Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Reflections on New Year

                         Dante enters the Pit of Disease where falsifiers are tormented.

I suppose any Scottish blogger's reflections on 2014 and 2015 are likely to be dominated by thoughts about the referendum and the future of the Independence movement in Scotland although I'd quite like them not to be. But there you are: I lack the imagination to find something else...

I like my politics grim and detailed. I remember as a child watching fascinated as the live relay of the TUC conference rambled on with a liturgical language of 'brothers and sisters' (or 'comrades' for variation) structured wave after wave of composite this or composite that. I watched it day after day. I'm surprised my parents didn't take me to a psychiatrist. So the loose, carnivality of modern progressive Nationalism leaves me cold. I wanted to know as much as possible about the price of oil and the likely effects on the economy. I wanted -good Aristotelian that I am- to be afraid of the things the practically wise man is afraid of, and blasé about those he is blasé about. I don't care much about intersectionality, except insofar as it pertains to Lego.

But equally, the sheer disbelief of many unionist commentators that anyone (anyone) might not want to be part of the existing structure of the UK also left me cold. It's not surprising that a northern European nation of 5 millions might have a nationalist movement, rather more surprising if it didn't. It's not surprising that, at the end of a century in which the British imperium has been thoroughly critiqued, not least by the British governing class itself, that some might feel rather doubtful about a State soused in such symbols. It's not surprising that Western Europeans are hacked off with the current position and just want something different.

So we go into the New Year pretending. The 45 pretend that only the mentally ill and Quislings voted No. The attack dogs of Unionism pretend that Yes voters are all methadone crazed Neds. And beneath this obvious crust, further more local pretences. That marriage doesn't matter. (Except when changing its nature as some sort of Situationist prank.) That women and men are the same. That the second rate is the first rate and that Scottish media and artists are the latter. That education in Scotland gets better and better. That power dynamics and considerations of cost in the NHS will miraculously disappear when the State provides 'mercy' killing. And so on.

I think many sense this lie we live, the triumph of the Sophists and face. Truth in human affairs, perhaps above all in politics, is extremely difficult to attain, even to want to go on trying to attain:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from ihemselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe. [Vaclav Havel: the Power of the Powerless here]

Havel's phrase the human order and the order of the universe has of course lost all meaning for us progressives, with its tones of essentialism and natural law. But it is only that, the sense that beneath the noise and the half truths and the jockeying for advantage, that there is an order to be discerned and followed in human affairs that will save us, as a society and as individuals.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Happy Christmas

                                                    Happy Christmas!

RORATE coeli desuper!
   Hevins, distil your balmy schouris!
For now is risen the bricht day-ster,
   Fro the rose Mary, flour of flouris:
   The cleir Sone, quhom no cloud devouris,
Surmounting Phebus in the Est,
   Is cumin of his hevinly touris:
   Et nobis Puer natus est.

Archangellis, angellis, and dompnationis,
   Tronis, potestatis, and marteiris seir,
And all ye hevinly operationis,
   Ster, planeit, firmament, and spheir,
   Fire, erd, air, and water cleir,
To Him gife loving, most and lest,
   That come in to so meik maneir;
   Et nobis Puer natus est.

Synnaris be glad, and penance do,
   And thank your Maker hairtfully;
For he that ye micht nocht come to
   To you is cumin full humbly
   Your soulis with his blood to buy
And loose you of the fiendis arrest--
   And only of his own mercy;
   Pro nobis Puer natus est.

All clergy do to him inclyne,
   And bow unto that bairn benyng,
And do your observance divyne
   To him that is of kingis King:
   Encense his altar, read and sing
In holy kirk, with mind degest,
   Him honouring attour all thing
   Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Celestial foulis in the air,
   Sing with your nottis upon hicht,
In firthis and in forrestis fair
   Be myrthful now at all your mycht;
   For passit is your dully nicht,
Aurora has the cloudis perst,
   The Sone is risen with glaidsum licht,
   Et nobis Puer natus est.

