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Archbishop of York calls for new, expansive vision of Englishness

13 August 2021

Cottrell describes a seriously ‘fractured’ national unity


Remembering: a service that was attended by the former Archbishop of York Lord Sentamu celebrated the 50th anniversary of St George’s, Newtown, Birmingham, this month. The church serves Lozells and Newtown, among the first areas to welcome immigrants of the Windrush generation

Remembering: a service that was attended by the former Archbishop of York Lord Sentamu celebrated the 50th anniversary of St George...

THE Archbishop of York has called for a new “expansive” vision of what it means to be English, to counter what he describes as a “negative political discourse and a hopeless future”.

Pointing to the strengthened regional identities of Scotland and Wales, and a deeply felt divide between most of England and the “metropolitan elites” in London and the south-east, Archbishop Cottrell said that it was time to “rediscover a national unity more fractured than I have ever known it”.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph last Saturday, he said: “A first foundation would be a more developed and strengthened regional government within England. Westminster would hold on to those big issues to do with our shared sovereignty, while empowering the separate nations and regions to serve their own localities better.

“I say this as a bishop of the Church of England, an inheritor of a post that dates back to 627AD. For a long time, the church inhabited a world that was a tapestry of kingdoms and not-yet nation states. That memory of regional identity is still very strong here in the north, and only just below the surface elsewhere.”

Why, he asked, was the national anthem played for English sporting teams not an English one, when Wales and Scotland had their own anthems? “Let’s play to our strengths: our shared history within these islands; our strong regional identities going back centuries,” he wrote. “Let’s also look to the other things that bind us together as English and British, modernising and strengthening them rather than neglecting them or imagining they are the problem.”

Among those were “the very particular but surprisingly enduring threads of our history, such as monarchy and church; and from the more recent past the NHS and even the BBC World Service”. The Church of England was “one of the only institutions left in our nation with a local branch in virtually every community, and despite unhelpful reports to the contrary, remains committed to this local and national vision: a church for England”.

The two words that best defined Englishness were, he wrote, courage and compassion. “I long for: the courageous, entrepreneurial spirit of a trading, island nation; and the compassion of a nation slowly facing up to some of the failings of its colonial past; a pioneer of common suffrage and healthcare for all; the birthplace of the World Service. It is time to be proud to be English.”

The Archbishop’s words were echoed this week by the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, who believes that the Church is helping to “start a whole new dialogue about what it means to be English”, and is “stepping up to its responsibilities”. He told Sky News: “We are present, we are on the ground, we are serving. That places the Church in quite a strong place to talk about what it means to be a compassionate nation and what Englishness can be about.”

Read other views in Letters to the Editor here.

Read Andrew Brown on Archbishop Cottrell’s “commotion” here.

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