Every year my daughter’s North Yorkshire primary school performs a Nativity Play. Shepherds with towels on their heads herding cotton-wool-costumed sheep; Wise Kings bearing gold tissue paper gifts; flocks of tinsel-draped angels; Mary picking her nose because she has been sat too long by a painted cardboard manger: proper old-school Nativity Play. This happens annually at schools all over Britain. I never questioned it nor gave it a second thought—save the disappointment that my child, a drama teacher’s daughter, couldn’t cope with a bit of donkey choreography.
My mother questioned it.
‘What if there’s a Jewish child?’
‘Err…’ I struggled.
Do we have Jews in England? I haven’t met any. This struck me as odd considering how many I know in America. But Rabbi Lionel Blue has a regular spot on Thought for the Day and there’s a good bagel deli in North Leeds which never opens on Saturday. Britain must have at least a few Jews.
‘Hindus, Muslims, Atheists?’ persisted my mother.
‘Oh, we have plenty of those,’ I replied brightly, pleased I could show some cultural awareness of my adopted nation.
‘Don’t they complain?’
‘About what?’ I asked.
‘The Nativity Play!’ exclaimed Mom.
‘Because,’ my mother sighed in frustration, ‘the play is Christian. It’s religious.’
‘It is?’ I gave my mother a puzzled look. ‘But no one here seems to think a Nativity Play is religious,’ I protested.
I didn’t need my mother’s raised eyebrow to realise how ridiculous this sounded. Of course—of course a Nativity Play is religious. Nativity Plays date back to the ninth century, a time-honoured religious tradition. Of course the birth of Jesus lies at the heart of Christian faith. And of course any self-respecting, First Amendment loving American should recoil in horror from the very idea of a public school hosting such an obviously Christian event.
Oh my God! My daughter’s school has been breaking the law every year. And no one has ever turned them in. Was the whole community in on the secret? Have there been underground meetings? Have pacts been made? Signed in blood? Where does the conspiracy end?
My mind raced. What about Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day? The BBC is state funded. Good Friday and Easter Monday are recognised Bank Holidays. Religious Education is part of the National Curriculum. My students have been led in prayer by our Assistant Head teacher. He hands out Bibles. In school!
Holy Mary! Why has no one sued Britain for Religious Persecution or Human Rights violations? Someone call the ACLU!
Of course they don’t have the ACLU in England. More importantly, England has no separation of church and state. Thanks to Henry VIII, the Church of England and the English Nation are one—inextricably linked. This was the whole point of America—to escape the persecution of a national church unwilling to embrace diverse faiths.
The impact of a State Church does not end with school Nativity Plays. Aside from the reigning sovereign being head of The Church of England, Parliament includes church leaders. The House of Lords, vaguely equitable to America’s Senate, is made up of two unelected branches. The Lords Temporal consists of the aristocracy, those with inherited or sometimes earned titles. The Lords Spiritual is a body of religious leaders: the Bishops of Durham, Winchester, London and the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. Church leadership plays a direct role in the government. Astounding! Like all true American souls mine is certain—absolutely certain—that church and state should be separate. In England they are joined at the highest legal, judicial and executive levels.
Yet American currency declares “In God We Trust”. The Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation Under God.” Presidents end every sentence with “God Bless America.” Clearly we’re kidding ourselves with this whole separation thing.
But that’s not the punchline. England, with her state religion, head of the church monarch and primary school Nativities, is a far more secular nation than America could ever hope to be. While America clings to God, England keeps God at a respectful and perhaps mistrustful arm’s length.
In 2011 the UK census reported 25% as “Having No Religion”. In the same year only 16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. 72% of Americans identified as Christian while in the UK the number was only 59%. Church attendance numbers are far lower than that. It’s a bizarre reversal—though perhaps not that bizarre considering our histories.
America was founded by Puritans (religious zealots England cheerfully transported in their version of events). Our churches have been centre stage of many great accomplishments: the Anti-Slavery movement, Labour Reform, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights. England has been battered by its history with religion: Crusades, Catholic versus Protestant, The Hundred Years’ War, Irish Troubles, more Witch hunts than Salem could shake a stake at. This is, naturally, a sweeping generalisation. Of course it is. It’s a thousand year trend. But my point is valid.
England has assimilated religion to the point where Nativity plays, Christening ceremonies, church holidays and even the buildings themselves—so many beautiful and ancient hymns of architecture— have been all but drained of spiritual meaning. 59% of the British identify Christian, but almost every parent I know Christens their child. They might need Sat Nav to find the church, but they get there. At the same time, a part of England’s racial memory recoils from religious fervour. Like an alcoholic whose past traumas prevent her from drinking too deeply.
On the opposite shore, America tries to keep religion out of politics. But we can’t help ourselves. We fight to embrace it, we fight to reject it.
I wonder if America will grow ambivalent over time as Britain has? If the differences between faiths continually rip apart the fabric of our country, we will someday look back at our Bible-bashing past and cringe? Will Britain swing back the other direction? Perhaps the current recession, the need for meaning and community support will draw her people back to the pulpits? God knows.