Now spring up flouris fra the rute,
   Revert you upward naturaly,
In honour of the blissit frute
   That raiss up fro the rose Mary;
   Lay out your levis lustily,
Fro deid take life now at the lest
   In wirschip of that Prince worthy
   Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Sing, hevin imperial, most of hicht!
   Regions of air mak armony!
All fish in flud and fowl of flicht
   Be mirthful and mak melody!
   All Gloria in excelsis cry!
Heaven, erd, se, man, bird, and best,--
   He that is crownit abone the sky
   Pro nobis Puer natus est!

William Dunbar.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Is the Catholic Church in Scotland too Nationalist?

The above is a map of how (based on recent opinion polls) Scottish constituencies are projected to vote in the next Westminster election. (To spell it out, bright yellow is the SNP.) I couldn't help thinking about the map when reading Damian Thompson's Spectator piece entitled Memo to the Scottish Catholic bishops: stop sucking up to the SNP. (Here.)

I rather like Thompson's journalism. Like most journalists in this post modern age, he is paid to bring a bit of personality into the debate which inevitably produces both fizz and splutter over the years. But on the whole, and certainly if you're a certain sort of fogeyish, socially conservative Catholic, you're probably going to find more fizz than splutter in his work. However, on Scotland, Thompson, like most of the big beasts of Catholic opinion formation, strikes me as generally just hopelessly wrong. I think I've mentioned this before, but one of the (sadder? more amusing? depended on what mood I was in...) aspects of the referendum campaign was reading the constant stream of sneering about the Yes side in the referendum from Catholic opinion makers who really should have known better.

In one way, there's really no surprise, I suppose. The sort of people who tend to dominate the Catholic commentariate (at least the ones I read) are from (let's say) a rather conservative, traditionalist background. Put that together with a Golden Triangle (Oxford-Cambridge-London) background, and it's extremely difficult to sympathise with whingeing jocks voting for a bunch of popularist leftists. On the other hand, both localism and nationalism are popular themes among this set (in many ways, my set), and certainly that discontent with the political process represented by UKIP has received a favourable hearing. So from that point of view, I am a bit surprised at the lack of sympathy for or at least understanding of an independence movement that in many ways is just another example of a popular response to well known problems in modern Western Europe.

There's probably no one answer as to why the modern West and particularly its political process is in trouble. In part, it's probably the tension inherent in a system that is built on two  incompatible narratives: on the one hand, equality and subjectivism; on the other hand, a cult of meritocracy and technical expertise. And if you add to that the end of the economic good times, a culture prizing licence and leisure over self discipline and work, and the deliberate alienation of people from their human nature in favour of technological fantasies of self-creation and infinite possibility, you have in essence the creation of a free floating neurosis, a feeling that the times are out of joint, and the desperate seeking for release through something.

And so the parade of lightning rods, some more convincing than others: UKIP, Russell Brand, Le Front National etc etc. And, I suppose, among them, the SNP. So, to that extent, I agree with these commentators who seem to regard the movement for Scottish Independence as some sort of mental illness, to be treated rather than encountered as a natural part of the political landscape. Except....

And the 'except' is that the SNP are viable in a way that Russell Brand and even UKIP just are not. As the above map shows, it is likely that, after the next general election, the SNP will dominate Scottish seats in Westminster in a similar way to their domination of Holyrood. Moreover, Scots have got used to competent Holyrood administrations run by the SNP: if Salmond is some sort of wild eyed Braveheart fantasist, he is a wild eyed Braveheart fantasist who can run the country and win elections. (And no one has suggested that Nicola Sturgeon -like her or loathe her- is anything if not effective.)

