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Is Britain a 'Christian Country', or Not?

23/04/2014 10:58 BST | Updated 23/06/2014 10:59 BST

Is Britain a 'Christian country', or not? David Cameron managed to pack a lot of controversy into his recent article in the Church Times, saying, 'I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives.' Some fifty of the great and the good responded in an open letter published in the Daily Telegraph that 'we are a largely non-religious society' and 'to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division'. Tellingly, these commentators were largely sympathetic to humanist atheism. They in turn have been rebuffed by Muslim, Sikh and Hindu leaders in the Daily Mail. And no one has been more trenchant in their defence of Cameron's message than Stephen Pollard, Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, on BBC Radio Four.

To think the question can be answered yes or no is surely to keep the analysis at Sunday school level. How to describe a country is always going to be complex. A 'Christian country' might be many things. Firstly, it might mean a nation with an Established Church. The Open-Letter writers get even this wrong: Britain does not have an established church; only England does; only English bishops sit in the House of Lords ex officio; the monarch is Supreme Governor of the Church of England alone. Still, this does mean that at the constitutional level, there is enough there to say that ours is a Christian country. This cannot be thrown away as a mere 'technicality'.

Secondly, Britain might be said to be 'Christian' in the sense of 'formed by Christian cultural references and ethos'. Here again, the case is not negligible. The roles of Sunday, of Christmas and Easter, of carols and mystery plays, of cathedrals and Christian rites of passage are clearly changing. But there is a good deal of residual Christianity even now. Even 'PR disasters' for the Church, like the handling of the demonstration on the steps of St Paul's tells us this: people still expect the Church to behave honourably and generously. (Think about it: how newsworthy, by contrast, was the fact that the same demonstrators were repelled from the Stock Exchange property?)

Thirdly, a Christian country might be one where most people self-define as Christian. Bizarrely, the Open Letter writers ignore the figure from the 2011 census, according to which a majority, 59%, do precisely that. They do so on the grounds that the census question was worded such that people might feel they had to choose one of the religions. But that in itself speaks volumes. There just is no widespread visceral rejection of Christianity. One cannot help think that if people are faced with a question: 'To which political party do you owe your allegiance?' many more eyes would immediately be looking for the 'None of the above' option.

Fourthly, a 'Christian nation' would be one where Christianity as a vision of self-sacrificial and all-transforming love were being incarnated, day by day. Church going would surely be involved. Part of that vision says that our dignity, as persons made in the image of God, is restored when we freely worship God. But it is far from the only criterion. Has Britain ever been such a 'Christian country'? It would be foolhardy to answer simply yes.

The Council of Christians and Jews has a distinctive voice within this polyphony. Formed in 1942, in the agonies of the Second World War, we have never pretended both faiths are really the same. Part of that is the huge 'imbalance' in the relationship, that if 59% of people self-define as Christian, only around 0.5% do so as Jews. This is precisely what helps Jews to see more clearly than many a cultured despiser of religion that there are indeed many senses in which Britain remains a 'Christian nation'.

To anyone with any religious literacy, it will come as no surprise that people of faiths other than Christian often value most the sense of being in a Christian country, complete with the Establishment link. It means that religious people can never be silenced from public debate on the grounds that they are religious. Their voices should not be privileged, but neither should they be scorned.