The New Confessional State

When Charles II was restored in 1660, it was widely assumed that it would be on the condition of a new regime of (relative) religious tolerance. Charles himself had promised as much in his ‘Declaration of Breda’, a list of (vague) promises to his soon-to-be subjects made as a prelude to his reclaiming the throne. Given that the Presbyterians (one of the major Puritan sects that had caused his father so much trouble in the 1640s) were, by 1660, willing to acquiesce in his Restoration, this was hardly surprising. Certainly the Presbyterians themselves saw it as a quid pro quo: we’ll support your return if you give us freedom of worship. ‘Dissenters’ – that is, Protestant Christians who disagreed with the doctrines and rites of the Church of England, usually on the grounds that the latter was not Protestant enough – were to be allowed to exist in some reasonable degree of freedom.

This was not how things turned out.  Charles’ promises came with two caveats. Firstly, ‘liberty to tender consciences’ was promised on the condition that the religious views tolerated did not “disturb the peace of the kingdom”. Secondly, it was all conditional on the consent of parliament.

The parliament elected in 1661 was dominated by high-flying Anglican cavaliers. They had suffered themselves from religious persecution at the hands of the Presbyterians and then the Commonwealth regime in the 1640s and 1650s, and were in no mood to compromise or show ‘indulgence’ on matters spiritual. In their minds, Protestant Dissent was, by definition, incompatible with ‘the peace of the kingdom’. They passed a series of laws which, cumulatively, effectively made Protestant Dissent illegal. All members of the realm were legally obliged, in theory, to be members of the Church of England: to attend their parish church on a Sunday, pay tithes, and be baptised according to the rite of the Book of Common Prayer. ‘Conventicles’, i.e. Dissenting religious meetings, were banned, on pain of imprisonment or even transportation. Holding municipal office was made conditional on taking communion within the Church of England. These laws became known (rather unfairly) as the Clarendon Code (Clarendon, his chief minister, actually did not support most of it).

In practice, these laws were applied very unevenly. Charles II vacillated between patchy and ineffective enforcement of the code, more active attempts to live up to the promises of Breda and impose toleration by royal fiat (in reality, more because he wanted toleration for Roman Catholics than Dissenters), and furious reversions to persecution by means of rigid enforcement of the penal laws. At various points one policy or the other was more politically convenient for him. In the 1670s, the Test Act was passed, which actually tightened these restrictions further: it made Anglicanism compulsory for anyone holding any public office of any kind.

By the end of his regime, he had adopted a policy of whole-heartedly throwing his lot in with the Anglican establishment and the strict enforcement of the Clarendon Code (largely because they were the safest bulwarks of his regime in face of the threat from the Whigs, who were attempting to exclude his brother and heir, James, from the throne). When James acceded and became James II,  he attempted to reverse this policy by giving indulgence to both Dissenters and Roman Catholics. He paid for the attempt with his crown.

James had been far more interested in toleration for his Roman Catholic co-religionists than for Dissenters, and this was incendiary in a country in which Protestant fear and hatred for ‘Popery’ united both Dissenters and Anglicans. The triumph of the revolution of 1688 in the face of (in the view of most contemporaries) the threat of rampant Popish rapine, murder and tyranny led to something of a pan-Protestant reapprochement: the common enemy of James II’s papism and the fact that the Dissenters had, in general, spurned James II’s offer of toleration made it hard for the Church of England to maintain the hardline position it had taken before 1688. The result was what is usually called the Toleration Act of 1689, which finally made Dissent legal (sort of).

The Toleration Act was not what it might appear, however. There is a widespread assumption that after the ‘Glorious’ Revolution, toleration reigned and England suddenly gained complete freedom of worship and religion. This is one of those comforting fictions held by many with a superficial grasp of English history: it isn’t remotely true.

The Toleration Act was a very limited legal provision. It wasn’t even called ‘The Toleration Act’ – its actual title was ‘An Act for Exempting their Majestyes Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of certaine Lawes’. It did not repeal the penal laws against Dissent: it merely exempted from their penalties some of those who were prepared to take certain oaths pledging allegiance to the regime. It specifically excluded from its terms Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters who did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Dissenters still had to register their conventicles with the authorities. And as for non-Christians – well, they gained precisely nothing from the Act. It allowed people to recuse themselves from Anglican services only if they went to a Dissenting one instead.

Perhaps most significantly, it did not give non-Anglicans full civil or political rights. The Test and Corporation Acts, which made it illegal for anyone other than Anglicans to hold any public office, ranging from being a member of a municipal corporation (effectively a local councillor) or a lord lieutenant through to being a judge or a minister of the crown, were not repealed. They were to remain the law of the land for another 139 years. By the late 1820s, the laws against Dissenters and even Roman Catholics had been repealed, and over the next few decades the vestigial elements of the Anglican monopoly (e.g. in the universities) were also dropped. It’s true that the Church of England is still the established church, but the practical political implications of this are now limited to, essentially, some ritual and ceremonial role and a few Bishops in the Lords. The confessional state ceased to be in the mid-19th century.

