Published on
6 April 2011

Britain on the Brink: What has Christian Faith to Do with Essential Values?

By: The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali


The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali had his early education in Pakistan where he has a family background that is both Christian and Muslim. He holds British and Pakistani citizenships. His university education was received at Karachi, Cambridge and Oxford, and he has taught theology at university level in both countries. In Pakistan he served as an Anglican parish priest, as Provost of Lahore Cathedral, and as first Bishop of Raiwind. From 1994 until his resignation in 1999 he was Bishop of Rochester, the first non-white diocesan bishop in the Church of England. He has published widely and spoken often on themes related to faith and public policy, and he has been untiring in pointing out the importance of the Judaeo-Christian tradition to the future of the West. He is besides a poet in both English and Persian. The following is the transcript of a seminar paper given by the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir Ali at the Thomas More Institute on 6 April 2011

I think we shall all agree that in recent years we have been through a number of crises. There has been, first of all, the financial crisis when we discovered that the people we trusted with our money were not, after all, to be trusted, and that those who were going to make us and the nation rich have actually put us all into debt – and not just ourselves but also the next generation. Then, just as we were coming back, as it were, from that crisis, we were struck by the political crisis, the expenses scandal and all of that. Again the underlying theme was that the people who are our political masters cannot be trusted. That is a very serious matter in a democracy. At the same time, of course, we were discovering that British-born young people were capable of planting bombs and indulging in suicide bombing on our streets, indeed in this very city.

Now, when confronted by these crises, politicians come up with words, do they not? They are experts at words, as clergy are – or are supposed to be –, and they come up with ‘respect’, ‘tolerance’, ‘fairness’ and other such terms. In my view these are rather thin values. They cannot make for a national living together or cohesion, and for a tradition thick enough to support national life. Where do such values come from? That is the question! To answer that question in Britain we must ask from where Britain has come. How is it that England, and then Britain, has actually become a nation? And the answer clearly is that, where the observer sees warring tribes, petty kingdoms, years of feuding and so forth, the cohesion first given to England came out of the arrival of the Christian Faith and the organisation that it brought. It was not just limited to the Church herself. You will recall the abortive European Union (EU) Constitution and its (to my mind) notorious preamble which celebrated all sorts of things about Europe. The legacy of the Romans was mentioned, and I wondered which part of that legacy was to be celebrated. The Romans were a people special if not unique in using cruelty for pleasure, and that is something very difficult for us now to understand. Then democracy was laid at the door of the Greeks, but was it really democracy? Women were excluded from it. Slaves, whom Aristotle called ‘living tools’ were excluded. The key point, however, was the absence of any mention at all of Christianity. That was quite remarkable, because no one looking at Europe in terms of material or intellectual or literary civilisation can ignore the influence, for good or ill, of the Christian Faith over the centuries.

If we say that Britain as a nation has come to be because of the Christian Faith, how has that been? How did that happen? Maurice Cowling, the Cambridge historian, has identified what he calls the descending themes of what has made Britain a nation: first of all, the Christian doctrine of God, of God the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – where there is to be found both order and mutuality. The Son is clearly not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. There is in God equality and mutuality of love. This doctrine affected the way in which society itself was being organised. Then, secondly, there is the idea of the godly magistrate or ruler who had responsibility for the domain over which he ruled, and who was owed obedience. After that, of course, there is the influence of the Decalogue, of the Ten Commandments. In the United States these days they are busily removing tablets of the Ten Commandments from the law-courts. Well, that can be done, but it cannot actually take away the influence of the Ten Commandments over the legal traditions of this country and of much of the Western World. Now, according to Joan O’Donovan, a well-known evangelical theologian, this descending theme in the organising of the nation brought about a society where there was a network of Human, Divine and Natural Law, a society characterised by mutual obligation. That is not how we think of our society today. We might well ask, for example, how a society built on mutual obligation has come to be one wherein all stand on their rights.

