Is Britain a Christian country and, whatever the case, what then?

Unusually, British politicians have been talking about religion this Easter.

(i) Events, dear Boy

First, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, whose Department leads on faith relations, and then the Prime Minister, David Cameron, both averred that Britain was still a Christian country – Mr Pickles, with customary brutality, reminding us that there is an established Church and advising people to ‘get over’ that fact. A large number of worthies then wrote jointly to the Daily Telegraph (editorially sympathetic to establishment) to challenge ministers’ views, labelling them as both false and divisive in a pluralised society of multiple belief and unbelief. This was countered by a joint letter disagreeing

This lukewarm pot was then stirred by the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Nick Clegg. Out of the blue in a radio programme, he floated the thought that the day was coming when church establishment should be stood down for everyone’s benefit, including that of the Church of England. The Prime Minister and others immediately rejected this view – long Liberal Democrat policy deriving from that party’s ancient Christian Nonconformist roots.

Understandably, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, head of the church established in England (and long ago disestablished in Ireland and Wales) felt moved also to comment – no tablets of stone, just a blog. Acknowledging that church attendance had greatly declined, he maintained that nonetheless much of the nation’s life had been ‘shaped and founded on Christianity’, and that ‘in the general sense of being founded on Christian faith, this is a Christian country’. Characterising objectors as atheists, he pointed to Muslim, Hindu and Sikh support for the Prime Minister’s remarks. This claim, which has been called ‘Anglican multifaithism’ [N. Bonney (2013) Monarchy, religion and the state], is a trope employed by Anglicans to assume a new role and purport to speak for the interests of all religions. On offer is an implied conduit into government valued apparently by a number of non-Christian faiths but not willingly by minority Christian denominations.

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SUCCESSION TO THE CROWN BILL

7th March 2013

LORDS COMMITTEE STAGE 28 FEBRUARY 2013

The power of the well-phrased question

Bob Morris

There is nothing in Parliamentary debate quite like the well-phrased question for cutting to the heart of things. An issue is encapsulated and the minister has to respond. Unlike podium assemblies where speakers may hector without interruption, the UK Parliament can suddenly be made alive by a pithy intrusion.

Under examination was the clause that would abolish the rule dating from 1689 that no-one married to a Catholic may succeed to the throne. Discussion turned to an amendment (subsequently withdrawn) which would have permitted the sovereign to be a Catholic but made arrangements during the reign for the Supreme Governorship to be shouldered by an Anglican qualified under the Regency Acts. As noted previously – including by the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee (PCRSC) in December 2011 (HC 1615) – removal of the Catholic marriage disqualification leaves intact the absolute ban on Catholics and anyone else not in communion with the Church of England from succeeding. The latter would, of course, disqualify Catholics (and most non-Anglicans) from succeeding even if the explicit ban on Catholics were removed.

Lord Forsyth (a Scottish episcopalian, former cabinet minister and Scottish Secretary) asked what was it that the government were trying to achieve with the provision:

‘Are they trying to end discrimination against Roman Catholics or are they just trying to enable the heir to the Throne to marry a Roman Catholic?’ (Hansard, Lords, 28 February 2013, col. 1230)

He added that he would be horrified if it were the latter. Whilst it was a good thing that people who wanted to marry should be able to do so, he had thought that the provision ‘was part of a wider agenda of ending discrimination against Catholics. We need to understand why the Bill has not provided for that…’ Lord Stevenson then intervened to point out that the amendments tabled on the point went ‘to the heart of whether the present Anglican establishment in England can or even should remain in its present form’ and suggested that it was time for further Parliamentary consideration in some appropriate committee. This suggestion gained some support though not from the minister who sheltered behind the fiction that such matters were for Parliament alone itself to decide.

None of this will stop the Bill. Parliament knows when it is being bounced and in any case the things in the Bill are not in themselves bad things that should be stopped. On the other hand, what their Lordships pointed out was that, in the words of a PCRSC witness, ‘one cannot half open a can of worms, because all the worms will come out’.

Has the time come for Parliament to take a closer look? We shall see. What is certain is that the Forsyth question will not go away.

SUCCESSION TO THE CROWN BILL – THE RELIGIOUS TESTS

Bob Morris

As the bill goes to the Lords, it might be useful to reflect further on the detail of what was said in the Commons debates on 22 and 28 January about the place of religious tests in our constitution.

Of the three tests, two – ineligibility of Catholic believers and those married to Catholics – are directed explicitly at Catholics and one – the requirement to be ‘in communion with’ the Church of England – excludes Catholics and all others unable to satisfy the requirement. The bill would abolish only the second of the three tests.

The proceedings on 28 January were dominated by the attempt of Jacob Rees-Mogg to remove the remaining tests:
‘As the discrimination on the grounds of sex is no longer necessary, or can no longer be argued for logically, nor can exclusions on the grounds of religion.’ [Hansard, Commons, 29 January 2013, col. 697]

Stressing that he was not opposed to church establishment per se, he proposed a device which, he claimed, would permit a Catholic to succeed without challenging the sovereign’s current roles in respect of the Church of England. The device turned on using the Regency Acts to identify a Protestant who could assume the sovereign’s duties much as Catholic and other non-Anglican cabinet ministers relinquish any Anglican related duties to Anglican colleagues during their term of office. Whilst the device was technically inadequate and imperfect, it gave MPs an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the bill fell short of dealing with the other remaining disqualifications affecting Catholics and others.

Understandably, this discussion – as on 22 January in a very thin House – was dominated by Catholics. Interestingly, they appear to have felt obliged simultaneously to object to the disqualifications and declare something like reverence for Anglicanism – the latter position slipping slightly only once (col. 708) when the alleged elasticity of Anglican’s demands on adherents was naughtily raised. Loyalty to the monarchy was also stressed, as if that were nowadays still in question for Catholics. Jacob Rees-Mogg pressed the matter to a division and lost by three to one.

What may be made from all this? As a proportion of those voting on a probably lightly whipped occasion, the supporters of the amendment (not all Catholics and not joined by the Opposition front bench) constituted just over nine per cent but still nearly six per cent of the whole House. Only rarely in the two days was the point being circled and not expressed voiced explicitly, that is whether the headship of the state needs any longer to be yoked to a particular religious denomination. An SNP Catholic, Angus MacNeil, said of the bill:

‘It is only a halfway house – a real dog’s breakfast of broken biscuits. It deals with succession and partially with freedom of religion, but it leaves the question of full freedom of religion untouched.’ [Hansard, Commons, 22 January 2013, col. 226]

Another MP, Nia Griffith, thought that there was a further downside in persisting with the religious tests:

‘…if someone is expected to take on the role of monarch, we are putting them in a situation in which they will have to pay lip service to a faith, possibly one in which they do not believe, making a mockery of those who have a true faith.’ [Hansard, Commons, 22 January 2013, col. 237]

The government was, of course, not having any of this. To be fair, the bill was after all a strictly limited exercise pre-agreed with no fewer than fifteen Commonwealth countries. The minister, Chloe Smith, in what appears to have been a carefully pre-scripted formula, was adamant:

‘…let me state again that the Government are absolutely committed to the Church of England as the established Church, with the sovereign as its Supreme Governor. We consider that the relationship between Church and state in England is an important part of the constitutional framework. It has evolved over centuries and the Government have no intention of legislating to disestablish the Church of England. It is important to state that. The Government’s view is that allowing a person of the Roman Catholic faith to accede to the throne would clearly be incompatible with the requirement for the sovereign to be in communion with the Church of England.’
[Hansard, Commons, 28 January 2013, col. 721]

She said this in reply to the senior government backbencher, Nicholas Soames, who asked the minister whether she agreed that what Rees-Mogg had with his interventions ‘just shown is that what has been completely settled and without question can now be open to challenge? Does she believe that this is a sensible way to proceed when overturning 1,000 years of British history?’. (col. 721)

Has the genie been now let out of the bottle? No doubt the government will get its way in the Lords, but it will be interesting to see what the current range of opinion now is there. How many, for example, will be with Gerald Howarth –
• ‘I believe that the established Church and the Crown are indissolubly linked.’ [Hansard, Commons, 22 January 2013, cols 252-3.]

how many with Chris Bryant –
• ‘I do not want to disestablish the Church of England, but I think it could be established in a different way.’ (col. 233)

and how many again with Nia Griffith –
• ‘The clause is a missed opportunity. It misses the opportunity to decouple the role of monarch from a specific role in the Church of England.’ (col. 237)