Why it is time for a secular Britain

Why it is time for a secular Britain

IMAGE/Independent

I am fundamentally a conservative. Some of my proudest moments have been when battling to protect Britain’s ancient constitution and glorious institutions. Whether leading the No2AV charge, hosting a royal wedding garden party, or lobbying against an elected House of Lords – I have done so with genuine sincerity. But protecting our past should only be done to protect our current and future liberties. For any true conservative, pragmatism rules the day. If an institution begins to act parasitically, refuses to reform, and proceeds to inject poison into the body politic then amputation can be necessary.

We have come to this stage with the Church of England. Quite frankly, it has become gangrenous and needs removing.

The current legislation passing through the House of Commons regarding same-sex marriage has the potential to be the biggest step forward for the LGBTQ community since the Civil Partnership Act of 2004. But in a souring of events last Tuesday Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, announced that the Churches of England and Wales will be legally banned from offering same-sex marriages. While this latest amendment is a disappointment for all those supporting the original bill, thankfully the essence of the proposal has stayed the same and it remains a bill to be proud of.

However, the reason behind this decision is a sickening disgrace and an abhorrent affront to British democracy. Arguing that the two churches had ‘explicitly’ stated opposition to the proposals, the government revealed that it is willing to bow to the pressure of a homophobic and sexist institution under the auspices of religious freedom.

Denouncing the Church as homophobic and sexist may seem hyperbolic, but its actions in recent weeks can be described in no other way. The General Synod’s decision to deny women the opportunity to become bishops defies belief, and its opposition to gay marriage further compounds an image of intolerance. In a recent YouGov poll, 55% of the public agreed that women should be allowed to become bishops – with only 12% disagreeing –, while in a separate poll the same number of Brits came out in support of gay marriage. With the 2011 census indicating that the number of Christians in the UK is down 13%, there are clear signs that the Church is out of touch and in decline. The Church has been given ample opportunity to reform and it has rejected every chance. As such, it is time for it to go.

To be clear, I am not advocating the abolishment of the Anglican Church in England and Wales. Instead, I am calling for its disestablishment. I whole-heartedly support the Church’s right to practise its religion, no matter how intolerant, but I refuse to allow it to impose its prejudices on others and enshrine inequality in law without a democratic mandate.

Certainly, the church does a lot of good for the UK. Many people find huge amounts of comfort in its teachings. If it hadn’t been for the summer fête at St Michael’s Church in Framlingham, I would not have met my childhood hero Lizo Mzimba from Newsround. But the ability to muster minor CBBC celebrities does not justify the constitutional privileges that the church currently enjoys.

The government also has much to answer for, regarding their lack of backbone and their hodgepodge proposals. Why, for instance, are these bans on same-sex marriage to be nation-wide? A more sensible approach would have been to operate an ‘opt-in’ system, on a parish by parish basis. But crucially, such a ban should not have been introduced in the first place. An amendment to the Equality Act protects priests from legal suits for refusing to conduct same-sex marriages, and this is adequate protection for religious freedom.

But putting the relative merits and flaws of the proposed legislation on one side, I would appeal to Nick Clegg that the next time he launches an ill-conceived campaign of constitutional reform he should be bolder and braver by demanding a secular state, rather than proposing irrelevant and superfluous changes. Britain, with its monarchy and the House of Lords, can hardly be described as the epitome of equality. But, nevertheless, we must remember that some of our greatest monarchs have been female and others have been gay. As such, until Lambeth Palace is willing to house a lesbian Archbishop of Canterbury then the state must be unwilling to house Lambeth Palace.

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18 Responses to "Why it is time for a secular Britain"

  1. Tom Bakery  18/12/2012 at 12:12

    Not sure how the No2AV campaign could ever be justified as a protection of our current and future liberties?

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  2. James Newton  18/12/2012 at 12:24

    AV is the cannabis to PR’s heroin – it was a gateway reform heading towards PR.

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    Rating: +3 (from 19 votes)
  3. Graham Martin-Royle  19/12/2012 at 10:57

    And PR is undemocratic?

