What a strange legacy. There is no doubting Prime Minister Tony Blair’s religious convictions and commitment; and yet he has presided over the most dramatically de-Christianizing decade this country has known since the Viking invasions. There is a further irony, if the press reports are to be believed, in that he will soon be received into the Roman Catholic church, after ten years of pursuing so many policies inimicable to the teaching of that church.
The systematic dismantling of the United Kingdom has, as the recent victory of the Scottish Nationalists proved, gone rather further and faster than New Labour envisaged. The dismantling of the Christian heritage of the UK has, likewise, gone further and faster than even New Labour first imagined.
The removal of the Madonna and Child from the ill-fated Dome at the approach of the millennium seemed, at the time, in poor taste. We can see now how much it was part of a wider project, conscious or unconscious, in the words Mr Blair used in his resignation speech in Sedgefield, ‘to get rid of the detritus of the past.’
The loss of the moral and legal compass that has guided this country for well over a thousand years is no small loss, and one that all traditional Christians, of whatever denomination, must feel painfully. But then, as our secular opponents, rising now on the fickle wheel of secular fortune, might happily to point out, we would say that, wouldn’t we?
It is not our task to bemoan the passing of the light, as though it were our own possession, but it is our duty to remind ourselves and others of the importance of the common wealth, the unity of our culture and nation.
How ironic that it was Mrs Thatcher who is remembered for saying, ‘There is no such thing as society,’ while it was Mr Blair who set out to prove it. The rights of individuals have, without doubt, risen greatly during the last ten years, and we should not begrudge those who feel freer, happier and more confident.
There is, however, a price, and it is by no means negligible. The rights of individuals, conflicting as they inevitably are, are bought at the price of a loss of our common bonds. We are freer only because we are being drawn more and more into our own, ever smaller ghettoes.
The rejection of tolerance in favour of legislated rights; the refusal to countenance in the public sphere the religious values of the past; the re-basing of multiculturalism upon a secular foundation; these are not insignificant changes in the social framework.
They may bring many benefits for many people, but they express the loss of unity in our common life. They are proving the benign instruments of the dismantling of our shared, national life. Maybe it was not all down to the government of the last ten years, but it is a strange legacy for such a prosperous decade.
What was the biggest theme of the history of the Church of England in the twentieth century? The loss of faith after the First World War; the attempt at restoration after the Second; the strange obsession with Edward VIII’s marriage and a horror of divorce for the next sixty years; the sexual revolution and the new ethics; the growth of liberalism and secularism; the rise and fall of ecumenism?
The one item which is rarely mentioned, for it is peculiar to the CofE as a national church, was the systematic dismantling of the endowments of the ancient parishes. It was not without its merits, as many in our inner city parishes would acknowledge. No one could defend the huge disparities in wealth between some of the rural benefices and many of the urban centres of population. There was a real need for equity, for the richer to help the poorer, for a better stewardship of the inherited resources.
The biggest change was not, however, the regularization of a system in need of reform, but the deliberate if covert dismantling of parish endowment. For well over a thousand years, the churches and parishes of this country relied upon endowment, usually in land, in order to minister to those beyond its believing membership, to do the work of Christ, year in year out, within the community.
The twentieth century saw a well-meaning but fatal rise in the power of the dioceses, funded in part by what seems now the utterly reckless distribution of capital assets. It worked. Parishes were impoverished. Dioceses grew ever richer and more powerful. This was the history of the last century. Until the money ran out.
General Synod now has to face the issues of parsonages and pensions. Squandered resources in the twentieth century now mean scarce resources in the twenty-first. The desire, once again, to use capital for income (to sell the family silver) will be put forward vigorously, with mission-shaped zeal.
The Church is much more than the sum total of its buildings, it is true, but we should beware the asset strippers all the same.