AN OLD gag from the popular sitcom Yes Prime Minister captures somethingof the British Establishment attitude to religion. Prime Minister Jim Hacker ismulling over who to appoint as the next head of the Church of England. Onlearning that one candidate doesnt believe in God and that another believes theChurch should be disestablished, the supremely cynical civil servant SirHumphrey Appleby protests that the Queen is inseparable from the Church ofEngland.
And what about God? Hacker asks.
I think he is what is called an optional extra, replies Sir Humphrey.
That attitude came to mind over the weekend when it emerged that a powerfulBritish parliamentary committee had summoned (not requested) the Catholicbishops of England and Wales to appear before them. In a move reminiscent ofthe Penal Laws, the Catholic hierarchy is being called to account for being,well, too Catholic.
Bishops in Britain have been stressing the need for the schools under theirpatronage to be Catholic in fact as well as in name. The Bishop o f Lancaster,Pa t r i c k ODonoghue, has told schools under his patronage to placecrucifixes in all classrooms and to explain Catholic teaching on sexuality. Hehas insisted that Catholic schools refrain from supporting charities or groupsthat promote abortion, e.g. Red Nose Day or Amnesty International which in mostcountries outside Ireland supports abortion. These Church positions may seemcontroversial in a secular country like Britain, certainly. But isnt that whatfree speech is all about?
Not according to Barry Sheerman, the chairman of the British parliamentarycross-party committee on children, schools and families. Faith education, hebelieves, is all very well, as long as people are not that serious about theirfaith. Faith education without the faith is his prescription.
This trend is not limited to Britain. Last year, Sweden banned religiousschools from teaching their doctrine as if it were true. Teaching, under thenew Swedish law, could not be influenced by religious beliefs. The SwedishEducation Minister Jan Bjoerklund, said that pupils needed to be protected fromfundamentalism. Schools that contravene this law will be shut down.
Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, religious persecution could beon the way back. But this time in Western Europe.
We are back to old questions that we thought had been resolved. Conflict aboutreligion ended in Europe when people learned to tolerate the sincerely-heldfaiths of others, no matter how strange or even repugnant these seemed. It tooka series of wars and hundreds of thousands of deaths before this lesson couldbe learned.
But these current tensions between church and state can be traced to one veryold and to one very new problem. When people talk about church and stateseparation today, they are generally thinking of the need to prevent the churchfrom interfering too much in the life of the state.
But history, from Henry VIII down to the totalitarian communist regimes of the20th century, demonstrates that the Church often has much more to fear fromstate interference than vice versa. At the present time, China seeks a vetoover any bishops to be appointed within its borders. Karol Wojtyla, it isreported, only became a bishop in Poland because the communist authoritiesvetoed other preferred candidates. In the early 19th century, it took theintervention of Daniel OConnell and other prominent laymen to prevent the Irishbishops from ceding a veto to the British authorities over any appointment totheir ranks.
WHEN Henry VIII appointed himself the head of the Church of England, he broughtboth religious authority and secular authority under his control. Perhaps itsnot surprising that, today, some British parliamentarians think that religiousauthorities can be brought to heel if what they teach their adherents seems toconflict with the state-preferred view of the world. …