Nov 152009

I was surprised a number of years ago when having a pleasant argument with someone online when he claimed that the English/British government was a theocracy. It had never occurred to me that the English government could be called a theocracy, but with the monarch being both head of state and head of the state religion there is a grain of truth to it.

Before going on, I will explain that although I am going to use “English” all the way through this, in later periods of history it should perhaps be “British”. But for convenience and because much of the points become well before the British union, I will use “English”. That’s not to say the Welsh and Scottish are irrelevant; just that bringing consideration of them in, will confuse the whole issue

As mentioned before the English monarch is both the head of state and the head of the Church of England. So a theocracy then. Well, no. Anyone who argues such is ignorant of the way in which titles of nobility work – whilst a single person may hold multiple titles, they are distinct and separate. For instance, the current Queen is correctly known as the “Lord of Mann” on the Isle of Mann, and the “Duke of Normandy” in the Channel islands. Neither are part of or will ever be part of the English monarchy. It is theoretically within the power of the holder of a title to gift that title to someone else – for instance it would in theory be perfectly possible for the Queen to lose the title “Lord of Mann” in a drunken poker game.

And yes such things have been known to happen, although if it were to occur in modern times it is likely to cause an outbreak of republicanism.

Another possible source of the idea that England is a theocracy are the “Lords Spiritual” who are 26 bishops and archbishops of the Church of England (or previous to Henry VIII’s reorganisation of government the “Church in England”) who sit in the House of Lords. And indeed if there were just 26 members of the House of Lords, and the House of Lords actually comprised the government, England would be a theocracy. In fact there are 724 members which means England is no more than 4% of the way to being a theocracy.

And of course the House of Lords comprises the government no more than I do. We often think of the House of Lords having more power than it in reality has had for centuries. On a very simplistic level, the House of Lords has been little more than the humorous sidekick in the struggle for power between the Monarch and the House of Commons.

Finally there is the argument that the power of the state is exercised at the local level by Church authorities (the “parish council” still has some residual authority even today in rural parishes). This dates from well before Henry VIII created the Church of England, and is an example of pragmatic government. This could be said to be an example of how theocratic the English government is, but neglects the fact that the authority was not delegated to Church authorities but to the parish officials.

Of course there is a little bit of hypocrisy in such a statement, but at no point was the authority delegated to the priest himself. It was delegated to the parish authorities who were already in place to perform such duties as the Church itself would not do – such as ensure that the maintenance of the community’s portion of the church was carried out (the Church itself looked to the maintenance of only the priest’s half of the church).

Initially local authority was delegated to the manor and the lord of the manor but this was found to be less than totally effective. This was due to the fact powerful aristocrats could come to be in charge of many manors and not all received effective authority. The parish authorities were on site and could be counted on to perform such duties as the King required.

Imagine a King pulling up his horse after journeying over a particularly poor road; tired, cold, wet, and angry. He would pop into the largest house in the village looking for accommodation and nourishment, and ask the most obviously in charge person to see to the maintenance of the road. He would not care a bit that the person he charged with such a duty was part of the Church hierarchy or not; he would just want one of his subjects to perform a necessary service.

The English government does have the Church intertwined throughout it as a historical artefact. But whilst the Church is there, it rarely interferes – for instance the Church “Lords Spiritual” very rarely actually vote on normal government matters. This is partially because the English government has never been properly dismantled and put together again without historical oddities, but the Church does not come anywhere near enough authority for the English form of government to be called a theocracy.

Sep 302008

The phrase “Religious Freedom” or ‘Freedom of Religion” often comes up, but I would like to see the phrase “Freedom From Religion” used a little more. This is going to sound a bit like an attack on religion itself, but it is not intended as such. Everyone is free to practice the religion of their choice … or none at all.

The key is the end of that last sentence – no religion at all. We’re all too often besieged with symbols of religion and people assume we want to hear about their favourite fictitious god. Certainly the UK is nowhere as bad as the USA where atheists can be subject to treatment that amounts to persecution even including physical and verbal abuse merely for voicing their lack of belief.

But that does not mean the UK is properly secular in public life. Schools can be a little too religious; I do not mind my taxes being used to pay for the education of children, but I do mind that it is used to pay for the religious indoctrination of children. Too many schools are “faith schools” and are at least partially funded by the taxpayer.

In many cases … particularly for primary schools where the most impressionable children are taught, there is little choice other to send children to such schools. The Church of England still “owns” (we won’t worry too much about the fine details of this ownership) 25% of all primary schools. Rather creepily similar to the Jesuit saying “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man”.

Of course there is nothing deliberately sinister about the CoE schools these days. Long gone are the times when one could be beaten for expressing views even slightly atheistic, but there is still a distinct odour of the Christian religion about such places. One school even boasts of providing a “christian education”.

Moving onto Universities, and you will find the education considerably less influenced by religion as these places are supposed to be serious institutes of learning. But if you have a close look at who is employed at these places you will often find a chaplain or six. Now these chaplains probably are not going to ram their religion down your throat, and are to a certain extent simply a counselling service with a religious twist. The funny thing is that both of the Universities I checked also have independent counselling services.

So what we have here is a special religious counselling service that only certain people are qualified for employment with … just christians (or perhaps people who believe in other gods). Now religious students (and staff) could probably do with a little support from a University, but what is wrong with ordinary counsellors just pointing them at local churches, mosques and the like ? Again I’m not entirely sure why my taxes should go towards paying the salaries of people whose principal talent is talking to imaginary beings.

But far worse are the more in your face examples of religion. The church sign that says “The Wages of Sin is Death”, the kerbside evangelist who harranges you about being saved, the smug Christian who insists that all unbelievers will go straight to hell and suffer eternal damnation. At best this is merely irritating; at worst it consitutes a kind of verbal abuse.

Yet religion seems to have a privileged position in our society … it is considered wrong to criticise the beliefs of others. But why is not also considered wrong to criticise the unbelief of others ? I do not believe, do not want to be preached at, and certainly do not want to see my tax money spent on supporting religious belief in any way whatsoever.

Sep 122006

UK churches are interesting buildings. Some of of relatively little worth admittedly, but most are of genuine historical interest and add to the flavour of our country. Many if not most of the most interesting ones are ‘owned’ by the descendant of the official state religion … the church of England.

Now the CofE has a bit of a problem … it has to maintain all those historic churches with ever decreasing funds provided by their members. Sometimes these funds can be added to by grants by organisations whose purpose is to maintain historic buildings, but that leaves the problem of those churches that are not quite interesting enough to attract grants.

Of course it would be wrong for the government to help out the church as things stand … because the taxpayer would be subsidising a religion that they may not support to the exclusion of other religions. Plus to many people in our communities, CofE churches are mysterious buildings where strange (and to some ‘blasphemous’) rites are practised to the exclusion of those who don’t share the right religion. This is a very large change from the time when many of those churches were built when each church was the centre of the local community and was inclusive.

Originally the building of those churches was funded by the local community … either through compulsory tithes, or even directly where a group of local people would form a savings group to gather enough money for a church. It seems wrong to restrict the use of the local church to just those who worship a particular God.

So take the churches off the CofE and grant them to the local council with a covenant that requires them to be used for worship. They can then be shared amongst the local community … Christians get to use them on a Sunday, Jews on a Saturday, and Muslims on a Friday. Ideally they would be used by other religions as well, but the ‘big three’ conveniently choose different days to worship on.

After all the original intention was that the churches would be owned by the local community represented by the church, but things have changed and the church is no longer representative of the local community.

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