That problematic ban

Is the Church of England missing the point in its desire to ban the BNP? Tom Sutcliffe explains what cannot be said in the Southwark diocesan newspaper about a fellow synod member's successful Private Member's Motion

In a speech I tried to make at the February General Synod during the debate on the Agenda, I pointed out that there was a certain inconsistency between the Church of England controlling what political parties clergy and lay spokespersons might belong to and Pope Benedicts reconciliation with members of the Society of St Pius, one of whom (a Bishop Williamson, not of Southwark) was a notorious holocaust-denier and promoter of the inequality of women.

Another element of our business, at the opening of the General Synod sessions in February on the day before Vasantha Gnanadoss' private members motion about banning church 'spokespersons' from membership of the British National Party, was a much delayed debate on the ARCIC II statement Church as Communion, introduced by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. So we had the Roman Catholic tradition of political interference on our minds.

In Italy, Roman Catholic clergy have frequently, over the years, interfered with the freedom of the ballot, instructing the faithful not to vote Communist or Left but instead to support in the 1920s and 1930s the Fascists and in the 1950s and 1960s the Christian Democrats.

Nobody now remembers Giovanni Guareschi's comical novels about Don Camillo, a parish priest in constant conflict with the Communist unbelieving mayor in his village.

But alliance between Mr Berlusconi and the Pope remains a possibility, as demonstrated at the time of the General Synod with a huge row in Italy about cutting off mechanical feeding of a brain-dead woman who had been in a coma for years.

General Synod likes apple-pie motions reflecting good intentions, no longer recognizing them as the road to hell. Vasantha's politically correct motion got a 91% majority.

But would it be right or wise or even possible to constrain the freedom of church members, lay and clerical, to join whatever party they wish?

I submitted a letter to The Bridge, the Southwark diocesan newspaper, saying, 'If it is true, as I believe, that currently it is unacceptable for a white actor to play Othello, but perfectly OK for a black actor to play Henry V, there is something going on which we might examine a little more sensitively' I was told my letter would only be published if these words were omitted, along with much else. But these precise words were the stumbling block. That says something about our liberal diocese.

In a paper circulated to Synod members in support of her motion, Vasantha referred to our 'duty to promote race equality'. Is that a biblical doctrine? The Old Testament explores what it means for the Children of Israel to be a 'chosen people', not so much equal to others as superior, though burdened as well as advantaged by that status.

Human beings, Christians believe, are equal in the eyes of God. But must they be equal in each other's eyes? Is it unchristian to view your family or tribe or nation as better than others - even if only for you?

Equality before the law is a fundamental principle of our unwritten British constitution - though long resisted by the Church if applied to clergy. In what sense must we understand 'race equality'? Could it one day be seen as 'racist' to support your local or national team?

What do we mean when some of us (Gordon Brown, for instance) say 'British jobs for British people'? What makes some 'Old Labour' trade unionists vote, in protest, for the BNP?

We are regularly being asked to define which racial group we belong to, most recently in order to help the NHS. But what are the implications of this self-definition? We indigenous English are racially a very mixed bunch.

Are we allowed to have a different feeling about our culture and our language from the feeling felt by those who are recent arrivals as our neighbours - those, for example, who define themselves as 'minority ethnic' and on whose imported cultures we are ready to shower great interest and financial subsidy?

London has become a more cosmopolitan and culturally diverse place than almost anywhere in the world. This diversity is part of what it means to be a 'world city'.

The changes in the racial make-up of London and the UK have added dynamism, interest and wealth. But has the scale of the immigration, which nobody ever asked the indigenous population to approve, had some unforeseen consequences? Is the white cultural insecurity in some parts of our community, shading sometimes into 'racism', always so incomprehensible?

Equality in law is vital. Race must be immaterial when it comes to legal rights. But what about 'racial equality' as an unquestionable principle? Everybody is entitled to their sense of racial identity. In a way, everybody's tradition - national or familial - resides in a specifically racial distinction. This has to be at the very least a matter of choice.

So, when it comes to Britishness, do those who have lived on this island for over a thousand years have a different engagement with the national identity, and how it relates to our culture, from those who have only been here a hundred years or as little as forty? Everybody is 'racially equal', but are some more equal than others?

When I came to London to live down the New Kent Road in 1964, it was a more cohesive, but far duller urban community than we have now - thanks to the fantastic racial mixture we now enjoy. We owe that to a series of waves of immigration over the last fifty years and to the expansion (and our membership) of the European Union. But what about racial identity?

I know that India is not my country, even if I were to live there. Though many Indians may appreciate what the Raj brought to India by way of governance and law, they do not regard us Europeans as natural Indians. My mother was born in China in 1912. But there's no doubt the Chinese understand what it means to be Chinese.

