ACCORDING TO STEPHEN COTTRELL, the Archbishop of York, an “expansive vision of what it means to be English as part of the UK” is needed, which will “help us rediscover a national unity,”

He addresses some important issues and I agree with him that it is fine to feel good about being British, English and from a particular region, though I do not think such feelings can be forced.

Yet his plea is marred, in my view, by a slide into divisive cliche and failure either to read the signs of the times or grasp the more challenging aspects of Christian tradition. As a far-right government seeks to tighten its control and sow division among those worst-hit, Church of England leaders’ attempts to sidestep tensions – or tap into these to try to increase active membership – are ill-judged.

Archbishop’s ode to Englishness

Writing in the DailyTelegraph, Cottrell has called for stronger regional government and identities in England, alongside devolution in Scotland and Wales. This has been widely reported elsewhere, for instance under the headline “’PATRONISING’ Archbishop slams ‘London elite’ who smear proudly patriotic English as ‘backwardly xenophobic’” and “English are crying out to be heard, says archbishop”.

He described how “When I grew up in the 1960s, I thought of myself as British. I knew I was English, but it was less significant for my identity. I was aware of our difficult history but rather proud of the pragmatism and vision that had created an experiment in nationhood: different nations living as one.” Yet in his account, while Scotland and Wales gained devolution, “similar developments never really happened in England. Consequently, Westminster started to feel like the English government. And London, with its own Mayor, and with a wealth, size and influence, started to feel like a separate nation.”

This is a curious take on history, especially from someone a few years older than me, who should be able to remember how Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government set out to smash the power of local and (largely Labour-led) regional government. A flurry of laws was passed, including – in 1986 – the abolition of six metropolitan county councils, covering the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire, as well as the Greater London Council. Failure to make up for the decline of many industries added to feelings of marginalisation in a number of areas. Two-fifths of people in England now live in areas with ‘metro mayors’ with some devolved powers, yet tensions with central government continue, made worse by austerity, which Cottrell ignores. Nor does he address the power imbalances and other complexities of the relationship between England, on the one hand, and Scotland and Wales, on the other, (to say nothing of Northern Ireland within the wider UK).

He continued, “Many English people feel left behind by metropolitan elites in London and the South East, and by devolved governments and strengthened regional identities in Scotland and Wales. Their heartfelt cry to be heard is often disregarded, wilfully misunderstood or patronised as backwardly xenophobic. But what if this is about the loss of identity? No longer British, temperamentally never really European, and definitely outside the wealth and opportunities of London, English people want to know what has happened to their country.”

Undoubtedly communities in the North and Midlands sometimes face snobbery. Yet aspects of Cottrell’s analysis are questionable. To begin with, financiers in the City and property and media barons are hardly typical of Londoners. The notion that ordinary people in this city can rightly be described as a ‘prosperous metropolitan elite’ has been repeatedly debunked and has lent itself to satire. He is presumably aware of this: of the five boroughs with the worst child poverty rates in England, all are in London, including three for which he was responsible as the former Bishop of Chelmsford.

In addition, while the Archbishop is almost certainly sincere in his desire for an inclusive approach to Englishness, the rhetoric points in a different direction. The article does refer to “failings” of a “colonial past” but overall comes across almost like a bid to placate those annoyed by Church of England anti-racist initiatives. The narrative of “English people” wanting to know what happened to their country seems not only to exclude Londoners but also does not fit most people of colour settled in England, along with people from European Union countries and their children, as well as those white majority ethnic people whose lives are intertwined with ours. Those lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who moved to London or other cities seeking greater freedom and acceptance of diversity are also airbrushed out of the picture.

And, given that racism and xenophobia are found across all sections of British society, surely this includes at least a few of those of whom he wrote? The extreme-right, pseudo-Christian group Britain First uses the slogan ‘Taking our country back’.

The monarchy, the church, the NHS and BBC World Service are cited as binding people together as English and British, though recent goings-on may have further weakened many people’s trust in the first two of these and the NHS and BBC have come under attack from the current government. However, those who might doubt the benevolence of the powers-that-be are reassured that a “Christian vision… is the bedrock of our cultural, ethical and political life.”

There is a paragraph praising parish life. Churches of all denominations indeed often reflect love of neighbour, alongside other people of goodwill at work in communities. Yet struggles for justice and an invitation to personal and social transformation are also at the heart of Christian faith, linked with startling claims about a troublemaker put to death by the religious and state authorities.

Facing difficult realities

“It is time to be proud to be English”, the Archbishop urged, calling for the nation to become “a courageous and compassionate community of communities, serving the common good, and delighting in our diversity across these islands” and tackling issues such as climate change.

I think feeling positive about one’s identity and heritage can be healthy, if taken along with a critical attitude to past weaknesses. The Church of England has at times failed working class people and movements, along with minorities and women, and it is a pity that Stephen Cottrell’s piece did not highlight some of the struggles across Britain through the centuries for a more just and equal society, which were sometimes linked with a broader, internationalist vision.

There have been some encouraging developments in recent years around more inclusive perceptions of English as well as broader British identity, though these are complicated by histories of imperialism and slavery and ongoing exclusion. In the 1960s and ‘70s, for some of us, images of the Union Jack and St George’s flag unfortunately often signalled spaces where we might be physically unsafe and these are still sometimes used by the far right. Symbols and labels can have different meanings to different people.

More broadly, the Church of England’s position as an established church, and the privileges which go with this, appear once again to have got in the way of prophetic ministry. It is anyway perhaps too late to try to paper over the faultlines which have become even more noticeable during the pandemic, at a time when human rights are under attack. It is indeed important to create space for dialogue, in which ordinary people in different parts of England who identify in different ways can better understand one another, as well as sharing views and experiences with others in Britain and beyond. But this may raise challenging questions about how the UK is run.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016)  and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.

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