Most countries have dominant churches with which most people identify, however loosely. That is the norm. France is the great exception to the norm when it comes to the state, but even in France the two main religions, Catholicism and Islam have an ethnic base. Moreover the physical and cultural landscape of France is still defined by the Catholic presence and by the towers and spires of Catholic churches. President Mitterand was hardly an orthodox or practising Catholic but there were funeral services for him in Notre Dame and in the church of his home town as well as a secular ceremony in Paris for him as head of a secular republic. There is a specific history in France that is to some extent repeated in other Latin countries. Where churches have in the past been co-opted by political elites for their own interests, or have stood in the path of national mobilisation, as in France, they have been faced by opposition, anti-clericalism and outright unbelief. The result is chronic conflict, and in France in 1905 disestablishment.
England is very different from France. You can chart the difference by the location of the grave of the Unknown Soldier. In France it was originally to be in Paris’s secular cathedral, the Panthéon, but was eventually sited below the Arc de Triomphe. In England it is in Westminster Abbey. Disestablishment did not happen in England for a paradoxical reason. In England from the 1590s on space was gradually created for a quite different and alternative principle whereby people choose to belong to free churches without much relation to state, or to state boundaries, or territorial parishes. In other words we retain an establishment precisely because we had the safety valve of free and non-established churches and, I would add, because a Protestant State Church allowed space for internal variety. The French historian Elie Halévy said we did not have a French Revolution because we had Methodism instead. The same is true of establishment. We retain the principle of establishment precisely because we also established the opposite principle of free churches without a territorial base. So we have two principles, establishment and voluntarism, that may seem contradictory but which in practice have turned out complementary.
This is the practical English way as opposed to French logic and the privatisation of religion the French insist upon as part of what they call laicité. In England the umbrella of establishment has been gradually extended to include other faith communities, beginning with the Free Churches and now including Islam. The French look on all religious bodies as though they were versions of Catholicism: potentially dangerous to the public sphere and to be kept out of it: hence the ban on the hijab. The English version of establishment progressively invites other faiths to come into the public sphere. Jonathan Sachs is therefore an admirer of the Church of England and a friend of the archbishop, even though as a Jew he thinks Christianity a serious mistake. He is also a respected commentator on public affairs. My friend the Muslim intellectual Tariq Modood puts forward subtle philosophical arguments for the Anglican establishment.
Today we assume both/and, not either/or. We assume the voluntary principle. We think of religion as chosen or rejected, not as something automatically given at birth as you would if you were born Greek or Russian Orthodox, and we easily think of churches as transnational voluntary associations on the model invented by Christianity in its first three centuries. Yet we also retain the territorial principle associated with establishment, and that principle obtains even in those countries like the USA that have long repudiated it as a matter of law enshrined in the First Amendment. Culturally the USA is a Protestant nation based on the Protestant principle of personal choice, the authority of the Bible, in particular the KJV, and inner sincerity of belief. Once you have the authority of the Bible established at the heart of a culture you have enshrined at the heart of your culture the authority of personal choice based on how you read the text. That means pluralism and many denominations.
Even Catholics in the USA are Protestants, and if you saw the TV programme about the women who attend Westminster Cathedral you would have realised that Catholics in England are also Protestants. They mostly pick and choose what makes sense to them. Whatever the variety of legal provision in England and the USA, there is an established Protestant presence. When a ‘cultural Anglican’ like Richard Dawkins argues that bringing up children in the faith of their parents is child abuse he is simply being a child of the Radical Protestant Reformation when the Anabaptists repudiated infant baptism in favour of mature adult conversion.
Let me say a bit more about the USA because it illustrates the ubiquity of establishment and the role of voluntarism in sustaining it. The USA separated church and state at the federal level well over two centuries ago. As a result the USA is a nation suffused throughout by religious motivations and understands itself as one nation under God. Nowhere on earth is the Protestant principle of choice based on the text of the Bible more fully established. Faiths are recognised as such on the Protestant principle of sincerity and inward truth. The heart rules, and everyone is included by a secular extension of the Methodist doctrine that all can be saved, not the Calvinist principle of the Elect. When I was invited to the celebration of the First Amendment of the constitution decreeing that congress shall make no establishment of religion I saw Buddhists and Muslims included in the ceremonies and pledging their allegiance to that principle. When President Obama took the oath of office the invocation was given by Rick Warren of the Saddleback mega-church, and he included the Lord’s Prayer, introducing it for Jews as the prayer of Jeshua and for Muslims as the prayer of Isa.
Forgive me if I repeat my argument. By giving this example from the USA I am saying that where the Bible has been established as public rather than ecclesiastical property, as in England and the USA, there the idea of choice and the practical recognition of religion in public life go together. The version of establishment we have in England is a quirk of history but the idea of establishment is not just an oddity of our particular history. Two great principles, establishment in the sense of recognition, and voluntarism in the sense of free and conscientious choice belong together.
That means multiculturalism and establishment are compatible. At the same time I would add that you can exaggerate the multiculturalism of our society. David Starkey got into trouble recently with politically correct idiots for saying that we are overwhelmingly mono-cultural. Statistically he is correct whatever impression you might have when travelling on a London bus or arriving by train in Leicester. Multiculturalism is an attitude and a readiness to accept difference, not a description of our society. Supposing you err on the side of caution and allow for different birth rates Britain is still 80-85% culturally homogeneous. Perhaps 60-70% of Britons identify themselves as Christian, which is a kind of fact, however you choose to interpret it, and maybe the Church of England has a constituency that varies, according to the kind of area, between one fifth and one third.
The BBC in the person of its Director General recently acknowledged all this in a very paradoxical way. He said that Christians should expect to be treated with less caution and respect. That was because they had ‘broad shoulders’ and would not complain, and certainly not protest violently. He said other groups might construe criticism of their religion as covert racism. In other words, even though people of many faiths and none are welcome in Britain, there is a core identity in the country that therefore feels secure, and less in need of protection, even if people might be hard pressed to identify what it is. The English are not a nationalistic people, precisely because they form the secure majority. That means that our identity is implicit, conveyed by signs that are understood in many ways, and among those signs of identity is the Church of England. It is there and as you look around our landscapes and cityscapes you can see it is there. Again to quote David Starkey, who comes of Cumbrian Quaker stock, ‘I do not believe but I love the Church of England to bits’.
You may be thinking that in the Britain of today the Free Churches are not a conspicuous presence and you are right. Nothing has been more obvious to even a casual observer than the decline of classic Noncomformity. The chapels that you still find in almost any village or township are now converted into apartments or used as libraries and warehouses, or made into places of worship by other faiths, including Mormons and Pentecostals. The Pentecostals are interesting because they are expanding. They have roots in Methodism and are often migrants from the West Indies or parts of Africa. We sometimes forget there are a large number of Christian migrants now in Britain and that the largest number of Christian worshippers in a city like London may well be black. The life of the Free Churches is partly renewed in these black communities, but it is also renewed inside the established Church. As the old social divisions that fed the difference between church and chapel have disappeared, the free churches have reappeared within the Established Church, sometimes creating gathered communities virtually outside the parish system. I expect that if you traced where many Anglicans (like me) came from, you would find a steady drift of people brought up as Noncomformists into the Church of England.
I have identified the complementary principles of establishment and voluntarism. Let me say something about some other great and complementary principles: sincerity and ritual, image-making and iconoclasm, choice and continuity, universality and territoriality. As a programme like ‘Who do you think you are?’ amply illustrates, an established church provides a settled channel of continuity and a storage space for the history of every local community as well as the nation. I can read the chequered history of empire on the walls of English churches. Of all the markers of time in the English landscape the church is the most ubiquitous and most ancient. It receives the living and the dead in a great chain of being over time: as Thomas Gray put it in his famous Elegy, here ‘the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep’. Of course, this sense of marking time in place, and of generations that have trod and trod again along local track-ways, can be sentimentalised. But in wartime this is an England invoked and evoked in potent images. The gatherings at war memorials in every cluster of habitation are part of a liturgy of national remembrance and shared sacrifice that elicits universal respect. As people meet in Whitehall or in churches or in tiny huddles around parish memorial crosses, the sufferings of recent generations are put in the Christian context of laying down of one’s life for one’s friends. And that is in spite of the obvious differences between fighting for one’s country and the Christian narrative of loving redemption.
An established Church provides the standing stones and the spaces where national traumas can be recollected, expressed and released. When disaster hits everything depends on knowing what to do and knowing where there is shared space available for release, renewal and recollection, for example when Princess Diana died, and in the immediate aftermath of the bombings of the 11th September, 2001. St. Paul’s Cathedral is the central icon of ‘the City’ and people make their way there because it is the place of national assembly. The recent protest about the corporate greed had far more impact because it was camped outside the cathedral and had a banner inscribed ‘What would Jesus do?’ That shows the accumulated emotional charge built up around the ancient site of St. Paul’s cross. In this respect Russia is no different than post-Protestant England. In Russia exactly the same charge was released when punks staged a protest in front of the iconostasis of the cathedral of Christ the Saviour about misconduct in the Russian elections. The charge was felt positively by those who sensed that a church was the right place for moral protest, and negatively by those shocked by desecration. The idea of establishment is intimately linked to the positive and negative charges of the sacred and to the idea of the universally recognised icon. St. Paul’s is the one building in the skyline of the City that stands for some other principle than power and wealth, apart from the Royal Courts of Justice. It belongs to the ecology of the sacred.
I have indicated that a shared and immediately recognised place in which to assemble is linked to a shared and immediately understood way of proceeding. This is where the imperative of sincerity and spontaneity has to give place to the imperative of a ritual order of precedence and a stable liturgy of mourning and celebration. The Free Churches have always laid stress on sincerity and spontaneity while an established church has provided established templates in the temple. Otherwise nobody knows what to do and who is to do it in what order. I had a vivid experience of this when an old friend died who had become a Quaker and had specified there should be no priest officiating at his funeral. He meant he did not want to be buried by someone who was merely officiating out of a sense of duty. He wanted what you might call personal service. As a result I had to take off my collar to perform the woodland ceremony and that made it difficult for the funeral directors to know to whom they might turn as in charge of proceedings. At the same time the family realised they had to have somebody outside the immediate family circle to create and preside over an order of service. Somebody had to undertake what is essentially a priestly task. I created the order and presided but in an absurd gesture of deference to the imperative of sincerity and spontaneity I was asked not to use the word ‘order’ about the sequence we all followed. It had to look as though it was not a ritual.
Establishment is the essence of a national order of service. The parish priest is the one who provides a framework when others are so distraught with grief, or ecstatic with pleasure, they barely know what to do next. He or she is the parson, the person, to whom people can turn with a secure expectation that things will be reverently and decently done. This is where I think the territorial parish is important because there is always someone whose business it is to know and be known. In Chaucer’s words, he (or she) is ‘The Poor Persoun of the town’. Once the parish priest or minister becomes an ecclesiastical CEO managing an organisation rather then a recognised local figure people may turn to for guidance and solace something profoundly serious has been lost. The parish priest in an established Church should be the naked heart of the community. When seekers of any sort approach a parish priest they must be able to expect generous inclusion not subjected to intrusive tests. People want serious experiences to be set in serious places on serious earth. They want thanksgivings to be available for all the blessings of this life. Baptism, for example, should be there for the asking provided there is desire for inclusion. People are included unless they exclude themselves, on the principle that ‘he that is not against me is for me’.
