The Bishop of London at the funeral of Lady Thatcher. Photo: Christopher Furlong/AFP via Getty Images

October 22, 2020   6 mins

In 1096, after William the Conqueror had successfully invaded England, he moved against the north and the incumbent bishops. “And so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty,” wrote the medieval chronicler and Benedictine monk Orderic Vitalis: “and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed”.

For centuries, right up until the time of the Stuarts, the “Norman yoke” became a byword for the heteronomous imposition of power, the earliest expression of what we might now call Euroscepticism. For both radicals and conservatives alike, the “Harrying of the North” and the ousting of bishops amounted to a destruction of the established order. So Boris beware — history may not repeat, but it rhymes. And a conservative ought to be more alert to the dangers of the present moment.

I discovered relatively late in life that I am a natural conservative. As someone who grew up under Margaret Thatcher, I now forgive my younger self for never having spotted that. Thatcher wasn’t a conservative at all, she was a free market liberal who would shove aside all that stood in the way of market forces. No wonder I was confused.

I suppose natural conservatives gave her a break because, in the age of the Cold War, anyone who resisted communism with her vim and vigour was requisitioned to the cause. But nonetheless, she sailed under false colours. And so, growing up under Thatcher, I thought conservatism meant a kind of fundamentalist commitment to market forces; that the market was right, come what may. And I hated it. I hated the way Conservatives seemed to believe that humanity existed to serve the market, not the market to service the needs of humanity. I hated the destruction of traditional communities — mining communities, especially — that was taken to be the inevitable by-product of economic progress. I hated the reduction of every moral issue to the question of money, as if that were the only significant unit of moral exchange.

But Thatcher was as much a (small-c) conservative as Labour is now the party of working people. These titles are a relic of the past, just as a company called the Carphone Warehouse continues to sell mobile phones to people who not only have no idea what a car phone looks like, but have also never even considered it odd that the company name was so ill-matched to its product.

Conservatives are supposed to conserve. And this because it is at the heart of conservative belief that the cheap and wanton destruction of the established order is both easy to achieve and often impossible to recover from (see 1069). Progressives believe that things getting better is somehow built into the nature of things, that human existence is on an ever upward curve towards the sunny uplands of justice and social harmony.

I have a much darker view of human nature and a more fearful view of what social progress means — the “slaughter bench of history at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimised”, as Hegel put it. That’s why I am prepared to put up with what works, even if it is a bit clunky, even if it is not how one would design things if one was starting with a blank slate: the monarchy, the establishment of the Church of England, our system of common law. The idea of the blank slate, starting afresh, year zero, these are all ideas more suited to the French Revolution than the oldest functioning democracy in the world: 1789, another date that is written on the conservative heart in ignominy.

That’s why I don’t expect Conservatives like Steve Baker MP to be touting the disestablishment of the Church of England whenever an archbishop says something that irritates them. Like Mr Baker, I passionately believe in Brexit and, unlike most of the bishops, believe that domestic law, established at the ballot box, should trump international law — a law not directly answerable to people ticking their little boxes.

But the whole purpose of having bishops in the legislature is that they say what they believe, and their anxiety that the way Brexit is being pursued places peace in Northern Ireland at risk is hardly something on which they should be expected to remain silent.

I have changed my mind on the establishment of the Church of England. My worry was never so much that it was an unacceptable privilege, but rather that it encouraged the Church to become the courtiers of the political order, grovelling at the feet of real secular power as the Church so often has over the centuries. And so I used to believe that, released from the shackles of establishment, the Church would be free to preach the good news of the gospel without fear or favour.

It was the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who changed my mind on all of this. He argues, passionately, that it is all of Britain’s faith communities that benefit from the Church of England hosting all believers at the heart of our national life. This presence enables the introduction of a quite different register of concerns directly into the public square, the presence of those who think in terms of the eternal, the numinous and the transcendent. At times, this register of concerns jars with the more day-to-day management of our national life, and so it should. It is a reminder that there exists, for many of us at least, and for the greater part of our history, a story of what human life is all about that raises its head above the utilitarian and the pragmatic.

This also is why the bishops in the House of Lords have to be extra careful not to channel their personal views about party politics. Jonathan Sacks believes there is a sacrificial aspect to the Church of England’s presence within the establishment: that it is obliged to express itself with greater care, even to the point of holding back when it comes to expressing private convictions on matters of public policy.

And here there may be something of a problem, for the bishops of the Church of England have gained for themselves a reputation that they are implacably opposed to Brexit on the grounds that it offends their liberal — as distinct from Christian — consciences. My own view is that the Archbishop, in addressing the very specific concern about how the present Brexit Bill will impact peace in Northern Ireland, is expressing a perfectly legitimate concern. Since when, Mr Baker, has peace been beyond the remit of the Church?

The accusation that bishops should stay out of politics is frankly ridiculous. Christianity is not just a narrow little hobby for the soul, but a vision of the whole world, every part of it, transformed by the love and presence of God. But that said, it is nonetheless also still true that the present Church seems to find it ever easier to present itself in wholly secular terms. A report out last week calculated the value of our Church communities as contributing ÂŁ12 billion to the economy.

I groaned aloud when I read that. To believers, the value of the Church is literally priceless, both without price and of more value that money could ever describe. The reduction of what we do to pounds sterling is to collapse all value into a single register — and that is precisely what the Church must stand to resist. Human beings are of infinite value because they are made in the image and likeness of God.

Mrs Thatcher, of course, was a Methodist. Yet despite having had to listen to many of her father’s sermons in Grantham chapel, she was astonishing ignorant of Catholic Christianity (in the wider Roman Catholic and Anglican sense). Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore — himself a super-fan — told me in his Confessions chat that she didn’t even know that you needed water for a Baptism.

For her, Christianity was a kind of Samuel Smiles self-help philosophy of personal responsibility. That’s why she too thought it could be relegated to the private sphere, why she hated, for instance, the famous 1985 Faith in the City report. And politicians like Steve Baker are made squarely in that mould.

Mrs Thatcher’s funeral was held at St Paul’s Cathedral a couple of years after I resigned from my position there. They sang her favorite hymn, the same one they had sung at Churchill’s funeral on the same spot in 1965: “I Vow to Thee, My Country”, a hymn of two verses. The first expresses a love of place, the second the love of “another country I heard of long ago”, a country without borders or armies.

Some in the Church have regarded the first verse as heretical, expressing too unquestioningly a love of country. For me it is an expression of collective solidarity, a one-nation, all-in-it-together kind of philosophy that values all its subjects — yes, north and south. Others have a problem with the second verse, expressing the belief that even as a nation we sit under the ultimate authority of Almighty God. True conservatives find something to admire in both verses. And on this one at least, Mrs Thatcher and I are as one.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.