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The churchgoing minority: David Cameron called Britain a Christian country but only 14 per cent describe themselves as 'practising' (credit: Getty)

It is a fact, remarked upon by admirers and critics alike, that David Cameron, even after so much media exposure, remains hard to pin down. People think he looks the part as prime minister. But they cannot relate to him. He tries to seem authentic. But the more he reveals himself, the less tangible he is. Whenever he devises a phrase to explain the essence of his policies — the Big Society being the obvious example — he sows confusion and inspires ridicule. Cameron's recent profession of his religious faith (sort of) in an article, over Easter, in the Church Times, has not quite suffered that fate. But the more people reflect upon it, the larger the question marks are bound to become.

David Cameron is a political animal to the tips of his claws. There is nothing he does that is not political, whether speaking about his family (which he does with less reserve than any previous prime minister), or displaying his taste in popular music, or — as in this case — reflecting on his religion. All is for immediate political effect.

Mrs Thatcher was the last serious practitioner of the political sermon. Her speeches in St Lawrence Jewry in 1978 and 1981 do not, though, nowadays read well, dipping and dodging, as they do, between biblical principles and practical policies, while modestly (and unconvincingly) denying direct connection between the two. Her last such address, to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988, created such a row that she went off the subject altogether. Henceforth, she indignantly declaimed against any intrusions of "preachy" material in her speeches. But she did, more or less, get away with these excursions, because people knew of her strict Methodist background, respected her sincerity, and imagined her more religious than she was.

David Cameron is on trickier territory. In his Church Times article he claimed that he knew "how powerful faith can be in the toughest of times". Yet the reader was left unsure of why. The reference was perhaps to family trauma. But this hardly provides an answer. People have always assumed that Cameron does not really believe very much at all, about God or, indeed, anything. Yet here he was asserting that his faith had kept him going. But what faith?

The answer seems not to be Christianity, but rather the Church of England. Indeed, Cameron's article offers what can only be considered — even by an outsider — a caricature of Anglicanism, which he seems to divorce from any theological principles whatsoever. He stated: "I am a member of the Church of England, and I suspect, a rather classic one: not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith." (Emphasis added). Just to ensure that the point was not lost, he added: "I am not one for doctrinal purity." It is, to say the least, unusual to prefer impure to pure doctrine. The deliberate espousing of theological falsehood is a rum position even for temperamental latitudinarians. It is hard to imagine that even the most indulgent liberal Anglican bishop would altogether agree with it, or that any sincere Anglican would do other than to regret it.

So what does the Prime Minister like about the Anglican Church? It is the externals. He explicitly mentions the "national role" of the Church, its "liturgy", and "the architecture and cultural heritage". Many will agree with him. Indeed, as is often the case, Cameron manages to reflect with uncanny accuracy the defining superficialities of the age. It is the source of his political power and his easy charm. But he then made an extraordinarily ambitious assertion, one which gladdened the hearts of the Tory press, and which led to an almost endless stream of comment for and against, namely that "we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country". (Again, emphasis added).

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May 31st, 2014
8:05 AM
Standpoint A Christian country? Robin Harris. 31 May 2014. Mr Harris commits here what he himself in another context might well have called an act of brazen political bravery. Intimately familiar as he is with the machinations of Number 10, he presumes to stick his neck out by stating that “Christianity is, essentially, faith in the Risen Lord”. Is that it? An essential definition? For all time, world without end? If I might digress here, just for a moment. I believe the jury is still out on whether the traditional Inuit really do have quite so many distinct words for snow. Or whether a certain number of them have had good reason to develop rather more practically imaginative derivations than ours, of the equivalent words as are in common English use. As we speak. Much as one might do for words like Christianity. And, of course, tea. That quintessential beverage, infused by pouring boiling water over cured tea leaves, is perhaps the second most widely consumed refreshment in the world. Common enough, to be sure. And yet, at once notoriously ambiguous. To have tea? Try serving a really invigorating pot of cheer to the express satisfaction of a variously tempered company of no more than, shall we say, a dozen people. Precisely. Everyone particularly likes their tea, just so. How many leaves per cup? Fresh water or bottled? Minutes and seconds to draw? A suggestion of milk? Or a robust builder’s labourer’s brew? Lemon or sugar? Lumps or raw? Besides which, having tea can imply all manner of social connotations, involving choice of venue, precise time of the clock, stacked cup cakes or cucumber sandwiches. With or without the crusts? No poppy seeds. Or almonds, please. For which one dresses appropriately. In some places having tea plainly means sitting down to the main meal of the day. With or without the amber hot drink. Likewise your average Christianity. “If Britain is a not a Christian country, what is it? It is hard to say. But it is a leading question all the same.” I beg your pardon. Did you say, all the same? But, my dear chap, of course it’s a leading question. You might as well ask whether grotesquely inhumane behaviour can even be considered truly human. S/he that is without a skeleton or two in their closet … And all that. What? No. I don’t think the problem is that David Cameron’s public persona is particularly inept. I think it goes deeper than that. To me it’s more of a question of public perceptions. By which I mean the usual, strictly conventional, intended as eminently reassuring discourse that has always been traditionally articulated by all public figures, politicians, clergy, doctors, police officers, teachers, professors … And, of course, the media. So appropriate, my dear, in the days when the Sun never set etc. And all the evils of racism and slavery and such gross obscenities were conveniently somewhere else, over there. The public perception is not what people privately imagine they may really think, but what officially appointed spokespersons are seen to be permitted, and therefore naturally expected, to say. One might almost suspect Harris truly believes Christianity ought not be dragged quite so indecently through the slime, grime and vulgarity of everyday political discourse. That said, we may be forgiven for believing the dominant public perception was once much more coherently articulated than seems more recently to be the case. But that may largely be due to the way history is traditionally presented as a coherent ethnocentric narrative. While what people claim they vividly remember who were there and lived through the period in question is anything but coherent or understood in anything like the past completed, done and dusted, sense. That Britain is a Christian country has nothing much to do, I think, with any alleged individual religious, or for that matter political, experience. It’s an expedient play on words, understood as a national story, a script of the movie, as your grandchildren might one day see it. Nothing at all like how it really was for those who were there. And lived through it. A hundred or even fifty years ago, so the narrative goes, people might have easily accepted what was pronounced from the pulpit or in the House of Commons. It’s easy to imagine that the medieval church met with very little publicly articulated resistance, to say nothing of the incoherent murmurings in the taverns and behind the plough. But now, God help us, we have the Internet. The traditionally coherent national narrative is shouted down by all the raucous blogging, where nobody knows you’re a dog. Where the likes of Churchill and Hitler and Roosevelt would not have stood a chance. Would the Nazis have succeeded in 1933 under the current tempo of the 24/7 news cycle and the inexorable context of YouTube, FaceBook and Twitter? I doubt it. What we have now is democracy gone mad. This whole nobly benighted ideal of government of, by and for the people was never intended to involve every Tom, Dick and Henrietta. Of course it’s not a Christian country. It never was. What does it mean to be human? Can you tell me that? You can, I know. Anyone can. But try serving that up to a variously tempered company of no more than, shall we say, a dozen people. Not forgetting the elephant in the room, of course. Two lumps?

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