I want to finish with some Old Testament themes appropriate to, and appropriated by, establishment: the notions of wisdom, of learning and of the wise and just ruler in the prosperous kingdom. The Hebrew Scriptures associate these themes with Solomon, with the image of Jerusalem as the city of the great king and the city of God, and with the idea of the covenant community. Such themes are expressed in music and poetry, especially sacred music and poetry, and a national church should be a guardian of that music and poetry. English poetry and music is infiltrated with religious themes from Byrd to Britten, George Herbert to Eliot and Auden, and a national church guards that genealogy. Place, inclusion, continuity, genealogy: the Book of Common Prayer and the KJV are all part of that.
I am thinking here of anthems like ‘I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord’ and ‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king’. I am also thinking of great tribal chants looking back to the ancient Hebrews and their psalmody, like ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ and ‘O God our help in ages past, /Our hope for years to come’. In these compositions both words and music convey the sense of a covenant people entering into the sacred place and invoke the sacred to light on the head of the just and wise ruler. Almost every nation has some version of this and it is just the particular history of establishment in England that focuses such ceremonies around the person of the monarch. The monarchs involved, like some of the Georges, may not have been impressive personally, but it is the aura of art that conveys the solemnity of a people gathered to mark a rite of passage or reaffirm solidarity. I was in Helsinki for a particular occasion called the Thomas Mass when those who only half believe are invited to take communion. The city square below the cathedral filled up with a vast assemblage and searchlights played around the dome as Finlandia was relayed to the gathering in the square. You could overhear the heart of the nation beating. It is part of ‘establishment’ to create and sustain these moments of communion. Everybody hears the message in their own dialect. In England for example Jerusalem is an alternative anthem using the words of William Blake, a radical social and religious visionary. Poetic ambiguity unites where rational prose divides. Like liturgy, Jerusalem appeals by images of transformation that everyone translates for themselves.
Wisdom is part of the repertoire of Scripture drawn upon by established churches alongside the recital of the Law, while other religious bodies may draw upon radical prophecy and the hope of a coming kingdom. The repertoire of Scripture encompasses law and wisdom as well as prophecy and the kingdom. The wisdom tradition includes learning, and in England there is a link between the universities, the professions and the established church, that focuses on the integrity of vocation and the centrality of service. The link is also there in the USA even though the church appears disestablished: great universities like Princeton and Duke centre round major religious buildings. Sometimes in England the link is pretty tenuous, but I think it worth preservation. In all these things the onus of proof is on the proposers of change.
Much of what I have been talking about may seem to exist in the world of ideals rather than the sordid realities of everyday politics. The sacred can easily be appropriated to legitimate mere power rather than to underwrite the pursuit of justice. But that is the point of invocation and evocation: it sets up the communal ideal in order to inspire emulation. The gap between the ideal and the real is very wide but that only makes it more important to advance criteria in the public square for the pursuit of a common good The kingdom announced in Scripture is elsewhere and to come, not yet here, but it is carried forward both by voluntary bodies and by established churches that try to provide cover for the whole community and are willing to risk the dangers and uncertain consequences of political decision making. The past record of such efforts is spotty. The whole enterprise is messy, often compromised and compromising, but it is necessary, perhaps even inevitable, and certainly worth a try. John Ruskin was one of the Christian prophets of a better society and of changes for the common good, and he put his message in words that retain a contemporary relevance. Ruskin quotes from psalm 126 and the Gospel parable of the labourers:
‘Luxury at present can only be enjoyed by the ignorant; the cruellest man alive could not sit at his feast, unless he sat blindfold. Raise the veil boldly; face the light; and, if as yet the light of the eye can only be through tears, and the light of the body through sackcloth, go thou forth weeping, bearing precious seed, until the time come, and the kingdom, when Christ’s gift of bread, and bequest of peace, shall be unto thee as unto this last’.