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Artillery Row

Christianity’s dying passion

England would miss the faith if it disappeared

What was the most emotion you saw displayed by anyone, on either side, during the Brexit debate? One could hardly pass a day during that time without encountering bitter wailing and gnashing of teeth, raging jeremiads, flag waving, flag burning, threats to tear up passports, intemperate accusations of barbarism and betrayal, incontinent outpourings of exultation or black despair. 

Such emotion, though, was understandable. The whole question touched on the deepest matters of identity, the meaning of Britishness and Englishness, and also fundamental questions of what principles we should live by and be governed.

We are, however, presently undergoing a change which is far more profound than Brexit, and which is even more closely connected to these essential questions of identity and guiding principles. Yet, this elemental alteration in our national life is taking place with scarcely a frisson of notice. 

The recent release of the 2021 census figures showed that fewer than 50 percent of people in England and Wales profess Christianity. This is the first time such a state of affairs has been seen since the formation of England as a kingdom. However, there has hardly been any reaction, either from the government, the Church of England, or even in terms of public debate. The Harry and Meghan Netflix documentary has occupied far more column inches than the deliquescence of one of the nation’s most ancient institutions. 

There is, of course, a spiritual impact on every person in England from this change. But one effect of the decline of Christianity which must be considered exerts itself on English public life.

The ebbing away of belief has gone hand in hand with an evaporation of widespread popular knowledge of Christian ideas and values. Yet, it is these Christian ideas and values which underpin huge parts of English national life and institutions. The disappearance of public knowledge of these underlying Christian ideas makes it increasingly difficult for many people to understand English history and institutions. It also makes these institutions vulnerable to change — often for the worse.

Take, as just one example, the monarchy, and its relationship to law and the citizen. Christianity may have been prominent in the Queen’s funeral, and will again be so in the King’s coronation next year. However, few will have realised just how intrinsic Christianity is to the monarchy’s nature and evolution — and thus that of the executive in English modern government. 

The earliest kings in the territories of England after the Saxon invasions were little more than warlords of marauding bands. Their authority sprang from brute power. It was only with the influence of Christian thought that kingship in these regions developed into something we would recognise. The Venerable Bede, writing in the early eighth century, propagated theories of kingship that were to be highly influential. These theories were grounded in Christian doctrine. 

Kings, argued Bede, had to follow the example of Christ

Kings, argued Bede, had to follow the example of Christ, the paradigm of a “moral and just ruler”. The foundation of kingship was morality and sanctity. It was a vocation that needed training and constant self-examination. A good king, Bede writes, has the Christian attributes of prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance. The relationship between a king and his people should echo that of a bishop taking care of their flock, again after the manner of Christ. 

A leading example of a good king, said Bede, was Oswald of Northumbria. One instance of his virtuous behaviour was him distributing not just his own food to a crowd of poor beggars on Easter Sunday, but also the silver platter from which he was going to eat it. “Though raised to the height of regal power,” wrote Bede, King Oswald “was always humble, kind, and generous to the poor and to strangers.”

Bede’s Christian approach not only offered a moral vision for good kingship and government for generations to come. It also laid down a fundamental principle that in England, kings were not absolute rulers. They could not do anything they pleased. There was no right for kings to behave tyrannically. Kings were answerable to God. As many tenets of the law also came from God, so the kings were also under the law, and liable to God’s judgement. In this, as much as anything, is grounded the vital notion of the rule of law. 

This principle, derived from Christian thought, has been responsible for the development of constitutional safeguards over the centuries which we still enjoy today. Archbishop Stephen Langton, an author of Magna Carta, relied on biblical ideas — particularly from the books of Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, and Romans, to argue that the laws should be written down so that the powers of the King were limited and clear. For him, Magna Carta was the same as an Old Testament Covenant between God, king, and people. Langton’s concern that the king should always execute fair and legitimate judgement were reflected in clauses 39 and 40 of Magna Carta, which provide for fair trials to be conducted according to the law. 

It was in a similar spirit to Langton that the great 17th century Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke insisted to the absolutist King James I that English kings were “subject to God and the Law” – a statement which caused the King to wave his fist at Coke in fury. This idea, defended by Coke, formed the basis of the Bill of Rights in 1689 and the modern concept of constitutional monarchy. The 20th-century judge Lord Denning highlighted the essential importance of Coke’s Christian stand against the king for contemporary ideas of liberty and the dignity of each person: 

“If we forget these principles, where shall we finish? You have only to look at the totalitarian systems of government to see what happens. The society is primary, not the person. The citizen exists for the State, not the State for the citizen. The rulers are not under God and the law. They are a law unto themselves. All law, all courts are simply part of the State machine. The freedom of the individual, as we know it, no longer exists. It is against that terrible despotism, that overwhelming domination of human life that Christianity has protested with all the energy at its command.”

This is just one example where Christian precepts have been responsible for fundamental notions that are taken for granted in English life. They deserve credit.

One can only briefly list here some of the other ways in which Christianity has positively influenced the English nation. Christianity was instrumental in the creation of English identity and its very nationhood. It prompted the development of codes of law and morality. Christianity provided the template for the structures of government and kingship, and, as shown above, fundamental notions of the rule of law. For the greater part of England’s history, it took the lead in education and the spread of literacy. It oversaw the emergence of new literatures, philosophy, arts, architecture and music. It influenced the shape of the cities, the landscapes of the countryside, and the very rhythms of daily life. In many times and places it was the motor for the relief of poverty and practical assistance for the marginalised and destitute, as well as being a source of spiritual solace and comfort.

In view of the magnitude of Christianity’s contribution to English life, history, and identity, it seems astonishing that there is no serious discussion taking place about whether its decline is actually desirable, or something that is genuinely and actively sought after by society at large. Will the ethical and philosophical ideas that underpin so many English institutions survive the eventual disappearance of Christianity from national consciousness? Is it really the case that secular notions of human rights can be so strong and enduring a bulwark for liberty and the dignity of the individual? What would take the place of Christianity as a source for ethics in its absence? 

Commenting on the Census results in the Telegraph, the Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell rightly reminds us of the continuing work and witness of Christians in England, and that globally, Christianity remains the largest faith. However, one might suggest that more is needed than for Christians simply to approach the data with “humility, attentiveness, and self-reflection.” There needs to be a proper debate about the place of Christianity in English public life, rather than drift. Whatever of merit it has contributed, and continues to contribute, should be acknowledged, before it is allowed to disappear. If it is lost, it may be more missed than many people realise — perhaps even more than an EU passport. 

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