In addition to Cowling’s descending theme, there was also an ascending theme, so to speak. This came with the gradual rediscovery of Aristotle – a very significant story because he was rediscovered in the West by way of the Islamic World. He had earlier been made available to the Islamic world mainly by Christian clergy. Clergy do have their uses… but their role in making Aristotle available to Islamic civilisation is almost never mentioned in western universities. In any event, the West did receive Aristotle back again. It read the Bible in the light of Aristotle, or, as it is difficult to say which came first, vice versa, and there emerged in writing and talk the notion of the individual as an agent, a moral agent – that is to say, a person who can make a difference in this world. The difference might be limited, but no less real for all that. Such a person was to some extent free: an agent and free.

This brought into discussion the question of conscience and how it was to be formed if free agents were to behave responsibly. In the medieval world that was, of course, the work of the Church, but nevertheless recognition of conscience, and of the importance of its formation, is absolutely essential to consideration of society. Alongside conscience there came to the fore the notion of consent. If the descending theme emphasised divine justice, or, if you like, divine right – a society formed as God wanted it to be –, there now appeared also a realisation of a need for consent to the governance of those who govern. The whole tradition of Magna Carta, and of successive declarations that kings had to make thereafter, is grounded on the idea that people must consent to how they are to be governed, and by whom.

Then the idea of the individual as possessed of ‘natural rights’, if you like, took on new life when the Americas were discovered. The question was what rights, if any, the indigenous peoples of the Americas had. There were many people, whole schools of thought, including humanists for example, who denied that the indigenous peoples had any rights whatsoever because a) they were not Christian; and b) they had not attained a level of civilisation that equipped them with rights. There were huge commercial and other interests which took up such a position. Against this, Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas of Mexico, a Dominican, formed the view that the Indians (as they were called) had fundamental rights: rights to the safety of their persons; rights to family, property, mobility, and to land so that they might feed themselves and their children. These natural rights could not be taken away from them, even if they were not Christian and not civilised (whatever that meant). This debate began in the Americas and then, as you know, achieved currency in some European universities, particularly that of Salamanca where the Dominicans were very influential. It was from there that the ‘moderate enlightenment’, personified in figures like John Locke, acquired the idea of natural rights which was still denied by very influential Europeans. Locke is interesting because, whilst he vigorously defended the idea of natural rights in Europe he was himself involved in very dubious enterprises in North America that did not help Indian peoples. There are all sorts of contradictions involved in this.

Now, the eighteenth-century Evangelical revival in this country produced people who discovered in the Bible that all human beings had been made in God’s image. This was one of the reasons why Evangelicals turned against the slave trade and slavery. A fellow human being could not be enslaved because he or she was also made in God’s image. The other reason they turned against slavery was their belief that the Gospel had to be preached to everyone and that this demanded a free response. People had to be free to respond to the Gospel. Of course the Evangelicals were not concerned only with slavery, but also with the situation of men, women and children in the factories and mines of this country where their condition was not much better than that of slaves: children who never saw daylight; women who worked all hours; the absence of industrial laws to regulate working conditions; etc. Now, whilst the Evangelicals took their inspiration from the Bible, the language they used to further their case in arguments in Parliament and in writing bills, many of which failed for many years, was that of the moderate enlightenment. That is the whole point. Eventual improvements in terms of industrial law and universal education, it is worth remembering, were not the product of the State but rather of the Church. An ‘Evangelical-Enlightenment’ consensus came to exist from early in the nineteenth century and it brought to Britain many of the things we take for granted: industrial legislation, universal education, and the revival of nursing as a caring profession, among many other examples that might be given. This consensus remained in force, generally speaking, until about the 1950s, and only then did it begin to dissolve.

Why, and how? There are usually two answers given. The first is that of the long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith, with the secularisation of the European mind over many years, and there is truth in this.

