Rant Number 384 11 February 2010
The Secret of England’s Greatness is a didactic oil painting by the Victorian artist T. Jones Barker. It portrays the young Queen Victoria presenting a large Bible to a richly dressed African chieftain. In the background, Prince Albert looks on, approvingly. The picture, banal commentators explain, aims at illustrating the benefits of British imperial civilisation, combined with the health-giving diffusion of Christianity. Fair enough. Victoria was both supreme governor of the Anglican Church and personally very pious, so in 1861, when the picture was painted, the ‘secret’ was an open one. To the believing and energetic Victorians, sharing the Word of God with heathen peoples made sense.
As Victoria looks down on us from Heaven (where else could she be?), she must be bewildered. An extraordinary reversal seems to have taken place. In Africa Christianity is booming. Many an African nation evangelised by the Victorians rejoice in a flourishing and fervent Christian life. Nigeria and Uganda together, for example, count 27 million Anglicans and you can bet your boots the majority aren’t just ‘nominal’ members. Conversely, England’s official 26 millions are a joke, even as a sociological figure. The average Sunday church attendance is barely 900.000. Worse, the power and influence of the C of E in the national life is nil.
Of course, it is not the present monarch’s fault. At her Coronation Service in 1953 the Queen was indeed handed the Bible, with the words: ‘the most valuable thing the world can afford’. Elizabeth II has fulfilled her religious duties punctiliously. But, gradually, government and nation have degenerated into practical heathenism. So, England’s greatness is as defunct as that of Rome or Constantinople. Were Jones Barker alive today, I fear he might have to paint his picture with the roles reversed – it is the African who would be bestowing the Bible on the English Sovereign!
The fierce faith and fidelity of African churches to Biblical teachings is indeed such that some US Episcopalian traditionalists in flight from same sex unions, gay bishops, priestesses, bishopesses and the like have seceded. They are now under the jurisdiction of stern African prelates like Bishop Peter Akinola, of Nigeria. Odd? Well, as I pointed out to a gay guy I once met in Doha, at least it shows the Yanks are not racists.
Maybe the traditionalists should choose as their patron saint St Bernardin of Siena. The Tuscan city’s patron saint. No liberal he. When a gentleman made young Bernardin an improper proposal, the chaste youth knocked him out with a punch. As an adult, the Saint became a Franciscan and successfully preached a crusade to have all gays kicked out of Siena. Huh! I figure these days St Bernardin would be done for hate crime.
Yet St Bernardin was a soft touch compared to some Ugandans. Gays are not flavour of the month there. Amongst the saints venerated in the country are the famous Ugandan martyrs. 45 Christian youths, Catholics as well as Anglicans, who embraced excruciating death rather than submitting to the bestial lust of the pagan King Mwunga. Some were tortured, beheaded and dismembered, others were castrated and burnt. Horrendous but verily, semen est sanguis Christianorun – ‘the blood of Christians is the seed of the Church’, as Tertullian put it. Thus the Christian faith in Uganda has spread and prospered ever since.
Pity Ugandan lawmakers now advocate the death penalty for HIV-positive gays who engage in sex, as well as for gay rape. Plus heavy penalties for a whole range of homosexual acts. Ahem... A bit over the top, perhaps. Insofar as Christianity influences such draconian attitudes, Ugandan MPs should be reminded that a) Jesus Christ did not come to earth to kill anyone and b) as Pope John XXIII well said, the Church must hate the sin but also love the sinner. So excessive a targeting of gays is lunacy. Come to think of it, the Hebrew prophets thundered against all sorts of sins, from cheating the labourer of his wages to oppressing the widow and the orphan...
The Church of England, I suppose, could do something. Like dispatching its own Ugandan-born Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, to Kampala. As an insider, Sentamu could persuade politicians and priests to be less extreme on the gay issue. But he could also learn a little from his own people. The colourful Archbishop loves engaging in cheap stunts, like vowing to discard his clerical collar till Mugabe is overthrown, (not quite as uncomfortable as wearing a hair shirt, eh?) or playing at being a pseudo-hermit in a tent inside his own crowded Yorkminster. But behind this feeble sound and fury there is nothing. Churches in the Province of York are emptying fast, as fast as in that of Canterbury. Sentamu is part of the problem, not part of the solution to Anglicanism’s woes. And both Archbishops must bear a heavy responsibility for the parlous state of English Christianity. Ugandan Christians might teach Sentamu a few tricks. Like how to lead. How to rejuvenate, to reinvigorate the geriatric body of the C of E. And how really to get in tune with the Holy Spirit. If anybody can do that today, Africans can.
In the background of The Secret of England’s Greatness you discern two human figures. Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell, famous statesmen, ministers of Queen Victoria. They are there to symbolise the British Government being at one with its Queen over the nation’s spiritual mission. Because no empire, no country can grow and maintain itself without being part of a universal vision. A vision providing the vim, the drive, the elan found in faith alone. Sure, this view today is widely pooh-poohed. ‘It is the economy, stupid’ kind of sneer. Or it is a matter of key natural resources, like oil or gas. Or of democracy and human rights, our tired era’s much plugged myths. Such are the only ‘values’ the apostate New Labour Government cares to countenance. But the Victorian painting, with all its rhetoric, takes you to the heart of the matter. Yes, the great secret. The artist was a minor one but he grasped a key insight. He conveyed the great truth: the secret of England’s greatness lies in her trust in God.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli