I’m delighted to be able to say that my article on this, jointly written with John Maiden of the Open University, has now been published. The full reference is:
Parliament, the Church of England and the Last Gasp of Political Protestantism, 1963–4 Parliamentary History 32; 2 (2013), 361-77
If your library subscribes to the journal, it is available online here.
If not, there is a preprint version in SAS-Space, which was only slightly amended during peer review and on its way through the press.
Here’s the abstract:
“Political protestantism has been an enduring theme in parliamentary and ecclesiastical politics and has had considerable influence on modern Church and state relations. Since the mid 19th century, evangelicals have sought to apply external and internal pressure on parliament to maintain the ‘protestant identity’ of the national Church, and as late as 1928, the house of commons rejected anglican proposals for the revision of the prayer book. This article examines the attempts by evangelicals to prevent the passage through parliament of controversial measures relating to canon law revision in 1963–4. It assesses the interaction between Church and legislature, the influence of both evangelical lobbyists and MPs, and the terms in which issues relating to religion and national identity were debated in parliament. It shows that while evangelicals were able to stir up a surprising level of controversy over canon law revision – enough for the Conservative Party chief whip, Selwyn Lloyd, to attempt to persuade Archbishop Ramsey to delay introducing the vesture of ministers measure to parliament until after the 1964 general election – the influence of political protestantism, and thus a significant long-term theme in British politics, had finally run its course.”
As Mrs Thatcher passed away last week, I wonder how long it will be before we can reach a sensible assessment of her career. When teaching students born in John Major’s Britain, I used to struggle to bring alive to them quite how divisive a figure she was, and how much visceral emotion about her person has lived on in our political subconscious as a nation. The loathing that some felt for all that she stood for was brought home to me by the spontaneous laughter, tinged with relief and the cathartic release of repressed bitterness, that I overheard the day the news broke. And so for historians of my generation, who came to political consciousness when she was Prime Minister, there is considerable work to be done in shedding that baggage, in order to be able to look at her legacy in the cold, hard light.
This also applies to the work needed to assess her Christianity. And work we must, if only because much of the comment from Christian voices has threatened to obscure the very real debate we need to have about whether Thatcherism ought to be retrospectively glossed as more or less ‘Christian’ at all.
Colin Bloom of the Conservative Christian Fellowship thought that ‘history will show that she, more than any other British prime minister of the past 60 years, changed our nation for the better.’ (1) George Carey, who was archbishop during the later part of her time, admitted that whilst there were divisions in opinion over specific policies, overall ‘as I look back now I think her instincts were absolutely right.’ The new Pope referred to the ‘Christian values which underpinned her commitment to public service and to the promotion of freedom among the family of nations.'(3)
Perhaps the wiser course would have been to have remained as agnostic as Vincent Nicholls, who simply expressed a humane concern for a grieving family, since there are surely an equally significant number of Christians whose immediate feeling is that her instincts were in many respects wrong, and perhaps actively inimical to the cause of the gospel. Bishop John Packer, who had been working in Doncaster during her time in office, sounded a much more equivocal note on Radio 4’s Sunday programme, as did Giles Fraser in the Guardian. Although no Christian herself, Glenda Jackson made a revealing choice of terms when telling Parliament (Hansard, cols 1649-50) about ‘the most heinous social, economic and spiritual damage …. We were told that everything I had been taught to regard as a vice—and I still regard them as vices—was, in fact, under Thatcherism, a virtue: greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees..’
Some elements of the question are clear. That she personally professed a strong and consistent faith is hard to dispute. That she was theologically literate is evident from the famous ‘Sermon on the Mound‘ given to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988. There is interesting scholarly work that re-emphasises the importance of her understanding of theology as formative to her work, such as that by Liza Filby and Antonio Weiss. John Milbank‘s recent intervention should also be required reading.