It’s true that in practice elements of the 1689-1828 legal and political settlement were softened and bent over the years. Walpole ensured that the Corporation Act didn’t apply to newly founded corporations. ‘Occasional Conformity’ – where Dissenters took Communion in Anglican Churches in order to qualify for public office, while still predominantly worshipping as Dissenters – was practised by some to evade the Test Act. But the basics of what we call the ‘confessional state’ held. The state had an official religion that it actively encouraged. It discriminated against those who did not adhere to it and membership of the state apparatus at all levels (including the universities, which were a particularly pronounced example of total Anglican monopoly) was conditional on at least pretending to conform to it. But, in a modification to the older idea of Church-State relations, where being a subject of the realm and a member of the Church were merely two different ways of looking at the same thing, it was prepared to recognise and tolerate the existence of (at least some – in practice the majority of) non-adherents and give them some basic rights and freedoms.

Whatever else one might say about this, it was fairly clear. The beliefs that were officially sanctioned and those that attracted civil and political penalties were openly stated and precisely defined. Adherence to the doctrines, morals and rites of the Church of England, as expounded in the 39 articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Church’s other official formularies and practically expressed by baptism and taking Communion a certain number of times per year was the condition of being a full member of the state and many state-aligned institutions. A hierarchy of beliefs outside of that was maintained and outlined in law: in effect, being a non-Anglican Trinitarian Protestant gave you second-class membership, being a Roman Catholic or non-Trinitarian Protestant gave you third-class membership, and anyone else was effectively in the fourth class (although that was generally practically irrelevant).

A confessional state of some kind – whether akin to the ‘full-fat’ pre-toleration version or the post 1689-version – has been the norm in human history, and remains the norm in much of the world. In many ways, the condition that flourished in England between around the mid-19th century until quite recently, and in some other (largely western) countries around about the same time is quite exceptional. Indeed, even for quite a large chunk of that period in England – until around say the mid-20th century – there remained a vague cultural and in some senses even implicit legal and political privilege accorded to, broadly, Christian (if not really specifically Anglican) doctrines and ethics. It fell some way short of a confessional state, but it was at least a fairly loud echo of it.

The short period when the state got about as near to genuine neutrality as is possible – from around the mid-20th century, arguably somewhat earlier, until quite recently – was, I would argue, a sort of interregnum, a period that saw something like a balance of power between different world-views in which none was strong enough to enforce their own privilege or monopoly. This was the brief flourishing of something like free speech, freedom of conscience, full freedom of religion and so on.

That period is – has been for some years – drawing slowly but inexorably to a close. We are seeing the emergence of something like a new confessional state underpinned by a new orthodoxy – but with crucial differences relative to the last one.

What I’m referring to is a new(ish) set of doctrines, belief in which is effectively the condition of holding public office, elite status or full membership of a number of other powerful institutions. It would be tedious to go into this precisely, but the outlines are pretty clear. One must believe that the individual is a completely autonomous being, obliged to fashion themself according to their ‘real’ nature. This nature is shaped most fundamentally by one’s sexuality, gender or race (with a few other identity categories having similar status).  Certain identity categories – being ‘LGBT+’, being non-white, being non-Christian – are, by virtue of their historical (and according to its adherents contemporary) status of being victims, absolutely sacred. For some reason, some of these categories are purely a matter of self-identification (gender most obviously), others (race most notably) are not. The highest good is to not only accept but actively celebrate and promote these sacred identities.

It seems fairly self-evident to me that this orthodoxy is riven by contradictions and logical absurdities, but probing those is not my purpose in this article. What I think is obvious – and this is hardly an original point, but it is important – is that these beliefs amount to a religion. A form of theology is the only way of really understanding them. The belief in individual autonomy, self-fashioning, the existence of some ‘authentic’ inner self (‘Free to be me!), and the sanctity of certain groups are all predicated on certain metaphysical beliefs that are essentially religious in nature: they are no less dogmas than the Chalcedonian definition of the nature of Christ or the Holy Trinity. They are not predicated on the existence of God, but rather the worship of other things: self, some inner gendered ‘soul’, victimhood and so on. This orthodoxy has its own religious symbols (the rainbow or ‘Progress Pride’ flag rather than the Cross); its own liturgy (LGBT History Month, Black History Month and so on); even its own rites (taking the knee, etc).

Now, it seems to me that the fact that this world-view is essentially religious-metaphysical (and therefore ethical) and based on dogmatic premises that are difficult to empirically validate is not, in itself, the problem. I would argue that it is impossible not to hold such a worldview if one is a sentient human being, even if one holds one passively or mostly unthinkingly. There is no neutral space. The state must always embody some comprehensive worldview that is ultimately rooted in dogmatic, faith-based premises. Naturalism, empiricism, materialism: they are no less rooted, ultimately, in certain fundamental dogmas. The ‘golden age’ of ‘state neutrality’ was really more a question of the elite being sufficiently divided over which of those worldviews was correct to prevent any one becoming dominant to the point of having overwhelming and formal institutional privilege. This is a contingent situation, and one that is definitely unusual and almost certainly difficult – maybe impossible – to maintain indefinitely.

