The time between Christmas and the dawn of a new year, is an opportune time to reflect on the year that has nearly ended. As a member of the National Secular Society (NSS), I am aware that secularists are sometimes accused of removing the religious celebration of Christmas and replacing it with some sort of godless, mid-winter festival. In a recent NSS bulletin, Stephen Evans, the CEO of the NSS, has reminded the society’s members that, “Like almost everyone else, we (the NSS) see Christmas for the inclusive religious/secular mash up that it is – and secularists welcome the chance for a midwinter break”.
For NSS members, Christmas/New Year reflections offer an opportunity to consider the fact that, in today’s world, nobody can claim Christmas as their own. The same could be said of our (British) state and its institutions. In what follows, and with reference to the publications of the NSS during the year, I will briefly summarise some of the involvements and achievements of the NSS during 2022, particularly in respect of the relation between Church and State.
Politicians and community leaders have in the past used Christmas to claim that “Britain is a Christian country”. This may have been true in the past but cannot be substantiated today. This year’s census figures shows that only 46% of the population, less than half, identify as Christian. This is significant. Whilst in some parts of the country there has been a growth in the numbers of fundamentalist and ethnic Christian churches, there has been a noticeable decline in the historical British churches. Such trends could be substantiated by reference to the East End of London and the English Midlands.
The 2022 census show that attendance figures at Christian places of worship in England has fallen to 0.9% of the population. More starkly, this reveals that Christianity is now a minority interest. Interestingly, non-Christian religions have generally seen an increase in their adherents, with immigration patterns, as well as their methods of religious evangelism, contributing to this phenomenon. As revealed by the census, the present situation should be a humbling moment for the historical UK churches – not least the recognised national church, the Church of England.
The above would suggest that the British political settlement should reflect this reality. The census figures paint a clear picture of the growing irreligiosity and religious pluralism across the country. The obvious conclusion to this diverse situation is for the country to be managed as a secular state, and not as a Christian country. It follows that the Christian Church, most notably the Church of England, should relinquish its disproportionate privileges. Such a move would have significant implications.
Such implications would affect the following: the establishment of the Church of England as the State Church; the continuation of Christian prayers before parliamentary sessions; the presence of 26 Anglican (Church of England) bishops in the House of Lords (often used as voting block to support its agendas); the content and method of teaching of Religious Education in schools; the control of thousands of state schools; and, perhaps of more significance than anything else, the institutionalising of the Christian faith in consequence of the reigning monarch being also the Head of the State Church, the Church of England.
As with monarchy itself, the fact of having a monarch as the Head of the Church of England, is surely an anachronistic, discriminatory, and anti-democratic constitutional anomaly. In May of next year, King Charles III will be coronated. This ceremony will include the anointing of Charles Windsor by a Church of England bishop and his act of swearing to defend the Anglican faith. Despite the arrogant and rather ludicrous desire of the new king to be the “defender of faiths”, his coronation ceremony will be an explicitly Anglican rite. He and his wife will be anointed and blessed by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey (an historic edifice of the Church of England), and he will take an oath to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by established law in England”.
One critical description of the coronation ceremony stated as follows: “For many the ceremony will be a fascinating view. Fascinating because, for most brits, it will be inscrutable and exotic. We’ll be watching an ancient quasi-shamanic initiation rite of a largely unfamiliar tribal religion, complete with elaborate costumes and esoteric songs and chants”.
The writer of the above goes on to ask, “But is that how a nation should be viewing its leader, as an otherworldly and outlandish religious figure with little to nothing in common with the people he leads? As Monty Python and the Holy Grail put it, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Similarly, neither are strange men invoking a god only a minority believe in to crown the head of state”.
This is another reminder of the archaic religious privilege at the heart of the (unwritten) British Constitution, especially where Christians have become a minority of the population the constitution is meant to serve. This situation should be as embarrassing as it is overbearing. It is a glaring reminder of the herculean task of the sensible and secular reformation required in this country, to consider the nature of the British monarchy’s ties to the church, even to the extent that there are those, perhaps even inside the monarchic circle, that wholeheartedly believe that, whether male or female, the monarch’s authority is divinely ordained.
Faced with growing competition from a myriad of other approaches to faith, as well as non-religious worldviews, e.g., secularism, the Christian Church no doubt sees itself as having several aces in its hand, as referenced in the above. Notwithstanding, the numbers of British Christians continues to decline year on year, and the stigma of UK citizens being non-believers has almost completely vanished. Surely, and for the sake of both, it is time for state and church in the UK to go their separate ways, with a minimal of decisions taken, firstly, for the Church of England to be disestablished, and, secondly, for the affairs of State to be separated from those of the Church.
It is in the climate revealed in the above that the NSS has been working tirelessly to achieve a secularist influence over British public policy. In a subsequent article, and in acknowledging the publications which have come from the NSS over the past year, I will outline some further aspects of the work of the NSS during 2022, as it works to bring about and support a secular British state, a secular state whose time has come.