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Britain as the only Left-wing theocracy in history
The Tory Party’s fortunes are tied up with the Church of England
I have complicated feelings towards the Church of England. Aesthetically it’s one of the most beautiful of religions, far more so than the miserable Jansenist interpretation of Catholicism I endured as a child. Philosophically, its attachment to moderation and compromise is to be praised, in theory. Can’t decide whether you’re Catholic or Protestant? Why not both?
Anglicanism is also very tied into what it means to be English, in a way that is rather unique. As Robert Tombs observed, there was a time when on a Sunday morning almost every Englishman and woman up and down the country could be found reading the same passage of the same book. This helped create a sense of identity far stronger than in more diverse nations like France, Italy or Germany, and led to a national identity which was – paradoxically – more relaxed and tolerant.
But the Church of England is in particular tied up with the fortunes of English conservatism, which emerged as a defence of the institution – and this makes it all the stranger that the hierarchy tends to be very Left-wing.
Unless you find one of their evangelical parishes, which don’t feel Anglican at all to me because the vicar is young and hip and wants to be your friend, it’s hard to escape the vibes of modern progressivism in an Anglican church. The language is overtly the language of the modern Left, everything being about justice – of the social, racial or climate variety. And by ‘justice’, I think they mean ‘communism’.
Of course that’s hardly surprising, since modern progressivism is heavily influenced by Christianity – indeed it’s obviously a heresy – so on a superficial level the two are similar. The language of the Left, in particular the heavy use of the Care/Harm foundation, echoes Christianity, and the British Liberal and Labour traditions were until very recently very Christian.
That influence has largely disappeared, except in very token ways, and the British Left has become quite unwelcoming to Christians (whereas the Right is just indifferent, which is in some ways worse). And yet the people leading the Church of England seem more into this ‘justice’ business than ever.
Over Easter Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called the Government’s Rwanda relocation plan an affront to Christianity. He said in his sermon that the policy cannot ‘stand the judgment of God’ and we ‘carry the weight of our national responsibility as a country formed by Christian values’.
This is obviously not the first time that Church and party have found themselves in conflict. The Anglican hierarchy has regularly attacked Conservative economic policies, and only a couple of years ago, five leading Anglican archbishops intervened in the Brexit debate. It’s ironic that the leaders of the Church of England are against us going it alone from the rest of Europe, but there you are.
At the time Steve Baker, who is probably one of the most religious Members of Parliament, warned that ‘Of course they’re entitled to their political views while they sit in the House of Lords’ but ‘if people don’t want them to have these views, perhaps the prime minister ought to move to a paving motion on the disestablishment of the Church of England.’
And, obviously, he has a point; it’s very odd that bishops still sit in the House of Lords, a relic that has survived as the constitution has evolved. Even hereditary lords now have to face election by their peers, the current Duke of Wellington winning his place that way. (I mean, what did we fight Waterloo for?) They remain there because, as the Tony Blair years showed, any attempt to alter the constitution seems to make things worse.
This technically makes Britain a theocracy. Stranger still, these holy men represent a Church which is intimately linked with the country’s Right-wing party, and yet whose leaders are vocally progressive. Britain is sort of the only Left-wing theocracy in history.
The link between the Tory Party and Church of England is ancient. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary defined a Tory as ‘One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the State, and the apostolic hierarchy of the Church of England’.
Robert Peel, in an 1838 speech, talked of Conservative principles as ‘the maintenance of the Peerage and Monarchy – the continuance of the just powers and attributes of King, Lords and Commons in this country ... By Conservative principles I mean that, coexistent with equality of civil rights and privileges, there shall be an established religion and imperishable faith and that established religion shall maintain the doctrines of the Protestant Church ... By Conservative principles, I mean ... the maintenance, defence and continuance of those laws, those institutions, that society, and those habits and manners, which have contributed to and mould and form the character of Englishmen.’
There is no universal idea of conservatism, as there is of liberalism; it doesn’t follow set principles, but arises out of the particular circumstances of each country, and in England it came about in defence of the Church of England, the monarchy and other established institutions.
British conservatism was also defined by what it was against, a response to the religious ‘enthusiasm’ of the 17th century, the Puritan radicals who wanted the country to be ruled by a moral ‘elect’ and be guided by the Bible. This sort of religious-political fanaticism was unpopular with the bulk of the English population, most of whom just wanted to go for a pint in peace without being bothered by moralising scolds intent on shoehorning their obsessions into everyday life.
