Friday, 14 November 2008

Defending the Indefensible

My initial reaction to the news, reported by the Telegraph, that Prince Charles has renewed his determination to style himself "Defender of Faith" if and when he becomes king was a shrug. He can call himself Defender of Elves and Pixies if it makes him happy, I thought. At second glance it worries me profoundly. It summons up all that is most wrong-headed and dangerous about this most buffoonish and pointless of princes.

Comrade Cranmer, who got there before me, urges the queen to "nip this multi-faith profanity in the bud" before it is too late. Damian Thompson, meanwhile, is concerned that this move - "the Royal equivalent of replacing the word Christmas with Winterval" - will "help destroy our Christian identity". He notes that any formal change would require Parliamentary approval, no problem since "nothing would give Labour, Liberal Democrat and trendy Tory MPs greater satisfaction than to delegitimise Christianity in this fashion."

I see it rather differently. It is an attempt to make something out of nothing. Something potentially dangerous out of nothing very much. The move would, if successful, only serve to entrench the Establishment of the Church of England, rather as the desire to "inclusively" permit Muslim and Hindu schools has gone hand-in-hand with a much wider boom in Christian faith schools at the expense of non-denominational education. Or as some Anglican bishops hope that by offering places to some carefully-screened representatives of other faiths they can cling on to their anachronistic right to sit in the House of Lords.

Far from excluding non-Anglicans, as Prince Charles seems to think, the title Defender of the Faith excludes nobody - because it is no more than a constitutional fossil, of no more relevance than the title King of France which remained part of the English monarch's formal designation well into the eighteenth century. It is a reminder, to those few who take an interest in such things, not of what the monarch is, but of what the monarch used to be, in those dim and distant days when power was in the hands of kings rather than those of politicians and bankers. Queen Elizabeth II doesn't defend anyone or anything, except possibly her own job: constitutional monarchy is all about being rather than doing.

It is a century and a half since Bagehot described the monarchy as essentially "decorative" - and that was at a time when Queen Victoria still laboured under the delusion that what she said actually mattered. The present queen has no such constitutional blind-spot. She has preserved herself and her throne for almost sixty years by being as static and inscrutable as the mosaic of the empress Theodora in the church of San Vitale, Ravenna. Of course, there are areas in which ER has been active: horse-racing, for one. Many have speculated about her private views, and there was an awkward moment in the Eighties when one of her advisers improvidently let slip that she and Mrs Thatcher didn't always see eye to eye. By and large, though, she has kept her crown on straight.

Prince Charles, by contrast, has never understood that the fundamentally arbitrary and thus unaccountable nature of his position necessitates, above all, judicious silence. He thinks his various titles describe some sort of objective reality. For reasons lost in antiquity, among the styles attaching to his Royal Person is "Lord of the Isles", a happenstance that has in the past impelled him to don plaid and insist upon being filmed striding around the Western Isles communing with crofters. It was while handing out an architecture award more than twenty years ago when it occured to him that he must perforce be some sort of expert - otherwise why would these distinguished RIBA folks have asked him to "say a few words"? More dangerous has been his repeated championing of quack medicine, which may well have caused actual damage to people foolish enough to take his advice.

As to the title Defender of the Faith, which notoriously was bestowed by the pope upon Henry VIII just a few years before the king decided he wasn't so keen of defending the Catholic Church after all, it predates and has no connection with the monarch's role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. "Defender of Faith", by contrast, would be a new, consciously revised title, a statement of what its next incumbent believes the monarchy either is or ought to be. It would be, in other words, a job description. Charles doesn't simply want to be Defender of Faith (whatever that means), he wants to do Defender of Faith, to act, perhaps, like a crowned and sceptred Tony Blair, except that the "King Charles Faith Foundation" will be located in Buckingham Palace and carry with it the crown's ancient numinosity. Or perhaps he has another model in mind, that of the King of Saudi Arabia, who glories in the title Guardian of the Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina.

This "Defender of Faith" business surfaced around fifteen years ago during Charles's never-to-be-repeated interview with a fawning Jonathan Dimbleby (the programme also featured the crofter footage alluded to above). Why should the monarch just defend his Christian subjects? he wailed. What about his Muslim subjects? His Sikh subjects? His Zoroastrian subjects?

The Zoroastrians, unsurprisingly, were delighted that their ancient but numerically negligible faith was thus brought to a wider notice. And, to be fair, Zoroastrians probably are in need of defending rather more than, say, Roman Catholics or Muslims, who seem to be capable of looking after themselves. Elsewhere, though, the absurd image of Prince Charles charging around sword in hand looking for Zoroastrians to defend (and no doubt Yezidis and Mandaeans too) only added to the widespread impression of a royal personage charmingly but irretrievably out of touch with modern realities. The idea was quietly dropped - to be finished off for good, it seems, when the Archbeard himself said last year that both the title and the Christian nature of the coronation service should remain intact. But perhaps, as with his environmentalism or alternative medicine, Charles was simply ahead of the fashionable curve: wrong-headed maybe, but wrong-headed before his time.

For, as we never cease to hear, faith is increasingly relevant, increasingly unavoidable. Faith leaders are sought out by politicians, the BBC director general thinks it worth his while to devote an important speech to religious issues, religion has become a legally-privileged identity, it is held to be at the forefront in international affairs. Interfaith cosying-up, moreover, is all the rage, as well as being impeccably politically correct. Just last week a group of "leading Muslim scholars" went to the Vatican and agreed with the Catholics to set up a join committee to co-ordinate their response to global issues such as "defamation of religion". The Guardian of the Mosques has meanwhile been in New York, where according to Reuters he is "basking in praise" at the UN Interfaith Forum. Yes, indeed, the absolute ruler of the world's most primitive and savage religious tyranny "has attracted extravagant praise from, among others, Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, and Shimon Peres, the veteran Israeli president" for his "unprecedented and bold" initiative.

