Cameron declares UK is a Christian country

Church and state: The Archbishop of Canterbury at the christening of Prince George © Getty Images

David Cameron insists on Christianity’s value in public life, but many say he is excluding those of other faiths and those of none. Is religion a helpful guide to running a modern country?

The UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, once described his faith as being like the reception for the radio station Magic FM at his house in the country: ‘It sort of comes and goes.’

For some time now, British politicians have recognised that religion could be divisive and have steered clear of bold assertions. As the former PM Tony Blair’s aide Alastair Campbell once famously observed: ‘We don’t do God.’

But in recent weeks, David Cameron has become increasingly vocal about Christianity.

In an article for the Church Times he declared: ‘We should be more confident about our status as a Christian country’ and insisted that Christianity could transform the ‘spiritual, physical, and moral’ state of Britain and even the world.

These comments have been attacked by those who believe that most Britons are no longer Christians.

In a letter published in The Telegraph this week, over 50 prominent public figures, including the physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili, current president of the British Humanist Association, and the authors Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman, have accused him of alienating Britons who belong to other faiths, like Islam and Judaism, and those who do not follow any.

This coincides with a recent survey which shows that the country is becoming steadily more secular. In the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, 48% stated they had no religion (up from 33% in 1983) and just 20% said they belonged to the Church of England.

But Christian tradition still runs deep in government. The Anglican Church is the established church in England, with the queen as its head – the ‘Supreme Governor’. Even today, by law, only a Protestant can inherit the throne. And 26 Anglican bishops sit by right in the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords.

Religious dilemma

Some say Christianity remains a strong part of the British identity and is central to the country’s history. The Church of England was born in the 16th century, after King Henry VIII’s argument with Rome, and was followed by Queen Elizabeth I’s more measured consolidation. Christianity is still important today, and politicians frequently take into account Christian views on controversial issues such as same-sex marriage.

But others argue that recent polls prove the population is increasingly secular. Church attendance is in decline and David Cameron is the only major party leader who believes in God — both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are self-confessed atheists. Britain today is a diverse nation where non-believers and those of many different faiths contribute equally to society. The values of one branch of the Christian religion are too limited to be a useful guide for such a varied democracy.

You Decide

  1. Is Britain a Christian country?
  2. Should politicians publicly express their religious beliefs?

Activities

  1. Listen to David Cameron’s Easter message in our Become An Expert section. In groups, discuss whether you agree with him that Christianity brings benefits to the country, or whether the Church of England should have less influence.
  2. Research the establishment of the Church of England. Create a presentation for the class, with information about key dates, events and figures.

Some People Say...

“Religion is the opium of the people.’Karl Marx”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not religious so how does this affect me?
It affects all of us, whether we are religious or not. It’s important to ask whether politics and religion should mix, and whether having an established Church of England excludes people of other religions and denominations, therefore weakening society. It should also make us think about our sense of identity, and what values matter to us.
What does ‘Church of England’ mean?
The Church of England is the established or state church in England, and forms the largest Christian denomination in Britain. The queen is its Supreme Governor and the church and government are strongly linked. But some now question whether they should be so close, and whether more should be done to reflect Britain’s multi-cultural society in the way that the country is run.

Word Watch

Christian country
The Church of England is the officially established Christian Church in England and has a Protestant form of worship. It separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 and became the established church by an Act of Parliament.
Humanist
Humanism recognises that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone. Humanists do not believe in God or an afterlife.
Secular
This refers to those things in the world apart from religion. The word comes from the Latin word saecularis meaning ‘worldly’ or ‘temporal’.
Rome
King Henry VIII (1491-1547) was desperate to secure a male heir to succeed him. He appealed to Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had given birth to a daughter. But the Pope refused and in 1533 Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and made himself head of the church, enabling him to divorce his wife.
Consolidation
Queen Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) first priority as queen was to return England to the Protestant faith after the extreme Catholicism of her sister Queen Mary. She famously declared that she did not want to ‘make windows into men’s souls’ and was satisfied as long as her Catholic subjects simply appeared to conform to her wishes.
Same-sex marriage
Many religious groups opposed a new law passed last month which made same-sex marriage between gay couples legal for the first time.

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