One important aspect of this answer is the disappearance of the teleological. With the progress of empirical science there was an increasing ability to tell us what things were, and how they worked, but not what they were for, what their purpose was. If teleology is separated from study of the world, the human person and society, that has implications for how we think about ourselves and for how society thinks of itself and the world.

A second aspect was the disappearance of a transcendent reference. I shall return to that later, but suffice it to say here that everything could seemingly be explained in ‘this-worldly’ terms. That was the claim. Causality was reduced to physical causality and the importance of agents, whether human or divine, was ignored.

A third aspect of this answer was a change in our view of time. The idea of time that we have is a biblical one. No other culture or religion or faith-tradition has a view of time that is forward-moving and progressive. Every other religious tradition that I know preceding the Bible has a cyclical view of time wherein things go around endlessly in circles. The view of time with which we work is biblical, but with a difference: it has been secularised. The biblical view had points in it that led us beyond ourselves. There were Jewish festivals and then the festivals of the Church, and it is very instructive that in our time ‘holy days’ have become ‘holidays’.

There is, however, another answer or thesis about what happened, and that is ‘sudden death’ or the holding that it was not a long drawn-out process so much as something that happened in the 1960s. Callum Brown in The Death of Christian Britain has identified some examples.

One of them is the changed role of women. He points out that for hundreds of years the faith was passed on by women in the home: not principally by the Church, not by the schools, but in the home. For some reason, from the 1960s onwards women stopped doing this.

Students, meanwhile, were revolting. But what exactly were they doing? When I arrived in Cambridge the Faculty of Economics had just been occupied. When the police asked the students, ‘What are you doing?’, they would reply, ‘The University authorities have secret files on us’. If asked, ‘Where are those files?’, they would respond, ‘We do not know, because they are secret’.

There was, of course a concerted effort by what you might call ‘neo-Marxist’ writers – for example, Marcuse, Lukács and Gramsci – who were preparing the ground in Western Europe for a political Marxist revolution. That was the aim, but social revolution was to precede it. That is why the family was attacked. That is why the Church, parliamentary democracy, the judiciary, and all ‘bourgeois’ institutions were undermined and assaulted. The political revolution never arrived, but the social revolution did come. Some people, including many at the London School of Economics like Anthony Giddens, made the aims of the social revolution their ultimate aims. They pressed for ‘free relationships’. What are ‘free relationships’? Where there is no socio-religious or religio-social sanction for a relationship, it lasts only as long as mutual desire. That has played havoc with the stability of the family. Now these sorts of things dissolved the Evangelical-Enlightenment consensus, and we are presented with the great danger of a spiritual and moral vacuum.

We have seen the demise of Marxism but the world, including this country, is now facing the challenge of another comprehensive political, social and economic ideology, namely Islamism. What resources do the West generally and this country in particular have for responding to the challenge of Islamism? That must be one of the questions to ask.

The movement I sketched earlier, and which Prof. Brenda Almond has chronicled so well, has led often to dissolution of the family. At the very time when research is telling us that children need fathers and relate to them in a way quite distinct from that in which they relate to mothers, fathers are being written out of the law. It is very strange but all sorts of examples can be given about this. We must ask what we are to do about that.

There are many people, of course, who in no way want to return to any kind of Christian consensus. They have organised their lives very differently and would be greatly inconvenienced if Christianity were to put in an appearance. On the other hand, a specific question must be tackled, and it is this: ‘How – on what grounds – are decisions on policy and on legislation to be made without a moral and spiritual tradition? In my work on the Human Fertilisation and Embriology Authority, I found decisions were being made either by opinion poll, on the basis of what the public thinks about any particular matter today; or by focus groups; or, again, by what politicians call the ‘yuck factor’ which is what the public will not accept for the time being. In the case of the last-mentioned, of course, you work on the public for a few years and then, lo and behold, in a few years time they are able to accept it after all.

