. The monarch and government retain a leadership role in the church that can often conflict with Christian values. The recent visit of the King of Bahrain, accused of brutal repression, demonstrates affairs of state trumping the role of supreme governor. It is difficult for the church to speak truth to power when that power appoints its chief spokesmen.

The concept of ‘jubilee’ is an Ancient Near Eastern practice of restitution, including the forgiveness of debts. In the Hebrew Bible (Lev. 25), this ‘yovel’ is demanded of God’s people as a rebalancing of society. Whereas our society is crying out for this kind of jubilee, what we are given is an expensive personality cult. It does not take a Hebrew prophet to point out that this is a sinful inversion of how anointed leadership should be exercised.

Churches up and down Britain will be holding services and events to mark the ‘jubilee’, and, while these may serve some good in celebrating community, there is the danger that the focus will be on an earthly monarch and vague ideas of nation rather than on the King and Kingdom of Heaven.

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An English anthem?

And did those feet in ancient time

The preface to Blake's 'Milton, a Poem', containing 'And did those feet in ancient time', as coloured by Blake.

Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, has been watching the footie, and he wants a debate on an English national anthem. It seems he’s got a little annoyed at the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ for the England football team at the World Cup in South Africa.

First off, anthems are rather silly things. Their lyrics are often little more than a admixture of jingoism and romanticist nonsense. However, the things of anthems and flags are important symbols of belonging, as long as we recognise they are the symbols and window-dressing of our identity and not its substance.

Second off, I abhor our current paean to Mrs Windsor because she doesn’t even begin to represent what this country means to most of us. The tune and lyrics are both bad: scrap it along with the monarchy! It also has the problem of having some official status in most Commonwealth realms (those countries that inexplicably keep Mrs Windsor as head of state). New Zealanders, for instance, would have the right to complain that the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ by British or English sporting teams that the anthem is just as much theirs — ‘God Save the Queen’ is the national anthem of New Zealand, alongside the more common ‘God Defend New Zealand’. In spite of my being a Christian, I recognise that ‘God Save the Queen’ bears a certain theological element that is either inappropriate or questionable to a significant number of citizens — being addressed to God, it is a prayer, and can, historically, be said to be a Christian, even Church of England, prayer.

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When politicians swear

It’s been about twelve years since I last had a fulsome swear.

I do swear
that I will be faithful
and bear true allegiance
to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,
her heirs and successors,
according to law:
So help me God.

All Church of England clergy have to make this Oath of Allegiance on the taking up of most church posts. The same oath is made by MPs at the beginning of the parliamentary term. Our MPs began swearing their new oaths last Wednesday (19 May), which just happens ironically to be the anniversary of the Declaration of the English Commonwealth (1649).

A pile of sacred tomes is deposited beside the government despatch box in the Commons for those who wish to hold something sacred while they swear. An alternative form of the oath that affirms rather than swears is available for those who object on principle to the swearing of oaths. The alternative was originally introduced to allow Quakers, who do not swear oaths, to take seats in Parliament. No Sinn Féin MP has taken their seat as there’d be no way they’d swear allegiance to the British monarchy. Some others cross their fingers, some add ‘and all who sail in her’, as a compromise of taking up their seats as duly elected without taking the forelock tugging too seriously.

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Happy birthday, Tom!

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (9 February 1737, Thetford, Norfolk – 8 June 1809, Greenwich Village, New York City)

Thomas Paine was born this day in 1737. He virtually invented the idea that the power of a nation should ultimately rest with the commonality of its people, and that elected politicians should be answerable to the people. Tom Paine is the father of rational values as the basis of a political constitution: that our government, legal system and political engagement should all make sense to average citizens so that they might fully participate. Naturally, Paine had no time for monarchs and monarchy: he wanted values at the heart of a nation rather than a dodgy personality cult. Neither did he think much of the British ‘compromise’ of parliamentary sovereignty, in which we elect politicians using an outdated electoral system who, once elected, are not accountable to the electorate and may do whatsoever they will. The MPs expenses are just the tip of the iceberg of a political system that creates a political class separate and above the people.

From the first page of Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet Common Sense, I take the following quote

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.

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The First British Republic

356 years ago today, Britain received its first elected politician as head of state, rather than a hereditary monarch. Various mediaeval states had elected leaders (from a narrow franchise), but this was the first modern republican leader in a major state. This was long before the United States got the whole world to call their republican leaders President, so we called him Protector. Continue reading


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Long live, King David!

This article also appears on Republic Blog.

As a kid, I was given a picture chart of English monarchs since William the Conqueror. I’m sure it was given me ‘learn’ me some history, but it subtly brainwashed me into thinking that British monarchy is a long, unbroken chain stretching back almost a thousand years.

Of course, it’s nothing like that. The succession from one crowned head to another has been squabbled over throughout that time, making the line of succession as complicated as a London Tube map. I remember on my childhood chart that even the accession of Charles Stuart jr was back-dated to his father’s execution, completely missing the glaring historical reality that England and Wales, and later Scotland and Ireland, were a de facto republic for just over a decade, and the earliest attempt at a modern, rather than mediaeval, republican state. Monarchists cast this period as the Interregnum, ‘between kings’. However, no one, whatever their political stripe, in the period used such an anachronistic term. Continue reading


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A Glorious Revolution?

King Billy comes to Devon

King Billy comes to Devon

I’m surprised at how many momentous events in British history go unmarked, and wonder if some of them are actively hidden lest we start to rethink our settled establishment.

On this day* in 1688, William of Orange landed at Torbay, Devon (my home county), with Dutch troops and began a march on London that began our very own coup d’état: the Glorious Revolution. Most modern commentators will begin this story with the wisecrack that it was neither glorious nor a revolution, yet the Glorious Revolution is fundamental to an understanding of the British constitution today. Continue reading