And did those feet in ancient times: some thoughts on “Britishness” and “Christian England”

The recent debates over “Britishness” have focused very much on nationalist lines, but within the concept of “Britishness” are strong (at least implicit) religious connotations. Indeed, before deciding that Magna Carta (one wonders why with an expensive private education how he failed to know that this means “Great Charter”, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9XsYxoZvqI) would be his big theme, David Cameron had previously declared the UK to be a Christian country (for a report and discussion on this see, e.g. [amongst others as it was widely reported]: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/18/david-cameron-votes-britain-christian-country). Arguably then, for the British Prime Minister, national identity and a Christian religious identity are linked if not synonymous. He’s not alone amongst European political leaders in making (rather worrying) claims of this kind and I’ll come back to these at a later time.

Now, there are all sorts of ways I could take the discussion, or argument here, for instance:

1) Showing that the UK is not inherently “Christian” in some essentialist way.

2) Unpacking some of the disturbing Islamophobic and problematic discourses that can lie behind such sentiments today (I’m not saying Cameron is Islamophobic btw, but noting part of the discourse as it sometimes appears).

3) Arguing what it means to call the UK “Christian” and whether this is accurate as a description.

4) Looking at the question of secularism and non-belief, or atheism, in relation to such claims.

5) Looking at linkages of nationalism and religion in relation to social cohesion in a plural and multicultural society.

6) What Britishness is, especially as it relates to religious belonging or identity.

I intend to focus on the first and third of these here, while looking as my title suggests at some of the heritage that links Christianity and the UK and the way this is used. I may well return to the other points in future posts.

Every so often the suggestion that Jesus may have visited the UK, or more specifically England, surfaces in debate, myth, or legend (see, for instance: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8380511.stm). I don’t want to rehash the arguments here, suffice it to say: could Jesus have visited these islands, very possible as the infrastructure and economy makes sense of it; did Jesus visit these islands, very unlikely as what we know of Jesus’ early life is so sketchy but he probably grew up in a situation of rural poverty around Nazareth. Nevertheless, much of the connection and debate about England’s Christian origins centres upon Glastonbury, where we are told Joseph of Arimathea arrived and where his staff miraculously grew, and where medieval legend puts King Arthur and his mythic chivalrous association of Christian knights. I don’t intend to debate this here, but I have written about it elsewhere (see my article ‘Remembering and the Creation of (Sacred) Space’ coming out later this year in the Journal of Implicit Religion, while Marion Bowman is the premier expert in this area and has written copiously on it). Whatever we make of these ancient stories they are tied to a long history of associating the UK, Britain, England or whichever part of the islands is the specific author’s or thinker’s preference with Christianity. (I will simply use the UK for shorthand from here on but it may refer to different configurations depending upon context).
The age of empire helped to deeply embed this ethos, where the UK was seen as a place chosen by God providentially to spread Christianity, or more specifically British forms of Christianity, to the globe. (The USA has since taken upon itself a similar mantle, while such claims are far from unique to the UK in colonial times with many other European nations having similar ideas). The idea of the UK as a Christian nation is therefore strongly embedded within the national consciousness. (The literature on this is vast and generally quite well known and can be found in some of my own work, for instance in Preparation and Fulfilment, while other scholars like Brian Stanley have also written on it at length).

We must ask, however, what makes this a natural association? What makes a Christian nation, or a Buddhist or Islamic nation? For many, the Jesus story plays into this – if Jesus, as God incarnate, came to these shores then maybe the island is especially blessed or providentially ordained? However, assuming we don’t share this mythos, what does it mean? Obviously there is a long history of Christian presence on these islands, and the census data clearly show us that the majority of the population claim a Christian identity (yes, these are much disputed figures, and their meaning is far from clear, but they can reinforce a sense of the UK as a Christian space). If we look at numbers, then, it becomes a changeable game, because there is no reason why the majority of people in the UK should be Christian: there was a time when the majority population was what would be termed ‘pagan’ in the Christian parlance of the times, and many contemporary Pagans (using the term loosely) look back to druidry, Norse mythology, or other such traditions as native British religions (of course no more ‘native’ than Christianity); it may also be suspected that in ten or twenty years or so (assuming the religion question remains on the census) that we will see the group claiming Christian identity drop below 50%. (Of course, we should not see this synonymous with a rise in atheism, but that is another debate).

Is there any other sense, then, in which we can call the UK a Christian country? Well, yes, there is. On a constitutional level, the linkage between the monarch as head of both state and church (the Church of England specifically), as well as various arrangements in state structure make the UK a Christian country very specifically. Having an established church, with the head of state having a religious coronation, having bishops sitting in the upper chamber of parliament by right, and with parliament opened daily by a Christian religious service we are a Christian country. Even if the numbers drop off, on a political and constitutional level we are a Christian country. Of course, it then depends on how we’re defining our terms, and in response to David Cameron’s comments, Rowan Williams has cogently argued that in terms of being an actively religious country we stopped being a Christian country quite some time ago (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/features/10789740/Rowan-Williams-I-didnt-really-want-to-be-Archbishop.html), describing the UK as a ‘Post-Christian’ nation. Indeed, the fact that active religious participation is exceedingly low has been noticed for a long time and discussed in relation to the changing nature of religion in this country (see, for a discussion: Woodhead, Linda and Rebecca Catto (eds), 2012, Religion and Change in Modern Britain, London and New York: Routledge). As such, we may ask even if in one sense ‘correct’ to call the UK a Christian nation it is nevertheless a very misleading term, and one which is also, and equally ‘incorrect’ in other senses, especially if we mean a country driven and determined by religious ways of being and practice.

We have seen a number of ways in which we can speak about the UK as a Christian nation and while there are factors which can lead us to say that the UK is a Christian nation, we can also equally well say that it is not. The question is, perhaps, what anyone decides to take as their definition. I will leave this unresolved here, but may return to this and related questions (especially those I raised above) another time as we have only started to touch the surface of this question. In any case, perhaps it is fair to say that even if those feet did walk upon these shores in ancient times it is not relevant to a changing and dynamic multifaith and secular twenty-first century UK.

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