After that, we lack agreed points of reference to begin to have a sensible conversation about her. Values central to her rhetoric, such as thrift, self-discipline, industry and self-reliance are all traditionally associated with Conservatism, but have also been at times claimed by Christian socialism. Or what of the ‘socialist’ values of communal aid, concern for the poor and the sending of the rich empty away; all of which have equally well been seen by Christians not as the duty of the state, but of the individual, or the ‘Big Society’ at local level ? The longer-range history of British politics shows that no political party ever managed to command the loyalty of a majority of Christians, as does the failure of avowedly Christian parties. Those principles often seen as Christian have continued to evade political capture of this sort.
I have no answers; and I suspect it is too early to make sense of the religious elements of Thatcherism as history. At the very least we need access to key sources, such as the majority of her official papers which are still closed, as well as those of Robert Runcie and Carey at Lambeth Palace. In the meantime, commentators on both left and right should probably stop trying to assess a political program in terms of its Christian content or lack of it. The debate is stale, and gets us nowhere.
For much of the last century, every adjustment in the relationship between the state and the established Church of England has been resisted on the basis that it ‘raises the question of disestablishment’. There have of course been tinkerings and modifications: on the process of Crown appointments; attempts at removing the bishops from the House of Lords; and the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974 which gave the Church the power to settle most of the most important things about its own life and worship.
Perhaps the establishment of the CofE is one of its intrinsic mysteries; the genius of Anglicanism which remains opaque even to its initiates, and which (like that other fabled beast the British Constitution), seems to work well even if no-one quite knows how. But recent events show more clearly than ever before just how precarious establishment is, and how contingent on other things which seem less solid.
There was always an implicit bargain involved in the survival of establishment. On the Church’s side, it offered some advantages. In the parishes, hatching, matching and despatching kept open occasions for pastoral contact with parishioners who never otherwise entered the building, even if opinions differ on how real or important much of this was. The royal set-piece occasions remained symbolic demonstrations of the historic reality of the place of Christianity in national life. And the place of the bishops in the Lords was taken very seriously by those bishops, even if their consciousness of their role shifted, first towards being representatives of the other Christian churches, and then of all faiths.
After the mid-sixties, and particularly after 1974, the burdens of establishment in practical terms were light, once Parliament had denied itself the right in practice to interfere in the internal running of the Church, even if sometimes it still had to wave necessary legislation through. And so an equilibrium has held since then: the Church didn’t much bother the state in practical terms; the Church bore some mild inconvenience in return for some advantages; and the sheer effort and parliamentary time involved in disestablishment deterred any serious consideration of it.
More recent events have upset this delicate balance. Rural clergy of my acquaintance still place considerable value on the Church’s role as registrar-delegate on behalf of the state in the matter of the rites of passage; but that advantage in urban areas is surely now almost null. As for the role of the bishops in the House of Lords, some still set some store by it, but as a burden rather than a privilege. If any government were actually to set to the task of removing them, I doubt it would be resisted too hard. And so, although hard data for analysis is in short supply, the cost-benefit calculus of establishment for the Church looks less and less favourable, and is increasingly seen to be so.
Both of these changes would be a loss, but a minor one, and easily accommodated. Two recent developments take things closer to home.
Firstly there is the issue of gay marriage. Several faith groups hold that marriage is necessarily, indeed ontologically only possible between man and woman. However, for all but one of these groups (those that are not established) the redefining of civil marriage by the state need not cause any internal difficulty, other than the loss of the right for their own religious solemnisation of marriage to contain the civil component. For the Church of England, I see no possible way that its own religious definition of marriage as exclusively heterosexual could survive an enforcement by the state of such a redefinition of marriage in civil terms. The role of registrar-delegate would have to be relinquished, leaving marriage in the Church of England the same (in law) as by the rites of the Methodists or in synagogue or mosque. This may (or may not) be possible without upsetting some other part of the delicate ecology of establishment. I don’t see the exemption of the Church of England from the current legislation as durable for any length of time.
Similarly, if the General Synod votes again against the consecration of women as bishops, then the sort of attempt (suggested by some) by Parliament to force the issue in relation to the bishops in the Lords would provoke a similar crisis. This is not to mention any attempt to apply the existing employment equality legislation to the issue, if the Church (as discharger of some functions on behalf of the state) discriminates on the grounds of gender.
