Christianity, Cameron and the Cymry

John Winterson Richards asks whether David Cameron’s comments on Christianity also apply to Wales.

For much, possibly most, of its two thousand year history, Christianity has appeared on the verge of imminent extinction.

Predictions of its demise began almost immediately, when its Founder was executed, His supporters ran away, and His hand-picked second-in-command went around telling strangers that he had never met the man. That was just the beginning of two millennia of persistent near-death experience for the Church.

There followed waves of persecution, the early career of Saul of Tarsus, Nero, Domitian, Decius, Diocletian, then the Arian Heresy, Julian the Apostate, the Barbarian Invasions, the Fall of the Roman Empire, a thousand years of Islamic expansion, the Norsemen, the Dark Ages, the Great Schism, the Mongols, the Fall of Constantinople, Deism, the Encyclopaedists, the French Revolution, Higher Criticism, Marxism, National Socialism – the list could go on. Each prompted many Christians to fear the end was nigh and many non-Christians to hope they were right. Yet here we are, two thousand years later. Christianity has always stood at the graves of its opponents – or converted them.

The latest to predict the end of Christianity are a small but vociferous and well-connected lobby of militant atheists, calling themselves secularists. Their strategy has been to keep saying Britain is a secular country loud enough and long enough until everyone believes it must be true. Since they are disproportionately strong in the media and the education system, they have had disproportionate influence.

So they were obviously upset when David Cameron stated that Britain is still a Christian country. The point here is that Mr Cameron is, by his own admission, not a particularly religious man. His statement seems therefore to be based on the shrewd calculation that there are more votes in saying Britain is Christian than in saying Britain is secular. That such a coldly objective assessment can come to such a conclusion is itself strong evidence that Britain is more Christian than secular.

In any case, Mr Cameron is factually correct. The United Kingdom, with its Established Churches, is constitutionally and legally a Christian country. It is also culturally a Christian country. It is impossible to understand British history and literature without a thorough knowledge of Christianity, and Christianity has also had a profound and continuing influence on the evolution of art, music, politics, economics, law, ethics, and social conventions and organisation in Britain.

Then there is the obvious fact that a majority choose to describe themselves as Christian. If many of these are lacking in knowledge of, and commitment to, the specific doctrines of the Christian faith, that was true even in supposedly more ‘religious’ times. The fact remains that most Britons believe in some form of Higher Power, and a majority of these choose to align that belief with the traditional faith of their forefathers. What they are saying is that they are not secularists.

Nor should too much be read into the statistic that relatively few are now Church-goers. Since the publication of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone in 1995, it has been well-documented that organised social activity in general has been in decline throughout the Western world. Most clubs, charities, political parties, and fraternal societies suffer from the same membership and attendance problems as most religious denominations.

Any feeling that the concept of a ‘Christian country’ is incompatible with toleration of other faiths can be dispelled by actually talking with practising members of those other faiths. Devout Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, and their mainstream leaders in this country, often express surprise that Christians are not more assertive about their beliefs – and many say they wish Christian leaders stood up for shared religious values more.

Secularists who are grudgingly forced to admit that the faith of the majority is closer to Christianity than to atheism then suggest that these ‘private opinions’ nevertheless have no place in the ‘public forum.’ This is nonsense. An individual’s core beliefs, or lack thereof, must inevitably influence his actions, in private, in business – and in the voting booth. Hardly anyone advocates setting up a theocracy in this country today, but an increasing number feel that, far from forcing politicians to leave their consciences at the door, we need leaders with stronger principles to fill the moral void near the top.

So Christianity certainly has a place in public life in Britain as a whole – but what of Wales?

The big difference here is that the Disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales in 1914 means that Wales as Wales has no Established Church. By a curious irony, the Church in Wales now enjoys a larger attendance than any of the Nonconformist denominations whose popularity in the 19th Century was the key factor in Disestablishment.

Still Wales is as culturally Christian as Britain as a whole – perhaps more so in some ways.

Although media reports of the 2011 Census in Wales focussed on the decline of the number of self-described Christians, and the increase in the number of unbelievers, the most important statistic remains that a majority of Welsh people consider themselves Christians. Indeed self-described Christians outnumber unbelievers two-to-one. The proportion of people who call themselves Christians is about the same in Wales as it is in Britain as a whole. These basic facts are too often overlooked in discussion of the place of Christianity in public affairs in Wales.

Also overlooked is the role of Christianity in defining who the Welsh are as a nation. It was their common Christian faith that first enabled people from different ethnic backgrounds to unite against the pagan Anglo-Saxons and become the Cymry. Religion was not the cause of their war with the invaders, but it gave our ancestors the strength and cohesion they needed to fight effectively.

At the same time the Celtic Church was the repository of their culture, their knowledge, their literature, and their arts. The Roman Catholic Church in Wales later took on this role. The Kings of England understood its importance, and their military operations were paralleled by diplomatic and intellectual campaigns to take over the Welsh Bishoprics. They knew that to control the Welsh Church was to control the soul of Welsh nationhood. After the Bishoprics fell to English control, Abbeys became the ideological centres of Welsh resistance. As a result they were especially targeted by English expeditionary forces in a deliberate attempt to deprive the Welsh of their cultural heritage.

