Parliament’s Christian heritage
For more than a thousand years, Parliament and the Christian church have been bound together by geographical ties. The very name ‘West-minster’ announces that aspect of heritage.
The Benedictine monks arrived there first and founded the great abbey which has been at the centre of our national life for centuries — the venue for every English coronation since William of Normandy; the chosen burial place for monarchs and national heroes; and host to numerous royal weddings, like that of William and Kate.
Kings like Edward the Confessor and Henry III deliberately invested in Westminster to forge an alliance between monarchy, church and government — a palace, abbey and parliament joined together on the same site.
When the Houses of Parliament burned down in the fire of October 1834, there was opportunity to reconsider this geographical alliance. William Cobbett (radical MP for Oldham) welcomed the inferno as ‘a great event’. Some campaigned for a new parliament disconnected from Westminster and its deep Christian associations.
There were good reasons to start again in a new place, because Westminster in the 1830s was notoriously cramped and insalubrious. Surely the parliament of a world power deserved vast buildings in acres of space to match its international prestige?
But they stuck with Westminster, despites its limitations, in order to emphasise the strong ties between Westminster Palace and Westminster Abbey.
Christian ideals have contributed to the design of the Houses of Parliament. The oldest part is Westminster Hall, built by William Rufus in the 1090s to impress his subjects and rivals.
It was remodelled by Richard II to illustrate his belief in the divine vocation of monarchy and government. The Hall became a sacred space, with impressive ranks of angels looking down from the vast hammer-beam roof to the royal court below.
As visitors look up, we are reminded that the business of government is not an end in itself. There is another dimension — eternal, spiritual realities — with angels watching over human affairs.
The House of Commons itself is modelled on a Christian chapel. After the Second Chantries Act of 1547, the college of canons in Westminster Palace was dissolved and their chapel of St Stephen’s given to the Commons as its first permanent home. Its pews faced inwards, like many chapels in Oxford and Cambridge colleges.
Twice the House of Commons has been rebuilt, in the 1830s and 1940s after fire and blitz. But both times the size and shape of a Christian chapel have been retained.
After the Second World War, there were appeals for a more consensual semi-circular structure, like the American Senate. Yet Sir Winston Churchill argued that the old style must be maintained. As he famously told his fellow MPs: ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’
As any visitor will testify, the Houses of Parliament are crammed full with paintings, statues and mosaics. It is not just a working parliament but a national monument celebrating British ideals.
Many of those images emphasise the deep connection between Christian faith and British national identity. Parliament’s artwork is intentionally didactic. In the House of Lords, for example, the central image above the monarch’s throne is a painting by William Dyce, showing the baptism in AD 597 of King Æthelberht of Kent.
On the opposite wall is ‘The spirit of religion’, showing a king kneeling in prayer before the cross of Christ, as a bishop reads from the Bible. Central Lobby is dominated by four large mosaics of the United Kingdom’s patron saints.
Within the tiled floor is a verse from Psalms, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain’ (127:1), a striking reminder of the divine perspective on parliamentary affairs.
Other biblical quotations are emblazoned throughout the building. In the floor tiles of the Royal Gallery are the words, ‘The heart of the Queen is in the hand of the Lord’ (Proverbs 21:1). Above many of the offices are carved in wood the words, ‘Fear the Lord’.
Benjamin West’s 1784 painting of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai hangs over the entrance to Westminster Hall; the British law-courts used to occupy the Hall before they moved to the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in the 1880s.
Corporate Christian prayer has for many centuries been the bedrock of parliamentary activity. At times of national thanksgiving or emergency, MPs have often been found at prayer in Westminster Abbey or St Margaret’s Church nearby.
For example, in August 1918, at a critical juncture in the Great War, the Commons adjourned for a special service of intercession. Three months later, on 11 November 1918, after Lloyd George announced the Armistice, he moved that the Commons should adjourn once again to St Margaret’s to pray.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, wrote of the event: ‘I do not suppose there has ever been in our history a more significant recognition of the Divine Presence and aid than in this sudden attendance of the Houses at divine service in lieu of a Commons debate’.
Sir Winston Churchill followed the precedent after victory in the Second World War. On both VE Day and VJ Day, he personally led the Commons across the road to St Margaret’s Church, to give thanks to Almighty God.
Not just at critical moments in national history, but on every single day of business Parliament is led in prayer by the Speaker’s chaplain in the House of Commons and by an Anglican bishop in the House of Lords. The first recorded prayers in the Commons chamber were in 1558, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
The only way to reserve a seat in the Commons today is by being at prayer. This long-standing tradition goes back at least to the 1640s, when it was resolved ‘that neither book nor glove may give any man title or interest to any place, if they themselves be not at prayers’.
As an MP you cannot leave your coat or bag to reserve a seat, but only a ‘prayer card’, signifying your attendance at Christian prayer.
The most significant impact of Christianity at Westminster today, is made, of course, not by architecture, artwork or heritage, but by the numerous Christian people involved in the political and parliamentary enterprise.
Countless examples could be given of Christians down the generations who have seen service to the nation as part of their service of God. For example, during the topsy-turvy years of the English Reformation, it became an established tradition that Parliament bears significant responsibility for the United Kingdom’s spiritual life.
Indeed one MP, John Hooker, wrote in 1572 that the main justification for parliament’s existence was to see ‘that God be honoured’.
In the late eighteenth century, the Clapham Sect led the way in bringing Christian principles to bear on political ideals. They pioneered a raft of philanthropic legislation, which encompassed not only the abolition of slavery, but also a concern for education, health care, prison reform, employment rights in factories and mines, and much else.
William Wilberforce, leader of that circle, wondered after his evangelical conversion whether he should become a preacher. But John Newton urged him to persevere with national politics, writing in July 1796, ‘You are not only a representative for Yorkshire, you have the far greater honour of being a representative for the Lord, in a place where many know him not’.
In the early 20th century, the Liberal landslide swept 200 nonconformist Christians into parliament, soon after the Welsh Revival. Suddenly there were more Congregationalists in the Commons than at any time since Oliver Cromwell. At least 150 MPs were teetotal, reckoned to be a parliamentary record!
The social legislation which lay the foundations for our Welfare State owes much to their Christian vision. For example, the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908, to rescue the elderly from poverty, was promoted in parliament by William Lever — soap manufacturer and business giant, but also nonconformist Christian, who had pioneered the idea at his Port Sunlight model village on the Wirral.
The early labour movement likewise had strong Christian connections. The Tolpuddle martyrs were pioneer Trade Unionists, but also convinced Methodists.
In a later generation leadership fell to Keir Hardie, a former miner in the Scottish coalfields and an evangelical lay preacher. Morgan Philips (general secretary of the Labour Party) famously remarked that ‘Socialism in Britain owed more to Methodism than to Marx’.
Many suffragettes were driven by Christian principles in their hard-fought campaign for political emancipation. Numerous other examples could be given of parliamentarians and campaigners who have sought to marry Christian ideals and political principle.
The author is tutor in history and doctrine, and Latimer research fellow, at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. His latest book is The Houses of Parliament: cradle of democracy (Day One).