God, Margaret Thatcher and the Established Church, Sean Gabb, 5th December 2002

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 82
5th December 2002

God, Margaret Thatcher,
and the Established Church of England
Sean Gabb

Sitting on the railway train to London, I have just found a copy of The Times from last Tuesday. This carries a report of the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Apparently, he wishes to see the Church disestablished—that is, for the ancient connection between Church and State to be broken. The Monarch would no longer be Supreme Governor of the Church and Defender of the Faith, and it would lose its automatic representation in the House of Lords. Bishops would no longer be appointed by the Crown, and they would no longer officiate at coronations.

Though it might appeal to the tidy-minded bureaucrats who pass nowadays as constitutional lawyers, and give a mild satisfaction to the less reflective members of other denominations, this is a remarkably silly idea. An evolved constitution like ours is not easily altered in its fundamentals. Even when everyone acts in good faith, without intending to use one set of changes as precedent for further changes that might not otherwise be possible—and I doubt if everyone is acting here in good faith—disestablishment might easily unsettle the whole Constitution, raising questions about the status of the Monarchy, and then about the nature and functions of Parliament and the courts. In any event, Church establishment is not something attended by any measurably unpleasant consequences. The privileges are mostly theoretical. No other faith is persecuted. I have never met any Catholic or Jew or Moslem who thought it at all unfair that our Monarch must by law be a communicant of the established Church. The practical effects of establishment over the past few centuries have been to make religion in England increasingly harmless. Having 26 Bishops in the House of Lords, generally talking nonsense or fussing over their corporate wealth, has helped us avoid the situation found in most other civilised countries—where arguments between religious mystics and militant atheists have spilled over into politics and disturbed the peace of society to no good effect.

However, I will not for the moment continue my defence of Church establishment. My purpose in writing is an incidental quotation in the Times report. The new Archbishop has commissioned a report in favour of disestablishment from something called the Constitution Unit, which I think is connected with the University of London. One argument given in favour is that,

[u]ntil the Church of England can choose its own bishops, Christian ecumenicism is stymied, because no other church will amalgamate with one whose bishops might be chosen by a future Margaret Thatcher.

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Let us ignore whether the word “stymied” should ever be used in English, or that it should never be used in formal prose. I want to know how anyone could regard Margaret Thatcher as an impediment to Christian unity—and regard the matter as so obvious that it required no justification. Did she rule the Church with a rod of iron? Did she ruthlessly enforce conformity to the 39 Articles on the priesthood, and bully her Ministers into taking the Host from an Anglican priest four times a year? My recollection is that she appointed Presbyterians, Catholics, Jews and atheists to office with complete indifference to their religious beliefs—and usually to their private behaviour, so long as they kept it out of the newspapers. She gave the Chief Rabbi a peerage, and apparently got on well with Sikh shopkeepers. She herself had been brought up as a Methodist and converted when she married. Though doubtless a strong believer, she took no active interest in theology. I recall she was mildly in favour of ordaining women, and she did not block the appointment of a certainly heretical and probably atheistical Bishop of Durham in 1983. If the appointment of Bishops by the Prime Minister were the problem, it might have been more appropriate for the Constitution Unit to have mentioned that John Major was an agnostic, that Tony Blair seems on the verge of converting to the Church of Rome, and that Iain Duncan Smith is already there. If Christian unity were the problem, it would have been more appropriate to ask whether unity could be possible with a Church of Rome that still maintained the doctrines of papal supremacy and infallibility, and of which the future head might be another theological conservative like John Paul II. But, no—it had to be Lady Thatcher. Why?

The answer has nothing to do with what she might have been inclined to think in private about the intercession of saints, or the sources of religious authority, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but everything to do with her passionate belief in fighting inflation, and in restraining the growth of government spending, and in her partiality for free markets and for lower taxation. That really outraged those who actually govern the Church of England and many other Christian figures beside. She was “hard” and “uncaring”. She “ground the faces of the poor” and “celebrated greed”. Those are the genuine grounds of objecting to her role and that of any other Prime Minister like her in the appointment of Bishops. She was not a heretic or a persecutor. Much worse, she did not believe in “the third way”.

Is this, however, a valid ground for objection? Is it unambiguously the case that a devout Christian must believe in an enlarged welfare budget and in state ownership of the telecommunications sector? The present Archbishop of Canterbury might think so. Many of his fellow Bishops certainly think so. But is this a position derived from a recognisably theological argument, or is it just a prejudice derived from too much reading of The Guardian? To give an answer to this question, let us briefly examine what political and economic and social arrangements might be sanctioned by the God of Christianity.

Let us begin by assuming for the sake of argument that there is a just and loving God, that He created the heavens and earth, and that He desires us, his creatures, to seek salvation to life everlasting. For the avoidance of ambiguity, I will say that this is not an assumption of the Libertarian Alliance. Most other Executive Committee members are atheists. The others probably believe that if God does exist, He ought to be privatised. Probably most of my readers are atheists or just not Christians. But, for the sake of argument, let us make these assumptions, and see what reasonably follows from them.