What are the ‘thick’ values we need for national living together? The first, clearly, is the dignity of all human beings. All modern declarations from the American Declaration of Independence to the United Nations Declaration, then on to the European Convention and our own Human Rights Act, acknowledge the inalienable dignity of the human person. But on what is that based? More and more scientific research seems to tell us that we are like animals. If the charge of what Peter Singer has called ‘speciesism’ is to be met some basis has to be discovered for a human dignity which cannot be taken away by other human beings.

The origin of the idea of inalienable dignity is the biblical teaching that human beings have been made in God’s image. I was once with Mary Warnock in a discussion group on the Mental Capacity Bill, which became the Mental Capacity Act. It had originally been called the Mental Incapacity Bill but the Government decided it was not a very felicitous title, so they changed the title but not the Bill. The question at issue was whether a human person loses dignity if unable any longer to respond to the signals of others. Mary Warnock immediately said, ‘Of course, there can never be a situation where human beings lose their dignity’. I replied, ‘Well, I am very glad to hear this, but on what do you base what you are saying?’. Her response was, ‘It is that Judeo-Christian idea, is it not, that we are made in God’s image’. I could only retort, ‘Well, Hallelujah, I do believe that, and I am very glad that you do, too!’. That alerts us to the fact that even an agnostic philosopher – if we can call her that, and she probably would not accept the description – does have to come back, sometimes, to transcendental values. This matter of a dignity of the human person that must be respected is utterly crucial for legislation, whether concerned with the earliest stages or last moments of life – even indeed for persons in mid-life, as I have just indicated.

The original HFE Act of 1990 prescribed a special status for the embryo, even if you and I might retort that it was not in fact sufficiently respected. Since 1990, however, what we have seen is a dilution of that recognition in a variety of ways. The integrity of the embryo has not been respected, nor indeed has that of the foetus. Consider also the case of euthanasia and assisted suicide. If I had, as a reasonably ordinary member of the House of Lords, introduced a private Bill to the House, it might in the normal course of events have had one reading only, and then no one would ever have heard of it again. Why, then, does Lord Joffe’s Bill, which has been so many times defeated keep coming back in all sorts of guises that are more and more difficult to spot? This is, once again, a question about human dignity.

A couple of years ago I was invited by the Equality Commission when it was first set up to address it. On receiving the invitation I said to my secretary, ‘There must be some mistake, as I am not the sort of bishop the Equality Commission would want to invite!’. She double-checked and told me that there was no mistake. So I went and discovered large numbers of very well disposed people beavering away at the ‘equality industry’. They had not the haziest notion of why people are equal. On the face of it, they are not equal at all: differentially endowed mentally and physically, they are wealthy and poor; black, white, brown, and yellow. Men are not women, and women not men (praise the Lord!). Why, then, should we say human beings are equal?

The answer is that they are equal because of a common origin. When I was General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, our missionaries used to go around preaching in the settler towns of Australia. Quite often they would choose their text from Acts 17. In the old translation it read, ‘Out of one blood hath he made all the nations of men’. Out of one blood… Frequently such missionaries were run out of these towns because the settlers were unwilling to accept that aboriginals were of the same blood as them. Darwin, as you may know, was hugely embarrassed that publication of The Origin of Species led to a variety of ‘scientistic’ racism in both the United States and Europe, with people arguing for variant origins of the different human races. This was indeed the basis of southern racism in the United States right up to our own times. It was also used by European fascists in the mid-twentieth century. The Bible’s teaching is, however, one of common origin, and the science of genetics has happily proved it correct.

What then of liberty, another ‘thick’ value we need for living together? Well, people say that that the Exodus trajectory, one of liberation – the freedom of peoples and of individuals –, is more fundamental in the Bible even than the Creation trajectory. That may or may not be so, but the idea of God freeing people is certainly basic to the Bible story. And this is why oppressed people, like the African-Americans for instance, have always found in the Exodus story a way of expressing their own situation and their own aspirations. Jesus never coerced a response to his teaching and his own person.

