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Author Archives: Greg Smith

About Greg Smith

Greg Smith is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

Is Britain Flagging?

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In light of the prominence of the Union Jack in the news over recent months, Greg Smith considers the complex relationships between flag, state, and church.

The newly unveiled Downing Street briefing room, replete with its twin union flags on a blue background, has provoked ribaldry not only from the usual satirists, but even from the editorial team at the Daily Mail. Together with the recent announcement that the flag should be flown from all UK government buildings every day, while councils will be urged to do the same from their premises, this marks a significant change in British attitudes and practice. Boris Johnson has clearly struck a raw nerve, as shown by the response of Keir Starmer—despite opposition to his ‘patriotic turn’ from within the Labour Party. The debate there is framed by such questions as: to what extent is it possible to embrace patriotism but reject nationalism and racism, and what is at stake in the pursuit of a ‘progressive’ patriotism, particularly in multi-ethnic and racially unequal societies, such as Britain today?

It is important to analyse what is going on, and why it is happening now. The most immediate issue is the defence of the Union. The United Kingdom is clearly far from united: with the results of elections for the devolved governments expected in the coming hours and days, the Scottish National Party is riding high in the polls and is keen to hold a second referendum on total independence. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland seems alienated and divided following the rushed and ill thought-out deal on borders and trade following withdrawal from the European Union. The pragmatic case for a united island of Ireland has never been stronger, though emotions on the Unionist side are still strongly against it. Even Wales in its management of the COVID-19 emergency has shown the value of devolved powers of government, while within England the regional divides, particular between North and South have become a major political issue.

These debates take place in the context of the shock of Brexit. Britain, looking back to the London Olympics of 2012 had seemed a country at ease with itself as multicultural, successful in economics, culture, and sport in a global and European context. Yet since the referendum, the country has needed to reinvent itself, and seems to be doing so in terms of a populist, predominantly white and English, nationalism. Indeed, writing from an Irish perspective, Finn McRedmond contends that exercises like flag waving are associated with nascent, insecure countries.

Over the last century the desire to wave flags has been somewhat muted in Britain (with the special exception of Northern Ireland). There are a few nationwide celebrations where the flags come out in a mostly harmless way, such as royal visits and weddings, jubilee street parties, the Olympics, and the football World Cup (though there it is usually the flags of the constituent nations of the UK). Meanwhile, the Union Jack is for the most part a branding icon sold to tourists, or an ironic symbol. In most other countries the idea of underpants printed with the pattern of the national flag would be seen as sacrilege.

But other countries have different cultures. In the USA, the stars and stripes has become a sacred symbol guarded by legislation. In public schools and the military there is a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In states which have been though revolutions or national liberation struggles the bonding power of the flag is easier to appreciate, for example in Scotland, Ireland, France, India, and many previously colonised nations.

Maybe it is because of the sheer extent and dominance of the British Empire that, until now, no-one has needed to make the flag sacred as other nations do. And the associations with Empire persist. In 2012, YouGov’s nationally-representative poll of British public opinion discovered that the UK populace was considerably more likely to associate the Union flag with “Empire” (63%), than with a “modern, diverse Britain” (just 36% made this association). However, subsequent focus groups added nuance to these findings, and views may well have moved on post Brexit. While Paul Gilroy’s book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation published in 1987 (and reviewed appreciatively here) is now in its thirties, postcolonial  perspectives are increasingly pushed back by the new populist nationalists, as evidenced by the government spinning of the recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report.

Finally, there is the question of the church endorsing the national flag, which, though not as widespread as in the USA, is particularly acute in the established Church of England. Many side chapels house the flags of regiments that conquered, and sometimes massacred, Britain’s colonial subjects; civic remembrance ceremonies focus more on national myths than the Prince of Peace; and services for Scouts and Guides feature parades with the Union Jack. But would it not be preferable, as now often happens in urban churches like mine, to see displays of multiple flags, reminding us of the diverse heritage of our multicultural body? The Christian household is composed of citizens of heaven drawn from many lands. To some degree the image of the Union Jack with its overlapping crosses symbolises a nation state with multiple identities. Yet it also features an instrument of imperial torture on which our saviour and some of his early disciples died. The scandal of the cross might yet subvert the messages promoted by today’s political leaders.

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Review of ‘The Future of Brexit Britain’ edited by Jonathan Chaplin and Andrew Bradstock

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Greg Smith offers a probing review of this edited collection of essays on Brexit from an Anglican perspective.

