EVERY fairytale needs a wicked witch. Margaret Thatcher made Sleeping Beauty’s stepmother look cuddly. But there is one thing about her that many people forget: it is how explicitly she presented herself as a Christian.
It was there right from the start, on the steps of Downing Street after she came to power in 1979, when she paraphrased St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
It didn’t really turn out that way, but she was sincere. “The Christian religion — which, of course, embodies many of the great spiritual and moral truths of Judaism — is a fundamental part of our national heritage,” she once said. “For centuries, it has been our very lifeblood. Indeed, we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible. Also, it is quite impossible to understand our history or literature without grasping this fact.”
You might think that a Conservative Prime Minister who spoke in those terms would be a champion for the English God, a protector and preserver of the historic faith with all its powers and privileges. Wrong. She was going to do more than anyone else to kill it, through example, through policy, and through changes in the law.
Mrs Thatcher had her own, compelling certainties at odds with the old ones. She had a new morality, centred on wealth creation; she had a new understanding of society, as a collection of individuals motivated to look out for themselves and their families rather than the common good; and she had a faith that was, at heart, anti-Establishment.
Mrs Thatcher was an outsider, a grocer’s daughter, raised in a flat above the shop. Alfred and Beatrice Roberts, her father and mother, were Methodists, and therefore members of a faith that considered a dustman the same as a duke under God. Their Margaret would smash the system so that class would no longer be the defining factor in British life.
UNFORTUNATELY, her replacement as the measure of worth was wealth, which was probably not what the preacher at the chapel the Roberts family attended would have wanted. Self-help was at the heart of everything she tried to do.
Not fair play, modesty, and courtesy, then. The core values of the English God did not suit her. Fair play applied in the sense of giving everyone a chance in the free market, but after that it was every man and woman — or at least every family unit — for themselves.
Modesty was not necessary; indeed, what was wrong with telling the world you were a success? The nation must become great again, and for that she needed Great Britons. And courtesy? Not unless it had a purpose. Not if she thought you were a fool.
Taxing the rich to help the poor was too constricting for her. People must be given the freedom to become as wealthy as possible, so that they could choose to help the less fortunate. If they wanted to.
The main opposition voice against Mrs Thatcher and her policies at the start of the ’80s was the man in the silver cope.
The press loved the then Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Robert Runcie, for the first couple of years. One of his most remarkable early acts was to kneel and pray in Canterbury Cathedral in 1982 with Pope John Paul II, during the first papal visit to England since the Reformation. “The wilder rantings of Ian Paisley would have made perfect sense to almost everybody in this country 100 years ago,” wrote Andrew Brown in The Independent.
“Runcie’s gracious, generous and intelligent handling of these matters was hugely important in showing that attitudes had changed, as well as in changing them.”
THE Roman Catholic Church was still excluded from the Establishment by ancient prejudice, but that was now to its benefit. Catholics were younger and more likely to be working-class than Anglicans. They were enjoying revolutionary changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council, including the mass being said in English.
Men and women who were not priests were allowed to lead services, and to worship with other Christians, sometimes. The English could now hardly tell the difference between an Anglican priest and a Roman Catholic one — except that if the latter had a woman on his arm, he was heading for trouble.
The Pope was a superstar, and people of both faiths and none lined the streets for him, even if he did arrive bang in the middle of Britain’s surprising fight with a Catholic nation, Argentina, over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.
When victory had been won, and a service was held at St Paul’s, the Prime Minister sat with the heads of the Armed Services and representatives of all the units that had fought, top brass gleaming, expecting to be led in thanking God for a glorious triumph.
Dr Runcie’s own wartime experience meant he knew more about the horrific realities of all-out combat than many people there. He reminded the congregation that people were “mourning on both sides in this conflict”.
A year earlier, in the same place, he had spoken of fairytales at the royal wedding. Now he sounded more like himself: “Those who dare to interpret God’s will must never claim him as an asset for one nation or group rather than another.”
Margaret Thatcher was livid. If the Church did not agree with her view of what was right and wrong, then she would do to liberal English Christianity what she’d done to the General Belgrano: sink it.
BY 1991, Mrs Thatcher had been driven out of Downing Street in tears, but victory was hers in so many ways. Britain had been transformed from a sick nation, crippled by the power of the unions, into a lean, mean prosperity machine, or so she said.
One side-effect was that our sense of community, the feeling that the English could cope with whatever came up as long as we had each other (and a nice cup of tea), had been smashed.
Entrepreneurs were the new heroes, innovation and initiative their superpowers. Their mission was to build a great big metaphorical champagne-fountain for themselves, and let the rest of us fight it out for whatever trickled down to our level, if we were lucky.
Mrs Thatcher had set about smashing monopolies in the energy industry, telecommunications, on the railways, in the health service; and the Church of England was going to get it next.
The Government, still firmly under her spell, was working towards allowing shops and pubs to open on Sundays. Hotels would be allowed to conduct weddings. The Church’s grip on funerals would be broken. These were heavy blows, all of them.
For the moment, though, Mrs Thatcher could be satisfied with having put in place an archbishop who believed the right things.
DR GEORGE CAREY was her man. He seemed uncannily like her chosen successor, John Major, the son of a circus trapeze artist who had also left school early and made it to power without going near Oxbridge.
Dr Carey was expected to do the job just as Mrs Thatcher wanted it done. “The primary task of the Christian Church”, Lord Caldecote said, “is to preach the gospel, and to proclaim the good news.” That wasn’t controversial, but this was: “There is also a duty to your neighbour. If you are going to be able to support the weak, somebody needs to be relatively wealthy.
“It is important that the Christian Church should support the concept of wealth-creation, and look carefully at the use made of riches acquired and how they are shared. It should comment on social problems and point out what needs to be put right, but should be careful in saying precisely how those problems should be solved.”
Pure Thatcherism. There were to be no more nasty moments like Faith in the City, which one cabinet member, talking about the report before it was published, told the Sunday Times was “pure Marxist theology”.
A decade earlier, the most visible form of faith in England had been Dr Runcie’s mild, highly traditional, monarchy-loving, polite Christianity that sought to include everybody and offend nobody. Now, that was being shoved aside — in public and in the pews — by a faith that was demonstrative and needy. It would not shut up.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury was very enthusiastic about something called the Decade of Evangelism, a big effort in the last ten years of the century to bring England back to Christ, as he saw it.
Most church leaders were supportive, and Catholics were involved, with the blessing of the Pope. Some people were appalled. “The Jewish community is extremely fearful. It is causing a lot of hurt and upset,” said Rabbi Shmuel Arkush, who thought the Churches ought to be going after lapsed Christians: “There are millions, as I understand.”
Evangelists had been seen as outsiders, just a little too keen. Now Christ’s people were being told to go out on the streets in great numbers. Enterprise culture had given birth to enterprise faith, selling itself without apology.
The product on offer had also changed, dramatically. In the past, when people went to church out of tradition, duty, or discipline, it did not matter if the services were dull. It was not a show, and it was not supposed to be fun. The new deal was that if you committed yourself to faith, God would offer a life-changing experience. You would feel better, in touch with the divine.
If you promise someone a good time but they don’t get one, they become angry and walk away. For this reason, and others involving money, sex, and power, the next decade would be an absolute disaster for the faith that had been dominant for so long. The English God was doomed. He was about to die.
AT THE last official estimate, in 2009, the population of England was 51 million. Surveys suggest that about 33 million of those people believe in God or a higher power.
Take away all those who belong to a distinct faith, including the Muslims, the Hindus, and all the Christian regular churchgoers. That leaves about 26 million people who believe, in their own way, but do not belong. They like it that way.
I am not saying that they are all the sort of people who laid tributes and wept in the street for Diana when she died in 1997, not at all, but I am saying that those were among the first public manifestations of a new, looser, wider way of relating to God that would soon replace Establishment Christianity as the dominant form of faith in this country.
Much has been made of the Queen’s refusal to go down to London in the few days after Diana’s death, as the crowds and the floral mounds kept growing.
“The royal family were like rabbits in the glare of a headlight,” one former aide told Ben Pimlott. “The family had no conceivable idea of how the whole thing was being perceived.” Another courtier said the Queen refused to see why a century of tradition should be overturned: “They thought they knew the British public, thought they had a rapport with it, but that had suddenly deserted them.” The monarch got it wrong.
The English God, in the sense of the old, rigid Establishment figure with a cricket bat in one hand and the Thirty-Nine Articles in the other, had failed us. He had been up there in Balmoral with the Queen, whispering into her ear that what was needed now was discipline, decorum, routine.
That was not what the majority of people outside the castle wanted; it was not how we now understood our lives, or how we wanted to behave in reaction to this premature death.
If Diana were going to be canonised, it would be as a saint of a very different kind of religion, a popular, post-modern spirituality in which every creed was as good as any other. You could take a little from here, a little from there, to make up your own.