I'm not sure when it happened, but some time since the re-foundation of the Scottish Parliament, my default setting for political interest has drifted from Westminster to Edinburgh. I don't regard either Salmond or Cameron as exactly 'my leader', but the political drama I look to first is that around Holyrood: indeed, it has started to become almost something of an afterthought to wonder what is happening at Westminster. I think it is that which is the biggest challenge to the Union: not so much the transfer of this or that power or even the precise result of this or that vote, but more the reframing of the electorate's interest in Scotland around Edinburgh rather than London. Now make of that what you will. It may be a fault to be regretted, a passing phase to be reversed. But I suspect -I'd in fact put it much more strongly than that- that I'm far from being alone in such a revisioning of the political settlement: in the minds of many Scots, Scotland is already a separate political landscape from that of Westminster and the rest of the UK.

And that is the context within which Archbishop Tartaglia's remarks should be taken. First, I'm not at all sure that, even in themselves they are that dreadful: Salmond has been a major figure in Scottish politics and his (sort of) passing deserves some sort of kind remark. (And Tartaglia's remarks on Sturgeon strike me as anodyne in the extreme.) Secondly, Tartaglia is but one bishop: you'd be hard put to find similar remarks from the much more careful Archbishop Cushley, let alone, say, Bishop Gilbert of Aberdeen. (And is it really a surprise that, within any Bishops' Conference, some will be closer to any particular party than others?) But thirdly, and most importantly, it is entirely reasonable that any bishop tries to find some modus vivendi with the government and leading political figures of the day. Inevitably, that balance is hard to get right: what is 'fawning' to some will appear merely formal politeness to others. That is what Thompson is missing: that Tartaglia is not sucking up to some relatively isolated charismatic popularist like Nigel Farage, but what has become almost the establishment in Scotland. (Would a similar jeremiad have been provoked if, say, a Catholic Bishop had spoken warmly of David Cameron after he resigned?)

I don't think the domination of Scotland by one party is healthy. I very much hope that Jim Murphy will restore the Labour Party to an effective opposition and a potential government. I also hope (though I see absolutely no realistic sign of this) that the Scottish Conservatives start providing a genuinely conservative alternative to a rampant progressivism, rather than trying to outdo the other parties in their endorsement of modish nonsense. But until all that happens, get used to the Catholic Church (and indeed other institutions such as universities and business) choosing their words carefully in the light of the reality of a Scotland where the SNP is the natural party of government. Scotland already is a separate and different political landscape, and until London commentators, Catholic or otherwise, get that, their pronouncements will continue to miss the mark.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Cordoba revisited: political thought or campaigning politics

                                       Heretical tabernacle-Cathedral of Canterbury

My (immediately) previous post on the Mosque/Cathedral/Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba produced some helpful responses online (and off) which probably helped me see more clearly part of what I was driving at.

The problem with the article from The Guardian is that it gives the overwhelming impression that the Catholic Church was acting unreasonably. (That of course is an impression that the Guardian's readership would doubtless already incline towards before reading the article.) As such, it does very little to move the readership's understanding of religion/politics beyond where it already stands: instead of deepening understanding, it simply confirms an existing understanding by slanting the evidence.

That problem sits within a more general problem with reporting politics: a greater emphasis on politics as a day to day party struggle rather than a longer term and deeper question about how to run society. It's similar to the domination of much economic coverage by the day to day movements of the markets, and much less by the deeper underlying economic issues. That problem is particularly difficult in Scotland where a (comparative) absence of think tanks, journals and university involvement has led to the domination of campaigning politics with only the thinnest foundation of deeper but still applied political thought to back it up.

Perhaps the key difference between what I might term 'political thought' and 'campaigning politics' is that the former tries to understand while the latter tries simply to win. Of course, if you are an anti-clerical leftist, campaigning politics would encourage you to paint the Church as a bunch of unreasonable fools trying to wreck the tourist industry. Of course, if you are a 'No' campaigner, the SNP are a bunch of feckless (National) Socialists with a personality cult (but where the leader is embalmed in the Palace of Westminster rather than the Kremlin). The increasingly hysterical outbursts from the Scottish Secular Society are all based on the tactic of making the alternatives unthinkable: of course, secularism is the only way to run the state.

