As I went into school to lead Collective Worship, the head teacher quizzed me: ‘what are British Values?’ It’s a church school but still required under new DfE guidelines to promote British Values. What are they and what do I think as a Christian?
The first point to make is that the name British values is wrong, because it implies that these are unique to Britain and cannot be exported. For example
- Singing Rule Britannia at the last Night of the Proms
- Apologising when someone else stands on your foot or takes your seat on a train
- Cheering when any one of France, New Zealand, Australia or South Africa are defeated at Rugby Union
Much better to speak of ‘Values that Britain Holds Dear’ and which France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and many others may also hold dear. These values will overlap with the best of the western Democratic Tradition, but do not embrace everything it brings.
A second point is to acknowledge that these values have been strongly influenced by Christianity, yet they are not identical to Christian Values. There is considerable overlap between Values that Britain Holds Dear and Values Christians Hold Dear in public life but they are not identical. We notice the overlap if and when we encounter other cultures whose wellspring is not Christian: by our lights they may be selfish, corrupt, passive. The culture is animated by different values because it was born of a different worldview.
Here then are my Values that Britain Holds (or Should Hold) Dear. Unsurprisingly they overlap with but do not coincide with the Government’s.
1. Public Servants are Accountable. It may be odd to put this one first but it is about Public Service and often forget how radical this vision of Public service is, and how deeply indebted to Christian teaching. In Mark 10.33-45, two of Jesus’ disciples ask for special treatment when he comes into power. He replies by teaching that according to the values of the Kingdom of God, whoever would be great must be the servant of all. There is an echo of this in the motto of the Royal Academy Sandhurst at which all the British Army’s Officers are trained: ‘Serve to Lead’. Public Servants are just what their name implies: servants of the public, and are therefore accountable. we believe this deeply, and take it for granted until we see an abuse.
An implication of this Value, which others consider a Value in itself, is the separation of the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary branches of government, so that they hold one another to account.
2. There are no non-persons That is, every human being is a person. In classical civilisation, slaves were non-persons, called ‘living tools’ by one philosopher, and treated as chattels. In pernicious regimes, opponents are proscribed or classed as non-persons and stripped of their rights, their identity, their property and their freedom. The Nazis called Jews ‘non people’ with horrifying consequences. A Value We Hold Dear is that there are no non-persons and that all have rights. The state may, after careful judicial process, remove some rights such as freedom and (in our case) voting: but this is a judicial and not a political decision.
This Value has a clear biblical root: we are made in the image of God. A friend of mine works in a different culture and trains midwives. the first lesson she teaches is that both men and women are made in the image of God and therefore women also deserve medical treatment: obvious for us but radical in that other culture. We are deeply and rightly indebted to Biblical teaching for this value.
A positive implication is the value of Democracy, with its corollary of shared responsibility. In Christian democratic thought, politics is how we love our neighbour.
Another implication of this Value is that we care even for the rights of criminals. Hence the extraordinary spectacle of a British legal system defending an unpleasantly critical foreign terror suspect against extradition: it’s because we don’t want to lose hold of on Value while we’re fighting to defend another.
3. Church and State are (almost) separate. Britain is not a Theocracy because Church and State are separate. Almost. Again, this model has biblical roots. In the Israelite monarchy, the Word of God came through the prophets but they themselves did not rule: they spoke to the Kings who ruled in God’s stead. The King and the prophet were, in their different fields, serving God. In the New Testament Paul writes that “the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:4). Thus the British Monarch and those in authority under her are the servants of God to do good to society; and the Church are the servants of God to bear direct witness to his ways and to his word.
Church and State are only almost separate because the Church in England is Established. The arrangement is neither Theocratic (which it would be if the Church ruled the State) nor Erastian (where the State rules the Church). I would say that this relationship allows the Church to speak biblical wisdom to those in authority, not least to remind them that we are all accountable to God who made us; it also preserves freedom of religion for other religions and denominations.
4. You are free both to Choose and to Change your religion.
This value follows on but is important because it distinguishes our approach to multiple cultures from others’. Christianity is a personal and voluntary religion: children may be brought up in the faith and be ‘culturally’ Christian: but profession as a Christian, through Baptism or Confirmation, is with one’s own ‘heart and mouth’. It is this choice which opens the door to a freedom of religion view which allows citizens to hold their own faith, and to change it. The latter is crucial because in other countries one may have the freedom to follow the religion into which one was born, say Hinduism, Islam or Christianity, but not to change it. In those cultures faith is a corporate and cultural identity which the individual is not free to change. That is not the Way that Britain Holds Dear.
5. There is only a limited right to conscientious objection.
The positive value is that everyone is expected to obey the rule of Law. Values 1 and 2 tells us that this reaches from the highest rank in society to the lowest. Christian teaching here is also decisive: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1–2) The presumption in Christian teaching is that believers should obey the law, unless the law enjoins what God has forbidden or forbids what God has enjoins. Christians from NT times onwards have suffered judicial penalties for placing allegiance to God above even their duty to the human rulers.
In the current context the Government’s British Values includes the Rule of Law, and I am not writing to oppose that. I am pointing out that in the Christian tradition, as in other religious traditions, obedience to the law is a religious duty only until it conflicts with religious law; but because of the separation of Church and state, the religious law rarely has an explicit Civic expression. This is a problem for theocratic religions such as Islam in which religious law might be seen to trump a great deal of Britain’s civil national law. School teachers are rightly expected to teach respect for the Law of the Land; religious leaders may need to prepare their people for the consequences of placing religious observance above national law.
There is a limited right to conscientious objection which respects that different religious traditions will have different rules: however the Law sets the boundaries on what is and is not allowed within this discretion. For example most dietary rules are allowed, but the right to kill religious opponents is not (see Value 2). The likely tricky issue for Christians is same-sex marriage (SSM) which the more conservative Christian traditions hold is incompatible with biblical faith.
The Government’s list of British Values includes:
- living under the rule of law protects individual citizens and is essential for their wellbeing and safety
- separation of power between the executive and judiciary and they can be held to account
- the freedom to choose and hold other faiths is protected by law
- not to be prejudiced or discriminate against people of other faiths
- the importance of identifying and combatting discrimination