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Late Victorian days in Great Britain found her at her most jingoistic. The British Empire stretched across the world and although the United States and Germany were fast catching up in terms of wealth and prosperity, British power remained unchallenged.

The two political parties, Conservative and Liberal were largely led by people of the same class and with the same self-confidence in the particularism and self-confidence born of a passionate belief in the superiority of the British race and of its mission in and to the world. Where they differed, at least in part, was in their use of myth and their approach to wealth and its obligations. The Conservatives, led by an extraordinary man who had overcome the liability of race and social standing to rise to the highest elected office in the realm, believed largely in laissez faire capitalism, the reliability of a market economy and the extension of British power wherever its interests seemed to warrant imperial expansion. Disraeli came to realize however that Tories also needed to champion the common man, perhaps more by romanticizing village life and social order than by significantly bettering the life of a growing urban proletariat except by a judicious extension of the franchise.

The Liberals were divided between old-fashioned Whigs, less enamored with the pageantry of throne and Empire, but still invested in the reliability given to the state by people of wealth, breeding and culture, capitalists who believed in regulation, an extended franchise and the beginnings of social legislation to empower the working classes, and radical liberals who groped with non-Marxist socialism, the Nonconformist conscience and who distrusted Imperialism without wishing to dismantle what had been gained.

To the Tory led by that cynical convert to Anglicanism, Benjamin Disraeli, the inventor of the Indian Empire, who rescued the monarchy from probable oblivion. the Church was a formidable adjunct to the Establishment, a prop to the aristocratic ideal into which he had broken, and a symbol of social order. The Liberal Party, led by the tree-felling, prostitute-rescuing Anglo-Catholic, Gladstone, a man who disdained ennoblement and was capable of extraordinary righteous indignation, sought to disestablish the Church where possible and stress its “otherness”, except in the matter of nominating progressive bishops, deans and other higher clergy.

I write this vignette of British history today because I feel there is much in our present predicament which mirrors these times. Almost all Americans of whatever persuasion, subscribe to some form of American particularism, that whether by Divine permission or native genetics, Americans are different, and have reached global ascendancy because this is America’s destiny. Neither party dares to ignore or down play necessary patriotism or disavow America’s destined leadership. Republicans, or most of them, believe in the majesty and omnipotence of the markets and expect little central government at home and much American government overseas. Republicans or most of them see conservative religion as an ordained adjunct to the State and read the Bible as a blueprint for conservativism. Jesus would have been a Republican if he had been fortunate enough to be an American and lacking that distinction He must be afforded honorary citizenship.

Liberals are champions of the common man, regret the folly of the common man’s religion and political allegiance, at least of late, and believe that it is the intellectual class, rather than the wealthy, to whom should be given deference and who should govern the nation. In terms of religion, it matters little whether a person is religious or not, as long as he or she can manage to straddle a belief in egalitarianism allied to a trust in a right-thinking intelligentsia; an elite. Religion may be a useful personal pastime as long as its tenets do not contradict, at least in public, cherished liberal beliefs.

What unsettled the democratic game, in which British Tories and Liberals took their turn in bat while all was right with the world? Two movements shattered this world. The first was commercial and social. The United States, Germany and perhaps Japan began to rival the Empires’s wealth and prosperity, while a wave of depressions encouraged the growth of socialism as ordinary people disdained paternalism, whether aristocratic or intellectual. The second came from the Imperial designs and ambitions of unscrupulous countries, and after the first War, the humiliated dreams of revenge fostered by Germany. Are we witnessing the birth pangs of a similar psychology in Russia?

What strikes me in this overview is the growing subservience or irrelevance of the Church, a Church either captured in Tory romanticism or neutered by liberal intellectualism. I fear that I see much similarity in our present moment. The late Victorian Church was unable to be the Church. It was either co opted to bolster Tory Imperial and Capitalist idealism or marginalized by a growing secularism in the old Liberal and new Labour Movements. The Church’s leadership seemed unable to escape nationalism and the thralls of political dogma as it preached the Gospel.

To my mind nothing much has changed. Thus in our Episcopal Church the divisions are not Christian divisions but rather social and political divisions offered in some form of unholy baptism. No doubt there are people who like their politics encased in Gothic arches, but who speaks for and to the vast majority who have become as cynical about politics and political theory as they are about battling parsons? Our dwindling numbers speak more about the irrelevance of our message than about the effectiveness of the Faith.

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