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Obviously I'm speaking here at a very high level of generalisation. If I wanted to substantiate what I'm saying and offer some sort of explanation I would have to go into much more detail on British Church history and perhaps especially the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century. That can't be done properly in the space of one short talk but I would like to draw attention to what could be said to be the culmination of the process, namely the suppression, in 1717, of the convocations of Canterbury and York.

The convocations of Canterbury and York were the assemblies in which the Bishops and lower clergy of the Church of England met on a regular basis to discuss their affairs. The religious and political reasons for their suppression make a very entertaining story but again we don't have time to go into it.(4) The point I want to retain is that with the suppression of the convocations management of church affairs - including questions of theology - passed into the hands of Parliament. The Church ceased for over a century following to have an independent moral existence. And this occurred almost precisely at the moment when the process began which was to lead to the establishment of the British Empire.

(4) Very briefly. The immediate pretext for the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 was the imprisonment of seven Bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft. They had refused to read an edict by James II granting toleration to Roman Catholics and dissenting Protestants, on the grounds that it infringed the rights of the Church of England. But when James was overthrown and the throne usurped by "William III" nine Bishops, including Sancroft, refused to recognise William as King (they would have recognised him as regent, with his wife Mary, James's daughter, as the sole legitimate monarch). They were therefore deprived of their sees and replaced by 'low church' Bishops, some of whom, notably the new Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson, had previously been Presbyterians (ie opposed in principle to the existence of a church hierarchy). The result was that the Upper House of the convocation of Canterbury, the Bishops, had a 'low church' view of the rights of the Church, and a relatively loose or liberal theology, while the 'lower house', the ordinary clergy, were much 'higher'. The tension between the two came to a head when, after the death of Queen Anne, who could be said to have had some legitimacy in the eyes of the supporters of a hereditary monarchy, the throne passed to the German Prince of Hanover, whose family connection to the Stuarts was more remote. It was in this context that the convocations were suppressed. See my Ulster Presbyterianism - The historical perspective, Belfast, Athol Books, 1994, pp.68-72 and J.H. Newman: 'The Convocation of the Province of Canterbury' in his Historical Sketches, 1856. It can be read at

So the society which established hegemony over the world in the following two centuries was essentially a secular society, meaning by that, a society that had no collective commitment - no institution embodying a collective commitment - to the idea of spiritual struggle, the struggle of the relative to the absolute, or to the idea that eternal life is a reality that has to be fought for. And this becomes the more striking when we consider that the story of Empire largely starts in India, a society in which the idea of spiritual struggle was particularly well established, both among the Hindus and among the Muslims.

If we pursue this theme in a necessarily very summary manner we find Britain disrupting the Muslim Near East (notably Egypt) and the largely Buddhist Far East in the nineteenth century, together with many animist and Muslim societies in Africa. And in the twentieth century Britain's war against Germany resulted in the collapse of three great religiously based Empires - the Roman Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Muslim Ottoman Empire and, perhaps less deliberately, the Orthodox Christian Russian Empire.


Of course I'm not suggesting that Britain was the only modern European power that set about disrupting traditional societies. The other candidates include Spain and France. But Spain was acting, however hypocritically, in the name of a moral idea embodied institutionally in the Roman Catholic Church, while France also, at least in the Napoleonic period, had the moral idea of revolutionary democracy. Insofar as Britain formulated a moral idea it was the more general concept of 'civilisation', and here we might note a rather extraordinary characteristic of the ruling class that was the motor force of imperial expansion. Its education consisted almost entirely of developing the ability to construe and to write verses in the Latin language. Its cultural ideal was classical, pre-Christian Rome. There was nothing in historical Christianity that excited its admiration. Perhaps its most important historical product, in the eighteenth century at least, was Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a sustained and detailed polemic directed against early Christianity and its role in, as Gibbon sees it, the destruction of a civilised society.

But the greatness of pre-Christian Rome, of course, did not lie in its religious idea. Very few people would want to revive the Roman - or even the Greek - gods, except as a useful poetic conceit. And the religious philosophies that developed in the Empire on the basis of Platonism would all be regarded by Gibbon as part of the same decadence as Christianity. What was admired in Rome was its application to practical problems - problems of warfare, of administration, of law, of agriculture, of commerce. Fields that would all come under Nietzsche's category of the Will to Power. 

Again I must say: I'm not suggesting that Britain was the only society concerned with practical problems of war, administration, commerce etc. Nor am I suggesting that the British élites did not believe in God or in the possibility of a life after death. What I am suggesting is that the relationship with God and with a life after death did not present themselves as urgent human tasks. If you were an Anglican you probably believed that, given a basic level of sincerity, good behaviour and church attendance, a God who was both kind and all-merciful would look after you. If you were on the more earnest evangelical wing, either of the Anglican Church or among the dissenters (the latitudinarian/evangelical divide cut across the establishment/dissenting divide), you might be more concerned about your own personal salvation, but the business - the work - of salvation was still entirely in the hands of God. You may have the happy experience of knowing you are saved and you may wish to share that experience with other people. You may even feel that the fact and privilege of being saved imposes on you a certain moral obligation to do good in the world. But the business of salvation itself - the fault line between earth and heaven, space/time and eternity - does not present itself as a task. As an arena for purposeful activity there is only this world. 

Here I might point to the great work of an important but neglected figure in British political history, Henry Brougham, largely responsible in the 1820s for the creation of British Liberalism, or revival of the old Whig tradition, through an alliance between two, one might have thought, opposite tendencies - evangelicals on the one hand, utilitarians, widely assumed to be atheists, on the other, on the basis of a common commitment to the principles of 'political economy' which became a starting point for the reflections of Marx and Engels, once they had freed themselves from the toils of Hegelian idealism.

'Utilitarianism', may be a useful term to summarise the broad ideology I am trying to identify and it could be seen as a logical outworking of the Protestant rejection of the monastery and the religious orders. The religious orders may not have lived up to their calling but they nonetheless embodied the ideal of a purpose to human activity other than the Will to Power, and also of a tangible, visible presence on earth of the kingdom of Heaven.