Following Baroness Warsi’s return from her spiritual sojourn in Rome and her crusade against “militant secularism”, the British constitution itself has become the battleground for the struggle. History is being rewritten to dismiss secularists from the temple of democracy.
The Queen, in this Jubilee year, is seeking to rebrand the Protestant Established Church as an umbrella organisation – with her responsibility in it redesignated as “a duty to protect the freedom of all faiths in the country”.
Meanwhile, in a BBC Newsnight debate with Richard Dawkins, Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, has claimed Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights as Christian documents – along with other good things such as the abolition of slavery, industrial legislation and “reform of the nursing profession”.
Secularists have nothing to do with great beacons of British humanity and liberty, was his implication.
Well, up to a point, he’s not wrong. Christians were indeed instrumental, for example, in campaigning against slavery – just as Christians were deeply involved in the African slave trade.
Slavery was in fact abolished in England by William the Conqueror, who declared: “We forbid anyone to sell a Christian into a foreign land and especially to heathens. For let great care be taken lest their souls for which Christ gave His life be sold into damnation.”
All very Christian and, fortunately, allowing the trade in heathen Irish slaves to continue pretty well unimpeded. And justifying the later trade in heathen African slaves – many of whom were trafficked to utopian Christian colonies of the Americas. Among them was the Puritan colony of Providence Island in the West Indies. African slave labour was a crucial part of this new Eden, which had the support of 17th century Puritan radicals such as John Pym and John Hampden. The struggles of these men for the Parliament and Puritanism culminated a generation later in the expulsion of the Catholic King of England, James II, in the Glorious Revolution – and Nazir-Ali’s beloved Bill of Rights.
So, yes, it was a Christian document – but one by which one Christian sect could ensure another Christian sect, the Roman Catholics, would never come to power in England again.
‘That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law’ – Bill of Rights 1689
So what was in this Christian document? The provision of most continuing relevance is Article 9: “That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”
This in effect enshrines parliamentary supremacy as well as free speech (in Parliament only, not throughout the country). So law courts cannot interfere with either the legislation that comes out of Parliament nor the procedures that arrived at it. And nor, importantly, can the Pope, regarded by Catholics as a higher authority than Parliament.
But beyond that the Bill of Rights is for the most part a series of complaints against James II, condemning his habit of suspending laws he didn’t like (generally those banning Catholics from public office), using the Ecclesiastical Court as his legal power base, raising non-parliamentary taxes, keeping a standing army.
There is nothing here that could be interpreted as an assertion of brotherly love or humane Christian values, no truths held to be self evident, no rights of man, not equality or fraternity – and only liberty for some.
Article 7 for example says: “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” This meant defence against Catholics – because James, the document complains, caused “severall [meaning many] good Subjects being Protestants to be disarmed at the same time when Papists were both Armed and Imployed contrary to Law”.
The Bill of Rights was a Christian document in the sense that it set the seal on the Protestant capture of the English state. The declaration of Rights, from which the Bill was derived, demands that England be ruled by Protestants in perpetuity by banning any monarchical marriage with papists. Parliament was to be Protestant, which is why 26 Church of England bishops continue in place in the House of Lords. Catholics were, as far as possible, banned from Parliament and public service, as were Dissenters. The state religion was to continue to be legally privileged as the Established Church.
If Nazir-Ali wishes to adopt the Bill of Rights as a great Christian document, he must accept its words, their meaning, and the historical baggage that comes with it. It is a narrow, sectarian document that institutes victor’s law and some of its unpleasant implications remain with us today. It is why the Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, not, on any reading of history or the British constitution, the representative of all religions.
Nazir-Ali fails to see this and instead is seeking to claim for his Church the primary role in the political evolution of Britain – on the “Whig interpretation” that sees Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as milestones on the road to democracy, and Anglican Protestantism as the highest stage of spiritual development.
He has said that the idea that Christian ideas are “embedded in our constitutional arrangements is no longer understood in the corridors of power. A disconnected view of history and the fog of multiculturalism have all but erased such memory from official consciousness.” He is seeking to fill the memory gap with his own fictionalised version of history.
One cannot but believe when a holy alliance is formed of a conservative Christian bishop, a Tory Muslim peer and the head of the Catholic Church, it is politics rather than religion that is behind it. But then, it was always politics that was behind religion.
Note: A legal view on the Bideford Town Council prayers ban is here