Had either issue come to the surface twenty years ago, things would have been quite different. But in the last few years, I think that the climate of opinion has changed, on both sides. There has been a considerable upsurge in secularist sentiment, whether as applied to the House of Lords, or faith schools, or the law on blasphemy, or the visit of the Pope to the UK in 2010. And so the public mood would seem to the most supportive it has been for decades for an attempt at a renegotiation.
And at the same time, there may be more appetite within the Church for such an attempt as well. The point is often made that the Church of England is a church, not a sect. But a church can only be church in this comprehensive national sense if the nation on whose behalf it is supposed to exist recognises it. Not everyone, or even the majority, need ever make direct use of it, but it needs to be regarded as something other than a private religious society (that is, a sect), and that has some set of obligations to the whole nation. Becoming a sect need not jeopardise the Church’s mission; but it would need to recognise that that mission is no longer shaped as it was when establishment made sense. And more and more Anglicans are I think coming to recognise that it no longer does. There have for decades been voices who have thought that establishment meant being part of The Establishment, of being too close to secular power and all its moral difficulties; and that the prophetic edge of the Church’s mission, to speak truth to power, was thereby compromised. I think these voices are now coming to represent a more and more mainstream view.
(Let me be clear about one thing, however. Some within the churches have seen the gay marriage issue as the thin end of a wedge, by which the freedom of churches (as voluntary religious societies) to order their worship and doctrine would be eroded by militant secularists – that conservative churches would eventually be forced to accept gay clergy, or women bishops, or whichever norm of wider society conflicted with their own belief. This rhetoric is surely overblown, and hinders hard thinking on the real issues about the dual nature of the Church of England.)
It would be brave to predict the actual disestablishment of the Church of England, and I’m not about to. However, I do think that the state of opinion, both within and outside the Church, are more favourable than they have been for decades. If a government had the appetite for the job of disestablishment, now would be the time to attempt it.
It has been over two years in the making, but I am delighted to be able to say that my own special collection in the UK Web Archive is now online.
UKWA (for which I am engagement and liaison lead, based at the British Library) collects and preserves websites of scholarly and cultural importance for the UK web domain. Already UKWA collect some 11,000 sites, and has more than 50,000 instances in total, with series of snapshots of some sites going back the best part of a decade. That’s a lot of data, and so one of the ways into the archive is by means of the special collection, of sites on a particular theme.
A couple of years ago, long before coming to the BL, I joined a project at the Library which brought together a group of scholars to guest-curate special collections on our research interests. I had become interested in the sharpening of the terms of debate about the place of religion in British public life, particularly since 9/11 and the London bombings in 2005. I’ve long been interested in public debate about church and state; but until relatively recently this happened by means of the print press, public oratory, ephemeral publication and the broadcast media. It struck me that a good deal of this debate had already moved online, and so new ways of capturing and preserving it were going to be needed. And so, the ‘politics of religion collection’ (as it was then known) was born. (See these posts on my progress.)
I fairly soon realised why I’m not an archivist, since all sorts of unfamiliar questions hove into view. When archiving the web, what is the base unit ? A whole domain, such as www.bbc.co.uk ? Or a single URL ? Several sites, like that of the National Secular Society or the Christian Institute were central to my concerns, and so could be included whole. But what does one do with a single post on a PR blog about the handling of the sharia law row by Rowan Williams and his staff ? In fact, the collection is a mixture of whole domains and individual directories or pages from larger sites; an uneasy compromise, but a necessary one.
Also (and I may as well come straight out with it), the collection is selective, and thus in a real sense subjective. As a watcher of contemporary religious politics, against the backdrop of recent history, my impression is that the place of religious ideas, symbols and organisations in public life is at its most contested for decades. Historians are traditionally wary of assessing the significance of present trends, since it leaves hostages to fortune and later events. Yet, all archival choices from a pool of material not defined in advance by provenance involve some judgements as to significance; and historians are as well suited as any to make those judgements. And so I have put the collection together now to enable future historians to begin to answer the questions which I anticipate will be significant. (See an older post on why I think historians should engage with this way of working.)
