The Meaning of Easter?

TRADITIONALLY the most important date in the Christian calendar is reserved for the usual homilies about Jesus of Nazareth from Church leaders and the platitudes from those who claim to lead us, right across the bourgeois political spectrum.

The utterances of Tory and Labour politicians on the supposed meaning of life are normally taken with a pinch of salt by the public. For most of us Easter is just a long weekend break away from the drudgery of work while children can be forgiven for believing that the holiday revolves around the chocolate eggs and furry toys that the marketing industry foists on hapless parents during the spring festival. But this time the Prime Minister himself is at the centre of a storm following his crass comments in the Church Times, the world’s leading Anglican paper.

David Cameron says we should be more “more confident about our status as a Christian country”, whatever that means, and tells us that: “ Crucially, the Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility and love are shared by people of every faith and none — and we should be confident in standing up to defend them.”

Cameron, however, seems to have forgotten to mention peace in his list of “Christian values” which have more in common with the Pharisees who persecuted Jesus and the sanctimonious hypocrites amongst the ruling class than with the “Prince of Peace” who said “blessed are the peacemakers” and told his followers that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Whether Britain was ever a “Christian” country in any real sense is, of course, debatable. In the past people were expected and largely forced to pay lip-service to whatever creed their rulers subscribed to. The only period of religious tolerance was during the brief life of the republic led by Oliver Cromwell which abolished the Church of England, accepted “freedom of conscience” for all Protestant sects and allowed Jews to return to the country.

These 17th century reforms were ground-breaking for their time but even then they didn’t apply to Catholics, who were still officially persecuted until the emancipation act of 1829. What we do know is that today only seven per cent of the population are practising Christians and that a mere two per cent go to church on Sunday.

The British Humanist Society has taken Cameron to task in an open letter which claims that “apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a ‘Christian country’. Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society”. But the Humanist statement, signed by 50 campaigners, academics and media pundits misses the point. It calls for diversity but ignores the secularism that is the only answer to bigotry and division.

While the younger generation has been spared the dreary Anglican daily school assemblies that children had to endure in the past, most still have to put up with an equally meaningless “daily act of collective worship” in state schools while those sent to “faith” schools, which comprise a third of the total in England alone, are taught all sorts of superstitious nonsense better left to the churches, temples, mosques and synagogues on their congregations’ chosen days of rest.

The rot really began during Tony Blair’s tenure at Downing Street. The biggest Pharisee of the lot encouraged the growth of “faith-based education” during his three premierships and ludicrously claimed that faith schools can help bridge gaps in divided communities. In fact it does the opposite.

In the past the labour movement led the demands for religious freedom for all sects and faiths as well as the demand for a free secular national educational system. Both go hand in hand and the labour movement should now renew the call for the Labour Party to take a more secularist and rationalist approach as it shapes its policies in opposition and as it makes law and public policies when in government.