No longer the Tory party at prayer

When British Prime Minister, John Major, looked for words to describe the sort of England he hoped for he turned to George Orwell’s description of “old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” from his essay: The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.

It was an ironic choice given Orwell’s socialism and the once common assumption that the Anglican Church is the Tory party at prayer – a view that didn’t help Theresa May when she regularly referred to her vicar father’s influence. Almost a quarter of a century after Major’s comments visiting many Anglican churches makes it seem doubly ironic.

Now it might surprise some readers to know that the blog, despite being a militant atheist, is very interested in ecclesiastical architecture just as it is in religious history. As the historian Humphrey McQueen once remarked, more than a quarter of a century ago, you can’t understand history without knowing about the Bible and religion.

Travelling through the UK recently the blog was struck by how political many Anglican Churches had become. This reinforced impressions from another trip through The Netherlands last year where the blog was struck by the number of churches which featured displays highlighting their congregation’s work with refugees – most of them focussed on humanising pictures of said refugees.

In the UK case a similar example was found in Bath Abbey. The Abbey is always surrounded by people dressed as characters from an Austen novel and is crowded with tourists – including a fair number of Australians who take the time to look at the Matthew Flinders’ memorial. It has many leaflets and brochures available for visitors. But one striking Abbey publication was Raising Voices: Holy Sights. The Abbey Rector, a priest and the music director visited Palestine and Israel in October 2015 with the purpose of extending the Abbey’s links such as those already fostered with abandoned children in India, caring for Bath homeless, translating scripture in Cameroon and supporting women’s training Zambia. The publication accompanied an exhibition with a series of graphic photographs and moving descriptions which can be found at

The stories in the publication range across the impact of checkpoints, settlements, the wall, refugees, home demolitions, the occupation, the aggressive waving of a pistol by an American born settler in response to a question, the plight of indigenous Christians and blokes praying at the Western Wall. Anticipating the usual criticisms the authors write: “We believe it is important to note that to criticise the actions of the Israeli government is not anti-Semitism. Many Jews oppose the oppression of the Palestinian. They are very courageous and also need the support of every person who longs for justice.” Significantly, among those who think differently on the Palestinian problem to the pistol waving settlers include just about every recent senior Shin Bet officer.

In Australia the Murdoch media and various zealots would be busily attacking the Abbey officials for their comments consistent with the right wing’s ongoing hypocritical position on freedom of speech. Their position is basically that you can say anything they like – racist, sexist, incitement to violence – but you can’t say anything they disagree without them trying to hound you out of the country or hope that you suffer violence.

In the UK the Murdoch media is sometimes different – well at least as far as The Times Literary Supplement (which is the only News publication the blog buys and reads) is concerned – as shown by its June 2 edition which contained a special feature on the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation. What is fascinating has been to open up subsequent issues to check just how many letters had been received disputing the gist of the articles. If it had been in Australia the mail would almost have been enough to meet the cost of Ahmed Fahour’s bonus and increase Telstra’s email revenue to material level. Yet so far – not a whisper!

The Anglican Church in the UK has also had a few other recent departures from the notion of the Tory party at prayer. The latest Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has just published a book – Dethroning Mammon – which while hardly Marxist in outlook has some very progressive thoughts on the failures of neo-capitalism, inequality and environmental degradation. About the same time the immediate past Archbishop, Rowan Williams, has written a book – On Augustine – which among other things meditates on how Augustine illuminates the extent to which violence underlies human political views and how society’s lacking a deep commitment to charity need to seek enemies to foster their own power.

Incidentally, it is arguable that in many ways the Anglican Church has been more a branch of the civil and educational services than a religious organisation and, indeed, an institutional refutation of Karen Armstrong’s attempt to redefine Homo sapiens as Homo religosus. However, a more profound refutation can be found in the classics scholar, Tim Whitmarsh’s book Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. It makes clear that long before the Enlightenment there were people – Diagorus of Melos, Democritus (of atoms fame), Epicurus and his followers and many others – who made serious contributions to atheist thought. Contributions wiped out, of course, by centuries of the typical Christian responses of violence, torture and/or suppression.

Fortunately the Murdoch media and other right wing commentators don’t have recourse to the same tools – even if their words sometimes suggest they wish they did.