First, the prime minister, David Cameron, had an article published in The Church Times asserting a Christian identity for the United Kingdom with the words ' we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country'.
A few days later, a letter from a group of dogmatic secularists was published in The Daily Telegraph proclaiming instead 'We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives and a largely non-religious society. To constantly claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society.'
Cameron's stance then found support on the BBC Today programme (the most prominent morning national news presentation on the wireless) from the Labour party's Jack Straw. Straw, an avowed Christian, said: 'There has to be a clear understanding that this is the UK and there are a set of values, some of which I would say to the letter writers to the Daily Telegraph are indeed Christian-based, whether they like it or not, which permeate our sense of citizenship'.
Subsequently, the debate rumbles on, with the attorney-general and the British Humanist Association trying to define the grounds of debate. The attorney-general suggested that atheists were 'deluding themselves' over the advance of atheistical views, while the British Humanist Association's chief executive thought that 'in a very diverse society like today's we need to build an inclusive national identity not a narrow on', and that Cameron's original article wasn't really helping.
Britain has an Established Church, which ties its administration tightly to a Christian Heritage. In contrast the United States famously has no established religious structures, and in an official capacity has tended in my lifetime towards a kind of soothing ecumenical attitude of 'with malice towards none', except those with no religion. Despite this, in one of those ironies about life that amuse me greatly, the United States has a flourishing Christian religious culture, with talk of God and churchgoing quite commonplace. My experience in Britain was that religion was very much a private matter, only to be mentioned insofar as it affects other social engagements. Much the same attitude seems to be held here in Canada.
So does Britain have a Christian identity? In this matter, let us turn to the United States, and quote a Supreme Court justice, David Brewer:
I could go on indefinitely, pointing out further illustrations both official and non-official, public and private; such as the annual Thanksgiving proclamations, with their following days of worship and feasting; announcements of days of fasting and prayer; the universal celebration of Christmas; the gathering of millions of our children in Sunday Schools, and the countless volumes of Christian literature, both prose and poetry. But I have said enough to show that Christianity came to this country with the first colonists; has been powerfully identified with its rapid development, colonial and national, and to-day exists as a mighty factor in the life of the republic.That is from his 1905 book, The United States: A Christian Nation.
Brewer here is pointing out that in practical terms, Christianity is so woven into the practice of the daily life of the United States that the absence of any law establishing a religion is irrelevant. By simple fact of being American, one imbibes a certain amount of Christianity, and it will influence one, for or against, no matter what. Whether that is still true is, I think, open to question, and what the more politicised Christians of today's America are fretting about.
Britain, however, has a modern history of not being particularly religious in practice, despite the fact that the Churches of England and Scotland is a part of the state. Methodism and Ritualism were, in part, responses to an indifference to the Christian message among many. Despite the concerns of the Humanist Association, Britain has got along fairly well in incorporating non-Christians in society without anything like the the Gordon Riots. Indeed, it seems the United Kingdom's main problem in constructing an inclusive national identity has been intra-Christian, as opposed to anti-semitism or hostility towards the Hindu or the Moslem. The British government, despite an official religion, has been quite 'decent' in this matter, historically, and the British political class, with one or two exceptions, has generally eschewed making an issue of 'alien' religions, non-Papal varieties.
If you have read this far, I have to tell you that I am not going to offer an answer to the question of whether the UK is or is not a Christian nation. Without doubt, it has to be included among the states which are culturally Christian, in the way Tunisia or Palestine, once culturally Christian, are not. What this Eastertide debate is about is what meaning will that have for the future. How much does Justice Brewer's description of turn-of-the-twentieth-century America reflect twenty-first century Britain? Or anywhere else in Christendom for that matter?
[I have to apologise for the low rate of posts this month. My mother is unwell, and I have been sitting with her.]