The old-fashioned way of being king or queen — as a model of faith and duty beyond reproach, embodying all that is best about the nation and acting as the head of a single, unified, Christian culture — is gone. Elizabeth did her best to keep it alive, but it’s dead. We just don’t say so yet, out of respect.
THE Priest-in-Charge of Firle, Peter Owen-Jones, has met more than a few shamans during the extraordinary journeys that he undertook for the BBC to film a television series called Around the World in Eighty Faiths.
With only his floppy hat for protection, the wandering priest met whirling dervishes in Syria, brawling Shinto fire-carriers in Japan, transgender Islamic mediums in Indonesia, who stabbed themselves to prove they were possessed, and neo-Catholics in Brazil who made him take part in their sacrament, the drinking of a tea made from a root that causes hallucinations.
So when I ask which country has the most fascinating spirituality, and the most compelling changes in culture, he surprises me by saying, England.
“You walk down the main street in Cairo or most of the world’s cities and it is predominantly uniform, in terms of its culture. You go to London, Birmingham, Manchester, and it is truly cosmopolitan in a way it wasn’t when I was ten years old. You look at the football team, and it is clear that what it is to be English is not white and tea-drinking and bowler-hat-wearing any more.
“There isn’t a blueprint for how to become a society like the one we are becoming, as our whole value system is contradicted by this wonderful influx of different ideas, different cultures, different cuisines, different musics. Everything. We have a chance to become something we haven’t consciously been before.”
What does this man, who has gone in search of God all over the world, think is happening here, right now? “There is a huge spiritual change taking place,” he says.
The loss of the old imperial model of Englishness that was “about ruthlessness and the lust for power” has created space for something else: “A new manner of approaching nature and the divine is coming up through the earth, through many of the emerging communities. It began with the arrival of the environmental movement. Friends of the Earth and the other NGOs have set out their stalls for a big change in our consciousness. It is happening under the radar, and it is going to be the defining feature of the next 50 years,” he says.
It is a contemporary spirituality, earthed in creation, influenced by Buddhism and a resurgent druidic paganism.
SOME people saw it coming. “The Lord of Misrule will be proclaimed and all the blessed sons and daughters of men will gather to the Feast of Fools,” wrote Harold Massingham in 1932. He is quoted in The Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton, who says Massingham “foresaw a time when his compatriots would recover their appetite for natural beauty and natural living”, and “the divine spirit of the land would awake.”
This was a response to the strident Christianity of his day, “and then to the more sustained phenomena of urbanisation, industrialisation and rapid social change . . . it was also very much an English one.”
For five centuries, give or take a few wobbles, the faith of England was a given: sometimes enforced, sometimes the cause of persecution, sometimes a matter of social conformity, sometimes just something we had without thinking much about it.
Always, it defined our lives. Now, we have lost the downward pressure of the old stifling, conservative, complacent faith — and thank goodness for that. We are returning to what we were, but also becoming something new. Richard Dawkins is right to say that we follow the stories into which we are born, but our children are being born into a place where there are many stories.
The English God appeared to be dead, but it wasn’t true. He was just regenerating. The obstinate way in which people refuse to stop believing has given him new energy, but he has also changed so much.
He looks both male and female now. He quotes from the Qur’an as well as the Bible, and many other books besides. He doesn’t care whether you are straight or gay, married or cohabiting, because there are much bigger things to worry about, like the sins or mistakes that are causing the seas to warm, the ice caps to melt, and the crops to burn.
The new English God wants us to work with nature, not seek to dominate it. He still believes in fair
play and good versus evil, but also in free choice, mutual respect, equality, open emotion, sexual fulfilment, loving your neighbour who lives on the other side of the world, and having a darn good party while you can. If you listen carefully, you can hear him humming “All you need is love.”
He’s a bit of a sentimentalist, but has at least rediscovered a sense of humour. That’s the God who inhabits the minds and imaginations of the English now.
Not everyone believes, but that’s OK. It’s not worth going to war over it. We don’t all have to believe the same things any more. We’re not all following the same fierce creed, conquering in the name of Christ. We’re no longer striding across the planet like cocky thugs, thrashing the natives into accepting our “civilisation”.
We are a gentler, friendlier, more compassionate, more emotional, more feminine, more mystical, more diverse, more interesting, more open, more questioning bunch. We are less sure of ourselves. We think we have lost our way, but we may actually just be finding it.
This is an edited extract from Is God Still an Englishman? by Cole Moreton, published by Little, Brown at £20 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-1-4087-0180-5.
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