I suppose it's probably unreasonable to expect The Guardian to veer more towards the 'political thought' side of the disjunction particularly on the place of religion in society. But it's a pity. Of course, a site like the Cathedral of Cordoba is going to be contested. Of course Muslims and anti-clericalists and Catholics are going to have different interpretations of its history and of its current status. I don't know how you resolve those tensions, indeed, I'm sure you don't: you live with them. But I think there are at least two key possibilities that are important tools which help and which are often overlooked. First, there is doing nothing. I'd encourage everyone involved here to do nothing: clearly there has been some sort of modus vivendi achieved up till now and I'd encourage everyone at least to think about letting sleeping modi lie. Secondly, there is regret. It's easy to underestimate how much Catholics in the UK do regret that our churches were ripped out of our hands. It's easy to get whipped up about it. But rather than starting a campaign for Canterbury Cathedral to be renamed the 'Heretical Tabernacle-Cathedral Church of Canterbury' (thus doing justice to both its many-layered history and Catholic/Protestant viewpoint) far better to moan silently and make feeble jokes (like the one just made) and try instead to find ways of not letting a potential sore point stop Anglicans and Catholics living together in fruitful co-operation.

To do that, however, requires the desire to understand rather than win as at least a starting point. I know that Anglicans have a different view of history and a different understanding of the status of their Church. I think they're wrong, but then they think we're wrong. That's what politics is like: learning to live with disagreement. As I ended the previous post:

Where you stand on those issues will no doubt depend on where you are coming from. Fair enough. But absolutely nothing is gained in an area of great sensitivity by pretending that one party is acting irrationally: living with this sort of dispute is only possible through making a serious attempt to understand the other points of view involved.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Cordoba: Mosque or Cathedral?

I confess that I don't know as much about Spain as I should. My Spanish is minimal (really just what sense I can make out based on French and Latin) and as a good Protestant agnostic, I was brought up believing that historical Spain was summed up by Francis Drake and the Spanish Inquisition, and with a sure and certain belief that modern Spain was populated simply by donkeys and workshy Mexican bandits. (My geography was as dodgy as my history.)

I've moved on enough to realize quite how idiotic that is, but one suspects that readers of The Guardian haven't. (Or at least Spain when coupled with the magic word 'Catholic' produces foaming at the mouth worthy of hydrophobic wolverines.) Hence an article [here] which explains how the awful Spanish Catholic Church is trying to be Islamophobic isn't probably going to be subject to much in the way of critical thought. Under the strapline:

Government of Andalusia says Diocese of Córdoba is ignoring site’s history as a place of worship for Muslims and Christians

the article continues

The site is now under the control of the diocese of Córdoba, which has begun referring to the site as the cathedral rather than the city council-approved name of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Andalusia’s minister for tourism Rafael Rodríguez told El País. “Hiding its past as a mosque is like calling the Alhambra the palace of Charles V – it’s absurd.”

Describing that attitude as fundamentalist, the United Left politician said the diocese appeared to be “prioritising religious beliefs over common sense and the natural history of the monument. It doesn’t seem either reasonable or acceptable to me.”

He said the regional authorities planned to raise their concerns with the diocese next week. “It’s an essential tourist site for Andalusia, the second most important after the Alhambra. It seems absurd that they are not exploiting all the possibilities for tourism due to religious reasons.”