The problem with the orthodox worldview – call it ‘wokeism’, call it ‘critical social justice’, call it ‘rainbow flag orthodoxy’, call it what you like – is not that it is like all other similar worldviews in this respect: based on dogmas rooted ultimately in faith, seeking to promote and spread its doctrines, seeking state sanction and even monopoly. The problem is that it’s wrong. Its fundamental assumptions and dogmas are mistaken. But that is not my central point – that’s an argument for another day.

The most strikingly different and practically pernicious thing about the new orthodoxy is that it its priests and prophets unable to take responsibility for or even admit what it actually is. Because part of its ideological and spiritual dynamic is rooted in the idea that is essentially oppositional – that it is inherently subversive –  it can never acknowledge its own victory or status as an orthodoxy. That was, like or hate it, never a problem with the pre-Reformation Catholic Church or the post-Reformation Church of England. True, at various times – chiefly in their early stages – they had a subversive dynamic – against the Pagans, against the medieval Catholic Church. However, they were quite comfortable, after a while, with putting themselves forward as a complete, objectively true (albeit faith-based) framework for thinking about the nature of morality and reality, based on certain clear doctrinal statements and theological propositions, that could order our common life and, essentially, become the establishment. The new orthodoxy has to pretend to itself that it is always against any orthodoxy or establishment, even as it obviously becomes one to any external observer.

This is why the new orthodoxy imposes and enforces its dictates in the haphazard, often informal way that it does. People who deviate from the orthodoxy are sacked, blocked from advancement or cancelled all the time, but because the precise nature of its current contours is always unclear and because admitting their status as priests or state functionaries would run against the self-image of the orthodoxy’s supporters, it can’t be enforced in a clear or well-defined way. It is imposed in official ways that are arbitrary, confusing and often inconsistent; or in informal ways using mechanisms of social disapproval or semi-official pressure or self-censorship. Its adherents will swear blind that their opponents are imagining things or are hysterical and misinformed – then five minutes they will admit that their opponents are quite right about what is happening, but what is happening is actually good. It manages to be an ideology that is shape-shifting, clear in outline but difficult to pin down exactly, forever denying its own status while it’s in the process of fulfilling it. It’s a turbo-charged dynamic force – and a dynamic force is, as Stanley Baldwin said, ‘a terrible thing’.

The confessional state we had between 1689 and 1828 was actually rather preferable.

Firstly, it existed in an era where the state had fair less power, particularly over non-state bodies. Dissenters may have been excluded from public office, but there were large realms of social and economic activity that were relatively free from government regulation, and therefore the sway of the confessional state, which meant they were able to dominate certain areas (commerce; finance etc). Given the close relationships that now exist between the state and many large corporations and employers – a necessary function of the long-term growth of the role of the state, but also a more recent development which we see in, for example, the weird private-public partnership between the US state and the large tech firms that exists to censor social media – the new quasi-confessional state has more power to impose its orthodoxy over broader swathes of society.

Secondly, the old confessional state had pretty clear parameters and was, generally, applied quite consistently. The Church-State establishment rarely had serious qualms about using its power to promote its well-defined orthodoxy, and so it didn’t have to work by misdirection, constant shape-shifting and bad faith denials of its own power. Accommodations were made and loopholes allowed for practical reasons, but even they worked in a fairly predictable fashion.

All of this makes it very tempting to say: if we are going to live under a new official state-sanctioned religion, which promotes it own worldview and discriminates against those who demur from it – which it seems we are, whether I or you like it or not – then can we please have a proper, legally-defined, precise confessional state? Can we have a modern-day equivalent of the Test and Corporation Acts, of the Clarendon Code, so that we know precisely what we have to believe to be allowed to hold public office, work in universities, work for the government etc? At least then we would know where we stood and have some degree of legal and political certainty, which would be preferable to the ever-shifting soft-authoritarian theocracy that we are currently more than half-way towards. Then we could perhaps also have our own Toleration Act, which might let us know what legal and political rights we latter-day dissenters are still allowed.

The reality is that, for the reasons I outlined above, this is highly unlikely. The new orthodoxy, with its metaphysical underpinnings of subversion and never-ending progress, cannot face up to the responsibilities of being the establishment. They might not even have a stable or coherent enough doctrine to even be a conventional confessional state. They must exist in a weird double state, Schrodinger’s Orthodoxy – both the orthodoxy (in reality) and not-orthodoxy (in their own minds) at the same time.

And that is perhaps the most worrying thing: it seems possible that they will end up having the ultra-dynamism, the dream-logic and ideological doublethink of something far more akin to Stalinist totalitarianism than the old-fashioned Anglican confessional state, which in comparison seems positively mild.


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