I was reading an interesting interview recently with Pope Benedict. The journalist said to the Pope: ‘For years the Roman Catholic Church has been saying ‘error has no rights’. Why, then, are you now defending religious freedom?’. The Pope replied that the Church had gone back to the earliest form of the tradition, the teaching of Jesus himself. That was a very good answer, and the Church must always be ready to go back to the earliest forms of traditions. Liberty, then, is a particularly Christian idea that has arisen in a Christian context.

Many other examples could be given in the history of this nation. What about ‘safety from harm’ which is, in a way, the leading idea that shapes legislation today? Some would go so far as to say that the Health and Safety Executive is the real government of this country. But, we must ask, safety from harm for whom or what? Just the individual? At present, it amounts more or less to that, but the famous debate between Lord Devlin and H.L.A. Hart in the 1950s brought into play whether safety from harm should include also protection of vital social institutions like the family. I think Devlin lost that debate in terms of what has actually happened in legislation ever since then, but should he have lost it? That is the question.

Let us turn to multiculturalism. The tragedy is that people from many parts of the world began to arrive in this country at almost the very time when the country was losing its Christian discourse. It found itself unable to respond to the new arrivals on a secure foundation. In the absence of anything else multiculturalism was invented, built on a very unsafe English idea of tolerance which quite often amounts only to neglect – benign neglect perhaps, but neglect nonetheless. There was a kind of amnesia about the local background, and the British people, not knowing who they were at that point and definitely not knowing who the others were, settled for all carrying on living in their own ways without having much to do with one another. The ruling elites especially were not much affected personally, and came to such such arrangements on the basis that all would be happier that way. This has resulted in segregated ghettoes and virtually segregated education – which would be much worse, by the way, without church schools – in many parts of the country. Housing policy is seemingly designed to segregate communities, and to promote a lack of social mobility among the young. That has afforded opportunities, as we all know, for extremists to peddle their wares. It would have been possible then, and it is still possible now, to say to the diverse elements in this country that they are most welcome, but on the basis of Christian hospitality: ‘This is who we are; this is how we have been shaped as a nation; this is how our laws, our institutions and our values have come to be. You are most welcome here to contribute to the further development of this tradition’. Multiculturalism, however, began with an alleged ‘tabula rasa’ founded on collective amnesia, and it has brought about the problems we now face.

There are some people, of course, who, while admitting the necessity of Christian values to the country, hold that faith is no longer needed once values are in place. The former Cabinet minister, Chris Smith and a friend of his have written a book about the matter. The argument amounts to saying: ‘Yes, we have climbed a ladder, and now that we are up we can kick it away’. In my experience, kicking away the ladder is not always a good idea, because you may well find you need it after all. Could it be that values actually depend for continuance and survival on the faith, and that if we lose the faith we shall also, eventually, lose the values? Are we, in fact, living in some kind of after-glow with some vestigial values? If the cat has disappeared will the smile in due course follow it? Some politicians take a variant line: even if it be accepted that our values have come from the Judeo-Christian tradition, all religions surely produce the same values. Well, do they? Islamism will always emphasise social solidarity against personal freedom. A Muslim friend of mine who is not an Islamist by any stretch of the imagination said to me once: ‘Bishop, we never know when you are fasting’. I replied: ‘Jesus said that people should not know when we are fasting’. Before I had finished my response he cut in to say: ‘Yes, but in Islam fasting is a social act’. The values of service, sacrifice, and humility are rooted in the Christian tradition, while other traditions might well stress honour and shame and piety. Buddhism is a sublime system of belief but at its heart is the necessity of denying that there is such a thing as a human person: suffering follows from deceptions, one of which is to believe in the enduring reality of the human person. That can be investigated philosophically, but such an outlook is not going to produce a developed view of the sacredness of the human person. David Cameron has adopted ‘the happiness index’ from Bhutan, and there are many good things in it, but there is nothing in it about personal freedom which is lacking in that country. It is, then, certainly not true that all religions produce the same values.

