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A humanist defence of monarchy and an established church

By David Warden

David is Chairman of Dorset Humanists

I'm going to upset everyone by attempting the impossible: a humanist defence of the monarchy and an established church. In my head, I'm a secularist and a republican, but there's something dangerous in wanting to abolish the monarchy and disestablish the Church of England.

Whenever we have an election in the UK, the prime minister, if defeated, goes to the Palace to resign. A short time afterwards, the leader of the largest party in terms of seats won in the House of Commons, barring any complications following an inconclusive election result, goes to the Palace to accept the King's, or Queen's, invitation to form a government. He, or she, 'kisses hands' with the monarch (not literally, by all accounts) and becomes Prime Minister. He or she then returns to 10 Downing Street to give a speech, before disappearing through the famous door which does not have a handle on the outside (it opens as if by magic!). Every week thereafter, the prime minister has to have a meeting with the monarch to explain what is happening in the country.

Stephen Fry - an interesting defence of monarchy (Image: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

This handover of power, and the subordinate status of the prime minister of the day to the head of state, is very reassuring to the British people. An invasion of the Palace of Westminster by disgruntled election losers is almost unthinkable. We like the fact that the Prime Minister has to answer to a 'higher power' in the person of the Sovereign. The Sovereign, of course, has no executive power to speak of. But he or she is the symbol and emblem of England and the United Kingdom and embodies the 'sacred' trust between the state and the people. I use the word 'sacred' to emphasise the importance and solemnity of this trust. Stephen Fry, in conversation with the Canadian psychologist and writer Jordan Peterson, explained it like this: 'Imagine' he said, 'if the President of the United States had to have an audience with 'Uncle Sam' every week to explain what he was doing and how things were going, in the presence of a figurehead who embodied the "soul" or "spirit" of the United States.' Perhaps the governance of the United States would be better for it. At least we Brits like to think that the prime minister of the day can benefit from the accumulated wisdom of a monarch who, in the case of Elizabeth II, had had weekly meetings with 15 prime ministers from Churchill to Truss. We also like to think that this system is a bulwark against tyranny. Imagine if Vladimir Putin had had to have a weekly meeting with a figurehead who embodied the accumulated wisdom of Russia and the Russian people. Perhaps things would have turned out differently in Ukraine.

There are, of course, plenty of arguments against the monarchy. I have argued for a long time that to be born into this role, to have a religion foisted upon you, to be obliged to wait until the death of your parent before you can assume the role, and to be obliged to produce an heir, is a multiple violation of human rights. What if the heir to the throne is an atheist, or gay, or simply wants a quiet life? I suppose they can abdicate, but we tend to take a dim view of monarchs who put self above duty. We do have ways of getting rid of them though, as we did with Edward VIII.

In his article for Humanistically Speaking this month, Guy Otten has provided a comprehensive and highly persuasive argument in favour of disestablishing the Church of England. As I was reading his article, however, I couldn't help feeling that an established church, like a monarch, provides a counterbalancing power against elected politicians. Don't get me wrong - I'm all in favour of elected politicians - but the more we demolish or strip away other pillars of the state, pillars which may on occasion be called upon to 'speak truth to power', the fewer safeguards we have against the threat of tyranny.

Stanton Coit - hoped that ethical humanism would replace the Church of England

The 'spectacular failure' of humanism

And here's the rub. Humanists have imagined for a long time that humanism is an 'alternative to religion'. Stanton Coit, one of the early leaders of the Ethical Movement in the UK, imagined that the ethical humanist movement would eventually replace the Church of England. Obviously, it didn't happen. Humanists have failed spectacularly to build alternative institutions which might embody - through symbol, architecture, music, and ceremony - the humanist ethical tradition. What we have managed to create after 150 years of effort is a thin humanist identity which is all but invisible and which barely impinges upon our national life. We have been campaigning for decades to rid the education system of religious schools, yet what we propose to put in their place is a default secular system with no particular ethical or humanist tradition underpinning it. The one noble exception is the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust which is supporting schools which are valiantly promoting humanism through education.

Of course, we don't want humanism to become 'just another religion'. But institutions matter. Human beings are frail animals with a very uncertain grasp of rationality and an alarming predilection for fanaticism and intolerance, whether inspired by religion or by secular ideologies. Institutions are what stand between us and chaos.

Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical movement from which modern humanism partly flows, did succeed in building an institutional form of humanism. I have often looked with envy at societies such as the Ethical Society of St Louis in Missouri with properly trained and salaried leaders and gorgeous modern buildings. But even in the US, the institutional form of humanism is rare. In the UK, the humanist movement also flows from the rationalist and secularist movements, which have tended to reject any form of humanism which might mimic religion. Of course, I understand this phobia. But our stubborn refusal to build anything like an ethical secular 'religion' has brought us to today's reality: invisible, poor, and relatively powerless to effect change.

In conclusion, I would say that we have not yet earned the right to demand the abolition of the monarchy or the disestablishment of the Church of England. I do not have sufficient confidence in human beings to be able to hold tyranny at bay without strong and visible institutions which embody an ethical tradition. We need colleges to train humanists to lead. We need endowments and capital to build beautiful humanist centres in every town and city. We need national spokespersons with the same stature and gravitas as bishops, archbishops and chief rabbis. We need to build a humanist movement we can be proud of, and which will endure down centuries to come. We can start today to raise our sights and fire our imaginations.

You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one.

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