Ad Fontes

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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Peterloo remembered

PeterlooOn this day, 16 August, 191 years ago (1819), a peaceful rally of around 60,000 pro-democracy reformers gathered at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The crowd of men, women and children were charged by sabre-wielding cavalry, resulting in 15 deaths and 600 injuries. The horrific event is known as the Peterloo Massacre: a macabre, ironic inversion of the heroism of the Battle of Waterloo, met four years earlier, the shame of Peterloo.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was in a financial crisis. There were food shortages, wages were slashed and there was massive unemployment. Many British soldiers and sailors returned home to nothing after years of arduous campaign. The food shortages led to increased import of foreign crops, which drove the price of British cereals down. The government’s response was to introduce the first Corn Law, controlling and curtailing the import of crops. This helped keep the price of British cereals artificially high, but severely exacerbated the food shortage. In Parliament, it was argued that steady prices for British crops would protect the wages of agricultural labourers, a rather flimsy excuse for keeping landowners’ incomes high.

Parliament was considered out of touch, elected by a severely antiquated system. Lancashire as a whole, including the great industrial city of Manchester with its surrounding townships, elected two MPs. However, only those who owned land could vote, and they had to travel to Lancaster to cast their vote by public acclamation. In contrast, there were a handful of ‘rotten boroughs’ in which a handful of electors elected two MPs. Reform was clearly needed, yet the ruling class feared the radicalism seen in the French Revolution, and entrenched against it.

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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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South Africa and the British concentration camps

I’m loving the World Cup, trying to watch as many matches as I can, and even like the sound of the vuvuzelas! With many others of the English tendency, I watched England’s first match against USA with nervous excitement. ITV prefaced the match with an outdoor broadcast from Roark’s Drift, and Film4 showed Zulu earlier in the day. As much as I have enjoyed the film in the past, it belongs to the odd canon of boys-own British pseudohistory.

The Boer War is a fairly forgotten piece of British Empire history, although ending only a little over a century ago. In the UK we remember Roark’s Drift (mainly because of Zulu), the Relief of Mafeking, Cecil Rhodes and Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouts. It’s far too easy to have this jingoistic comic-book understanding of British history. In some countries, lots of them, the school history books are doctored to instill a nationalistic pseudohistory in the student, but here simple, subtle mass ignorance suffices.

Lizzie van Zyl, victim of Britain's concentration camps.

Lizzie van Zyl, victim of Britain's concentration camps.

Britain began the 20th century with systematic mass murder in South Africa, which involved the invention of the concentration camp. Part of jingoistic history is to make evil other: foreigners are and do evil,which we boldly resist. By editing out the evil from our own history, we end up with an overinflated impression of our moral superiority. This makes it important to remember the evil our country has done.

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I believe in Brilliant Britain

Last night I saw the new Labour Party election broadcast featuring Eddie Izzard. The Labour Party rolled out this passionately clever comedian to front this broadcast at the same time that the Tories courted Gary Barlow, boy-band singer, pop-song writer and charity worker. Both are great Britons, but whereas Izzard brings a wry humour and indomitable otherness, Barlow comes across as a rather superficial populist.

Anyway, Eddie Izzard’s broadcast reminded me of the absolute root of the difference between the political right and left: the right have always played on people’s fears (crime, economy, immigration) to gain power, whereas the left pleads for people’s hopes (free healthcare, education, equality).

Izzard makes two main points in the short broadcast. Firstly, he mentions that the Tories have massively more funding than any other party. Prominently, Ashcroft, tax-avoiding non-domiciled Tory life peer, has invested in campaigns in marginal constituencies. As Izzard says, they probably expect some return on their investment.

The other point is a refutation of the Tory slogan Broken Britain. Since time immemorial people have complained about the kids not respecting their elders, fears of crime and general dissatisfaction. The rightwing media have spearheaded this ‘feel bad’ message. But it is this curse of fear that is the real problem. As a Christian, I believe in hope as the fundamental motive of our action (from faith to love). As a Briton and an Englishman, I love my country for all its quirkyness, beauty, dodgy food and funny people. Britain’s not broken, it’s brilliant.

For the record, I’m a paid-up member of the Labour Party. Watch the broadcast here:


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On Englishness and English nationalism

Essay warning: this is a long article in three parts.

All Hallows

The flag of St George flying from my church's tower.

Recently, I wrote an article here on POWER2010 and the People’s Charter. In passing I mentioned how I didn’t support the proposed policy for POWER2010 of ‘English votes on English laws’, something I now realise is a bit of a mantra among English nationalists, with its own camel-case acronym EVoEL (deliver us from…?)!

There were a lot of important ideas in that post, but was surprised by the complete focus on English nationalism in the comments. I was even more surprised by the poor quality of their argument, much of which was ad hominem (‘you are trash’ said one, another found me a traitor, another suggested that I was being anti-English and thus racist!). Then there was the misquoting and misrepresentation of my thoughts. For instance, I had written ‘In general, the promotion of English nationalism by a few fringe groups is very dodgy’. I should have been clearer about what I meant: that English identity and the nationalism based on it, promoted by a few fringe groups, is a minefield of problems that should be treated with care rather than emotional flag waving. However, the nationalists tweeted this as my saying ‘the English are dodgy’ (hmm, nice misquote there)! Aside from this there was demonstrable lack of understanding of our political constitution (I had to direct a commenter to read the 1911 Parliament Act). However, overall, I was shocked by the need to depict the English as persecuted, restricted and disempowered within a UK in which we make up around 83% of the population. If nationalism is about national liberation, nationalists feel the obvious need to conjure up an imagined captivity from which to liberate us.

I am English and proud to be English. I own an English football shirt (somewhere), but I’m not the flag waving type. Many of my friends are not English, and I find their perspective on Englishness very useful. I believe that it’s important to approach the issue dispassionately and practically, against the surging romanticism that can leave one delusional.

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