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Humanism as Anglican heresy

08 August 2014

"Argumentative democracy": in The Times on Saturday

"Argumentative democracy": in The Times on Saturday

GAZA today and Belgium 100 years ago: this has been a week dominated by wars. I am writing just as the news has come through of Baroness Warsi's resignation over the Government's policy about Gaza. The first surprise is that she found that it had one. But this must be a watershed moment because, once the jokes are over, everyone will understand the kind of inarticulate sense that something must be done, which animates her, and which she helps to animate.

That it has positioned her effortlessly as Britain's leading Muslim politician cannot have harmed her decision. None of the others has sacrificed any part of his or her career which anyone can remember for the cause - unless you count going on Big Brother, in George Galloway's case; and most politicians would rather lose their dignity than their job.

In the long run, I cannot see that any good will come of this for anyone. The one thing to be said in favour of the Government's Middle Eastern policy is precisely that it does not exist. We have very limited influence there, and such as we have can really be exercised only to make things worse; so the best thing to do is simply to shut up, and be grateful that we are here, and not there.

 

THE OBSERVER had a possibly more constructive view, with the news that: "The Church of England has demanded that the British government offers sanctuary to thousands of Christians fleeing jihadists in northern Iraq, warning that ignoring their plight would constitute a 'betrayal of Britain's moral and historical obligations'."

This may come as news to the Church of England. Although Mark Townsend had found three bishops to sign up to this admirable sentiment, there does not seem to have been any kind of official announcement. I don't think this kind of imprecision does any real harm. You wouldn't, I hope, get any bishops signing up to send the refugees back to the horrors that they came from.

On the other hand, it is likely that many congregations would be less enthusiastic. The Observer story goes on to say that, "On Monday, France responded to the so-called religious cleansing by publicly granting asylum to Christians driven from Mosul," which suggests that someone in France has calculated that their chances of making it alive across the intervening territories are so small that the gesture is affordable. But suppose they reached France in large numbers, and then wanted to come to England? You can write the headlines we would be reading in the Mail already.

 

THE last time any British Government really acted on that kind of moral obligation was when it took in the Asian refugees expelled by Idi Amin. That worked out exceptionally well, enriching the country in many ways. But it would be electoral suicide today.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams was back in the news, talking to some of the descendants of that exodus: according to The Times, he announced that Islam was promoting British values. This is a great news line, but the story itself seemed to offer the usual spectacle of contestants in a supposed debate galloping on their hobby horses quite happily past each other:

"Yesterday, Dr Williams, who stood down as the head of the Church of England to become master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 2012, told the Living Islam Festival in Lincolnshire that Christianity and Islam were shifting British values back towards the community.

"He said that Britain was an 'argumentative democracy' where 'we are not just individual voters ticking boxes but individuals and communities engaging in open, honest and difficult public discussion. One of the greatest gifts of the Muslim community to the UK has been that they have brought that back to the people.'

"Asked if he meant that Islam was rejuvenating British values, Dr Williams said: 'Yes. I'm thinking of the way in which, for example, in Birmingham we have seen a local parish and a mosque combining together to provide family services and youth activities, both acting out of a very strong sense that this is what communities ought to do.'"

So off the paper trotted for an anti quote, which was not far to seek: "Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, warned that the speech could undermine the UK's social cohesion: 'Narratives that promote the view that religious belonging is necessary for social responsibility may be comforting to those for whom the promotion of religion is a profession, but in the UK they are totally unsupported by evidence,' he said."

This seems to me quite close to arguing that secularism is necessary for social responsibility and social cohesion, which is perfectly arguable, but deepens my sense that English humanism is really an Anglican heresy, which puts forward a vision of England based on a tolerant, rational, and established unbelief, to which everyone must at least occasionally conform.

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