Patriotism is not a nationalist cult

I did not clap for Captain Sir Tom Moore.  Why? Well, because I am a relatively conservative middle-aged male, a crusty Old High Churchman, and an Ulster Protestant who is distinctly uncomfortable with such public displays of emotion, regarding them as tacky and lacking in respect.  A dignified moment of silence and a thanksgiving for Captain Tom at Evensong seemed much more appropriate.

Which leaves me with the question if I am part of the "cult of White British Nationalism" that has been alleged by some within the Church of England as the essence of "the cult of Captain Tom".  To be clear, my concern here is the theology of the term used.  The cleric who originally tweeted it rightly withdrew the Tweet and apologised.  That should have been the end of the matter.  It was not.  He was subject to vile racist and homophobic online attacks.  (I have previously sought to articulate my thoughts on this example of 'cancel culture' from the Right.) A clumsy statement from the Diocese of London made matters worse.  I trust that the cleric is receiving support and appropriate pastoral care from the diocese, with robust affirmation of and encouragement for his ministry. 

Despite the wise retraction and the apology issued, others have decided to repeat the phrase and have stated their support for for its use.  It is this use which I am seeking to address.

Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God

The Church is called to exercise discernment in the face of ministries described or acclaimed as prophetic.  'Prophetic' is a weasel word in the life of contemporary Anglicanism.  Too often it simply means 'vigorously opposing Them'. The definition of 'Them' is dependent upon whether one is on the ecclesial Right or Left. Them: gay people, the liberals, secular society, common patriotism.  It is a convenient tool for saying 'God opposes Them'.  As such, it is a perversion of Scriptural prophecy.  Whenever the Prophets are read as condemning Them, we are wrongly reading the Prophets.  The Prophets first challenge Us.  Whether we are on the ecclesial Left or Right, it is Us who the prophets first challenge: when we are convinced that we are right, that we have truth, that righteousness is on our side.  The prophets strip Us of our smug self-certainty and call Us - not Them - to repentance. 

For the ecclesial Left of Anglicanism over the past week, 'a cult of White British Nationalism' has functioned in the same way that 'Cultural Marxism' functions for the American Christian Right: a convenient tool to damn others.  Just as 'Cultural Marxism' cloaks homophobia, racism and sometimes Antisemitism, so 'cult of White British Nationalism' cloaks a haughty disdain for a common patriotism and its symbols: Crown, flag, war memorials. There is nothing at all prophetic about this.  As George Orwell pointed out, it is an entirely conventional, predictable stance.

In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.

And as Bishop Philip North has suggested, it certainly is not a prophetic stance within the Church of England:

All too often, middle-class clergy squirm nervously during Remem­brance Sunday, and excise any hymns that hint of nationalism. But surely an Established Church has a part to play in finding a new and unifying national narrative that is patriotic, besides tolerant and in­­clusive.

It is also worth noting research quoted by Sunder Katwala, a director of the think tank British Future and a former general secretary of the left wing Fabian Society:

one-fifth of white British Remain voters now say they are “not proud” to be British – about twice the number of ethnic minority Remainers who say the same ... All who aspire to lead need to find their voices and their story about the state of our nations, the strengths of our society and how we bridge its many divides. An everyday ease with our national symbols – the NHS, Remembrance Sunday and our flags, too – is one essential foundation.

It does seem rather odd to classify as 'prophetic' a disproportionately white middle class embarrassment over symbols of our national solidarity.  

And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets

As the country paid its respects to Captain Sir Tom Moore, a not insignificant proportion of Church of England Twitter decided it was a good idea to repeat the 'cult of White British Nationalism' claim which had been rightly withdrawn and for which a meaningful, genuine apology had been issued.  While most British people paid their respects to a man who had fought for our country in World War II, had inspired us by his fund-raising for NHS Charities, and had been knighted by the Queen for his public service, a not insignificant proportion of Church of England Twitter decided to repeat an inflammatory, offensive statement that - whatever the supposed nuances and qualifications - very predictably and understandably was read as an attack on such public respect.  