All of which, you'd think, would be excellent news for Prince Charles and his advisers. No longer indulging a quixotic whim to stick up for Parsees everywhere, he is like Tony Blair going where he thinks the action is. What could be more modern than to be soggily inclusive of "faith"? How 21st century! Of course, there's no indication of how, precisely, he would defend faith: not for him the freedom of action accorded to the King of the Desert. But no doubt he will find a way of using his Royal Influence on behalf of all manner of bearded reactionaries. He should beware. Multi-faith initiatives may be fashionable, and they may press various liberal buttons - they may seem progressive. But they are not. And far from bringing people together, for the new king to cloak himself in religious garb will be highly divisive.

For all the media chatter about religious identity, this remains a secular society in which a considerable proportion of the population is avowedly atheistic or agnostic and millions more merely indifferent. Secularists may not look to King Charles for protection, but by calling himself "Defender of Faith" he will be sending a message that he cares most about those of his subjects who are religious believers. And I sense that today's public indulgence of "faith" in all its forms may not last forever. Indeed, there may one day be a role for a Defender of Unfaith.

11 comments:

therealalekid said...

I see some familiarity with when the government got rid of the blasphemy law, which was dead and had been continually laughed out of court for over 50 years.

All though it has gone quiet there was a risk of replacing what was effectively a dead law with a new one that hurt peoples religious feelings.

Ultimately this title is an old vestige of our countrys past. To be honest I think some things are just best left alone.

Wasp_Box said...

He really is a complete buffoon and, I agree, makes an error of judgement in drawing attention to himself in this way. There are many of us who see the existence of the Royal family as archaic and nonsensical as belief in an imaginary friend.

We may be incessantly hearing that faith is relevant but it is noteworthy that it is only the deluded believers (like the repulsive Blair) who are constantly telling us this. The atheist (humanist – call it what you will) movement is growing and is speaking out and hammering superstitious nonsense with logic and reason. One day religion will be treated with the incredulous distain it deserves and the “Defenders of Faith” with the contempt they invite. I can only hope that I live long enough.

The Heresiarch said...

I fear you won't.

Wasp_Box said...

Sadly, I think you're right but I'm going to give it my best effort.

passer by said...

Let yourself down at the last I am afraid,.... of course the civil war is the unspoken story of our history that resonates today, we are rightfully scared shitless of religious isms, and our Christmas tree faith underpins our secular identity, which is a great paradox.

Defender of Unfaith? well if faith is the same as trust, which I think it is? defender of the untrust, is not going to win many votes.

valdemar squelch said...

Funny, if I were a potential king I think I'd like to be a Defender of Freedom. But I suppose for an arrogant twerp like Charlie that's a non-starter. Still, for those of us who don't like the monarchy, such a petulant, arrogant and divisive king would be a big step toward an English Republic.

Edwin said...

Ach you're all a bit harsh on Charlie! He was born into it and his charities do a lot of good work. Official flummery won't stop if the royals stop, you know. When I got the 100 blood donor badge a while back, I and the other donors had to stand when the councillor who represented Glasgow's lord Provost came into the room and then lisetn to a speech about how wonderful it was that Glasgow councillors had loaned the room for the ceremony.

My guess is, lose the monarchy, and this sort of thing will get worse.

As for defender of faith, oh lord. . .or rather, oh no lord!

WeepingCross said...

The only contribution I can think of is that I don't really want Charlie defending my faith, ta, it can only do it harm, whereas his Mum is a rather devout old bird who everyone feels rather kindly towards.

I wonder whether the Church of England actually believes in the monarch any more, rather than the other way around? The last two Coronations took place during the ascendancy and domination of Anglo-Catholicism: they were perceived by those who participated in them as sacramental acts, and as far as the present HM is concerned, seems to have affected her as a genuine visitation of the Holy Spirit, according to what she's said about it. I'm not sure anyone thinks about it much like that any more.

The Heresiarch said...

Edwin, you didn't have to stand. You chose to do so. Am I being unfair to Charles? Probably. But he has done and said some idiotic things over the years, and this is one of them, I'm afraid.

Fr WC, a Coronation on the pattern of the last one seems inconceivable, because no-one would take it seriously. A shame, because for all its absurdity it was rather splendid. I've an awful feeling there will be some sort of multi-faith "installation service" instead. Perhaps we should look to Bhutan.

lost causes said...

We're a fickle lot. Today faith is en vogue in politics: tomorrow, who knows. Based on my own anecdotal evidence, I'd guess that we're split roughly in equal thirds between

1. agnostic and atheists
2. Major religions
3. Angel and ghost fancying new agers

That still leaves more faith than rationality, but I can't see an established church lasting in the long-term. Some how the deeply religious USA survives without one!

Edwin said...

Hmmm choosing whether or not to stand is a tricky thing. I don't like standing for national anthem but one does it - sometimes out of respect, sometimes out of fear, sometimes you just do.

I was once at the back of a room when Jeffrey Archer made a surprise appearance and our employer at the front stood up and cheered, so all those within our boss's sight also stood.

At the back, the enthusiasts who wanted to clap swept forward, while me and a few other heretics cheerfuly sat waving two fingers each in the air. Not an easy one this.