St Peter's Rectory, May 2002
In unexpected and not so unexpected ways, the Royal Family has been facing a great deal of publicity in recent months, and of course with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations continuing through the year, they will continue to do so. I am writing this just two days after the Queen Mother’s funeral, and whatever one’s views about the future of the monarchy, it seems that there is more or less unanimity across the nation not only about the qualities of the Queen Mother herself, but also about the extraordinarily dignified way in which her death and her funeral were marked. I don’t think one has to be either a great royalist or a great militarist to recognise and appreciate the way it was all done - a spectacle of the sort that, in my experience, is not to be equalled anywhere in the world.
To a great extent - and in most normal contexts, not before time - the sort of pomp and circumstance that we normally associate with our imperial past, and a very different sort of national culture, has disappeared. But on occasion, it is no bad thing to ask ourselves some fairly searching questions about national identity and what it all means. It is a tragic irony that just as our nation was remembering and celebrating the last hundred years, and especially that sense of unity which developed during the years of adversity of the second world war with which the Queen Mother was so closely identified, another struggle for the national identity of two peoples was disintegrating into virtually open warfare.
It is difficult to see how this awful, destructive violence between Israel and Palestine is going to be resolved with justice for both sides; what is quite clear is that, even if immediate relief may be gained by the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Palestinian areas, the rift goes much deeper than that, and the sort of gunboat diplomacy which appears to have become the order of the day around the world is not going to bring lasting peace to anyone.
But one of the saddest elements in the conflict is the role of religion and religious fanatics. Those voices, of which there are many, that disclaim religious belief on the basis that faith communities have provided, over the centuries, some of the worst examples of repression and inter-communal violence, are being given potent ammunition by the sights coming out of the Holy Land. There were religious elements to the Balkan crisis, and of course Ireland has been dogged by mutual hatred between some Catholics and some Protestants in the North. But it is rarely as simple as some would protest. The really potent mix is where religious belief and national identity and interest coalesce (and that, I fear, happens more often than we realise). The resultant confusion of loyalties, policies and vision can be extremely powerful, and on occasion very dangerous. For Israel, of course, this is an ever-present challenge, because at the heart of Jewish identity the world over is the religious belief that the land which is being fought over at this very moment is theirs by divine right. Now, of course, the majority of Jews understand that political reality and the development of history - so often deeply unjust to them - dictates a certain compromise on that ideal. In the hands of Israeli politicians, however, the ideal has become pragmatic policy, and the religious sensibilities of Jews around the world have been manipulated so powerfully that the American government for instance is fearful of a domestic backlash if it is seen to deal too critically with the Israeli Government.
The Palestinian people on the other hand have lived in “the Land” for quite as long as Jews, and can certainly lay equal claim to their land rights. For them the religious claims are not so prominent, although, of course, the most sensitive battle is still to be fought - over the status of Jerusalem, a city claimed to be holy by three world faiths. In recent years, however, some of the more radical elements among the Palestinians have made use of some of the more extreme interpretations of Islam to justify terrible acts of terror against Israeli citizens. The significance that we give to these acts may differ, but the use of a religious philosophy to justify killing people must be a cause for huge concern by all people of faith.
The Irish situation, similarly, has demonstrated the destructive power of the combination of religious idealism and political practicalities in pursuing a particular vision of national identity - and there are plenty of other examples throughout history.
The debate about national identity is alive and kicking in this country too, and inevitably the relationship between church and state, with the monarch holding the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and bishops and clergy, by right, taking leading positions on most national occasions presents us with a real challenge. Nowhere else in the world is there an Anglican Church established by law, and although in some places the Roman Catholic Church appears to have such status, it nowhere plays the official role in Parliament that our bishops play, and certainly would not recognise any head of state (apart from he who rules the Vatican!) as having any authority over it. At the moment the challenge to our status is benign, and generally, the church plays its role responsibly and apolitically. We cannot imagine a situation in Britain (that is England, Scotland and Wales) which would parallel what is going on in the Holy Land. But our nation is changing, boundaries of all sorts are changing and disappearing, not least between churches and faith communities. The debate, as I have said in an earlier article, must go on.