Jonathan Chaplin and Andrew Bradstock have done an excellent job in bringing together a wide range of church leaders, politicians, economists and theologians to present a diversity of perspectives on post Brexit Britain and the place of the Church of England within it—in a process which William Temple would recognise. That said, the editors admit that too many of the contributors are white, male, and from an older generation.

There could never be an ideal time for writing or publishing such a book, but the autumn of 2020 may have turned out to be particularly awkward, falling within the middle of a pandemic that has changed national life and a few months before the final rushed exit deal came into force. The latter especially has profound significance for the UK, with the border that is not a border in the Irish Sea, and the upcoming Scottish Parliament elections. For the church, Brexit continues to divide and raise questions. Inevitably the quality of the chapters varies, and on such a divisive topic, most readers will find things to make them angry as well as delighted. I should also disclose that I was a firm supporter of Remain.

The editors note that a number of the contributors take the line that membership of the EU was not primarily a theological issue. While Malcolm Brown argues, as an institutional insider, that neutrality and lack of comment was a studied position of the House of Bishops, it seems clear to me, and to others like John Millbank, that statements by two archbishops and numerous clergy were making a clear case for Remain. Perhaps it was only a weak and pragmatic economic case, rather than a moral one in line with the Catholic Social Teaching that had inspired the founders of the EEC to be Christian peacemakers in the immediate post war era. In any case, the exit polls in 2016 showed clearly that people who identified as Church of England were significantly more likely than average to vote leave; that Christians as a whole were as divided as the whole electorate; and that the more committed to Christ and involved in church life a person was, the more likely they were to vote Remain. Four years on the political disagreement remains, though most of the contributors promote the role of the national church as a ministry of reconciliation. Graham Tomlin’s chapter focusses on this and draws from the history of England’s post Reformation religious settlement, in a controversial reading of history which I critiqued in an earlier blog.

Personally, I would argue that some of the issues over Brexit are theologically and ecclesiologically fundamental where they touch on peace and justice, and in particular on national identity and race. One of the few chapters which seems to delve deeply in scripture and theology comes from Sam Norton. His readings are from a strongly nationalist perspective and, to my mind, don’t make a clear enough distinction between the “ethnos” concept of Scripture and modern nation states, giving little room for the New Testament emphasis on a multinational people of God who are citizens of heaven in exile in various earthly empires. Norton also implies that the Leave vote was the action of a sovereign God, who is pleased with the result and displeased with church leaders who supported Remain. In my view, David Muir’s chapter and Anthony Reddie’s short response (summarising key points of his recent book) are much closer to the uncomfortable truth: that Brexit was driven through by an appeal to post-Imperial nostalgia and English nativism. The chapters offering perspectives from Wales, Scotland and Ireland, plus a couple from Europe, tend to reinforce the Englishness of the decision, and the sense of effortless superiority characteristic of the tribe and, indeed, the Church of England.

Poverty is an important theme that surfaces in the Brexit debate with the suggestion that the Leave vote was a revolt of the left-behind working classes in the North and Midlands. Sam Norton and Philip North are correct that the church needs to listen to the voice of the poor. Yet it would be unwise to interpret Brexit solely in terms of economic inequality; after all, the Leave campaign was financed by the rich and supported by huge numbers of affluent, middle-class, white, older people (especially men) across the country. Meanwhile, the urban poor in multi-ethnic areas of London, Manchester and even in specific “Asian wards” of Blackburn tended to vote Remain. There is little reason to hope that the fortunes of poor people, be they white or from ethnic minorities will be improved post-Brexit, especially with the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic.

Other chapters cover issues of prudential judgement around politics and economics and raise some significant points about the nature of democracy, the British constitution and the distribution of resources in a post Brexit UK. Brian Griffiths, makes the most cogent and graciously phrased case for leaving the EU that I have read, giving a generous mention to Ronald Preston and John Atherton. The final section of the book offers space for reflections on the substantial chapters from professional (ex)politicians of different party backgrounds and varying Christian commitments. There are reflections too from some Christians outside the Church of England. Doug Gay’s three-page review is a masterpiece; if you are only browsing in a bookshop this is the section to read. Having read the book as a Church of Scotland minister, he summarises what has been said, shows why and where disagreement remains, why the country is in a mess, why the tensions over national identity are central to the problem, and why the Church of England needs to reconsider its role.