The term 'Black British' reflects a fact of birth. But does it really mean that the ownership of the 'Black British' and the 'White British' in our cultural tradition is equal, or is the phrase designed to subtly mislead? It is agreeable that people who have lived here for only a few decades appreciate and identify with 'our' culture and traditions.

But do they, can they, really own them in the same sense? We want our democracy and our Church to represent the new 'racial' realities. Streatham after the next election may well have a Labour MP with a Nigerian name, one of whose parents was British, one Nigerian, who is without question as typically British as I am.

We all wish to avoid institutional racism. But the recent rows about the introduction or recognition of Sharia Law suggest that some at least of our new arrivals may have no intention of fully joining our culture, and that they would genuinely like to convert our country in ways which would radically alter, and even overturn, our existing sense of identity.

The problem is partly due to American cultural influence. The USA has built a new nation based on a specifically non-racial invitation to people anywhere to join in the building of the new American society. But people who define themselves as 'White British' were never asked to sign up like that to a multicultural mixture. Is it 'racist' to wish to preserve one's own cultural traditions and the physical characteristics of one's race?

These are separate questions and may have opposite answers. But they both touch on the scale of the immigration tolerated if not encouraged in recent years. How much can Britain absorb by way of difference without compromising its original identity? Of course there have been other waves of immigration in the past - the Huguenots for instance, and Jews pushed into exile and resettlement by the Russian pogroms.

What I am saying about identity would be considered reasonable, indeed unarguable, in China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and almost everywhere in Africa. Only in guilt-tripping Britain, where the sins of imperialism still press on the consciences of some, especially in the Church, is there a presumption that our future must be multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. But must it?

These thoughts help to explain why it could be dangerous and foolish for the Church to want to outlaw a political party like the BNP that is perfectly legal, even though most Church members are immune to and heartily dislike what the BNP is assumed to be promoting. Has something changed that makes it no longer so certain the BNP can be defeated honestly in the ballot box, as the extreme right has been for years?

Yes, our desire to provide special welcome for newcomers in our country from radically different cultures has meant some playing down of our native English culture alongside other changes - such as the fact that regional accents, other than actors' 'received

pronunciation, proliferate now on the BBC. If you want to work in the broadcast media, it seems to be an advantage to be an exotic outsider. People from a minority ethnic background are more identifiable.

Racial difference has value as well as sometimes being a drawback. It is indeed, currently, effectively impossible for a white actor to be cast as Othello, though a black actor can play Friar Tuck or Henry V or King Lear (and colour-blind as opposed to colour-sensitive casting in the theatre is clearly both rational and appropriate). Yet surely actors should be able to white up or to black up? It's only make-up, after all.

A sense of 'White British' or English cultural insecurity is probably misplaced. Yet the country of Shakespeare supports no permanent ensembles of actors and no proper repertory companies. The masterpieces of our traditional spoken theatre are almost unknown, away from a small number of London-based institutions and the Royal Shakespeare Company. In reality, the majority population of England, and even more so of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is a long way from being threatened by Enoch Powell's projected tidal wave of different culture, appearance and race. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the political issue of white English cultural insecurity in some places, including south-east London.

Christians who agree with Vasantha Gnanadoss are eager to love their neighbours by preaching at them about 'anti-racism'. There is a fear of the BNP suddenly winning power as the Nazis did. It seems highly unlikely that there are any Anglicans in the BNP who are going to be speaking for the church. Indeed when BNP membership lists became inadvertently available, paid-up Anglicans were notably absent from them.

Ms Gnanadoss' motion related to a non-existent problem that deserved no attention: ideal territory for the General Synod. As for any cultural insecurity on the part of the working-class 'White British', it is 'not our problem' and can be disregarded.

A substantial part of the Church of England seems to regard multiculturalism as obligatory. Those who demur are likely to be classed as 'racist'.

If the Church is really worried about racists, surely it would be better to have them where they can be seen - where they can listen, and be listened to. 'Race equality' can and sometimes does degenerate into race privilege. If the BNP wants to say something that does not break the law, it can be answered in the court of public opinion.

No doubt BNP members do not sufficiently value the contribution made to our country by immigrants from the Third World and Eastern Europe over the last century. Remember how Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet was said to contain 'more old Estonians than Old Etonians' - just the sort of joke that represents Jewish humour at its best.

General Synod members like Ms Gnanadoss are not known for their sense of humour, though an established church like the CofE is bound to generate mirth from time to time. Surely Anglicans should enjoy the robust debate on which democracy thrives, whether inside or outside the BNP. Ironically, the motion to ban Church spokesmen from belonging to the BNP simply enhances the credibility of a party that, left to itself, usually manages to look ridiculous without any help. |~~

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