All of us have an urge to tidy things up. I visited my daughter in her university hall last week and had to strongly resist an urge to clean up the shared kitchen. In fact, I would have done so but for the young man who was sleeping on the floor.
But it is the tidying up of anomalies and inconsistencies in public life that concerns me. Father Alexander Lucie-Smith argues in the Catholic Herald (https://bit.ly/2QCzEmy), for example, that the anti-Catholic prejudice contained in the British constitution is in urgent need of putting right. We’ve got rid of just about all other prejudices and we’ve left one at the heart of the monarchy.
This injustice, he argues, is highlighted by the fact that Princess Alexandra of Hanover, 482ndin line to the throne, has forfeited her place in the succession by converting to Catholicism.
He comments that no one “seems to care or think it worth bothering about. While the equality agenda remains all the rage, this fact of religious discrimination seems to be strangely accepted by almost everyone.”
The trouble is that the British constitution is so untidy, inconsistent, anomalous and anachronistic that to tidy it up, like my daughter’s shared kitchen, you’d have to tip out its contents and its inhabitants at the same time. You’d have to start from scratch.
Adrian Hilton blogging as archbishopcranmer.com points out that if this prejudice against Catholics was abolished, it would leave all sorts of difficulties.
“Dr Lucie-Smith is arguing not only for Roman Catholics to be able to succeed to the Throne, but for that Throne to be stripped of its spiritual heart. He wants a Roman Catholic to reign on a secular throne, which would, he avers, be ‘neutral’.”
Hilton argues that time must be taken to consider constitutional issues properly because they “have complex knock-on effects”. This is probably a recipe for doing nothing because Parliament is not known for thinking through constitutional reform properly. And in fact the constitution has evolved untidily because reforms have been accomplished a little at a time.
Take House of Lords reform, we have been waiting for a proper reform of the second chamber since Tony Blair’s half-hearted efforts to abolish the hereditary peerage. Even Nick Clegg’s plans for a smaller House including a proportion of elected peers went nowhere fast.
And now that Brexit seems likely to take up the energies of governments for some years to come, it is extremely unlikely that an ambitious programme of legislation such as disestablishment or even House of Lords reform will be a high priority even for a radical left-wing Labour government.
This means that we are left with Bishops in the House of Lords for the foreseeable future, even though their inclusion looks ever more anomalous and unsustainable to a modern generation who don’t get ‘church’. Perhaps it is a necessary untidiness to have them there but I would argue that they would now be more effective outside the establishment critiquing the values of a society that has moved aware from a Judaeo-Christian ethic.
But the first step on this eventual path to disestablishment might be the bishops making an offer to reduce their number or using their influence to bring about a properly thought-through review of the constitution so that a tidy-up can become a full spring clean. Royal Commissions are convened only occasionally but after Brexit surely it is time to take a good long hard look at all our institutions of governance to ensure they are fit to take us forward into a changed world.
Will the police investigate themselves?
Last week the Scottish government and Scottish police launched a campaign against hate crime in the form of billboards urging members of the public to report ‘bigotry’.
One of the posters said: “Dear Bigots, You can’t spread your religious hate here. End of sermon.’
Interestingly enough, many Christians have felt that the campaign itself was intolerant. Barnabas Fund, the religious persecution charity, which to declare an interest employs me as a consultant, complained to police.
“At Barnabas Fund we are used to supporting Christians who face prejudice and discrimination but we have never before felt it necessary to make a formal complaint of this kind in the UK. This is no less than state-sponsored prejudice against Christians which we are more used to seeing in a countries where Christians are marginalised and persecuted,” said Hendrik Storm, Chief Executive Officer of the charity.
The nub of the matter is that the poster makes no ‘qualifications’ about the bigotry it is talking about and appears to associate bigotry with religious believers in general and with Christians in particular with the use of the word ‘Sermon’.
Barnabas Fund are not alone in making a complaint — at least one other cleric has done so and possibly other Christians. It’ll be interesting to see how the Scottish police investigate themselves.