If debate limited to number of churchgoers, says Justin Welby, answer is no, but in ethics, law, justice and value, it is
David Cameron thinks that it is. More than 50 leading atheists and humanists insist that it is not. Now the Archbishop of Canterbury has had his say on the question, with the perhaps surprising admission that if one limits the debate to the number of regular churchgoers, Britain is “certainly not” a Christian country.
On the broader sense of the country’s ethics, law, justice and values, however, Justin Welby takes a less controversial position, siding firmly with the prime minister. “It is clear that, in the general sense of being founded in Christian faith,” he argues, “this is a Christian country.”
The archbishop has written a blog on the topic a week after Cameron sparked controversy by arguing that Britons “should be more confident about our status as a Christian country”, and more evangelical about the faith.
His comments, in an article for the Church Times, prompted a spirited rebuttal from a group of 55 leading public figures, who insisted that “apart from the narrow constitutional sense that we have an established church”, this was not a Christian nation.
“Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society” and “fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people”, wrote the group, which included the mathematician Jim al-Khalili, the author Philip Pullman and the academic and broadcaster Alice Roberts, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph.
Other critics accused the prime minister, who admitted he attends church only irregularly and is “a bit vague” on his beliefs, of political opportunism in the run-up to the European elections, when the Conservatives fear an exodus of supporters to Ukip. “Like so much of what he does it feels like a tactic in search of a strategy,” writes Alastair Campbell, the former Labour spin-doctor, on his blog.
Welby’s response is no less robust, saying that to judge by the reaction to the prime minister’s “moving” article, “anyone would think that [he] had at the same time suggested the return of the Inquisition”.
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