‘Programmatic secularism’ believes in progress without purpose. It is libertarian in focus – ‘anything goes’ – and does not look much at the implications further along the road. The individual is stressed over social need and social institutions. It is often in thrall to scientific developments. At the HFEA I found libertarians falling over themselves to allow the latest scientific assault on the embryo. Programmatic secularism is a great danger to this country because it will lead further and further away from the values basis of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Alongside programmatic secularism there is also what we might call ‘procedural secularism’. This takes for granted a ‘tabula rasa’. I was talking to a church bureaucrat the other day and he told me he had been invited to take part in a consultation on celebrating civil partnerships in religious buildings. I asked him if he thought his participation would make any difference. He replied in the negative, but told me he was very pleased that he had been invited. Procedural secularism co-opts people on the assumption of a ‘tabula rasa’ to which all must contribute. But there is, of course, no ‘tabula rasa’. Secularist assumptions inform everything that goes on, and, even if they did not, something else would have to perform the task. At one time it might have been Marxism. It might be Islamism. It could even be the Judeo-Christian tradition!

I turn now to law. It is quite clear that law must have a moral basis if it is to have any force. Otherwise it simply becomes tyranny. Of course it is true that people without any religious belief can be very moral, but it is a matter of fact that the great legal systems have arisen within religious traditions: the laws of Manu, the Torah of Israel, the Sharia of Islam, or the Canon Law of the Church. Western public law arose in a Judeo-Christian context, in particular christianised Roman Law and the Canon Law of the Church. It has over time, of course, acquired proper autonomy in relation to particular religious bodies.

Parliamentarians and judges must acknowledge that autonomy but, on the other hand, they must also recognise conscience. Britain has had a long tradition of so recognising it. Consider the question of conscientious objection in time of war. Even the notorious Abortion Act of 1967 acknowledged conscience. Recent legislation, however, such as the so-called equality legislation, does not. This is a very serious departure.

Ought Sharia to be acknowledged in the public law of this country? Both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chief Justice have argued the case for it. My own view is that it should not be so acknowledged. To do so would introduce a principle of contradiction into the body of the law. The Archbishop and the Lord Chief Justice both offered Sharia ‘family law’ as an example softer aspect which might be recognised. Even this would be a mistake. At the moment bigamy is a crime in this country. Could it remain a crime if Sharia were recognised? Would it remain a crime for everyone? If not, what would happen to the principle of one law for all? What about divorce? In the public law of the West men and women are treated equally in such matters. That is not the case in Sharia which recognises three great inequalities: those between man and woman, between Muslim and non-Muslim, and between slave and free. You cannot get around this. What about custody of children? At almost the same time that the Lord Chief Justice was arguing for Sharia family law to be recognised in this country’s public law, the Law Lords were having one of their last sittings before they were transmuted into a Supreme Court. I sat with them because a bishop had to sit to lead the prayers when they gave decisions on appeals. On this occasion they upheld an appeal by a Lebanese woman against deportation on the basis that if she were deported to the Lebanon her son would there be taken away from her under Sharia law and given to her husband. This, held their Lordships, would violate her fundamental human rights. What about inheritance? Sharia laws of inheritance are unequal, and so are laws of evidence where women and men, or indeed non-Muslims and Muslims, are concerned.

There are many other reasons why Sharia should not be recognised in the public law of this country. What religious communities do in their own internal affairs is another matter, but it should be absolutely non-negotiable that everyone have access to the courts and to equal police protection. I once asked a minister a question in the House of Lords, as to whether he could affirm equal police protection in every part of the country. In replying he suggested I was referring to ‘the cultural sensitivity of our police’. Well, what does that mean? Does that mean that if a middle-eastern or Asian woman is beaten at home and finds herself in a police station the police are to summon a community liaison officer to take her back home where she is to be beaten again? We must have a tradition of common law which both respects conscience and guarantees access to the courts as well as equal protection to everyone.