Monday, 17 September 2012

Pickles' History is Bunk

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles recently said that 'Britain has welcomed people of many other faiths to live among us over the centuries … Indeed, it is the Christian ethos that has made Britain so welcoming'. In the same article, he talks about ‘long-standing British liberties of freedom of religion’.

But a quick look at our history shows that we certainly haven’t always welcomed people of other faiths and our 'liberties of freedom of religion' are not very long-standing at all. In fact, we haven’t even welcomed Christians if they weren’t the right sort. It’s the religious equivalent of Ford’s ‘any colour as long as it’s black’.

This is a far from exhaustive list.

A group of (Christian) Cathar refugees who fled to England were tried by an ecclesiastical court in Oxford presided over by the King. They were found guilty of heresy. They were branded on the forehead, whipped through the streets, stripped to the waist, and sent into the countryside to die of exposure in the snow.

The expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward 1. This was not formally overturned until 1656.

Fourteenth century
Persecution of Catholic heretics, including the Lollards. John Wycliffe was a Lollard who believed that everyone should have access to the Bible and made the first translation from Latin into English.

Fifteenth century
1401 - Henry IV introduced the death penalty for heresy. There was no definition of the offence, so heresy was whatever the Church said it was.

Archbishop Arundel then decreed that no one should translate any part of the Bible into English or read any of Wycliffe’s writings either publicly or privately or be burned at the stake as a heretic. Because Wycliffe had escaped punishment for heresy, he was tried a second time in 1415 (after his death) and this time condemned. His body was disinterred and burned in 1428.

Sixteenth century
Around 1520 the diocese of Lincoln alone was convicting over 100 people a year for the crime of "not thinking catholickly".

The persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth I. The Recusancy Acts punished anyone who did not attend Church of England services, including fines, the confiscation of property and imprisonment. They were repealed in 1650. In the 1560s, Oxford and Cambridge were ‘purged’ of Catholics. Priests were executed.

The persecution of Protestants under Mary I (aka Bloody Mary). Around 300 were burned at the stake and many more were imprisoned.

Seventeenth century
The Corporation Act of 1661 – no one could belong to a town corporation unless they took the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England. The Test Act passed in 1673 imposed the same test on holders of civil or military office. This excluded Roman Catholics, Protestant Dissenters/non-conformists and Jews from public office.

The Quaker Act of 1662 – this made it illegal to refuse to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King and country or to hold secret meetings. Quakers believed it was wrong to swear any oath.

The Toleration Act of 1689 - freedom of worship was given to non-conformists, but not to Catholics. These were Protestants who did not conform to the Church of England, for example Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists, Quakers. However, they were still excluded from political office and from universities. It was not until the Doctrine of the Trinity Act in 1813 that penalties for being a Unitarian were repealed.

John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, was imprisoned for non-conformist preaching.

Nineteenth century
1826 University College London was the first university in England to be established on an entirely secular basis, admitting students regardless of their religion (or lack of it). Before this, education was dependent on belonging to the Church of England.

1829 The Catholic Relief Act followed the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts the previous year. Catholics were finally allowed to hold government and public offices as well as attend universities.

Jewish emancipation was not fully achieved until 1890.

1888 The Oaths Act. Until this point, MPs taking their seat in parliament had to swear an oath on the Bible. After this, they could affirm, so non-believers could finally sit in Parliament.

The lie of 'liberty' and the Christian 'ethos'

Apart from the expulsion of the Jews in the thirteenth century and the denial of Jewish emancipation until the late 19th century, all of this persecution and discrimination was by Christians against other Christians - right up until the nineteenth century. Not exactly long-standing British liberties.

The examples from earlier times show just how discrimination was an integral part of orthodox belief. There never was a golden age of tolerance or liberty.

Moreover, there is no one 'Christian ethos' that has existed throughout our history, it has shifted and changed over the centuries to suit the men in power. The Christian ethos has sanctioned the persecution and expulsion of Jews, the persecution of Catholics, the persecution of Protestants, the persecution of non-conformists.

The men in charge of defining the Christian ethos decide who is in and who is out, hand in glove with the State. Moderate, reasonable believers are not well served by the State's definition and enforcement of this ethos exactly because it is so malleable and open to abuse. Today's ethos includes discriminating against women and LGBT people. Tomorrow's may well have a whole new set of rules on who is and is not acceptable.

Pickles should visit Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland to see just how welcoming and libertarian different types of Christian are to each other. State-endorsed religion does not unite, it divides.

Having an established Church does not guarantee freedoms, it legitimises the orthodoxy of the least tolerant, the least welcoming and the least libertarian. It certainly does not represent the average believer.

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