Sunday December 3, 2006
The following correction was printed in the Observer’s For the record column, Sunday December 17 2006
In the article below, we misrepresented the Archbishop of York and Birmingham City Council when we claimed that the archbishop had recently condemned the council for ‘burbling about “Winterval” since 1998’. Archbishop Sentamu had actually referred to the Council’s decision to rename Christmas ‘Winterval’ in 1998 as an early symptom of the ‘systematic erosion’ of Christianity. But he also acknowledged that this plan was abandoned shortly afterwards.
A few weeks ago, I went to a quiz night to raise funds for an Anglican church. The quizmaster was a member of the choir who got an occasional booking as a stand-up comedian, and used his skills to keep everyone cheerful as he went through the questions on religion. ‘The answer to the question where do Muslims go on the haj,’ he announced, ‘is Mecca … that’s Arabic for bingo.’ It wasn’t his best line of the evening, but the room was filled with a sound you never hear from the audiences of established comedians: a gasp as a taboo was broken.
I thought at the time that if Britain’s brave satirists fill the airwaves of Radio 4 and Channel 4 with attacks on Christians they can be sure won’t hurt them, while prudently steering clear of Islamists, who just might, the patience of even moderate and inoffensive Anglicans must snap. Since then, it has broken in two. We have had everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury down piling into British Airways for the bullying manner in which it suspended a check-in attendant for wearing a tiny cross. The Archbishop of York has condemned Whitehall for abandoning Christmas cards and Birmingham City Council for calling Christmas ‘Winterval’. They were part of a wider drive by an ‘illiberal atheism’ to wipe out Christianity in these islands, he concluded.
Last week, full-page adverts launched a histrionic campaign from the church’s evangelical wing against New Labour’s attempts to secure equality for homosexuals. The low point came when the Bishop of Rochester claimed ‘the poor and disadvantaged will be the losers’ if religious charities are forced to treat gays fairly.
Much can change before 25 December, but after the past fortnight, there is a fair chance that the hedonism and family quarrels of the traditional British Christmas will be overshadowed by religion, of all things.
Only the Tory press sympathised with the wild assault on equality under the law for homosexuals, but hardly anyone defended British Airways. Tellingly, only now can you see widespread anger at the failure to call Christmas by its proper name, although Birmingham City Council has been burbling about ‘Winterval’ since 1998.
The ferocity of the Church of England’s internal conflicts could make a Balkan warlord blanch. However, Ekklesia, a think-tank on the church’s left, and Anglican Mainstream, from its evangelical right, agreed on one point. They both told me that committed Christians with a sincere faith were just another minority – somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent of the population. But beyond them there were millions of people who could be glad that Christians were asserting themselves under special circumstances.
The 2001 census helps explain what can tip them over. Its finding that 71 per cent of the population of England and Wales – 42 million people – considered themselves Christians, bewildered many observers, not least dejected vicars staring at empty pews. No other recent survey had found anything close to such a high number, while in Scotland, a more religious country, only 67 per cent described themselves as Christians. But the Scottish census takers had taken care to keep questions about race and ethnicity far away from questions about religion. In England and Wales, they followed on from one another. As academic critics of the English census pointed out, militant Islam was on the march in 2001 and anger about asylum-seekers was at its highest. The census-takers then presented the public with a form that invited them to tick boxes from a list that included Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu and Sikh. There must have been a temptation to tick ‘Christian’ simply as a way of saying ‘we’re white and not Muslim’.
The march of militant Islam has not slowed in the last five years, and there has been a huge and wholly unexpected migration of hundreds of thousands from Eastern Europe. The white English in particular have become ever more uncertain of their national identity. They are told they must respect the culture of others, but rarely hear what parts of their culture others should admire.
The Italian journalist Antonio Polito defined what can happen when people with no religion worthy of the name feel their values are under threat. He invented the term ‘theo-con’ to describe secular and atheist Italians who nevertheless support the Pope as a defender of a Western civilisation which paradoxically protects their freedom to be irreligious. (An Italian who abandons Catholicism won’t be persecuted but a Saudi Arabian who abandons Islam most assuredly will.) Cardinal Ruini recently saluted his new sympathisers when he said that his church was glad when its ‘ethical issues … are shared with those who don’t have a Christian faith, or who don’t practise it’.
Do I need to say that such a turn in Britain would lead to a dead end? The Islamist far right is against democracy, human rights and the emancipation of women. You don’t defend these values by emphasising a Christian identity. Not because committed Christians, or committed Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs for that matter, can’t be democrats and feminists but because liberty and equality are political values, not religious ones. Look again at the evangelicals’ adverts against equal rights for homosexuals. They weren’t paid for by people concerned with defending human freedoms but obsessives with gays on the brain.
More seriously, those who emphasise a Christianity so vague it doesn’t extend to going to church, play into the hands of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. They make a ‘clash of civilisations’ a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are the Islamists on one side and ‘the Crusaders and Zionists’ on another and no middle ground in between.
The people who will suffer most will be those Muslims on whose shoulders the best hopes of hundreds of millions depend. Their opponents in dictatorial religious and political movements will be able to portray these courageous men and women who stand up for democratic values as the useful idiots of a Christian conspiracy.