Is Britain Now Non-Christian?

The Church is meant to be a servant, not a master.  On the night he was betrayed, Jesus shocked his disciples by washing their feet – the task of a slave and an important aspect of hospitality when people wore sandals in the hot, dusty Middle East.  He challenged them (and us) to show the same humility to each other. Sometimes, in history, the church has forgotten this and become domineering, especially when it is closely linked with the state.  

However, the matter of the relationship between church and state is not straightforward. For example, were the previous Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Oxford right to call for an end to the UK Blasphemy Law? The issue is one of those that can elicit strong emotions in some Christians – so much so that they do not stop to think. 

After all, in what sense nowadays is Britain a Christian country? Recent polls show that 47% of Britons believe in life after death and 42% pray. We are also still legally a Christian country because the Church of England is established by law. At the Coronation the sovereign swears to uphold “the Protestant, Reformed Faith established by law.” So it is logical that we have blasphemy laws which are to do with Christianity. We legally protect people from racist comments which cause deep offence. Should we not protect millions of Christians from blasphemous comments which cause deep offence?  That should not prevent legitimate debate and comment which might be seriously critical of the Christian concept of God. (By the way, the blasphemy law is not to protect God. He has no problem protecting himself and each one of us, blasphemers or not, will one day stand before him to give account. Hence, in my view, blasphemy is inadvisable!). 

But, shouldn’t the C of E be disestablished? After all, only a minority of British people go to church. Some church leaders argue that it should. There are arguments on both sides. But one implication of disestablishment would be that parishioners would lose a number of legal rights, including the right to be married in church or the right to have the vicar take their funeral, etc, etc. I think most people in this country, who don’t normally go to church, like to know, in the back of their minds, that the C of E is there and available should they need it’s help and ministry. I think we might live to regret disestablishment. 

I am more concerned that there are very strong forces of secularisation (including the militant fundamentalist atheism of Richard Dawkins) in our society that want to privatize, or debunk, all religion. Sometimes there seem to be good reasons. Religious schools are deemed to be divisive. Maybe some Muslims schools are influenced by extremists and are divisive. If so, they should be dealt with specifically. It would be ludicrous to infer that therefore all religious schools are divisive. Church schools, for example, always have a lot of pupils whose families don’t attend church regularly. They give a good education and include adequate religious education. Some secular schools do the same, but by no means all. Personally, I think that anyone in this country who does not have an adequate experience of religious education is badly educated.  Religion is a very important aspect of life. And how can British children be properly educated about our history and culture if they are not properly educated about Christianity? 

Another favourite is that if, as a society we overtly celebrate Christian festivals such as Christmas we shall offend people of other faiths. This is a myth. Dr Indarjit Singh, Director of the Network of Sikh organisations in the UK when asked “Do I object to the celebration of Christmas?” calls it an absurd question. He sends Christmas cards to Christians and eats Christmas dinner!  Dilwar Hussain, of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, commends the family aspect of Christmas.  In Jerusalem we used to have hundreds of Jewish Israelis turn up (as welcome spectators) for our Christmas services. 

Then there is the representation of clergy and religious people in films. With monotonous regularity they are depicted as hypocritical weirdos. I saw a vicar depicted on a TV drama recently. He was such a neurotic twit I wouldn’t even have let him loose on dusting the pews, let alone taking a service. But history teaches that this propaganda has a serious effect on public opinion. So often people groups have been publicly ridiculed at length as a first stage towards more serious opposition. 

Another aspect of this propaganda was the Times headline about more people (3.5 million) shopping on line at Christmas than attended C of E Christmas services (2.7 million).  But how did they get the latter figure? They didn’t consult me about our church and, like many churches, we had hundreds of extra people. Also why limit the comparison to the C of E?  What about the other churches? 

Be warned. If Christianity is “removed” the spiritual vacuum will be filled by something else. In Russia it was militant communism. In this country it could be deeply dissatisfying materialism.

Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said: “Today Britain is home to many faiths, but I hope it doesn’t lose its own – the Christian Faith that inspired its greatest poetry, its finest architecture, and its bravest battles in defence of freedom.”  Quite!  The Christian Faith is also the means of the most satisfying life possible and of eternal salvation.   [Written in 2013]

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction