When David Cameron recently declared Britain to be a “Christian country”, what was the Prime Minister trying to say? Many commentators have suggested that it was a coded appeal to tradition (and to traditionally minded voters). And to be clear, there is certainly a great deal of tradition to appeal to. Christianity (re)established a presence on this island in the sixth century at the latest, and exercised a kind of cultural dominance from the seventh. Culturally, Christianity has shaped British history.
But Cameron’s statement also reflected, or at least emphasised, a simple fact. Britain, or rather England, unequivocally is a Christian country, not so much in a cultural sense, but in a legal one – because the Church of England is formally part of the apparatus of the British state. The implications of this union have recently been discussed in the debates on gay marriage, but the impact of the church’s ‘establishment’ on how that state is conceived is perhaps not discussed enough.
Ironically, despite the appeals to the traditional, from a medieval historian’s perspective the Church’s current position is positively new-fangled. The Church was an enormously powerful organisation in the Middle Ages, when most people living in Britain were Christians (though by no means all – religious diversity is nothing new, either). But this Church was emphatically not a ‘national’ entity. There was a Church in England, but its members were part of a larger organisation centred on Rome, whose leader’s claims to authority were ultimately universalising.
What’s more, contrary to some assumptions, the boundaries between the religious and the ‘secular’ were intensely scrutinised in the Middle Ages. Of course political leaders were supposed to support the Church in its endeavours, and to obey its precepts, whether that meant burning heretics or distributing alms. The extent of their power over church lands and church officials was however subject to certain limitations. My current research focuses on one of these limitations: whether and how kings and their agents could bring churchmen in front of their ‘secular’ courts. This was a matter of debate, and sometimes fierce conflict.
So, it is not a tension between politics and religion that is the innovation in England, but their formal accommodation: an accommodation that is increasingly remarkable from a European and indeed world-wide perspective. If that accommodation were to break down or become more complex – that, in a sense, would be the real return to tradition.
Image: courtesy of Evan Bench, at www.flickr.com. The FD lettering on the coin stands for ‘Fidei Defensor’, alluding to the queen’s formal role as head of the Church of England.
 The position of Scotland is a complex one. There is no established church in Scotland, yet the country is nevertheless (currently) subject to legislation passed by the House of Lords, in which churchmen play a key role.