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Review of ‘Here Are Your Gods!’ by Chris Wright

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Greg Smith reviews Chris Wright’s recent book on idolatry. He applauds Wright’s critique of the idols that dominate our contemporary politics, and wonders whether the solution lies in a conception of politics that is much broader than our current election dramas and celebrity leaders.

Our ‘new normal’ may be perplexing and frustrating, but it can also be rightly described as apocalyptic inasmuch as it begins to reveal the main objects of worship in contemporary culture. In Britain, the pandemic has highlighted the tensions between the sacred beliefs of economic success, the saving power of the NHS and the value of individual human lives. Chris Wright’s new book explores such issues, framing them through the lens of idolatry—a practice well understood (and rejected) by the three major faiths of the Abrahamic tradition.

This is a short and easily readable book, aimed at a student or educated lay Christian audience. The author is an established Old Testament scholar and missiologist, working for the Langham Partnership.  It offers a clear, conservative exposition of key biblical texts about idolatry, with a radical, practical and political application in today’s world.

The first part of the book explores the concept of idolatry in the Hebrew scriptures. Wright argues that the biblical category of idolatry—when it is even considered at all—is often treated simplistically. Christians may argue about images and statues, sometimes even refer to the personal moral pitfalls of worshipping money, sex, power and status, but they rarely consider politics or the economy as possible idols. The Bible poses the question, ‘Do other gods exist within the same order of existence that Yahweh does?’, and answers that ‘Yahweh alone is the universal Creator, the sovereign Ruler of all histories, the Judge of all nations, and the Saviour of people from all nations who turn to him.’ (p. 13) Wright strongly affirms that God remains sovereign over history.

In part two, he moves on to political idols and empires and the nature of biblical faithfulness within politics. Wright accepts that bringing the Bible to bear on contemporary politics is usually very uncomfortable. Yet the whole idea of gods and idols, is such a prominent theme in the Bible (especially in the arena of public and national life), that the topic cannot be ignored.

He mentions how Jeroboam fashions two golden calves at either end of his kingdom as a political act to consolidate and sanctify his state power; how Pharaoh’s oppression was overcome; how the national gods of the tribes of Canaan were powerless before Yahweh; and how Nebuchadnezzar was brought to his knees. Jonah and Nahum preach the sovereignty, judgement and mercy of God over Nineveh. Meanwhile, the prophet Amos draws a noose around the neck of Judah and Israel by first pointing his finger at surrounding nations for idolatry and injustice and then observing how three fingers point back at his own nation. The key lesson is that all empires come to an end under the sovereign hand of God. God brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

The book then engages with our current context. When God turns up in public speech it is an ordinary, traditional and lightweight god that is referred to. The ‘real’ gods—who pull the levers of political, economic and cultural power—are the false gods and idols that humans have bowed down to for millennia. They include: the idol of prosperity—which Jesus called ‘Mammon’, the idol of national pride—symbolised by patriotic songs and flags in church, and the idol of self-exaltation and celebrity. Here Wright becomes very specific:

‘What does it say about the state of our culture and politics that two men have risen to top political leadership in the United Kingdom and the United States who are both notoriously and demonstrably addicted to fabrication, exaggeration, false claims, self-contradiction, and downright mendacity?’ (p. 92)

He finds something deeply satanic in this vicious attack on truth.

The third and final part of the book is an exhortation to the church to be ‘Bible people’: living by the story of God and committed to the mission of God. Christians must be kingdom people, submitting to the reign of God and recognising the difference between the kingdom of God as taught and modelled by Jesus and the Christendom way of thinking. We are called to follow the Jesus of the cross, not the Jesus of Constantine. What Wright questions is not Christian involvement in politics but the idea that Christians should seek supremacy in the political arena. It will not do to argue that, since political authorities are appointed by God, we must simply approve of all they do.

Indeed, prayer is a political act, for it appeals to an authority higher than the state. The psalmists pray that God would put down the wicked in power and raise up and vindicate the oppressed. So we pray for our rulers, sometimes through gritted teeth, but we also pray against them in relation to policies and actions that are incompatible with biblical standards for society.

Overall, this is a useful and important book, combining biblical exegesis with a radical political message. I wonder if the established Church of England can withstand such a critique, and what William Temple or even today’s bishops—so often criticised for their guarded and woolly political statements—would make of it?

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