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Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg on Christianity in the life of the nation

02 May 2014


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 imprecision.

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 soon.

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