Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Our Christian Inheritance

As part of the “we are a Christian nation” debate in Britain, both sides have accepted that our modern culture is founded on a distinctive Christian tradition. This obviously suits the Christian argument, but why would any secularist accept it? Part of the reason is that it is not a necessary part of the secular argument. Whether or not modern British attitudes are an inheritance from Christian times is irrelevant to the question of whether modern Britain is a Christian nation. It could be that modern society has grown out of a Christian culture, and yet is not now remotely Christian. 

The secularists are right in their reasoning:  the question of the Christian inheritance is irrelevant for the purpose of the “Christian nation” debate. But the extent and nature of our Christian inheritance is an interesting question in its own right. Exactly what aspects of modern British culture do we owe to Christianity?

Well let’s start by looking at the aspects of British culture that are most distinctive. First, tolerance. Where does the British love of tolerance come from? Well the first thing we can say is that it most definitely did not come from the Christian Church. For many centuries, the Christian Church killed anyone who disagreed with its doctrines. The Catholic Church did so before the Reformation in Britain. Protestants did so to a more limited extent after the Reformation. Both did so during the Reformation. Both imposed censorship. Both burned books. Both considered it an offence to fail to attend church or to pay Church taxes. Both opposed every attempt at liberalization. Our tradition of tolerance is entirely secular, defined in its modern form by men the Church regarded as its enemies: men like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, following the tradition of Voltaire, whom the Church also considered an enemy. 

So, not tolerance then. How about our modern concept of Justice? There are two main forms of law in the world: Common Law systems based on the English secular system, and Civil Law systems based on Roman Law. Church law is based on the Roman Law system so we have a simple comparison of the two legal traditions in England: Common Law against Church Law. All the features of the modern English legal system of which English law jurisdictions are so proud come from the secular Common Law. All of them. All of our familiar safeguards: trial by jury, open courts, the right to defense council, the right to hear and challenge prosecution evidence, the right to remain silent, the doctrine of double jeopardy, the concept of equality before the law, and so on. Significantly, all the safeguards built into the (amended) American Constitution are safeguards against the excesses of Cannon Law, not Common Law. Cannon law gave preference to certain groups, recognized no right of silence, and allowed torture to ensure that the accused could not remain silent. The concept of bastardy - punishing children for supposed sin of their parents - was just one, typical, invention of cannon law.

But what about all the social reforms? Wasn't the Church behind all those well-known social reforms? Didn't we all learn at school about great Christian reformers like William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Lord Shaftsbury and Florence Nightingale. Yes we did, but we were not told the full story. No-one asked or answered the question of why we needed reform after 1500 years during which Christian morality reigned supreme and unchallenged? Why was reform not carried out as soon as the Church became dominant? Why did we have to wait until secular ideas had already challenged Christian ideas, and become popular? Why did no one mention the names of the most influential reformers: all of them opposed by right-thinking Christians. Dozens of them are never mentioned in school classrooms: Thomas Paine opposed slavery two generations before William Wilberforce. Paine, “The Greatest Englishman”, was also the first to propose old age pensions. He was not a Christian so he was simply written out of school history. Utilitarian philosophers were far more influential than all Christian reformers put together, but you’re unlikely to have heard at school of the social reforms driven by J S Mill or Jeremy Bentham. You have probably never heard of Annie Bessant, Richard Carlile or Charles Bradlaugh. You might have heard of some Quakers who led reforms (Elizabeth Fry, John Howard,  the Rowntrees, the Cadburies, and many more). You were probably taught that they were admirable Christians, as they were. But you almost certainly did not hear that they were all opposed by mainstream Christians, and condemned as infidels,  as were all other reformers. Mainstream Christians opposed not just Utilitarians but atheists, Deists, Pantheists, socialists and a few fringe Christian evangelicals like Wilberforce. The bench of Bishops in the House of Lords voted together against every reform Bill put before parliament in the nineteenth century: child labour, safety at work, minimum wages, working hours, penal reform, women’s rights, extending the franchise - every single field of reform without exception. Churches and individual bishops were furious at having to lose their slaves when slavery was abolished, and hardly mollified by monetary compensation from the government for their loss. How did your history master miss that one?

The story is much the same in every area you can think of. The Church traditionally considered education as something for the rich and for those destined for a career in the Church. Catholic churchmen were outraged when they discovered that ordinary people were teaching themselves to read translations of the bible in the sixteenth century. Protestant churchmen were outraged to discover that ordinary people were teaching themselves to read the works of Thomas Paine in the late Eighteenth. The idea of Church schools for ordinary people was an innovation designed expressly to contain the problem in the nineteenth century (better to indoctrinate boys in biblical writings than let them alone and risk them chosing for themselves  what they read). The idea of teaching girls at all was anathema to everything the Church stood for. The main reason for not allowing women to recieve MAs at Oxford and Cambridge was specifically religious - An MA makes the holder a member of Convocation, a University body "holding authority over men", something that the bible says must not happen. Our only educational tradition still retained in modern British schools is the convention of misrepresenting the respective Christian and the secular contributions to reform.

But what about other areas of learning. Universities were originally religious foundations, designed like all educational establishments, to educate the rich and potential clergymen. No significant scientific advances were made in Universities in any field while the Church dominated their activities. Within the Church, any original thinkers across Europe were condemned as heretics. If you can think of any major advance in the millennium 500 - 1500, you will almost certainly find that it falls into one of three categories: rediscovered from classical times, introduced from non-Christian lands, or developed in Europe by a heretic condemned by the Christian Church.

Research was prohibited. The purpose of a University was indoctrination, not research. In the seventeenth century research became the field of wealthy independent noblemen, who created private societies to do what the universities were failing to do. The same story applied to philosophy. Significantly, Church philosophy is now of historical interest only. All modern major schools of philosophy, some based on classical pagan philosophies, are entirely secular. All modern advances in ethics – such as the concept of animal rights – are likewise entirely secular.

There are a few reminders of our Christian inheritance. At the benign end of the spectrum are church bells and soaring language of the Book of Common Prayer for public ceremonies. But most vestiges are not benign. We have senior clergymen concealing serious crimes, preaching homophobia and misogyny, telling lies about contraception, and interfering in politics. We still have bishops in the House of Lords, arranging for Church exemptions for themselves from all forms of equality legislation. In England, we still have people forced to sell their houses to pay surprise fees imposed by their Anglican parish church. We still have children denied medical attention by their Christian parents. We still have people, often children, killed during “exorcisms”. And of course we still have a host of Christian inspired laws that restrict what we can do on Sundays.

In truth, our Christian inheritance is relatively small and almost all unwelcome. Pretty much everything we have that is worth having comes not from Christian tradition but from opposition to Christian tradition. 

It’s not much of a record for the Churches to shout about.


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