[Link to article here]

Now I confess that I haven't done a lot of research to check this. So I'm very happy for those who have a greater knowledge of the affair to correct me in the combox below. But immediately, and based, as I said, on a fairly minimal knowledge of Spain, some 'issues' became obvious. For example, it strikes me as fairly implausible that since 1236 (when the 'mosque' was captured by Ferdinand III (yes, I can read Wikipedia), moving through (shall we say) some fairly fraught exchanges between the Catholic Church and Islam, not to mention the rather unecumenically minded Church under Franco in the twentieth century, that it was only now that the Church 'has begun' referring to the site as the Cathedral. And indeed, so far as I can make out from this El País article (here. Sp) it was in fact only ten years ago that Government of Andalusia dubbed it officially 'Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba'. Moreover, one might suspect, given the history of left wing anti-clericalism in Spain, that a United Left government is hardly likely to be free of its own anti-Catholic agenda.

Moreover, more extensive research (ie thirty seconds googling) found the (Church) website for the Cathedral (here). Indeed, it is called simply 'la Santa Iglesia Catedral de Córdoba'. But the first words of the 'descripción breve' (short description here) are

La mezquita original se construye sobre la basílica visigoda de San Vicente ('The original mosque is built on the Visigothic basilica of Saint Vincent...')

which is hardly 'hiding its past'.

So what does this teach us? Firstly, beware of journalism in general. I picked up this story from some tweets (by people who should have known better) retweeting this with shocked horror. A moment's thought should have encouraged the suspicion that there is more to this than meets the eye. Secondly, beware of journalism about the Catholic Church in particular. Of course Catholics are going to be sensitive about calling a Church a Mosque: quite apart from the particular history of Spain, a Church for Catholics is the site where Christ is present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the reserved Sacrament. By all means mock us for that belief, but given it, don't be surprised at our sensitivities.

In essence, the story of the Mosque-Cathedral seems to be one where an anti-Catholic secularist party has tried to rebrand a working Church as a Mosque, in part to drag in tourists, in part (no doubt) to stick it to the Church. It is also a story of a greater Muslim push to get use of the Church as a Mosque (here). Where you stand on those issues will no doubt depend on where you are coming from. Fair enough. But absolutely nothing is gained in an area of great sensitivity by pretending that one party is acting irrationally: living with this sort of dispute is only possible through making a serious attempt to understand the other points of view involved.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Euthanasia and psychoanalysis

The Assisted Suicide Bill in Scotland continues to chug its merry way through the Parliamentary process. According to the Parliament's website, oral evidence will go on being taken until the end of 2014 by the Health and Sport Committee. (I know. I can't help feeling that having a Sport Committee mulling over whether to kill people has oddly unpleasant science fiction resonances from films such as The Running Man. But modern, public Scotland is an irony free zone. We are Progressive and thus very busy about the world.)

The Care Not Killing petition is open: please sign here.

I've probably rabbited on about this before, but the decline of psychoanalysis in the British intellectual world fascinates me. From a position where everyone ('just everyone, darling!') was being psychoanalysed to one where no one seems to worry about their inner, deeper life and just gets on with it (badly). And it's not clear to me whether psychoanalysis was simply the last gasp of a better, more reflective world; or the beginning of a modern, less reflective culture where the inward is hollowed out in favour of getting and spending. Probably both...

Anyway, the French still love their Freud, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I found a thought expressed in the Francosphere that I'd been struggling to express for a while:

The worst thing is perhaps that a number of doctors will find in this extended medical omnipotence a compensation for the feeling of frustration in the face of illness, he adds. Having failed to master the illness, they will have the supreme power of deciding death...They would lose their soul: a doctor cannot be at the same time the person who works to save you and the person with the power to kill you.

[My translation. From here.]

I don't think it's just doctors, but euthanasia as the emotional compensation of control over death for the lack of control over illness is certainly most dangerous in their hands. There's a fascinating piece on the BBC website where several medical supporters of euthanasia bemoan the way that attitudes to doctors and end of life care have been affected by Harold Shipman. Indeed. But rather than reflecting on the very complex emotions that those with power have with respect to those who do not (and, one might add, particularly in the area of life and death), they seem oblivious to the dangers of the Shipman within us all, and , particularly, within doctors precisely in this area of euthanasia. This complete lack of self-exploration, the desire to do rather than reflect, this insensitivity to the depths of our feelings about power and death, all are evidence of why doctors -and indeed the health system- cannot be at the same time the person who works to save you and the person with the power to kill you.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Richard Harries and secularism

                                        Lord Harries. Or a secularist. Thinking.

