Blog Template Theology of the Body: The Motherland: Effectively a Pagan Nation?

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Motherland: Effectively a Pagan Nation?

Thanks to one of our readers for giving me the nudge on this fascinating article in the NYT, excerpted below. I especially like the reference to the Thatcher cabinet's political theology, which accords completely with sentiments that the Lady expressed in correspondance with yours truly a while ago. Enough for people getting misty-eyed about the possibilities of a national church. And by the way, what's the deal with the BBC's reporting about yesterday's protests at Oxford?...

From the NYT:

The authoritative Catholic paper The Tablet of London now writes that, some time before Christmas, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair will at last be received into the Roman Catholic Church by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.

The historical resonances and political overtones of this are as significant as the event itself — which also illustrates again the great trans-Atlantic gulf. Not only are the English now a notably irreligious people; in striking contrast to America, religion plays no part in British political life.

(Blair) is set far apart from his compatriots. When an interviewer once tried to raise the question of faith, Mr. Blair’s press officer, Alastair Campbell, snapped, “We don’t do God,” and on that occasion at least he was quite right.

By contrast with the United States, whose First Amendment prohibits any establishment of religion, there is a Church of England “by law established,” with the queen as its supreme governor. And yet, while polls indicate that nearly half of Americans go to church each week, services of this established church are now regularly attended by fewer than 2 per cent of the English population, while the total for all Christian churches is around 7 per cent. (Islam is another matter: Muslims attending Friday prayers in Great Britain may soon outnumber all churchgoing Christians.)

We British not only don’t do God, we are effectively a pagan nation — and that goes for our politicians. Even when England was truly Protestant, that was more in terms of hostility to Catholicism than theological precision or zeal, and to this day the public displays of piety that are normal enough in America would be embarrassing here.

No British prime minister has been a Catholic, and it would have been politically very difficult for Mr. Blair to convert when he was in office (think of Northern Ireland, apart from anything else). A neglected footnote to our history is that a majority of prime ministers for the past century were by origin Protestant Dissenters, in the old term, from outside the Church of England: H. H. Asquith grew up as a Congregationalist; David Lloyd George a Baptist; Neville Chamberlain a Unitarian; Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher Methodists.

More to the point, only a minority of 20th-century prime ministers were Christians as adults, having any serious personal religion. The impious majority includes Winston Churchill.

Of course, Churchill paid lip service to the outward forms — christenings, weddings and funerals in church — and he would invoke the Almighty rhetorically. But neither he nor other British pols ever made an open parade of faith, certainly not in the way that United States presidential candidates are obliged to.

And it’s very hard to imagine an American equivalent of Norman Tebbit. As cabinet minister and Conservative party chairman in the 1980s, Mr. Tebbit was one of Mrs. Thatcher’s most effective lieutenants, a tough, populist right-winger — and a self-proclaimed atheist. Even the believing prime ministers kept politics and religion separate: Harold Macmillan was a pious High Churchman, and he used to say that if the people want moral guidance they should get it from their bishops, not their politicians.

For centuries, England was certainly infused with political Protestantism, in the sense of antipathy to the Roman Church. In 1780, London was swept by the “No-Popery” Gordon Riots (see Dickens’s “Barnaby Rudge”), and in 1850 Lord John Russell tried to prevent the re-establishment of a Catholic hierarchy in England. That tradition lingered longer than you might think.