The first consequence is that salvation comes from doing good. What is good we can discover both from the texts of the Christian revelation and from natural reason. According to Paul,

[t]hou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Romans, 13,9)

According to Thomas Aquinas,

[t]here is in man a first, innate inclination to good, which he shares with everything so far as it desires the maintenance of its existence according to its own nature. Through this, the natural law pertains to all that serves the continuation of human life and all that impedes death. Second, he is inclined to certain more specific ends according to the nature which he shares with the other animals. Those ends are termed part of the natural law `which Nature has taught all animals’—such as the attraction of the sexes, and rearing of children, and like things. Third, he is inclined to good according to his rational nature, which nature is proper to man alone. So he is inclined by nature to seek knowledge of God, and to live in society. Under the heading of natural law come all acts pertaining to this inclination—chiefly that he should avoid ignorance, and be honest in his dealings, and all other such actions. (Summa Theologiae, I-II,94,2, my translation)

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This being so, a necessary further assumption is that we should be free to choose good or not to choose it. I know there are strong theological and philosophical objections to the doctrine of freedom of the will. But, as said, it is a necessary further assumption. After all, there can be no virtue in doing what one has no choice but to do. If, for example, I had been born without sexual organs, or if —like Origen—I had had them surgically removed, it would be absurd for me to expect praise for my strict continence. Praise—or at least note of the fact—can only have meaning had my course of action been freely chosen.

Now, because we are social creatures, and usually have no choice but to live in close proximity to other people, nearly all occasions for doing good or evil must involve how we treat others. For this reason, society must be seen in theological terms as a stage on which we act under the watchful eye of God.

We can say, therefore, that God wants us to live in a society that is both stable—so far as there are none of those collapses into chaos where rational choices of virtuous action are at least difficult—and in which people have the greatest freedom possible to choose their courses of action.

Here ends any purely theological argument for a Christian. Analyses of the nature of God can give no specific guidance about matters like the appropriate kinds and incidences of taxation, or about the appropriate systems of civil and criminal justice. This is not the case for religions like Islam or orthodox Judaism. These have the good or bad fortune to have been provided with elaborate codes of social and economic conduct; and most theology within these faiths is a matter of close and often brilliant exegesis of their scriptures. The Christian scriptures, however, are mostly silent or ambiguous about all but purely personal conduct. Some Christians have tried to supply the lack of guidance in the New Testament by turning for guidance to the Old Testament. But this is the wrong place to look. The function of the Old Testament for Christians is to provide background understanding for the New Testament—to show the fulfilment in one of promises or prophesies made in the other. Unless it is at least impliedly repeated in the New Testament, no positive or negative injunction found in the Old Testament is binding on Christians. Even those Christians who deny this in principle, accept it in practice, so far as they do not refrain from eating pork or wearing clothes of mixed fibre, and so far as they make a more or less arbitrary choice of which parts of the Mosaic code to follow. It may be this inadequacy of the scriptures, or it may be that the faith emerged first into a culture dominated by Greek rationalism, that Christianity is the most intellectual of all the great religions, and that its theology makes far more extensive and systematic use of arguments from natural reason. But there is a limit even to this approach. Christian theology cannot by itself provide answers to questions of social and economic organisation. All it can do is provide criteria by which answers supplied by other means can be judged. Natural reason is still the necessary tool of investigation, but this is no longer a meditation on faith, but a mediation on facts supplied to us either by introspection or by the evidence of our external senses. Any answer to the question of just what scheme of social and economic arrangements have the fullest Divine Sanction requires a detailed understanding of law, of economics, of history, of sociology, of psychology, and of every other relevant secular discipline.

Some answers are easily supplied. Common sense tells us that we cannot have a society in which there are no laws against murder and theft. Without legal deterrence, there would be many more of these evils—perhaps so many that society would collapse. Without legal retribution, faith in the institutions would crumble, and private retribution would take its place—thereby perhaps also making a stable extended society impossible. But, moving to questions of economic organisation, answers are not so easily supplied.

If it were possible, a loose collection of anarchist communes would be the best scheme of arrangement. This would free us from the need to work in often uncongenial occupations, and free us for the more rewarding business of choosing virtue. But there is no reason to believe that it is possible. Few anarchist communes have been set up. Those set up have never lasted long before breaking down in the face of a probably unalterable human nature. Soviet communism is a more workable scheme of arrangement. While it existed, it contributed remarkably little to the stock of human happiness, and eventually collapsed under the weight of its moral and economic bankruptcy. But it did last for three generations. Could it be shown that this was the only stable scheme of social and economic arrangement, it would undoubtedly have the sanction of God. After all, this sanction properly belongs not the most free society conceivable, but merely to the most free possible in the circumstances. But we need give no serious examination to any claims of soviet communism. It did eventually collapse, and it collapsed for reasons not accidental to it, but inherent to it.

