Our favorite Anglican bishop is the Rt. Rev. Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali, head of the diocese of Rochester in England. According to their website, Nazir-Ali is the first non-white diocesan bishop in the Church of England. He is also an accomplished man, and his own history is fascinating. But then, I’m a sucker for poets.
His essay, “Breaking Faith with Britain”, is excerpted below, with editorial comments interspersed between his ideas.
NOTE: This is a Christian leader’s perspective on what is wrong with Britain. As such, it is written within the a priori tenets of Christianity as the Bishop believes and understands them. Since his ideas are congenial to those of Gates of Vienna, the decision to excerpt from him was an easy one.
For those of our readers who are agnostics or atheists, we beg your indulgence for going in a direction which interests us, but not you. No feelings will be hurt if you pass over this post in silence and move on to read something more agreeable to your point of view. However, for those who cannot resist getting into theist vs. atheist arguments, please forbear. There is plenty of space for that in the comments section of the original site, which is full of arguments along those lines.
The following quickly become boring for our readers:
- proofs for or against the existence of God,
- arguments about the evil or beneficence of organized religion, and
- claims for the superiority of one belief system over another.
Please refrain. You’ll either be preaching to the choir or your words will fall on deaf ears. The chasm is a large one and cannot be bridged by reason or careful arguments where you talk slowly so the idiot you’re answering — stunned by the intelligence of your position — will. finally. get. it. One thing I can guarantee: they won’t be persuaded and your efforts will bore everyone else to rigidity.
You are free to argue a different case for “what’s wrong with Britain”; if your notions have naught to do with religion, have at it.
Presenting other root causes for consideration is welcome. Sectarian “discussions” about the Bishop’s faith lie outside the frame of discussion for this post.
With the idea in mind that this is one very limited and fallible person’s opinion, let’s move on to some excerpts from the Bishop’s remarks:
The rapid fragmentation of society, the emergence of isolated communities with only tenuous links to their wider context, and the impact of home-grown terrorism have all led even hard-bitten, pragmatist politicians to ask questions about “Britishness”: what is at the core of British identity; how can it be reclaimed, passed on and owned by more and more people?
The answers to these questions cannot be only in terms of the “thin” values, such as respect, tolerance and good behaviour, which are usually served up by those scratching around for something to say. In fact, the answer can only be given after rigorous investigation into the history of nationhood and of the institutions, laws, customs and values which have arisen to sustain and to enhance it. In this connection, as with the rest of Europe, it cannot be gainsaid that the very idea of a unified people under God living in a “golden chain” of social harmony has everything to do with the arrival and flourishing of Christianity in these parts. It is impossible to imagine how else a rabble of mutually hostile tribes, fiefdoms and kingdoms could have become a nation conscious of its identity and able to make an impact on the world. In England, particularly, this consciousness goes back a long way and is reflected, for example, in a national network of care for the poor that was locally based in the parishes and was already in place in the 16th century.
In some ways, I am the least qualified to write about such matters. There have been, and are today, many eminent people in public and academic life who have a far greater claim to reflect on these issues than I have. Perhaps my only justification for even venturing into this field is to be found in Kipling when he wrote, “What should they know of England who only England know?” It may be, then, that to understand the precise relationship of the Christian faith to the public life of this nation, a perspective is helpful which is both rooted in the life of this country and able to look at it from the outside.
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The quote from Kipling is a good one. “Outsiders” can sometimes see us better than we know. Not in all cases, of course, and we can resent the “outsider” who claims special knowledge — usually in the cause of showing us how wrong our culture is. But the Bishop’s position is a special one: he looks at Britain in some of the same ways that participant observers do when they visit a foreign place in order to study it. However, the Bishop’s immersion in British culture goes much further. He has become a subject of the Queen, a servant in her Church, and a member of the community in which he lives.
In fact, Michael Nazir-Ali has done what we hope all immigrants will do: he has assimilated without losing his identity as a Pakistani. He does not pretend to be other than he is, and he does not resent native Englishmen for their supposed “racism”. He probably even expects it after all these years.
What he does not like are the physical attacks against others — a complex and growing problem in Britain — and what he sees as the heart of Christian observance being reduced to the “icing on the cake”, something to serve up to tourists.
As I survey the field, what do I see? I find, first of all, “a descending theme” in terms of Christian influence. That is to say, I find that the systems of governance, of the rule of law, of the assumption of trust in common life all find their inspiration in Scripture; for example, in the Pauline doctrine of the godly magistrate and, ultimately, in the Christian doctrine of God the Holy Trinity, where you have both an ordered relationship and a mutuality of love. As Joan O’Donovan has pointed out, the notion of God’s right, or God’s justice, produced a network of divine, human and natural law which was the basis of a just ordering of society and also of a mutual sense of obligation “one towards another”, as we say at Prayers for the Parliament. Such a descending theme of influence continues to permeate society, but is especially focused in constitutional arrangements, such as the “Queen in Parliament under God”, the Queen’s Speech (which always ends with a prayer for Almighty God to bless the counsels of the assembled Parliament), daily prayers in Parliament, the presence of bishops in the House of Lords, the national flag, the national anthem — the list could go on. None of this should be seen as “icing on the cake” or as interesting and tourist-friendly vestigial elements left over from the Middle Ages. They have the purpose of weaving the awareness of God into the body politic of the nation.
These “constitutional arrangements” are under constant attack in Britain. There is the distinct possibility that they will be eliminated, and that something multiculturally correct will fill the vacuum. It is already difficult for the average person to display allegiance to the flag, or any sort of strong feelings about his — can one use the following terms anymore? — love of country and Queen without being accused of racism.
