Friday, 17 September 2010

Andrew Brown: the end of the Protestant state

Writing in the Guardian:
This was the end of the British Empire. In all the four centuries from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, England has been defined as a Protestant nation. The Catholics were the Other; sometimes violent terrorists and rebels, sometimes merely dirty immigrants. The sense that this was a nation specially blessed by God arose from a deeply anti-Catholic reading of the Bible. Yet it was central to English self-understanding when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952, and swore to uphold the Protestant religion by law established.

For all of those 400 or so years it would have been unthinkable that a pope should stand in Westminster Hall and praise Sir Thomas More, who died to defend the pope's sovereignty against the king's. Rebellion against the pope was the foundational act of English power. And now the power is gone, and perhaps the rebellion has gone, too. Perhaps, though, it has not. First there was Rowan Williams, making the point that when the Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops of England mingled in Lambeth Palace, all alike were bishops. This the pope, of course, denies. Then there is our stubborn attachment to the notion that all you really need is decency, rather than theology. This, too, the pope denies, and the section of his speech dealing with that was the most interesting part. "If moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy."