After Nick Clegg’s speech at his Easter Reception this week, he gave an interview with the press. Here are some of the questions he was asked (paraphrased) and the answers he gave.
Do you see Britain as a 'Christian country with a lot of agnostics and atheists living in it’?
I think to say that you have a Christian heritage doesn’t mean that you are an exclusively Christian community. It’s a statement of fact. The history of our country over centuries clearly is shaped by Christianity, much more than any other faith, but that doesn’t mean that only Christians live here, or people who were brought up as Christians remain as Christians. It seems to me to be a statement of fact and not a controversial one. It’s actually interesting that it should provoke so much controversy and I am perfectly relaxed about the idea that we should just acknowledge who we are by history, by habit and by heritage, without in any way doing so in a manner which is exclusive or alienating.
Do we have, then, a Christian heritage nation rather than a Christian nation?
It’s much more living and breathing than that; our values and our instincts are clearly drawn from our Christian heritage. I think they heavily shape our values, but that doesn’t mean that we live in an identikit society. You can have a heritage and identity that can underpin and infuse your values without saying therefore everybody’s the same in society. It just seems to me one actually flows from the other.
Should the Church of England remain the established church?
My personal view always has been that it would be better for the Anglican Church itself and for people of faith themselves if you were to separate church and state. As a Liberal, I believe in the separation of powers, I believe in the separation of the spiritual and temporal realms, if I can put it like that.
And so it seems to me, in the long run, it is actually to the benefit of the Anglican Church to stand on its own, as a proud church on its own, but not to be wrapped up with the institutions of the state. And that’s, of course, something that exists in many other countries, and is entirely consistent with our heritage, and our history as a country heavily shaped by Christianity over centuries. I just think it makes sense to allow churches and faith communities to thrive as they wish and not be inhibited, or circumscribed, or defined by the state.
Has your experience as an atheist who regularly attends mass and who has a Catholic family, altered your view of faith?
I should stress, people can attach labels. I’ve never actually called myself straight atheist – far from it. I think I am much more of an agnostic than atheist– much more - because I don’t have anything against faith. In fact, I have great admiration for people who have strong faith; I think it’s a wonderful thing to have. It’s just not something that I possess, at least not at the moment. Nor is it something I would close my heart or my mind to. I’m just being very open about the fact that I’m not a man of faith at the moment. But I have huge time and respect for – and great interest in – theological issues. I think there is self-evidently a, sort of, spiritual dimension to life and to our existence, which needs to be attended to and cherished and taken seriously.
So I don’t come at this with stridently secular views; I come at this with great respect for people of faith.
I was attending Russian Orthodox ceremonies with my father’s mother. My own mother is a very devout Catholic. My children were brought up Catholic. Miriam wanted us to marry in a Catholic church, so it’s not something new for me to be in and around churches and with people who attend church a lot.
I think the main thing that I always think is very valuable, aside from the issues of the spirit and of faith, is how important it is to create human communities in churches. I think that’s a very, very valuable thing. I think at a time when there’s always a risk in society that people feel cut off, feel lonely, feel atomised, I think the role that churches play in creating communities that look out for each other is of massive importance.
Do you think David Cameron had political intentions when he made his statements about Britain being a Christian country?
When people talk about their faith I always take what they say on face value and assume that what people say about their own faith is always delivered in good faith. So, I don’t go seeking to cast suspicion on why people talk about their faith. I think that is something entirely personal to them.