As historian Jerry Z. Muller put it in Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present: ‘Conservatism arose in good part out of the need to defend existing institutions from the threat posed by “enthusiasm,” that is, religious inspiration which seeks to overturn the social order. The critique of religious enthusiasm, which was central to Hume’s conservatism, was later extended… into a critique of political radicalism.’
Social order was there in part to defend us from crazed enthusiasts, who without strong institutions would run riot, and that order was centred on the Church of England and the monarchy.
For centuries the English political divide was defined by religion, with Anglicans tending to support the Tory and then Conservative parties, and the Whigs and later Liberals having the backing of low-church Protestants, including Calvinists and later Methodists.
The most radical of non-conformist sects, the Quakers and Unitarians, also had a hugely outsized influenced on the modern Left. The Manchester Guardian was founded by Unitarian businessmen while Quakers established a number of progressive charities, some of which still direct British political currents. Today the ‘blob’ of Left-wing campaigning charities is often referred to as ‘Big Oats’, a nod to the continuing influence in British politics of the Religious Society of Friends.
Today we see the legacy of these sects, even if they are themselves much reduced. Tombs wrote that the 19th century ‘Nonconformist tradition bequeathed’ to its secular successors ‘campaigning militancy, a self-image of anti-Establishment rebellion, a view of politics as moral struggle (as opposed to “the art of the possible”)… and sectarian suspicion of the motives of opponents.’
Like the Christianity from which it emerged, 21st century progressivism is also credal; unlike conservatism, it does indeed follow from set principles, and membership of the progressive alliance involves signing up to a set of beliefs — and you must sign up to all of them. This was seen most clearly with the media treatment of Tim Farron, who as Liberal Democrat leader was repeatedly questioned about his views on homosexuality. It wasn’t even remotely interesting as a story, except that here was a progressive politician refusing to articulate a key tenet of the faith.
Despite being solidly from that British nonconformist tradition and a clear advocate for ‘social justice’, Farron fell foul of the successor faith’s militancy and sectarianism, and got quite a rough time. The same would be true of any Anglican bishop who voiced Church doctrine on sexual matters, which is perhaps why they don’t.
Other legacies of that original culture war remain. A map of strongly Anglican areas from 1851 – the only census that counted attendance in every single church and chapel across the country – still maps onto constituencies that vote Tory in the 21st century.
In the 2016 referendum Anglican churchgoers – even accounting for age – showed strong support for Brexit. Indeed, Anglicans were far more Eurosceptic than historically Liberal-voting Baptists and Methodists, and even more so than Catholics. Today Anglicans still vote strongly for the Conservatives, although even nonconformists have drifted away from a hostile Left.
Yet while Anglican churchgoers are still the Tory Party at prayer, the Church of England hierarchy strongly veers to the Left, and some conservatives have written about feeling unwelcome; in the last few days GB News’s Calvin Robinson has made similar comments about his conservative views being a disadvantage. Perhaps it’s inevitable that, as British institutions have moved left on social issues, ambitious members of the national church have sought to, so to speak, conform.
Various institutions suffer from a process usually called Conquest’s Second Law but which probably should be credited to John O’Sullivan – that any institution not explicitly Right-wing will become Left-wing. The Church of England is particularly vulnerable because the language of Christianity is on a superficial level what we might call Left-coded. It's also a state monopoly, heavily subsidised and shielded from the effects of failure. Unlike either the Catholics or Methodists, it also attracts people who want to be part of the establishment.
So while in pretty much all modern institutions the people at the top are now more progressive than those they rule, nowhere does that division seem starker than in the Church of England. Parishes are filled with Tories funding a hierarchy that is in many ways antithetical to their beliefs.
Where does this leave the Tory Party? British conservatism emerged as a defence of the Church of England, and perhaps one of the reasons for the current crisis and drift is that few British Tory politicians can explain what they actually believe in, or what they are conserving.
They have a vague feeling that they might slow down the new enthusiasts, they make some noise about its more colourful excesses, but they lack the courage or direction to actually reject its fundamental premises. And as a political movement designed to protect institutions, they find that almost all the country’s major bodies are now controlled by their opponents, and they follow a set of beliefs antithetical and hostile to them. There is an established religion in this country today, it’s just not the one whose senior bishop resides in Lambeth Palace.