From Canon Michael Sansom
Sir, - The Prime Minister's description of the nation as
Christian has, perhaps predictably, given rise to a discussion in
which the participants talk past each other, largely because they
have not agreed on the meaning of the word "Christian". It is
clearly patient of a number of interpretations. Precisely what the
Prime Minister intended when he used the word is not immediately
clear. Indeed, it may be that he was using it with intentional
When used by Professor Jim Al-Khalili and the others who signed
the Daily Telegraph letter (News, 25 April), it
refers at least to the church-attending habits of the population.
It also refers to the assumptions that are made by institutions
concerned with law-making, education, and economics. On this basis,
it seems to me to be undeniable that Britain is not a Christian
country any more: rather, it is made up of adherents of many faiths
and of none, of the deeply committed, the hesitant, the agnostic,
the sceptical, and those who reject any religious faith at all.
When used by others, it refers to the deep Christian influences
on the culture, language, and institutions of the nation. That is
the sense in which the Revd Dr Nigel Scotland (
Letters, 25 April) uses it in setting out his impressive list
of ways in which the nation has been shaped by the Christian faith.
In that sense Britain might be described as Christian.
Again, it might be argued (as is not infrequently heard in
church) that to be baptised is to be a Christian (and in some
cultures that would certainly be regarded as adequate reason to
identify the religious identity of an individual). On that basis,
if the population of the Britain were overwhelmingly baptised, it
could be concluded that Britain was a Christian country.
But in response to that, plenty of members of churches and
congregations who would insist that only if individuals can
describe a "conversion experience", have been "anointed by the Holy
Spirit" in a particular way, can speak of a personal experience of
God, or evidence a determined attempt to live a life of Christian
devotion and conduct should they be regarded as Christians. For
such people, since only a minority might meet criteria of these
kinds, and since they think largely if not exclusively in
individual rather than corporate terms, it would be unthinkable to
describe the nation as Christian.
For still others, the word "Christian" denotes particular forms
of behaviour, marked by kindness, generosity, compassion,
fortitude, loyalty, and so on. There seems little doubt that this
may well have been in the Prime Minister's mind, combined perhaps
with the cultural account. But it is perfectly possible for an
individual to be marked by those forms of behaviour while
renouncing any form of religious adherence (note the deep ambiguity
of the word "religious").
I doubt very much that I have exhausted the possible senses in
which the word "Christian" might be understood. Its use is
bedevilled not only by the ambiguity that I have sought to tease
out but also by the way it is used either in an individual or in a
corporate context. Let us just for a moment concede that the nation
is Christian in the sense that many of its characteristics,
customs, laws, and institutions have been profoundly influenced by
the Christian tradition. And let us concede that it might be called
a Christian nation in the sense that there is a general - possibly
overwhelming - approval of the kind of behaviour customarily
described as Christian.
What remains, then, is to see whether the nation and its
government can conduct themselves in ways that are consistent with
those marks - which is where Professor Michael Northcott's article
(Comment, 25 April) is so relevant.
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From Dr Phillip Rice
Sir, - The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has said (in an
LBC phone-in on 24 April) that Church and State should no longer be
"bound up" together in this country. He added that disestablishment
in the long run would be better for the Church, and better for
people of faith, and better for Anglicans.
This call for disestablishment is both curious and revealing:
for timing, why he defended his assertion on the membership
statistics of Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and the way he avoided
Scotland. The establishment of the Church of Scotland is guaranteed
by the 1707 Act of Union. This incorporated provisions for Scotland
to send representative peers to sit in the House of Lords. It
guaranteed that the Church of Scotland would remain the Established
Church in Scotland.
As a matter of fairness, Mr Clegg's argument could be run: the
Church of England and the Church of Scotland should both be
disestablished; or, in view of the contribution of the Christian
heritage in Britain, all the Christian denominations should be
brought into a "form of established" status.
I have spoken in the General Synod to commend a scheme for
sharing the places of the bishops in the House of Lords with church
leaders of other denominations. A huge contribution to Britain
could be made by the Church if a generous Anglican response to
widen establishment fairly were to come out of this - and begin
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