The unravelling of the relationship between the Church and the State in Britain has accelerated rapidly in the last thirty years. But the process has been going on rather longer than we care to remember. I don’t mean that disestablishment of the Church of England is just around the corner: it probably isn’t (though in matters religious and moral these days who can tell what the Government will come up with at very short notice). I’m thinking rather of what we now call ‘core values’. Until quite recently it was assumed that the ethical and spiritual heritage of the UK was Christian. The word may have been used rather loosely, and the majority hardly ever went inside a church building. But we now live in a society in which the younger generation defines itself as secular. Some, including some religious leaders, are hopeful about ‘spirituality’: I am not. Indeed, we need to see that the moral high ground is increasingly being claimed by the secularists, and the teaching of the Christian Church on many matters is targeted as unreasonable, harsh, out of touch, certainly un-loving – and even ‘un-Christian’.
The Church is often lampooned for being obsessed with sex. It is certainly true that in terms of morality Christians have continued to hold to a sterner and more disciplined code than society at large. Secular society itself is not entirely comfortable with the widespread changes. But it is worth noticing in passing how important language has become as a tool to manipulate moral thinking in our society. ‘Abortion’ is an ugly word for the single act of destroying a foetus, whereas ‘termination’ has different meanings in a variety of situations. ‘Anti-abortion’ sounds negative, so we come up with the word ‘pro-life’. But the other side will not let us get away with that and call themselves ‘pro-choice’. Careful, thoughtful moral discussion takes too long, and the arguments must be conducted with sound-bites.
Interestingly, the dislocation of British Church and State received a real boost, not from divorce law or gay marriage, but from the Sunday Trading Laws. In 1994 the Government under Prime Minister John Major deregulated Sunday Trading. A similar Bill had been voted down in 1986 when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, but the Law had been challenged (and broken) by the big retailers. There had been considerable opposition from the churches who combined to support ‘Keep Sunday Special’ Campaign. But the argument based on ‘choice’ and ‘individual freedom’ trumped everything, though close beneath the surface was also a secularist agenda. I remember clearly a discussion in which one of the group, a businessman and entrepreneur rounded on me and said, ‘I don’t see why you lot should tell me when I can open my shop’. It amazed me then – and still does – that we should have given away the freedom in the 20th century to have a corporate day of recreation, a freedom so hardly won in the 19th, and all for the ‘freedom’ to go shopping.
It had seemed perfectly natural to everyone in our country that the chosen day of freedom from the daily routine should be Sunday. This was because of our Christian heritage: after all, if we were going to have a weekly day of freedom and recreation, we only had seven choices! The results of Sunday deregulation are there for all to see, and they have been dire. London streets and shopping centres are clogged with traffic (although I notice that the City of London where the wealthiest work is still firmly shut up at weekends). People work longer and longer hours, and the break-up of the family, deprived now of any quality time together, has continued.
But for the forces of secularism Sunday deregulation was a triumph. It marked a vital step in the ‘privatisation’ of Christianity and the removal of one of the most obvious signs of the Christian faith from public life.
Again it is worth observing that as a Conservative government removed the Christian Sunday from the national consciousness, so it is another Conservative government which has now re-defined marriage. Indeed the new definition of marriage which came into force yesterday is so different from the old one that I suggest that any opposite-sex couple now going to the registry office will in fact be civilly-partnered when they come out. Perhaps this does not matter greatly to the secularists: the hidden agenda was, once again, to break away from a Christian institution which had been embedded in the life of our country for centuries.
For the Churches in our country there will now have to be varied and different responses. There are many Catholics who know their orientation to be homosexual: they live according to the teaching of the Church which they love. They find themselves more and more isolated and ‘disapproved of’ for their loyalty by secular gay friends and colleagues. The Church needs to teach as much about the richness and fulfilment of friendship and the single life, as it does about sex outside marriage. And the Church of England – which we in the Ordinariate still love and revere – she needs to see the dreadful danger of being bullied into silence over issues which she knows are key to the Gospel.