A Christian Country?
There has been a fuss over a statement made by the Prime Minister recently at an ‘Easter’ reception for “prominent Christians” in 10 Downing Street. In an informal speech given to the gathering David Cameron said something about his personal beliefs. He declared that he was “proud to be a Christian [myself] and to have my children at a church school.” He spoke of a pilgrimage he had made this year “to the place where our Saviour was both crucified and born.” He even said that what we need is more ‘evangelism’ – although by that he meant “more belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives and make a difference and improve both the spiritual, physical and moral state of our country.”
It is plain that every Christian profession must be tested. As Christ said to the disciples, “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16). Given that this was a modern politician speaking and given what we know of his recent actions the Prime Minister’s remarks require a great deal of qualification. This is the man who drove legislation through the UK Parliament allowing same-sex marriage – despite the fact that such unions are wholly opposed to Christian teaching.
However what seems to have caused annoyance is that the Prime Minister spoke not only of his own faith but also of the religious position of our country. This is what he said: “I am proud of the fact we’re a Christian country and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so.” Although he has said similar things in the past on this occasion his remark led to a critical letter in the Daily Telegraph signed by fifty-five individuals, described in the media as “public figures”. In their letter they insisted that the UK is a “non-religious” and “plural” society. It has since been pointed out that all fifty-five are paid-up or honorary members of the British Humanist Association: it appears that the ‘fuss’ has been somewhat orchestrated.
But what of the claim that we are a Christian country? Is it justified? We believe that it is and the explanation for its validity is very important.
We need to understand at the outset what does not make a country Christian. In the strict and proper sense a country is not Christian simply because a majority of the people happen to profess faith in Christ or attend church regularly or identify themselves as ‘Christian’ in their census returns: one could conceivably have a country in which any or all of these things are true and yet it would still not really be a Christian country.
What makes a country Christian is its constitution. By the constitution we mean the laws and principles which define the character of the state. As a result of the Reformation what is now the United Kingdom has a constitution in which Protestant Christianity enjoys a privileged place. Despite changes in the wrong direction over the last two centuries the essential features of this arrangement remain to the present day. There are three key strands to the UK’s Christian constitution.
Act of Settlement
The first strand to our Christian constitution is the Act of Settlement. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1689 which brought the Protestant William and Mary to the English throne the Bill of Rights was passed by the English Parliament in 1689, limiting the powers of the Crown and securing democratic liberties but also barring Roman Catholics from the throne. The reason given in the Bill was: “it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom to be governed by a Popish prince or by any King or Queen marrying a Papist.”
In 1701 the Act of Settlement was passed to secure the Protestant succession to the English throne and by the Union of 1707 its provisions were extended to what became the British throne. The Act restates the key points of the Bill of Rights but also requires the Sovereign to “join in Communion with the Church of England as by Law established”. The Act of Settlement and the establishment of the Church of England go together for since the Act of Supremacy of 1534 the monarch has served as ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England, a role which a Roman Catholic obviously could not fulfil. We notice that the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who is happy to be known as an atheist, is now advocating the disestablishment of the Church of England and that the monarch should no longer fulfil this historic role.
The second strand to our Christian constitution is the Coronation Oath. The monarch is required to take an oath when crowned. The Coronation Oath administered to Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey involving both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, representing the established churches in England and Scotland, included the following questions: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law?
Before signing the Oath the Queen kneeled and placed her right hand on a copy of the Bible saying: “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.” The significance is easy to see. The holder of the highest civil position in our land is obliged by law to make solemn promises to uphold the Protestant Christian faith and thereby sets the tone for the whole nation. The Coronation Oath alone would appear to justify the designation of a Christian nation. It is also a rebuke to the actions of our governments north and south of the border when they legislate in a way which is hostile to the Christian faith. How can the powers that be penalise Bible-believing Christians when all that they are doing is standing up for the religion and the beliefs which we require our monarch to publicly avow?
Oath of Allegiance
The third strand to our Christian constitution is the Oath of Allegiance. Many who hold important positions in society, among them parliamentarians, judges, magistrates, police officers and members of the armed forces, although no longer obliged to swear in a religious manner, are nevertheless required to take some form of Oath of Allegiance to the Sovereign when they take office. As an instance, members of both Houses of Parliament, when they take their seats, generally hold a copy of the New Testament in their hand and say: “I... swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.” Even those who wish to become British citizens must indicate their loyalty to the monarch. It follows logically that such people are also pledging their allegiance to the Sovereign’s religion – or at least indicating that they will not actively oppose it.
We believe that it is when a nation requires its “kings” and “judges” to “serve the Lord with fear” and to “kiss the Son” (Psa. 2:10-12) that it may be regarded as a Christian nation. We freely admit that with the decline in religious sentiment throughout our nation over recent decades the Christianity enshrined in our constitution often exists more on paper than in practice. However our Christian constitution is no less important for that: our religious and civil liberties come with it and we are still able to appeal to it when challenged regarding our beliefs and behaviour. Let us therefore pray that the moves being made by atheists, secularists and others to undo the Christian constitution of our country will come to nothing and that the Lord will revive His work among us.