4 May 2014

In Britain, Secularism Is Only Skin Deep

30 April 2014 

Prime Minister David Cameron regards Britain as a Christian country, but the retired archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, doesn’t. The former senior Anglican cleric described Britain as a post-Christian society, which he defines as no longer a nation of churchgoers, but a society still shaped by Christian ethics, culture, and laws.

The argument is a curious one in the only European country besides the Vatican in which there is no separation of church and state. And no, that’s not just because the queen is both head of state and head of the “official” Anglican Church, and can still use the old title inaugurated by Henry VIII, “defender of the faith.” It’s more because 26 Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords by virtue of their office and, in the words of the Church of England’s website, “play a full and active role in the life and work of the Upper House” of Parliament.

In other words, the senior members of the church are active, voting members of the legislative body of the United Kingdom. They are referred to as the “lords spiritual” (the other two groups in the British upper house are the “lords temporal” and the “law lords,” members of the judiciary), and they include, ex officio, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester, and 21 other bishops from among the 42 Anglican dioceses, chosen by seniority in office.

Untouched by recent reforms of the House of Lords that have whittled down the hereditary peers to around 90 in a chamber of 760 members (the others are appointed by the government), the sitting bishops are not affiliated to a political party, but they vote on issues, so they are part of the political process, along with the “cross-benchers” or other lords who support no party.

True, in a chamber dominated by members of the three major political parties in the United Kingdom, their impact is limited. But they are among the most frequent speakers in the chamber’s deliberations, and they sit on parliamentary committees. Justin Welby, the present archbishop of Canterbury and a former senior financial executive before his late ordination, is a member of a panel looking into the behavior of British banks.

There also always has to be at least one member of the lords spiritual in the house during sessions to read the prayers at the beginning of the sitting, and to participate in the business of the day.

A further involvement of clergy and government is the episcopal appointment process in the Anglican Church: the prime minister’s office in involved with church officials in the process of selecting a new bishop, the prime minister makes the final choice, and the queen then formally nominates the prime minister’s choice.

In its own way Britain is replaying an argument between the European Union and the Vatican over Christianity’s role in Europe. A decade ago, when the European Constitution was being drafted the Vatican tried unsuccessfully to persuade the drafting commission, headed by former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, to include in the preamble a reference to Europe’s Christian roots. But Giscard refused. Instead, the EU Constitution includes a typically French tribute to the Age of Reason. The Vatican is still trying.

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