Nationalism in God’s House

This week's controversy over waving national flags during a religious service should be a reminder: churches weren't built to worship the state.

As so often happens, a video did the rounds on Twitter on Sunday: in the Church of St George, Hanworth, the congregation waved England flags and sang Land of Hope and Glory. It was an odd scene, as many people attested, myself included. 

Firstly, the video was shot during the Easter Octave, the holy period following the Paschal Triduum, rather than St. George’s Day. St George’s Day is moved liturgically when it falls during the Octave, meaning it was celebrated in the church on 30th April rather than the Sunday the video was filmed. 

Then there’s the fact Land of Hope and Glory is not a hymn. If the congregation were singing Jerusalem, the entire scene would appear differently. But most importantly, flags and nationalism have no place in a church. That isn’t just my view, many Anglican vicars replied to my tweet agreeing with the sentiment.

Churches are built to worship God, not the nation state. Merging nationalism and worship muddies what should be a solemn act. Churches should also be welcoming to all: bringing in flags and nationalist celebrations can clearly be exclusionary to those not born in England, or who do not identify with these types of celebrations. The sight of atheists policing devout churchgoers over their wariness and discomfort at the sight of flag-waving in church is despicable but hardly surprising. 

Churches should be welcoming to anyone who steps in, whether they wish to worship or just learn more about the faith. Nationalist celebrations during a holy period, claiming to be a St. George’s Day celebration on a day that fell in the Easter Octave, are not welcoming. As Alasdair MacIntyre wrote: “what is always oppressive is any form of social relationship that denies to those who participate in it the possibility of the kind of learning from each other about the nature of their common good that can issue in socially transformative action.”

The problem myself and many others have with the video is the elevation of patriotism over God. If the participants sang their songs and waved their flags on the pavement outside, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But the church is God’s house. Churches and many other sites of worship are rightly wary of state interference given the past history of oppression and violence against different worshippers and religious figures across the world. This isn’t a problem merely in other countries: the dissolution of the monasteries is on the British history curriculum.

Very few of the people defending the spectacle were Christian, and even fewer regular churchgoers. Devout Catholics and Anglicans pointed out to no avail that this was a scene they would be shocked to see in their parish. For many atheists, the Church of England functions as a distant but fundamental part of their national identity: it’s present, but crossing the threshold and attending a service is a step too far. 

Those who challenged the discomfort of devout Christians at this scene, explaining what they could or could not do, resorted to misogyny in many cases, or wild conspiracy theories, or attacks on the church itself, with one opining that “every Anglican priest was… a middle-class liberal-Lefty.” Predictably, the right-wing attacks included Express columnists. But few of those involved offered faith-based criticisms. 

Christians should not expect to be lectured about their churches and services by those for whom they have little meaning. I don’t spend time telling football teams what to do, and in the same way atheists and people of other faiths shouldn’t spend their lives barking at Catholics and Anglicans that their preference for solemn and respectful services throughout the year, but especially during Easter, should have no bearing on the liturgy. 

Churches are a place of worship and reflection: a place you go to participate in religious, rather than nationalist, rituals, and the place you visit when you need spiritual guidance. Flag-waving and patriotic songs rather than hymns should have no place in a church, and politics should be left at the door.

Those defending this display are not celebrating St. George, but a patriotic performance that has no place in a religious service. The flag and nation-state have no place in a church. Most Christians I’ve spoken to agree. You attend church to worship God, Jesus, Mary, myriad saints. Allegiance to the Queen and the concept of pride in your country belong outside and elsewhere. The church should be a sanctuary, welcoming to everyone, but serving one purpose: worship of God rather than nationalist idolatry.