We are therefore left with the various forms of free market capitalism. The mixed economy welfare state model of all modern countries—essentially the same everywhere, if with a few local variations—does work after a fashion. It removes many choices from individuals by way of taxes and regulations and virtual or actual state monopolies. But it is reasonably stable over time, and produces levels of well-being in which those remaining individual choices can be effectively made. There are compelling arguments for at least a much lower level of state activity. This might be even more stable over time, and might produce still greater levels of well-being – though, stability being reasonably shown, the real benefit would be the increase in the area of free choice. There are even compelling arguments in favour of having no state activity at all. I do not personally believe that free market anarchism would be much more successful over time than communist anarchism—but this belief, for all my familiarity with the arguments—does not amount to anything approaching a certainty; and I think it would be unwise to introduce religious notions of heresy into the process of argumentation. I think it much better established that a minimal state would be better than a welfare state. But this again is no kind of certainty. Undoubtedly, and regardless of what better alternatives might be available, so far as they work, any of the modern social democracies can claim a partial share of the Divine Sanction. The only argument is over how much.

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This being so, what possible theological objection can there be to Margaret Thatcher? If there were any element of sin in her economic policies, it was her timidity in not removing all the barriers to free choice that her advisers urged were superfluous. But this was, at worst in the calculus of the Roman Church, a venial sin—nothing compared with the sins of a Stalin or a Mao. In any event, her religious critics are not concerned at her timidity. It is her movement in the right direction that angers them. But, to repeat, she did not move in this direction very far. She was no minimal statist, let alone a market anarchist. She simply believed that the post-war consensus over economic management was not working very well; and she re-arranged it in a manner that she believed would work rather better. The experience of the past ten years indicates that she was right, whatever arguments there might be in favour of a more radical approach.

The problem, of course, is that the various churches in this country lack not only original thinkers, but also anyone with the intellectual curiosity to know even what others have said about the nature and scope of their faith. They appear to know nothing of theology; and they know nothing about the methods or determinations of the secular disciplines. Instead, they have taken a few texts almost at random from the New Testament, and muddled these in the light of what they can read in The Guardian, and called the product Christian economics. But there is no such thing as Christian economics, any more than there is a Christian physics or mathematics. Those clergymen who still shudder at the name of Lady Thatcher might just as validly apply their complaints to the laws of physics. How hard, how uncaring, they might argue, to claim that jumping out of a high window can lead to serious injury. Surely the loving message of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ requires us to take a wider and more sympathetic view of the matter than these cold scientists, with their incomprehensible “dogma” about the mutual attraction of objects and how this varies inversely with the square of the distance between them? We can all laugh at that. So far as there is a God, and so far as the nature of reality can be accurately known, we can be sure that the laws of physics are the laws of God. But the same applies with economics. Once we have sufficiently checked the chain of reasoning from our introspection and from external fact, and once we have so far as possible tested our conclusions against experience, we have arrived at known laws of the market, which are also the laws of God. And no quavering clichés about “love” and “bias to the poor” can change this fact.

Another reason, I have no doubt, for the use of Lady Thatcher has nothing to do with the prejudices of even the most stupid or ill-educated clergyman. Ever since she was forced out of office, her secular enemies have been trying to demonise her. They wholly failed to win any arguments with her. Their revenge, and their protection against any future Prime Minister like her, is to surround her name with disreputable associations. The purpose is to turn the words “You are another Margaret Thatcher” from the high praise that it is over much of the world into a term of shocking abuse. Therefore the use of her name by the Constitution Unit. It would have been self-defeating to set out a formal argument that she stood somewhere between Judas Iscariot and the Emperor Diocletian. Far more effective, the authors of the report knew, was to imply her theological status in a sneer of 32 words—32 words that it has taken 3,200 words of even abbreviated argument to expose and refute.

It is our misfortune to live in an age of disintegration. It can be argued, I agree, that every age is one of disintegration. Conservatives in the 19th century were just as alarmed as in the 21st at the rapid and often badly thought institutional changes forced on them. The difference between then and now, though, is that the changes were forced from outside. Those in the institutions were able to make a co-ordinated and powerful defence that held off many of the attacks even into my own lifetime. Now the attacks come increasingly from within. It hardly matters what we care to defend—the Church, the Monarchy, the Lords, national independence, whatever—there are always those in high places urging on the forces of destruction, or simply inviting them by the advertised fact of their personal idiocy.

The past five years, in particular, strike me very much as a gentler, longer repeat of the collapse of the French ancien régime between 1788 and 1790. There is the same half-baked radical fervour on one side, and the same collaboration or paralysis of will on the other. I do not know how things will end. But I do know that our own ancien régime was far more defensible than the French in terms of its enabling the good life as commonly defined. For all their evident untidiness, no other set of constitutional arrangements has ever for so long combined such unwavering political stability with so wide a degree of personal freedom. If there were only one human constitution that had the Divine sanction, it was ours; and it is being systematically pulled apart. Future historians may look back at us with mingled pity and contempt. At present, we can simply fear what will come between us and that calmer future.

© 2002 – 2018, seangabb.

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