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  4. James Newton  19/12/2012 at 12:07

    Not so, PR is democratic but inferior to FPTP. PR would undermine the relationship between MPs and their constituents and the fact that our politicians are constituency is one of the most brilliant parts of our democracy. There is a kind of beauty to the fact that David Cameron’s weekly meetings with the Queen are as regular as his constituency surgeries. In a world where big business bankroll campaigns and the media dominates the political agenda, it is crucial that our nation’s leaders are grounded to the realities of the hopes and fears of the day to day electorate. That’s why I support constituency politics and why I fought for No2AV.

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  5. Tim Ashby  19/12/2012 at 17:40

    James Newton you are wrong in your assertion that PR is inferior to FPTP. This assertion betrays your right-wing routes and preference for minority government. Why this country thinks it is so different from mainland Europe when it comes to democracy is beyond me. We have had far too many Governments that govern with far, far less than majority support.

    FPTP is good for a horse race, not good for democracy.

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  6. James Newton  19/12/2012 at 17:56

    You’ve made no convincing points there Tim Ashby. Plus I think my opening sentence “betrays my right-wing routes and preference” a lot more.

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  7. Mark  19/12/2012 at 18:30

    How can you be a secularist and oppose an elected house of Lords? The presence of (unelected) Bishops in the legislature is the antithesis of secularism.

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  8. James Newton  19/12/2012 at 18:37

    The two aren’t mutually exclusive.I refer you to this wonderful article: http://oxfordstudent.com/2011/05/26/time-to-get-rid-of-the-bishops/

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  9. Mark  19/12/2012 at 18:55

    No, I’m afraid I can’t understand what you’re attempting to demonstrate (I hope this doesn’t come across as flaming, I’m genuinely interested to see how you reconcile the two).

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  10. James Newton  19/12/2012 at 19:32

    What I’m calling for is secularism and part of that process would be removing the bishops from the house of Lords.

    To me the house of Lords serves as a valuable professional body which gives expert advice to the Commons on bills passing through Parliament. Yes it isn’t perfect: all remaining hereditary peers should be removed; there are far too many peers (many are there due to the size of their cheque book); and, most relevant here, there are the bishops. While these are all serious problems and the house of Lords does need reforming, I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that making them elected is the answer. The only tangible consequences of electing the Lords that I can see is a challenge to the supremacy of the Commons and an American-style gridlock system. The only benefit would be to introduce accountability into the Lords but what Clegg proposed failed to address that point as, by only being allowed to serve one 15 year term, they would never have to justify themselves to the electorate.

    Therefore, in direct answer to your question, I do not reconcile the two – I am fiercely in favour of abolishing the bishops and sensibly reforming the lords. I just don’t think that making the Lords elected is sensible.

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  11. rhaoeps  20/12/2012 at 11:52

    So what you want is to decouple the established Church from the State on the grounds that it is unwilling to defy its own beliefs and marry same-sex couples? That does not seem terribly pragmatic.

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  12. James Newton  21/12/2012 at 02:02

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/pragmatic

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  13. An Oxonian  22/12/2012 at 14:00

    what a self righteous fuckwit you are Mr Newton

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  14. James Newton  22/12/2012 at 22:54

    Fair.

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  15. Someone who refers to themselves simply as ‘An Oxonian’ but accuses someone else of being a ‘self righteous fuckwit’ is leaving themselves rather open, don’t you think?

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  16. Andrew B  23/12/2012 at 10:55

    Denouncing the Church of England as “homophobic and sexist” is indeed hyberbolic, and you would understand why, James, if you actually took the time to understand the Church of England’s position and view it from the inside.

    Firstly, you neglected to mention that the Church of England did in fact vote overwhelmingly in support of women bishops – the vote failed because the majority was just short of the very high threshold which the Church set for itself. The Church has already started the process to pass new legislation and we shall see women bishops in the near future.

    As for gay marriage, the Church does not take issue with redefining marriage because it is ‘homophobic’, but because of its complex theological understanding of marriage which cannot simply be junked. Perhaps if you attended an Anglican Church and spoke to ordinary Christians you would realise that the Church is not a homophobic institution. Also, your suggestion that there should be an ‘opt-in’ system parish by parish demonstrates your ignorance of how the Church works. Like most people, clergy are bound by the rules of the organisation they work for; unless the Church of England changed its canon law and liturgy, they couldn’t conduct a same-sex marriage, even if the government’s “ban” was removed.