To state what should be obvious, this does not help the United Kingdom and the Church of England confront issues of racial injustice.  There are searching questions to be asked about the legacy of the slave trade.  The treatment of the Windrush Generation - who loyally responded to the call of Empire to rebuild this country after 1945 - has been a profound disgrace.  As the former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has stated, there remain significant issues of racial injustice regarding policing and the legal system.  

The need for the Church of England to address the racism that continues to blight the common life of our society is not in any way assisted by the foolish, offensive statement that public commemoration of Captain Sir Tom Moore was a 'cult of White British Nationalism'.  In fact, it did great damage to this moral imperative, deeply rooted in Christian ethical teaching, by reducing it to an entirely conventional, predictable, and unpopular left-wing resentment of popular patriotism and solidarity.  

For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace

Priests are called upon, through their ministry of teaching, to "be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word".  Racism is one such "erroneous and strange doctrine", fundamentally contradicting the doctrines of Creation, Incarnation and Redemption.  As with all teaching, however, it is to be undertaken in a manner which builds up the Church.  

Will you maintain and set forwards, as much as lieth in you, quietness, peace, and love, among all Christian people, and specially among them that are or shall be committed to your charge?

I will so do, the Lord being my helper.

Self-examination and repentance are not encouraged by hectoring tones of condemnation issued in inflammatory, offensive, divisive language.  Those within the Church who challenge social attitudes which regard abortion as a straightforward expression of autonomy and individual choice must do so in a way which avoids immoderate, imprudent language.  They should rightly be rebuked when their language disturbs "quietness, peace, and love" within the Church's life and witness.  In this context, condemning public commemoration of Captain Sir Tom Moore on the days after his death as a 'a cult of White British Nationalism' is akin to displaying posters of an unborn child outside the office of a pregnant pro-choice MP.  

Such "quietness, peace, and love" remind us that confronting racism and promoting a culture of human dignity are not ideological goals, to be pursued through the norms of political conflict.  The object is not political victory - or congratulatory articles in the Guardian or Daily Telegraph.  The object is repentance, reconciliation, and restoration: "quietness, peace, and love".  

Declaring a statement to be prophetic does not make it prophetic.  It does not excuse the Church from the hard work of discernment.  Too often 'prophetic' is now used in Anglican and Episcopal discourse to justify an ecclesial sectarianism, abandoning the historic vocation to be national churches, ministering to a society and polity with grace-filled moderation and reason.  National churches (and I think a strong case can be made that this is what Anglican churches are called to be, irrespective of their size, cultural influence, and lack or otherwise of establishment status) must address the sin of racism and how it disfigures common life.  For this to occur, they require a meaningful, thoughtful prophetic presence in their midst, challenging them, probing them, urging them.  This, by the way, is why freedom of theological inquiry, and clerical freedom of speech and liberty to participate in the debates that shape the polity, are essential and should be upheld against both any episcopal desire for bland institutional conformity and the demands of online mobs, whether of Left or Right.   

Last week, two wounds were inflicted on this mission.  The first was by a Right-wing online mob, using the vile tactic of 'cancel culture' against a young and obviously gifted cleric (a situation not helped by the Diocese of London's clumsy statement).  The second was by the ecclesial Left, repeating and supporting a foolish, immoderate, inflammatory slogan which was widely and fairly interpreted as condemning the ordinary patriotism which gives meaning to the solidarity of a society.

To conclude, some words from David French reminding us of the crucial need to exercise discernment in order to distinguish between the sin of racial nationalism and the good of civic patriotism:

What is Christian patriotism? To echo C.S. Lewis and George Washington, it’s a love of home and place and neighbor that does its best to fulfill the vision of peace and justice articulated by the prophet Micah so many long years ago—“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”


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