Some thoughts on whether Britain is “a Christian country”

So there’s been a lot of talk about David Cameron calling Britain a Christian country, the humanists saying nuh-uh and it all getting a bit silly. I identify as Christian, and am proud to do so. But I have difficulty with the idea that Britain itself should identify that way.

So, without responding to anything anyone else has said, I’m going to take a look at some different ways of addressing the question.

Firstly, our monarch and head of state is officially called “Defender of the Faith” (such that it appears as an abbreviation of the Latin on our coinage) and the faith in question is specifically the Church of England; the monarch is also the head of that Church. The bishops of the CoE have a seat in the second chamber of our parliament (although IIRC, by custom they do not vote on legislation). The rules of succession for the British throne forbid a Roman Catholic from being monarch. From this constitutional perspective, then I suppose yes, Britain is a Christian nation, and specifically, a Protestant nation. And that’s never caused any trouble, or bloodshed, or anything in 600 years, has it? Oh, wait, of course it has.

So that’s not really a useful construction to describe what the nation is. If we dig into the laws of Britain, we find that Scotland has a different legal system from Wales and England, and I cannot speak so well to the Scottish system. Having been following a recent documentary about the Plantagenet line of royalty, I have learned that the basis of “common law” was laid down under their rule; the Magna Carta was the result of resisting the assumed divine right of kings, and several other key constitutional and legal events subsequent to those were again forced by acts of the people resisting overbearing and violent Plantagenet monarchs and wresting concessions from them.

The basis of British law cannot, therefore, be reasonably argued as “Christian”: while the people who fought and died for it, or encoded and enforced it, may have called themselves Christian, they acted largely out of self-interest or secular concerns. It was a Plantagenet who is reputed to have asked, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” and it was a Tudor who abolished the monasteries. Where the interests of the Church came into conflict with those of the Crown, or the secular powers, England has always been governed by the non-religious concerns.

The customs and festivals of this nation are largely pagan in origin. Inasmuch as a festival is called “Christian”, it is rather, a pagan festival that has been rebranded to allow the people to maintain their old traditions but carry them out in the name of a different faith. The main exceptions in the British calendar seem to be Guy Fawkes Night (celebrating Protestant victory over Catholic terrorism), and New Year’s Day (which is derived from a calendar developed by the Western Christian tradition, but which has no religious significance whatsoever).

The British have never been known for their sobriety or focus: drink, song and dance, lewdness and debauchery have been staples of our culture for many centuries. One can easily imagine St Paul being appalled (see what I did there?) by the state of our faith and deriding us much as he does some of the more licentious churches of the early Church. The British are historically gambling nuts, the wealthy classes betting on the games of the workers and peasants for at least five hundred years; and those games having been outlawed previously for distracting from the proper business of archery practice. That’s how come cricket, football, golf, and so on came to gain sufficient purchase that we then exported them around the world.

At best, we can say that a Christian veneer was laid over the top of the underlying culture and (with the exception of Cromwell’s Commonwealth) generally that has been the way it’s been happy to stay.

Britain’s laws are secular in origin and nature, and always have been; the culture has never been particularly strongly tied to the teachings or events of the Gospels or the Epistles. The old observances simply got updated to give a significance appropriate to the new faith, and people generally carry on their lives with little thought to God but enjoy the festivities nonetheless. But perhaps it is in this that Britain is a “Christian country”: that it is to the Christian church that the majority turn for the major life events of “hatch, match and dispatch” (celebrations of births, marriages and funerals), and still people tend to prefer “C of E” to “agnostic” or “atheist” or “no particular faith”. The calendar festivals may be pagan in origin, but we choose to mark them after the fashion adopted by the Church.

But large portions of the communities and society that we have built in this nation by bringing people of other nations, faiths and cultures to live here – either by invitation (when we needed labour), or by being willing (albeit often exceedingly grudgingly) to give shelter here – do not mark these festivals in their own lives, or they turn to other faiths or none when they mark their “hatch/match/dispatch” ceremonies. Again, we’ve been doing this for centuries and it’s a bit late now to complain that it messes up some conception of a “pure” culture. Britain would not be the relatively vibrant, diverse and open society it is (it could stand to be much more those things, but anyway) without that history and without the many benefits other cultures add to the mix.

Our cultural traditions are largely unmoved by religion, or lack of it; our law is built on secular power and at every turn (sometimes through violent struggle) the Church has had its power rolled back over time. Our population comprises (and has done for centuries) many faiths, those of no faith, those of undefined spirituality or faith, and those who question or are undecided.

Is Britain a Christian country? In any respect that actually matters for how we do things, I would argue no. Take away Christianity and the homophobia, suspicion of the unlike (racism or Islamophobia), sexism, and so on would remain. Religion has only been a convenient way of organising those. And we would also keep all the good things, like openness, generosity, the many festivals, whatever else you think is good about Britain.

But there is still some attachment to the names and the forms that Christianity has provided; there is still the fact that the monarch is also head of the Church in this country, and so on. These things don’t really affect the ways that we live our lives, or the ways we are governed, or the ways we relate to one another except in the most trivial ways. But many seem to like them and cling to them. I get why those people would want to call the country “Christian”, but ultimately I feel that to do so is misleading and out of touch with the reality of our laws and cultures.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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