I confess I hadn't realized that the House of Lords were debating 'religion and belief' until it was all over (Hansard here). Anyway, I'm going to focus on the contribution made by Lord Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, and particularly to his discussion of secularism.

Now despite the continual claim by secularists that secularism is a clearly good thing and that it's very different from atheism, I've posted enough on this subject in the past to make my own position (and the reasons for it) clear: 'secularism' is an ill defined word and, so far as it is actually used in modern Britain, it usually means atheism applied to the political realm. (Perhaps the main posts on this have been here and here. If you're an atheist, do try and deal with the arguments before coming on here to tell me I'm an idiot.)

Bryce Gallie came up with the term 'essentially contested concepts' (here) for terms that served as openings to debate. The flipside of that is the existence of 'essentially uncontested' words which serve to structure debate by closing it down. In Scotland, it is essentially uncontested that we are progressive. More generally, it is essentially uncontested that religions are faiths and that good government is secular. Well, I contest all of those, but let's focus on the latter claim as channelled by Lord Harries (from Hansard here).

...we need to be very careful about the use of that word secular. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, draws a helpful distinction between programmatic and procedural secularism. The latter is what we must all accept, for it refers to a set of procedures, arrangements and rules of discourse that enable rational debate to take place and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis. Programmatic secularism, however, has been perceived as an attempt to drive the religious voices out of the public square altogether, and this must be resisted, for the public square is quite rightly a crowded place where all voices need to be heard, including religious ones. As often as not, those religious voices will be translated into the shared assumptions of public reasoning, but this should not be mandatory.


Thirdly, public authorities should beware of privileging only certain forms of authority or religious representation. There are often groups, such as women, who need to be heard and who lack access to power. Public authorities should not replicate and reinforce oppressive practices that might be present in a particular faith community.

Fourthly, in a society in which we all have multiple identities, our identity as UK citizens imposes a duty to the state. While both Christians and Muslims, for example, will claim a higher loyalty, according to the tenets of their religion, this must not be interpreted as loyalty to a foreign power structure, as it was, for example, by some Roman Catholics in the 16th century.

Fifthly, in devising public policy we need to take into account where we are as a result of our history and culture. There is no neutral realm, and what we have now is a quite specific achievement that has been worked out over many centuries. It is a fantasy to think that there is some neutral secular blueprint existing somewhere else, which can simply be plonked down. Clearly, one feature of where we are now is the existence of an established church, and here of course I have to declare an interest as someone who has had the privilege and fulfilment of being a bishop in that church, serving society for my lifetime.

Let's kick off with that distinction between programmatic and procedural secularism. Let's agree that programmatic secularism ('an attempt to drive the religious voices out of the public square altogether') is wrong. What of procedural secularism?

The latter is what we must all accept, for it refers to a set of procedures, arrangements and rules of discourse that enable rational debate to take place and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis.

Well, contrarian as I am, why must I accept this? Let's start by cavilling at the word 'secularism' here. If the claim was: 'we must support a set of procedures etc that enable rational debate to take place etc and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis', I might (for might see below) be inclined to accept it. But to describe that as secular is (given the normal use of the word) profoundly misleading. The problem of course is that what is rational and what is equal (or more exactly fair) is highly contested: to bracket out religion from what constitutes fairness and rationality is to concede far too much without discussion. (For a fuller development of this thought, think eg Alasdair MacIntyre.) So by all means let's look for those rational and fair procedures, but let's not assume that they can be described as secular without a great deal of explanation. (Indeed, just to be provocative, let's at least consider the possibility that they have to be religious, at least in the sense of requiring the social cohesion of a civil religion.)

