When I wrote last week’s bulletin ‘blurb’ I didn’t expect things to keep going regarding Prime Minis-ter David Cameron’s contention that Great Britain is a Christian country. But the quote attributed to Harold Wilson ‘a week is a long time in politics’ seemed to be in action … daily.
When I wrote last week I said that I had checked the British Humanist Association’s website to see whether there was any comment. I didn’t find one. I should have waited. On Sunday and Monday the media reported that ‘a group of public figures’ had written an open letter to The Telegraph to say that the PM may have his personal views but to claim that Brit-ain is a ‘Christian country’ has ‘negative consequences for politics and society’. The letter argued that Britain is not a Christian country because repeated polls and surveys show that the majority ‘are not Christian in our beliefs and our religious identities’. To claim otherwise or prioritise one religion (Christianity) ‘fosters alienation and division in our society’. It was signed by fifty people and the first signature was the President of the British Humanist Association.
On Tuesday it was reported that various religious groups had backed the PM. Obviously the media weren’t really going to talk with Christian groups – not so much of a story I would imagine – but then both the Hindu Council UK and the Muslim Council of Britain agreed with the PM that the UK was a largely Christian country. On Wednesday various commentators were definitely having their say and some were ‘pushing back’ on the humanists or secularists (consider Tim Stanley’s ‘Militant atheists should thank God that they live in a Christian country’). By Thursday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, had blogged on the matter agreeing with the PM while acknowledging the atheists’ claim that regular churchgoing was lessening. He pointed out that history for over a thousand years here has been marked, shaped, and influenced by Christianity – and it still is – and to ignore that history because one mightn’t like it doesn’t expunge it. He also stated that the athe-ists were wrong to claim that to express confidence in the country’s Christian identity fosters alien-ation and division (by citing the responses of the other religions).
I’m sure this is continuing in various forms and forums and I found it fascinating to observe. It’s not about who is ‘right’ – the arguments on both sides have substance – ok, one side more than the other – but about the ‘story’ or discourse that everyone accepts about this country. A Christian can live in a non Christian country and a non Christian can live in a Christian country though, as I’ve said before, describing a country in terms of religion is fraught with problems. We are still coming to grips with ‘cuius region eius religio’ (whose realm, his religion) which was part of the Peace of Augsburg (1555) which helped in the ending of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic struggles and battles. The English version is the Elizabethan Settlement. In both cases the political world was hierarchical and believed in God. The centuries have moved on and this land is now a tapestry of views in a democracy with a constitutional monarchy. On a bad day, this means that whoever shouts the loudest and longest will probably determine the ‘story’ that undergirds culture, laws, social mores, and maybe even aspects of religion. And that’s why a week can be a long time in politics (and in most relationships for that matter). — GS