The eye of the needle through which all Britons must pass in order to be acceptable to those in positions of authority is becoming ever narrower. Those of us who care about such things (and there are many Anglophiles amongst our readers) are saddened by what appears to be happening to a once-robust English identity. Perhaps the first mistake was to make it a “British” identity. What happened to being English for heaven’s sake? The Baron often corrects me when I say the E word. But someone from Yorkshire is English, and someone from Cardiff is Welsh, and being from Dundee is a whole different mindset.
The Bishop notes what sets Christian nations apart historically:
One was the discovery of conscience. If the individual is morally and spiritually responsible before God, then we have to think also of how conscience is formed by the Word of God and the Church’s proclamation of it so that freedom can be exercised responsibly. Another result was the emergence of the idea that because human beings were moral agents, their consent was needed in the business of governance. It is not enough now simply to draw on notions of God’s justice for patterns of government. We need also the consent of the governed who have been made in God’s image (a term which comes into the foreground). This dual emphasis on conscience and consent led to people being seen as citizens rather than merely as subjects.
That was a radical jump, one which was due to the genius of the English. It is to England’s philosophers that Americans owe such gratitude for the basis of our own country’s freedoms. But as Nazir-Ali notes, all of this is predicated upon the idea of the individual and his responsibility to use the faculty of reason in order to form a mature conscience.
We are indeed moral agents. This agency makes us both free (to follow our own path) and responsible (to those who are affected by our choices):
Sociologists of religion have been telling us that the process of secularisation has been a very long one and, indeed, they locate its origin precisely in the Enlightenment’s rejection of heteronomous authority and its affirmation of autonomy. Historians, on the other hand, point out that faith flourished in industrial Britain in the 19th century and in the first part of the last century. Indeed, it is possible to say that it continued to prosper well into the 1950s. Was it long-term decline, then, or sudden demise? In fact, there are elements of truth in both approaches. It seems to be the case, however, that something momentous happened in the 1960s which has materially altered the scene: Christianity began to be more and more marginal to the “public doctrine” by which the nation ordered itself, and this state of affairs has continued to the present day.
Many reasons have been given for this situation. Callum Brown has argued that it was the cultural revolution of the 1960s which brought Christianity’s role in society to an abrupt and catastrophic end. He notes, particularly, the part played by women in upholding piety and in passing on the faith in the home. It was the loss of this faith and piety among women which caused the steep decline in Christian observance in all sections of society. Peter Mullen and others, similarly, have traced the situation to the student unrest of the 1960s which they claim was inspired by Marxism of one sort or another. The aim was to overturn what I have called the Evangelical-Enlightenment consensus so that revolution might be possible. One of the ingredients in their tactics was to encourage a social and sexual revolution so that a political one would, in due course, come about. Mullen points out that instead of the Churches resisting this phenomenon, liberal theologians and Church leaders all but capitulated to the intellectual and cultural forces of the time.
It is this situation that has created the moral and spiritual vacuum in which we now find ourselves. While the Christian consensus was dissolved, nothing else, except perhaps endless self-indulgence, was put in its place.
The scrambling and scratching around of politicians and of elements in the media for “values” which would provide ammunition in this battle are to be seen in this light. As we have seen, however, this is extremely thin gruel and hardly adequate for the task before us. Our investigation has shown us the deep and varied ways in which the beliefs, values and virtues of Great Britain have been formed by the Christian faith. The consequences of the loss of this discourse are there for all to see: the destruction of the family because of the alleged parity of different forms of life together; the loss of a father figure, especially for boys, because the role of fathers is deemed otiose; the abuse of substances (including alcohol); the loss of respect for the human person leading to horrendous and mindless attacks on people; the increasing communications gap between generations and social classes. The list is very long.
Is it possible to restore such discourse to the heart of our common life? Some would say it is not possible. Matters have gone too far in one direction and we cannot retrace our steps. Others would be hostile to the very idea. They have constructed their lives and philosophies around the demise of Christianity as an element in public life, and they would be very inconvenienced if it were to put in an appearance again. It remains the case, however, that many of the beliefs and values which we need to deal with the present situation are rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Are we to receive these as a gift, in our present circumstances, or, once again, turn our backs on them?
A good question, one whose answer is shrouded in the mists of the future.
The thing is, when you consider that it is individuals who make the difference — or why else write the history of ideas? — there is a sense of hope that we may be able to move up from the present level of degradation to which public life is sunk. Yet on the horizon we see no one who speaks to the heart of possibility. For the moment the mediocrity of our current leaders appears to be the only thing on offer.
On the other hand, things have looked black before. Certainly the vast shadow Hitler cast still affects the present, but we did manage to rid the world of him. Stalin is dead, but Russia is a cripple on life support thanks to him and the other destroyers. China is massively brutal and murderous to its own people; it is hard to imagine that it could be any worse to outsiders, but of course it can be and is.
Being an individual with moral agency leaves one with the burden of freedom in a broken world. Facing the brokenness doesn’t mean we won’t attempt to “fix” problems; it just means we realize ahead of time that our fixes will naturally present new and more complex problems. This limitation is simply inherent in the human condition, whether we contemplate the individual or the group.
It is as hard to contemplate this ambiguity which lies at the heart of human experience as it is to accept the limit of mortality. We only ever achieve a partial resolution to either mystery until we are stunned once more with the gob-smacked realization that the only fixed point is change, and that we are truly and indeed quite mortal.
Why is it that we “live and move and have our being” as if the opposite were true?
The rest of Michael Nazir-Ali’s essay is here. You will also find a comment section in which to discuss the sensibilities of religious believers.
Hat tip: Serge Trifkovic