There were other issues. Were I the archivist for a particular organisation, I’d have no problem with getting permission to add material to my archive: everything produced in-house would be in view. The problem for web archiving is that we’re dealing with other people’s copyright work, and so an individual permission is needed for each site. I have a long list of sites which I would dearly love to add to the collection, but for which (for various reasons) we’ve had no response. So, if you are the owner of Protest the Pope, or Holy Redundant, or Christians in Politics, please get in touch. For now, even if the collection cannot be anything like comprehensive, I do hope that it is at least coherent.
There are particular strengths, and some gaps. It includes many campaigning organisations, both secularist and religious, and is heavy on the conservative Christian groups about which I myself know most. It is very light on non-Christian faiths, since I know the field much less well. It is still very much open, however, and so suggestions of sites that ought to be included are very welcome, via this blog or at the UKWA Nominate a Site page.
What can you do with it ? For now, there is a simple browse function; and the collection can be searched on its own. And over time, all sorts of uses will present themselves, which we can’t currently imagine. But the data is there: a growing longitudinal series of timed instances of websites, identified as thematically related; that is to say, an archive.
I’ve been very pleased to see my review of a recent history of the movement to reform the House of Lords appear over at Reviews in History. If you were to read the whole thing, you would see that I thought the book, by Peter Dorey and Alexandra Kelso, at once interesting, useful and convincing.
There was one major omission: of any consideration of the position of the bishops in the Lords, save for a single paragraph. In the review, I wrote:
One surprising omission (for this reviewer) is any extended consideration of the position of the Lords Spiritual: that subset of the bishops of the Church of England who sat in the House as of right. Had this book appeared in 1981 or 1991, the neglect of the issue would have been of a piece with a general sense of the irrelevance of religious history more generally. However, the last few years have seen an upsurge in debate about the place of the religious in public life, including the House of Lords, which featured in debates preceding the 2010 election; and as such the issue probably merited more than the single paragraph that it receives here. It is perhaps an opportunity missed, as the development of the various arguments either in favour of or opposed to the presence of the Lords Spiritual mirror wider issues regarding the Lords in general. In the earlier part of the century, the bishops were viewed in much the same way as the hereditary peers: representatives of the immutable order of society; the establishment of the Church just as inevitable and right as the class system. Over time, and particularly in the 1960s, as the moral law was reformed in such a way as to emphasise the widening gap between state and church, the bishops’ own view of their position shifted, as did that of those observing them. Mirroring the advent of the life peers, the bishops became, as it were, Life Peers Spiritual: in the House not simply, or even mostly, by virtue of their historic office but also now on grounds of religious expertise. The bishops came to view themselves as representing a religious mode of viewing public affairs; and it is striking that there has been no consistent pressure from either the other Christian denominations or from other faith groups for parallel representation. Whilst a number of non-Anglican Christian leaders did become life peers, Donald Soper (Methodist, 1965) and George Macleod (Church of Scotland, 1967) among them (both Wilson nominees, and both reputed to be on the left), the bishops came to be seen in their standing role as defenders of all faiths, rather than simply of the Church of England alone.
Since reading the book, and writing the review, it has become yet more clear to me that the influence of the bishops in Parliament, and public perceptions of their role, have been rather neglected by scholars so far; both ecclesiastical historians and scholars of parliament and politics. One can glean a certain amount from the many and various biographies of the bishops, but little on the wider issues involved.
I’ve just begun to gather some material together on the bishops in the Lords in the mid-to-late 1960s, and on the involvement of the Church in shaping the abortive 1969 Parliament (No. 2) Bill. Some of this material is likely to feature in my forthcoming book on Michael Ramsey [UPDATE: it did – see details of the book; but I have a hunch that there is a separate article to be written as well.