Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

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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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Sympathy for the Taliban? Sympathy for the bishop?

Bishop Stephen Venner

Bishop Stephen Venner

The habit of being given a pulpit from which to speak one’s mind, and receiving “Nice sermon, vicar!” as the only for of constructive criticism gives clergy little understanding of our communication skills. This becomes painfully obvious when we speak to the media; under pressure, drivel and nonsense utters forth. Perhaps, clergy are the worst people from whom to expect a carefully nuanced response to sensitive issues in the media.

I don’t know about sympathy for the Taliban, but I have sympathy for Bishop Stephen Venner. He has retired from being Bishop of Dover, which entails looking after the C of E in East Kent on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is far too busy wrestling with lesbian bishops and Ugandan homophobes), and has become Bishop to the Forces, which entails looking after the spiritual needs of the British armed forces on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is far too busy…). For the last couple of years Bishop Venner has also added Bishop for the Falkland Islands to his pointy hats, a role he performs on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is far too busy…). You do get the impression of someone who has always been in the shadows, keeping the church running while his boss pontificates. As Bishop to the Forces, Venner succeeds Bishop David Connor, who remains at his rather pointless job of head polisher of the second great shrine of royalist pomp that is Windsor Chapel. Continue reading

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Establishment and the Church of England

Yesterday I spent the day in Oxford for Affirming Catholicism’s The Established Church: Past, Present, Future conference. The speakers were Nigel Biggar (Oxford professor of moral and pastoral theology), Matthew Grimley (Oxford tutor in 20th-century British cultural and religious history), Mark Chapman (Oxford reader in modern theology), Judith Maltby (Oxford reader in church history), Elaine Graham (Manchester professor of social and pastoral theology) and William Whyte (Oxford lecturer in modern history).

Of these, only Biggar and Graham entered into explicit arguments in support of the establishment of the Church of England, and perhaps did so because they alone specifically dealt with the future of our establishment arrangements. Biggar presented a clear and concise argument for establishment based on political and moral philosophy, while Graham presented a compelling version of the sociological argument from localised social capital. Continue reading

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Church disestablishment and freedom

Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham in my former diocese, has written a blog post (supposedly based on Andrew Brown’s post about slavery/freedom, atheism/religion, which reads like a lesson on how to perform keyhole surgery with a monster truck) about how Denmark is a wonderfully free country with an incredibly established state church, and this makes church establishment good for the rest of us. He even includes a picture of Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, holding up his God hates fags placard, to show us what religion looks like when it’s privatised!

The perfect societies of Scandinavia is a popular meme in British discussion on social and political issues. The fire behind this smokescreen is that Scandinavian countries have managed their natural resources fairly well, remained relatively homogeneous and retained moderately successful social democratic systems. The two latter reasons mean that the real wealth from natural resources is fairly well distributed. This is a Good Thing, but one cannot take the close church-state relationship in Denmark, transplant it elsewhere and make elsewhere look like Denmark.

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Why I’m an Anglican

The main reason why I’m an Anglican is because I’m English, and being C of E is like a national default (at least it used to be, in the days before opting out of organised religion became the new default). That’s it, mundane and simple. As with so many things in life, the original reason for a decision is often pretty mundane. The reasoning and calculated arguments are added later. This is partly a natural evaluation that we do, but it is also an attempt not to look too stupid. We can go to great lengths to justify all sorts of decisions that, in truth, originated by whim of circumstance. Sometimes it’s liberating to be honest about our reasons. I chose my theological college because they served a nice cheeseboard when I visited, and I couldn’t afford the time or train fare to look elsewhere.

This is not to say that the later reasoning is a cover up. It can be, but it is still important to justify why we are where we are. I find this reasoning increasingly important as I find very good reasons not to be Anglican. I hate the Church of England’s ties with Establishment — Elizabeth Windsor as ‘Supreme Governor’, bishops sitting in the House of Lords, and the general societal superiority this tends to create (varieties of exceptionalism and classism). I hate its history of collusion with British empire building. I hate its lack of courage and self-knowledge and the blinkered pettiness it breeds. Continue reading