“Becket’s martyrdom, in defence of religious freedom, had a profound impact on British attitudes to religious freedom over the centuries, notwithstanding the Reformation. Arguably, Britain has done more to influence the way we in the Western world see modern human rights, including religious freedom, than any nation.”
I would like to thank Bishop Kis-Rigó for inviting me to deliver a lecture on the subject “Christian roots, European identity”. This is a very topical issue, especially in this part of Europe. As I mentioned last year, given the concerns about the current state of Christianity in Britain and the place of Britain in Europe post-Brexit, some of you may think that it is a challenge for the British Ambassador to speak about this issue. But these fears and concerns are, I believe, unfounded, as I will try to explain briefly later. But first let us remind ourselves why we have gathered here today. All the more so as this is also relevant to the debate about common European and Christian values.
Of course, we are here to commemorate Sir Thomas Becket who was murdered by the followers of Henry II in December 1170 in his own Cathedral in Canterbury, after he had engaged in conflict with the King over the rights and privileges of the Church. The murder of Becket triggered a huge outcry through the Christian world. Soon, Christians all over Europe started to venerate him as a martyr and less than three years later he was canonised by Pope Alexander III.
The last hours of his life, the way he died and – most importantly – what he died for give reason to remember and commemorate him. Not that Becket’s life was eventless before his final moments. But his martyrdom turned Becket from a man of his age into a man of all ages; subject to deep respect and admiration.
The tragedy and greatness of Thomas Becket lies in the fact that while in his capacity as Chancellor he adjusted his principles to the expectations of his Lord, the King, in his capacity as Archbishop he had the strength to stick firmly to his religious principles. He died because of his Christian faith and religious conviction.
Becket’s martyrdom, in defence of religious freedom, had a profound impact on British attitudes to religious freedom over the centuries, notwithstanding the Reformation. Arguably, Britain has done more to influence the way we in the Western world see modern human rights, including religious freedom, than any nation. It is no coincidence that the nations most closely linked to Britain culturally – nations like the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and modern South Africa – are nations that are consistently ranked among the most religiously free nations on earth.
According to the highly respected Pew Research Center there is one EU nation that stands out as having among the lowest restrictions on religion in the world. And it also has among the highest levels of religious diversity in Europe. The nation? Britain.
One of the main reasons why we have such a high level of religious freedom is our Christianity, our Christian roots. Our history – Becket included – and our geography have shaped who we are. We are a global European country, more so than any other European nation.
But we have seen a decline in Christianity. In 2016, for the first time in recorded history, those declaring themselves to have no religion exceeded the number of Christians in Britain. Some 44 per cent of Britons regarded themselves as Christian, 8 per cent followed another religion and 48 per cent followed no religion. Just 15 years ago, almost 75 per cent of Britons still regarded themselves as Christians.
Remarkably, the overall decline of religion in Britain has coincided with the arrival of three million migrants who tend to have more religious belief than British Christians. In particular, the visual impact of Islam might give the impression that migration has brought a religious revival to Britain. Yet neither the growth of British Islam nor the huge influx of Christian immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe has spurred a revival in public Christianity.
To the growing population of secularists, particularly among the young, religion (not just Christianity) has become something to be treated with suspicion. Theresa May in her 2017 Christmas message said: “Let us take pride in our Christian heritage.” She added: “As we celebrate the birth of Christ, let us celebrate all those selfless acts – and countless others – that epitomise the values we share: Christian values of love, service and compassion that are lived out every day in our country by people of all faiths and none.”
She also called on the public to stand up for the right for people to “speak about and practice their beliefs in peace and safety”. “Let us take pride in our Christian heritage and the confidence it gives us to ensure that in Britain you can practice your faith free from question or fear.”
Christians, for their part, should not automatically associate a decline in religiosity with a national moral decline. On the contrary, Britons are midway through an extraordinary period of social repair: a decline in teenage pregnancies, divorce and drug abuse, and a rise in civic-mindedness.
The irony is that a nation with some of the lowest rates of professed religious belief in the world also manages to be one which the world looks up to for its record on ethical standards. As a nation, our fundamental values regarding concern for those less fortunate than ourselves, honesty in business, the law and so on remain remarkably similar to when church attendance was a matter of routine for almost everyone.
So, while fewer Britons call themselves Christian, Britain remains a country steeped in Christian values with Christian roots, as Mrs May, the daughter of an Anglican Vicar, noted in her Christmas message.
That is modern Britain’s relationship with religion. While we are shy to admit belief and faith, we continue to exhibit the behaviours of religious people. Our society is as underpinned by faith, by Christian roots, as it ever was.
It is easier to address the concerns about Britain’s European identity. This is neither the time nor the place to dwell on the details of Britain’s exiting the European Union. But it is evident, and Prime Minister Theresa May has also made it clear, that while we are leaving the EU we are not turning our back on Europe. Our European identity does not depend on membership of one single institution. The fact that they are not EU members does not make Norway, Switzerland or Russia less European. Or that Hungarians and Poles were not Europeans until they joined the EU in 2004? Of course, it is not true.
Britain remains unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security. We want a bold new strategic partnership with the EU. On the day we leave the EU we will still be the biggest contributor to Europe’s defence and security. We will still be a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council.
On the day of our exit from the EU we will still be the second biggest economy in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. And that is exactly why we would like to have and why we need to have a special relationship with the EU.
In a nutshell, our identity will not be any less European. But our identity is inevitably different. What really matters is that we should mutually respect these differences.