South of the River – Losing my religion

Compass-SouthComment logo 2On Christmas Eve I found myself sitting with my daughter, both professed atheists, in St Mary’s church in Beeston for the Crib Service.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. We sang some rousing carols (the reason we had gone), listened to a story I’m very familiar with and there was loads of audience participation.

Three days later the Telegraph was reporting that Education Secretary Nicky Morgan had told schools they must teach that Britain is a Christian country. This was in the wake of a High Court ruling that schools shouldn’t ignore atheism in the curriculum and a report from Baroness Butler-Sloss no less, that Britain is no longer a Christian country and should de-christianise its public life.

So, in the aftermath of Christmas, I find myself pondering the question: is Britain a Christian country?

Like a string of Christmas tree lights, there are rather a lot of strands to untangle to get to the heart of this deceptively simple question. There is the religious question, the cultural question and the political question.

Let’s start with religion. How many people in Britain are Christians? If you look in the churches on Sunday morning you might say not very many. Maybe practising Christians are a minority, but others still define themselves as Christians don’t they? You would think a majority would say so, but in a recent poll 53% said they were not religious at all, let alone Christian.

Moving on to culture, the recent three month, wall-to-wall exposure of a certain religious festival would imply that Britain is Christian.

There are two obvious arguments against this. The first is the lack of any religious content in most of the food, toys, presents and television specials produced in the name of Christmas. An alien observing us might reasonably conclude that the festival celebrated gluttony, avarice or perhaps all of the seven deadly sins.

The second argument is that Christmas is just a modern version of the timeless winter festival that marks the solstice and celebrates the lengthening of the day. I won’t go into detail here, but do look up the Roman festival of Saturnalia if you’re interested.

Leaving these aside, Christian culture is embedded in Britain. As well as Christmas we mark Easter and the academic, legal and parliamentary years are organised around these (plus the summer harvest of course). Every primary school in the country has a nativity play, whether it includes lobsters or not. So we are all familiar with the basic Christian story, but does that make us a Christian country?

One of my favourite carols is ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ which includes the lines: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity”. This all about Jesus being human and god – the holy trinity and all that, but I bet most people who sing it once a year haven’t a clue what they’re singing about.

So perhaps Britain is culturally Christian, but not religiously Christian? And then there’s politics.

The Conservatives have an agenda: how much they really believe it and how much they are trying to woo back UKIP voters I’m not sure. Needless to say it’s a divide and rule agenda, so it doesn’t really matter if they believe it, it’s useful to them.

The strategy is essentially backward looking. Remember when this was a simpler country, before mass immigration (leaving aside the Hugenots, the Jews and the Irish) when Britain was white and Christian. Let’s hark back to that golden age (that probably never existed). They bolster Christianity, tolerate Islam – but always talk about terrorism in the same breath – and deny atheism.

The question I posed was is Britain a Christian country? I hope I’ve shown it’s not a simple question and it comes with baggage. If Nicky Morgan and the rich 1% she represents are asking, then my answer is no it’s not. We should be teaching about all religions in our schools and that some people reject them all.

The other education news this week was that children will have to memorise their times tables and, of course, be tested on them. This all about learning by rote, parrot fashion, not teaching understanding. I suspect this is how Nicky Morgan likes her religion.

I was a bit taken aback at the Crib Service that they’ve changed the Lord’s Prayer – out go trespasses, in come sins. It makes you think. No, literally it makes you think about what you are saying … I wonder if Nicky Morgan knows what ‘incarnate deity’ means?

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.



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One Reply to “South of the River – Losing my religion”

  1. Good thoughtful piece. Britain is no longer a Christian country. There are Christians living in Britain but to call us a Christian country is out of date and very ‘conservative.’

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