    For an articulate explanation of the Church’s position, see this blog post by the Bishop of Bradford: http://nickbaines.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/oo-er/

    It really is tragic that you judge the Church of England solely in terms of these issues. As a practising Anglican I see something the amazing contribution which the Church makes to society, quite unnoticed by the media, which stems from its position as the established church.

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  17. James Newton  23/12/2012 at 12:53

    You highlight some good points, ones which, for brevity’s sake, I had to neglect.
    My understanding of what happened regarding women bishops is that, with the backing from the Rowan Williams as well as the Archbishop-elect, the proposed inclusion of women bishops passed in the house of Bishops and Clergy but fell before the house of Laity. While this means that a majority of voting members were for it – the change still failed. The symbolism of this did the Church irreparable harm. As Diana Johnson MP described the problem, “A broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds”. My points out of this are two: all technicalities aside, it failed to change and there are no women bishops in the CofE; second, an institution that can be held to ransom by a ‘few narrow minds’ should not, and must not, be directly involved in legislating – end of.
    As for the Church’s ‘complex liturgy’ regarding marriage. Marriage existed far before Christianity came to monopolise it. In England, up until the 12th century, marriage was not referred to as a religious sacrament and could instead be simply pronounced publicly by a consenting couple. The complex liturgy that followed was an afterthought as the church sought to increase its stranglehold over people’s lives. What I am getting at here is that you are correct, I do not fully understand the liturgical problems of gay marriage but, then again, nor do I need to. I understand the history of marriage and what marriage means to the vast majority of the people in the UK – a union between two loving individuals. That should be enough for Parliament and I am therefore outraged that it has been undermined by the Church.
    My wider point is that the Church is irrelevant and should not be structurally fused to the state. With 55%, probably more, of the population disagreeing with the Church on its two most pressing issues, with the number of self-identifying Christians down 13% in the past decade, and with weekly Church attendance in 2009 at just 1.4% of the population, it shows a Church that has no place as being worthy of representing us in any facility as law-makers.
    The Church has no legitimacy and is a parasite, feeding of the authority of the state, desperately trying to survive. On the two most pressing issues it faces, it has rejected the opportunities to remedy them and this is merely representative of its wider malaise which is damaging British politics.

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  18. Cranmer  04/01/2013 at 13:41

    James, a few points:

    Regarding the “few narrow minds” – General Synod is essentially a devolved parliament. The legislation proposed was defeated, by a very narrow margin, in a vote held in accordance with the rules and regulations imposed upon the Church by the Westminster parliament, which ultimately derive from the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919. What you’re doing is saying that Westminster should revoke the law-making authority of a devolved legislature when it doesn’t reflect the will/perspective/prejudices of the United Kingdom as a whole. Would you apply the same standards to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

    The fact that you quote ‘complex liturgy’ shows that you haven’t read the comment above yours, and you don’t understand what a liturgy is. The point made is that the Church’s theology of marriage can’t simply be changed on a whim. I agree that until the twelfth century marriage could be solemnised by consent rather than by a Church ceremony, but that’s not the point; in fact, the Church emphatically does not claim that only marriages performed by a priest are real marriages. You’re mixing up two completely different issues. The Church recognises non-Anglican, non-Christian, and secular marriages. It does not recognise same-sex marriages. Neither, incidentally, did the freedom-loving people of the twelfth-century, before they were so cruelly oppressed by the Christian baddies in your misinformed story.

    “Two most pressing issues”. The ordination of women and the morality of homosexual relationships may appear to be the Church’s most pressing issues from the outside, but they are not, and never have been, the focus of the Church’s life, belief and work. The most pressing issue in the Church today is that which has always been – the proclamation of the Gospel. That will not change, and it cannot be ignored; indeed, the reason that millions of Christians feel unable in good conscience to agree with same-sex marriage is precisely because they feel it would compromise the theological integrity of the Gospel they proclaim.

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