My reading today comes from the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali. Here are his words of wisdom written on 15 August of this year. “Whether we like it or not, characteristic British values arise out of the Christian faith and its vision of personal and common good. These were clarified by the Enlightenment and became the bedrock of our modern political arrangements.
“The Enlightenment, however, by consigning Christianity to the private sphere, also removed the basis and justification for these values in the public sphere. It is this basis and justification that needs to be recovered if our values are to be secure, and if they are to help inculcate the virtues of generosity, loyalty, moderation and love that lead to personal fulfilment and social wellbeing.”
Let’s begin with “characteristic British values”. Does anyone have any idea what these are? Are there some values that are common to the peoples of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
As the Bishop is dealing with something going back hundreds of years, it’s not hard to see that the last thousand years have been notching up conflicts and bloodshed between Christians throughout the country and beyond.
“Generosity, loyalty, moderation and love” have not marked the bloodletting of the centuries of massacres of the Welsh, Scots and Irish, the butchery of the Wars of the Roses, the bloody put-downs of peasant rebellions, the genocidal savagery of the slave trade and plantation existence followed by the horrors of colonial subjugation and war.
During the Tudor regime, an English form of Christianity was invented as part of the rise of the British state and anyone not conforming was put to the sword (and quite often tortured for hours first).
Though it would be a mistake to call all these wars and massacres “Christian” – questions of class, liberty and struggles for control of wealth were always the underlying themes – Christianity most certainly didn’t deliver some kind of common decent British values that can be celebrated in the way that Nazir-Ali thinks they can.
Then, to suggest that the British have pursued something called a “personal and common good” is laughable. At the very most, all you can say is that after decades of immense struggle and sacrifice in the face of bitter hardship and oppression, a limited amount of “common good” was wrested from the clutches of the super-rich and delivered to us as schools, hospitals and social services.
Of course, some Christians (mostly not of Nazir-Ali’s sect) pioneered the idea of such social provision, but it’s nonsense to claim that the reforms of 1945 owe it all to Christianity.
The act of bringing millions of people together in factories to squeeze labour and profit out of them, drew those millions into association through trade unions, clubs and political parties and it was this achievement that won a bit of “common good” for us.
Next, we find the bishop cheekily claiming the Enlightenment for his project. The Enlightenment of the late 18th century is marked by the celebration of rationality, empirical study and atheism, or at least a rather unchristian deism – the idea that a god created the universe but then left us to our own devices.
Christians of Nazir-Ali’s persuasion persecuted scientists and democrats. Though the Enlightenment contributed mightily to the political arrangements of France and the US, it mostly failed to do so in Britain where the British establishment clung on to monarchy and aristocratic power. The piecemeal granting of the vote came as a result of waves of struggle that were in themselves part of struggles for wages, housing, education and health.
But then the Bishop claims that the Enlightenment consigned Christianity “to the private sphere”.
Really? Throughout my life, I’ve been presented with Christianity as deeply enmeshed in the public sphere. My state schools began every day with prayers and hymns.
State commemorations and celebrations have been presided over by Christians – mostly Anglican because Anglicanism is locked into the public sphere as the “established church”.
The monarch is “defender of the faith” and though we are allowed to dissent, hold alternative faiths, or have no faith, the Church of England has pride of place in the presentation back to us and to the world of what is Britain. For millions this demands and creates acts of conformity – often very hollow in meaning but potent in that requirement of conformity – at school, births, weddings and funerals.
It’s here that Christianity has proved itself to be most weak: for the past 70 years or so we have been working out our own arrangements for love and sex without Christianity telling us what to do.
But what is really behind all this? The give-away is in the bishop’s phrase “if our values are to be secure”. Clearly, his agenda, along with many others from Jack Straw to Richard Littlejohn are in one sense not about Christianity at all.
They are about shoring up the British state in the face of its disastrous support of the US’s wars. Either to delude themselves or us, people like the bishop thrash around in fantasy accounts of history in order to find a narrative that can keep us on the side of Blair and Bush in these times of disastrous wars.
And, as the bishop must know, Christians have been blessing troops heading off to do some killing while preaching love and mercy to us at home down through the centuries.