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Politics – The Christian roots of British civilisation

January 2018

Shirin Aguiar continues visiting the world of politics for Evangelical Times. This time she covered UKIP’s conference at which Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali spoke, and later interviewed him.

The speech given by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali at the September 2017 UKIP conference, in Torquay, addressed fundamental issues to do with our national and religious identity.

The bishop spoke on the Christian roots of British civilisation. He told ET that he had spoken at Conservative and Labour party conferences in the past, but particularly welcomed the theme he was given for his UKIP speech: ‘The key question facing us is how we build on the Christian tradition this country has inherited, and not simply jettison it as some people want to do’.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali
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True British values

He said British values, such as democracy, freedom and the rule of law, are grounded in the ‘golden thread of social harmony that became and has become Great Britain’. Asking the audience how a ‘rabble of feuding tribes, fiefdoms and petty kingdoms’ became a nation, he attributed it to the arrival of the Christian faith. He commended UKIP for acknowledging this in their mission statement. There was no dissent from his audience.

He said King Alfred made sure our common law was consistent with the teaching of the Bible, especially the Ten Commandments, adding, ‘That is what our laws are based on and long may that be so’.

A godly ruler is not just accountable to people, but aware of his accountability before God. This, in the past, has helped give rise to a society where mutual obligation is the norm, where duty is valued and where people do not simply stand on individual rights.

People had always been in community. However, in the development of British society, there has emerged, because of the Christian faith and the teaching of the Bible, a sense of the value of a person.

The bishop quoted from Oxford scholar Larry Siedentop’s book, Inventing the individual, which ‘lays the blame for the acknowledgement of the human person squarely on St Paul’. He added, to applause, ‘Everyone created in God’s image has a value of his or her own — but within the context of society, not isolated’.

He said the emergence of this idea of the person has to do with the recognition of conscience: human beings have a God-given capacity to know right from wrong, to be able to discern between good and evil, and steer themselves away, with God’s help, from evil.

Democracy

The recognition of conscience has been an intrinsic part of British life, and it is only in recent legislation, under the most recent governments, that it has been neglected. ‘I hope we can recognise conscience once again for what it is; it is the basis of our personhood’.

Personhood leads to the idea of consent, that however good our system may be, however wonderful our monarchs, they still need our consent to govern us, and for us to be governed. This is the root of democracy.

The swinging sixties
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The idea of citizenship means we are not mere subjects, however wonderful the state may be. We are active participants in national life, not passive, he said, delighting his audience. But the 1960s brought the death of Christian discourse in public life.

Bishop Michael came in for media criticism for quoting Callum Brown’s book The death of Christian Britain to say the Christian faith stopped being of significance in Britain when women stopped passing it on in the home. It was not so much the church or school, but mothers who passed on the faith. He added to applause, ‘Let’s pray that will be so again’.

The Christian consensus in Great Britain on the inalienable dignity of the human person has resulted in ‘the most amazing’ things now taken for granted, such as legislation for workers’ protection, nursing as a noble profession, and universal education. The state does not confer the dignity of personhood on us; it simply recognises it. ‘No human being is without this value, a value that has not derived from us, but comes from elsewhere’.

Godless laws

ET asked Bishop Michael which recent legislation in the UK seemed to him to represent most starkly the negative trends he had been describing.

He said it went back quite a long way; for example, to the Abortion Act of 1967, which, while meant to be used in exceptional cases, resulted in abortion on demand. Divorce laws were passed to remove hardship, but resulted in divorce more-or-less on demand, and the end of marriage as a contract, let alone a fully Christian understanding of it.

There have been many watersheds, he said. He cited the HFE Act, of only a few years ago, that removed the need for a child’s father to be part of his children’s upbringing. The Same-Sex Marriage Act did away with the public doctrine of marriage that Britain has held to for a very long time. Even the 1949 Marriage Act recognised the Book of Common Prayer as the source of public doctrine.

ET asked Bishop Michael which legislation in particular had neglected the place of conscience. He cited, among others, the Scottish midwives who went to court to challenge their NHS employers over being forced to supervise abortions, but whose case was not upheld.

The court decided that, while the Abortion Act exempted them on grounds of conscience from the actual procedure of abortion, it did not exempt them from preparing the patient for the procedure, nor from completing the paperwork. He added, ‘This is clearly contrary to the spirit of the Abortion Act itself’.

Bishop Michael pointed to many cases of registrars who have been removed from their position for asking to be exempted from performing same-sex weddings, as well as to people who have lost professional accreditation with their organisations over such issues. There are now hundreds of cases like this, he added.

Multicultural ideology

Elaborating on multiculturalism, he said it was based on an ideology that claims there is no common point of departure for a society, that every community and individual is as good as any other, however they organise their community lives.

But what this ideology has done (in the name of tolerance) is produce segregated communities, which extremists have taken advantage of. They have radicalised young people, especially, toward Islamism.

But the problem is wider than this. ‘It’s not just extremism; it’s also the fact that people don’t know one another; they don’t talk to one another; they don’t live with one another; they don’t go to school with one another’.

The mushrooming of the university system means many go locally to university, rather than having to travel distances and be with people who are not like them. This has meant that, across the nation, people don’t have a common view of citizenship, of belonging.

‘This belonging is absolutely vital: shared identity, a shared common history. You can’t have this in a vacuum. You can’t have it with the thin values of tolerance, fair play, and good behaviour. You need the thicker values the Judeo-Christian outlook has provided about human dignity, equality. Not all religions produce these values. It’s not the case. That’s another claim you hear: that all religions produce the same values. They don’t, I’m afraid’.

UKIP member Mike Farish, present for Bishop Michael’s speech, said, ‘UKIP is often characterised as a little Englander party, but we were the ones who have just had a speech that took as its subject the last 1,000 years of social, religious and political thought in Britain’.