Let's move on to the third point: public authorities should beware of privileging only certain forms of authority or religious representation. 

There's a bit of a non sequitur from the Bishop here: the claim 1) public authorities should beware of privileging only certain forms of authority or religious representation is linked (in the next sentence ) to 2) there are often groups, such as women, who need to be heard and who lack access to power. Public authorities should not replicate and reinforce oppressive practices that might be present in a particular faith community. The two claims are in principle distinct. I suspect that, to put forward a coherent point,  what he should be saying here is that, when privileging religions, one should be careful not to encourage oppressive practices. But what it sounds like (and again, I suspect this is deliberate or at least the culpable negligence of the bien pensant eager for social approval) is that the existence of some oppression within religion means that no subset of religions should be given privileges over other religions. The absurdity of the latter claim is clear: whilst we should clearly be careful about reinforcing (say) FGM in some religions or cultures, that carefulness has absolutely no implications for the privileged role of (say) the Church of England in national life. (I would also mention here the weaseliness of the word 'oppression': I have no doubt at all that Lord Harries regards the exclusion of women from (ordained) ministry as oppression and, hence, the exclusion of most traditional religions from 'privilege' in principle as entirely justifiable: highly convenient, no doubt, for the sort of liberal Protestantism he embodies.)

Moving on to point four: While both Christians and Muslims, for example, will claim a higher loyalty, according to the tenets of their religion, this must not be interpreted as loyalty to a foreign power structure, as it was, for example, by some Roman Catholics in the 16th century.

OK. Point received. Nonsense. My loyalty to Catholicism is not simply to obey everything coming out of the Vatican. But equally, I do have a loyalty to a 'foreign power structure'. (And analogous things can be said about Jews and Muslims etc etc.) Inconvenient for Erastians, I know, but get over it: that's what proper religions are like.

Fifthly, in devising public policy we need to take into account where we are as a result of our history and culture. There is no neutral realm, and what we have now is a quite specific achievement that has been worked out over many centuries. It is a fantasy to think that there is some neutral secular blueprint existing somewhere else, which can simply be plonked down. 

Now, this I agree with!! To adopt 'secularism' as a 'essentially uncontested' term is to assume a rupture of pietas and tradition: the existing state (State and situation) of the UK is not one where there is a neat separation between Church and State (let alone between Christianity and the State). If secularism is adopted as an unproblematic aim, then, on almost any interpretation of the word (and certainly on any of the usual meanings chucked around by the secularist clubs), we would need to change and abandon traditional ways of doing things. So, we need to ask, why? On what grounds (and on what evidence) do we assume that changing the (rather lazy vague Protestantism) of Scottish and English history in favour of some Spartist atheism is going to benefit anyone? I'm sure there's some tweaking to be done (in particular to allow, eg, theists from a non-Christian background such as Muslims to participate fully and bring up their children in their religion). But my bet would be that those sorts of accommodations would be more easily obtained in a culture and a State run by Christians (say) signed up to Dignitatis Humanae

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law-eternal, objective and universal-whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.

than by the sort of secularist whose view of religion is summed up in the following (here)

The Cambridge Secular Society was formed in 2009 to provide a forum for likeminded freethinkers concerned that religion, far from being in terminal decline, is making a comeback. With the establishment still in the thrall of religion the reasons are easy to see, for the politicians it is the grovelling pursuit of votes that motivates them along with the misguided idea that religion is good for us and our children, for others it is the cosy familiarity of Bishops smothering us all with pious words and incantations of God's love...

'Secularism' is not a clear desideratum. Lord Harries is wrong to accept procedural secularism as an aim. Instead, we should aim for a public space and debate that is rational and just, but also accepting that what this means is not easy and will involve conflicting views. How we live with that conflict is what matters, and that will be more easily done within the sort of broad theism (I might even be tempted to say deism) that existed within the institutionalized Protestantism of the existing State than within the shrill certainties of secularism.