The Tablet is an international Catholic weekly published in Britain. It was founded in 1840, a time when British Catholics still suffered from various civil disabilities. Today it is a very useful source of information about events and ideas in the world of the Roman faith. In its issue of February 18, 2012, it published two separate but related stories that captured my attention.
The first story deals with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who is the first Muslim woman to be a cabinet minister (in the government of David Cameron); she is also a co-chairman of the Conservative Party, with Basil Feldman. (The name suggests that he is Jewish. Googling him did not divulge his religious identity. I cannot help hoping that he is Jewish: I love the idea that the old party of Colonel Blimp may now be headed by a Jew and a Muslim.) Warsi, who was elevated to the peerage as a true and trusted Tory, is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. She was raised in Yorkshire (whose distinctive accents still echo in her speech).
The story reports on her heading a British ministerial delegation to the Vatican. During this visit she gave an address at a prestigious Catholic institution in Rome, during which she agreed with the view of Pope Benedict XVI about the important place of religion in public discourse. She also agreed with the Pope’s opposition to a militant secularism growing in Europe (as recently exhibited by a court decision prohibiting prayers to be said at meetings of a town council in Devon—possibly a case of American influence by way of ACLU-type Kemalism). Warsi elaborated in an interview with The Tablet (it took place in the House of Lords—where else would an honest-to-goodness baroness give an interview?): “Aggressive secularism is pushing faith out of any public place. Europe would not try to erase the church spires on our horizons; then why would you try to erase our religious history or the role of Christianity in the development of values in our nations? Europe needs to be more in tune with its Christian identity” (my italics).
Some time earlier Warsi had drawn attention by an address headed “This Government does God”. The title was an allusion to a statement by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary, “We don’t do God here” (expressing a widespread secularism in the Labour Party, continuing despite Blair’s personal Christian piety). Warsi was signaling that a Conservative government did not have this prejudice. In the interview she mentioned that her daughter attends a Catholic convent school: “My daughter’s own Islamic faith is strengthened by the Christian influence in her school. She says the Lord’s Prayer, she knows all the hymns and Christmas carols.”
The other story deals with an address by Queen Elizabeth at a meeting with representatives of what was intriguingly called “the nine faiths of the United Kingdom”, hosted at Lambeth Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Queen defended the role of the Church of England, “woven in the fabric of society”. She also defended the state establishment of the Church. The purpose of the established Church, she said, is “not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of all faiths in this country. Instead the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” If one knows something about the ecclesiastical history of England, there is some irony here. The Queen is still formally head of the Church of England, and one of her titles, solemnly pronounced at her coronation is “Defender of the Faith”. The title was bestowed by the Pope on Henry VIII, a reward for his having written a fierce theological attack against Martin Luther. Needless to say, this was before he broke with the Pope, who would not bless Henry’s divorce of his wife and marriage to his mistress, the unfortunate, soon-to-be-beheaded Anne Boleyn. These less than spiritual origins of the Church of England should not influence an appreciation of some of its later accomplishments. (A Christian, and indeed a Muslim, might say that God works in wondrous ways.) Be this as it may, Queen Elizabeth II has now implicitly (though not in so many words) re-titled herself as “Defender of the Faiths”. (It is fair to say that no party in the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century would have been happy with this re-interpretation.)
A suitable comment applicable to both stories was made, in response to the Queen’s address, by Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain: “The Church of England has a resonance and a significance beyond the Church of England; it is the best of a gathering of religious diversity.” By the way, Sacks, who also sits in the House of Lords, is staunchly Orthodox. He tells the following story to illustrate the ingrained pragmatism of British political culture: The parade accompanying the monarch to Parliament to give the Speech from the Throne (which of course is dictated by the Prime Minister) is led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ahead of him a cross is carried, behind him are representatives of all the other faiths. Sacks protested that, as an observant Jew, he could not march behind a cross. The order of the parade was accordingly changed: First the Chief Rabbi, then the cross, then the Archbishop.
There are two lessons to be drawn from these stories. As to the Church of England, apart from its participation in the quirkiness of English life, something that English people generally value (rightly so, I think) and that others often find puzzling, its official role has merits that should not be overlooked. Grace Davie, a sharply insightful British sociologist, has cited the merit of a weak establishment of religion, of which the Church of England today is a prime example (she has also discussed in similar vein the role of equally weak Lutheran churches in Scandinavia). A strong establishment, one that has real power in the state, is very likely to be oppressive. That was certainly so in past English history, as Puritans, Quakers and many other non-Anglicans would readily testify. Today the C. of E. is without any real power—is almost pathetically weak. Yet precisely for this reason, while it still has the faint aura of its official status, it can credibly function as a moral authority. It has exercised this authority especially in the protection of religious minorities, as when the Archbishop of Canterbury (in a statement that was widely misunderstood) said that British Muslims should be free, if they wanted, to use Islamic courts as mediators in civil disputes. This is particularly important for Americans, who should understand that the distinctive version of the separation of church and state in the United States, while it has been superbly successful in managing a pluralistic religious landscape in this country, is not the only way in which religious freedom and individual rights can be protected. Not so incidentally, such an understanding has implications for American policies toward states who define themselves as in some ways Islamic.
The story of Sayeeda Warsi embracing the Christian heritage of Europe has important implications for the much-discussed issue of the Muslim presence in Europe. She has been attacked as “un-Islamic” by some of her co-religionists (she shrugs off these attacks). But survey data from Britain and from other European countries indicate that far more Muslims would side with her, not with her critics. (A recent survey of Muslims in France spoke of “the republican majority”.) This is not to minimize the danger from the minority addicted to radical versions of Islam and in some instances ready to express the radicalism in acts of violence. To be sure, even a small minority with such ideas can cause a lot of trouble. But these people are a minority. Most Muslims in Europe want to become an integral part of their several societies. The notion of “Eurabia”, an Islamized continent, is at this point an improbable dystopia.