Much later, it was the Nonconformist Chapels which became, in turn, the storehouses and hothouses of Welsh language, literature, and music. It is no coincidence that, as they declined, so did a clearly defined independent Welsh culture. The history of Welsh culture is to a very great extent the history of Welsh Christianity.

If there was sometimes a touch of the Pharisee about the Chapels, there was also kindness, generosity, and social cohesion to be found there that has not been found anywhere else since. According to the Census, unbelief in Wales is greatest in the Valleys – Blaenau Gwent is the second most atheist place in Britain – where secular socialist attempts to build social cohesion without religion have failed miserably.

It has become fashionable to say that one is ‘spiritual but not into organised religion.’ Faith is indeed ultimately about an individual’s relationship with God, but it also has social consequences. One of those communal side-effects was the forging and preservation of Welsh identity, and the decline of organised religion in Wales has left a vacuum that nothing else has been able to fill.

John Winterson Richards was the last Leader of the Opposition on Cardiff City Council under the old system and the only Conservative elected to the new Cardiff County Council in 1995. He is now a political independent and is not affiliated with any religious denomination.

6 thoughts on “Christianity, Cameron and the Cymry

  1. This is the Christianity that has fostered and promoted thousands of years of persecution on an unprecedented scale – downgrading of the feminine, the Crusades, slavery, British imperialist expenditions, and so forth, were all executed by men clutching Bibles. Like many people today – and certainly post-Englightenment – we should strive to achieve a better society through rational discourse and inclusive democratic practice. Let us not drag ourselves back into anachronistic religious adherence. If England and Cameron want Christ as an emblem of their nation then so be it. But Wales, surely, must rise about fear and superstition.

  2. I suppose if describing modern Britain as a ‘culturally’ Christian country provides comfort to some people, I don’t have a problem with that and wouldn’t argue the toss on the evidence (I accept John’s argument in that respect), and I accept the argument that vast swathes of British society have only ever been ‘culturally’ Christian from the Middle Ages onwards (it is one thing to attend mass because it’s a social (sometimes legal) requirement and quite another to ‘believe’ in transubstantiation). What modern Britain is patently not is a ‘theologically’ Christian country, and in that respect it is very different to, say, 19th century Britain (and dissenting and nonconformist Wales in particular). Very few understand, and even less believe in Christian theology and therefore in any meaningful sense (such as that applied by Rowan Williams only last week), Britain is now ‘theologically’ secular.

    Personally I am less concerned with the demise of organised Christian religion and its function in disseminating Christian theology, as I am in the demise of ethics as a subject of discussion, dialogue and consideration in the public sphere more generally. For better or for worse, organised religion was a very effective vehicle for the consideration of ethics (and packaging up of complex philosophical ideas into bite-sized pieces) in public life, and no secular equivalent has yet managed to perform this task adequately: unless one believes that the ‘telly’ is an adequate forum for ethics (and I’m not saying it isn’t, it just isn’t proven).

    Positivists no doubt delight at this prospect since for them humanity is subject only to natural law and what will be will be… Idealists no doubt question whether all is what it seems to be in the physical world and lament the demise of humanist inquiry and intervention.

    We should always be careful what we wish for though… a world where human ‘ideas’ are dismissed as epistemologically inauthentic is not only problematic from a philosophical perspective but also a very lonely place for a sentient human being to live out his three score years and ten.

    Vivat nihil?

  3. You can be a secularist – believing there is no role for religious ritual in state functions or ceremonies – without being an atheist. Most of the leaders of the American and French revolutions were not atheists but they wanted the state to be secular. They saw secularism as a precondition for religious freedom. Where one faith has official status, discrimination and even persecution are all too possible.

  4. You say “The United Kingdom, with its Established Churches, is constitutionally and legally a Christian country”

    Do tell us more please about the established church here in Wales.

    Several people I know were surprised at Mr Cameron’s comments about Christianity, thinking perhaps unfairly that the present Whitehall Government had more to do with serving Mammon.

  5. JRW, fifty leading secularists cared enough to sign a letter of protest against the Prime Minister’s comment – and of course others, including yourself, cared enough to post comments here! Indeed, it is interesting that the secularist minority tend to be most active in commenting online on these topics.

    Mark, war, oppression, and slavery are fairly constant throughout human history, but it is hard to argue that the teachings of Jesus, when properly understood and applied, have not had a mitigating effect.

    Phil, you raise an important point. Actual faith, social religion, and ethics are three different things, but are more often than not closely related. As you probably know, it is the sceptic David Hume, incidentally a man of the strictest personal and intellectual integrity, who still provides the best demonstration of the difficulty in providing a solid philosophical foundation for ethics if revealed religion is excluded.

    Mr Tredwyn, you are quite right that it is quite possible to be a believer and a secularist – indeed most of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the USA wanted a separation of Church and State precisely because they were believers – but there is no denying that the present secular lobby in Britain is overwhelmingly atheist.

    Gav, the article did refer to the Disestablishment of the Church in Wales.

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