You can't understand the British prime minister’s politics, or her Brexit strategy, without understanding her Anglicanism.
- By Andrew BrownAndrew Brown's book about his life in Sweden, Fishing in Utopia, won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2009. He works for The Guardian in London.
One of the least understood, yet most important, things about British Prime Minister Theresa May is that she is the daughter of a Church of England vicar. The fact that she is personally devout, by contrast, is well-known. I have heard several anecdotes about her time as a member of Parliament and minister when she would turn up at local parish initiatives that could offer her no conceivable political advantage. Such devotion to the church is unusual if not unknown among British politicians. Gordon Brown remains a very serious Presbyterian; Tony Blair went to Mass most Sundays.
But the reason May’s Anglicanism offers insight into her political character, and her political agenda, is not because it has informed her identity as a devout Christian. Rather, it is because it has informed her identity as an Englishwoman.
As a Conservative politician, May’s appeal depends largely on her apparently apolitical common sense. Her manner and rhetoric always suggest that things are pretty much all right as they are, that reasonable people don’t want to rock the boat, and that there is something wrong with the people who want large change. She expresses distrust of ideologues and chancers — the two labels that most naturally attach to her political rivals at the moment.
But it’s telling that the teachings of the Church of England have always managed to combine common sense with a very strong nationalistic streak. The clue is in the name. The one thing that distinguished Henry VIII’s church from that of his father, Henry VII, was that the king of England appointed the clergy, not the bishop of Rome. Doctrine had hardly changed at all. (That would have to wait until the convulsions under Henry VIII’s children, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth.) Until Henry died, all that really changed was that England became, to use the technical term of the times, an “empire.”
In that sense, Brexit really is a continuation of the Reformation impulse — it promises nothing so much as a restoration of national prerogatives and privileges. This is not to suggest that May, who is now obliged to oversee the Brexit process, is enthusiastic about its prospects. Prior to the referendum vote that initiated Brexit, May believed the economic effects were likely to be disastrous, as her leaked pre-referendum speech to Goldman Sachs showed. And her intentions about Brexit are still remarkably opaque: A senior aide leaving a recent briefing at the newly created Department for Exiting the EU was photographed holding a briefing note on which the words “have cake and eat it” could be read. That plan will clearly not survive contact with the enemy.
But it’s worth noting that May seemed quick to embrace the idea of a hard Brexit, in which keeping out immigrants takes priority over ensuring decent trading conditions. And that would be consistent with her time leading the Home Office, where she showed a consistent determination to keep down net immigration figures. (Someone who worked with her then described her three policy priorities as “down with immigration, down with crime, and up with Theresa May.”) Generally, the leaks we have had make it seem that she is more concerned about managing her party, and its constituents, than managing relations with the French and Germans.
If Americans don’t immediately grasp what this style of thinking has to do with the Church of England, that’s because it’s built on a very different model of Christianity from the one that seems natural in the United States. From the Middle Ages until very recently, the church was organized and understood itself on the basis of the parish. The parish, in England, is a geographical division, one that is no longer a unit of political or economic significance but which remains fundamental to the church’s self-understanding. Everyone lives in a parish, and every parish has its church, so everyone has a priest in the Church of England who is in some sense responsible for their spiritual welfare.
This has also meant that the church hierarchy — the clergy, and ultimately the bishops, who sit in the House of Lords and thus have a say over all legislation considered by Parliament — is expected to feel a responsibility for everyone in their respective parishes, no matter how poor and miserable. This sense of responsibility, almost as much as the two world wars, was what reconciled the English Conservative Party, which had a close relationship with the church hierarchy, to the welfare state. And that state was very much inspired by the work of Anglican intellectuals, such as William Temple, the wartime archbishop of Canterbury. For that generation, the postwar welfare state was an attempt to turn England into the New Jerusalem. The Christian elements of that vision faded with time and so did the nationalist ones. The last ones may now be coming back.
The Church of England is, in an important sense, not a religious body at all. It is, or was, a mode of being English. It was the official position of the Church of England that it had no distinctive doctrines of its own. It was simply the English part of the universal church. This claim was hard to sustain in reality — the doctrine that the Church of England has no unique doctrines is itself unique to the Church of England — but it reflected a deep conservative self-confidence. It was only as a member of the Church of England that C.S. Lewis could write a book titled Mere Christianity, referencing the plain, commonsensical essence of belief, without the extravagance of Rome or the doctrinal extremism of the puritans.
The link with May should be obvious. The lack of explicit theological distinctiveness in her church coheres with an almost complete lack of ideology in her politics. She seems to have no large vision of how society should be organized or the economy run: She sees problems in her nation and fixes them, without worrying too much about how everything might fit into a grand scheme. If she had a slogan, it might be “common sense without stupidity.” The Brexit vote would seem to contradict both halves of the slogan. But we still have no clear idea how she intends to deal with it — except that she does not intend to let anyone outside the government know anything until the last possible moment. The attempt to negotiate what is supposed to be a return to parliamentary sovereignty without a vote in Parliament is one example. Another is her repetition of the phrase “Brexit means Brexit” until its lack of meaning became embarrassingly obvious.
It’s almost as if she believed her policies could be as private as her spiritual beliefs. Though she has by all accounts a strong sense of duty, May is quite remarkably undemonstrative. She is extremely private about her religious beliefs, as with all other aspects of her private life; this, too, is a traditional sort of Englishness, in which you perform your duties but have no public existence outside them.
Those duties sometimes take a universalist cast. One of the causes May pushed hardest at the Home Office and elsewhere was the fight against modern slavery. There are few votes to be won in this fight, but it is the right thing to do, and she has worked very hard to ensure that problem was taken seriously throughout the criminal justice system. The bishops would agree with her on that, while being a long way to her left on welfare reform and on the treatment of refugees. It’s very notable that some of the most bigoted social conservatives on the English Christian scene are also in favor of the large-scale resettlement of Christian refugees from around the world to England.
Generally, however, May’s political career is given coherence by her supposition that her Christian duty is to the people of England rather than to humanity in general or even to other Christians. This is another thing that distinguishes state churches, on the European model, from congregational ones, on the American model. The state church is not something you join, or leave, any more than the nation is. It is run as a kind of public utility: a national spiritual health service, if you like. In Germany and Scandinavia, the churches are paid for out of taxation collected by the state, as the English church once was, even if the church taxes in Europe are now voluntary. Because there is no special membership status, no one is excluded either, and there is an obligation to serve everyone. May’s father was legally obliged to marry or bury any resident of the parish who demanded this service — the assumption being that they were members of the church.
May won’t bring her faith into politics explicitly, but we can expect her to behave as if England were a special, almost sacred, country in ways that none of her immediate predecessors, much less Americans, would understand.
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