A comment on the most controversial funeral of the century.......
The Church of England and the Funeral of Baroness Thatcher
by Jonathan Chaplin
Some observers have been quick to claim that in hosting the funeral of Baroness Thatcher the Church of England was acting as the national church at its very best. Transcending the ideological fractures that her passing reopened, the Church was able to offer pastoral succour for a grieving nation, affording sacred space within which it could pay suitable tribute to one of its towering political figures. I understand and respect that reading of the event. But I want to entertain a different one: that the Church was inadvertently implicating itself in what was inescapably a partisan political performance from which it should have taken distance.
This wasn’t due to the shortcomings of any individual participant or even of the liturgy itself. Every church official played their part with exemplary solemnity, sincerity and respect. The elegant choreography of the occasion was flawless – the established church still does ceremonial aesthetics better than any other national institution. And the Christian character of the service – much of the contents of which were apparently chosen by Baroness Thatcher herself – came through clearly enough in the scripture readings, prayers and poetry, and in a finely-crafted and theologically resonant sermon from the Bishop of London. In stark contrast to the dominant eulogizing tone prior to the event, the Bishop gently reminded the great and the good assembled there that ‘Margaret Hilda Thatcher’ was, finally, ‘one of us’, that all humanity is united in death even if it is divided in life.
Quite properly, the Bishop declared that a funeral was not the occasion to assess Thatcher’s political legacy. He sought to speak as pastor to grieving family, friends and colleagues and he did so with grace, sensitivity and humour. He did, nonetheless, seize the potentially hazardous opportunity to correct the pervasive misrepresentation of her most frequently cited aphorism, that ‘there is no such thing as society’. He rightly pointed out that this wasn’t a repudiation of all notions of social solidarity or care – Thatcher professed herself very much in favour of those aspirations, at least at the level of civil society – but only of the idea that we should turn to some reified abstraction called ‘society’ (which invariably meant the state) to fix all our problems.
So it was not any individual failing or liturgical defect that placed the Church in a compromising position. Rather, it was the inescapable public symbolism of the event itself. I doubt the Church had any real say in the basic decision as to what category of funeral Baroness Thatcher was to receive. It was the big beasts of the political establishment – starting with Blair and Brown, later followed eagerly by the current Conservative leadership – who for their own ideological reasons concluded that Thatcher merited a ‘ceremonial funeral’ (essentially a state event, one stop short of a ‘state funeral’), an accolade granted only to Sir Winston Churchill among modern prime ministers. Those ideological reasons were, in effect, to reaffirm that ‘we were right to embrace the core of Thatcherism – there was no alternative’. But the Church should not have given its implicit blessing to such a controversial and contestable declaration. Here, the pastoral was inescapably wedded to the political, whatever the subjective intentions of church leaders.
The Church should surely have been aware that elevating Thatcher to the same level as Churchill was an inherently divisive and partisan act. Even if the party elites (at least Labour and Conservative) may have signed on to it, much of the nation didn’t and couldn’t. Immediately after her death, Prime Minister Cameron suggested, grandiloquently, that she had ‘saved’ the nation. Now we know what we mean when we say that Churchill had ‘saved’ the nation. While victory in World War Two would have been impossible without overwhelming military support from the USA, and without the (unsung) sacrifice of millions of Soviet troops on the eastern front, nonetheless Churchill’s decisive and courageous national leadership soared far above any party concerns. So it can be argued that Churchill earned his ceremonial funeral because he was a truly national figure, in war if not in peace.
The same cannot be said of Thatcher. Her premiership was intentionally and militantly partisan from the start. The political objectives she pursued and the methods by which she prosecuted them were profoundly and knowingly divisive. She relished opposition as a validation of her own messianic self-image (an observation that applies equally to Tony Blair). Whatever we think of the Falklands victory, it did not amount to ‘saving the nation’ (though it probably saved Argentina from dictatorship). Moreover we should not overlook the fact that under her leadership the Conservative party never won more than 44% of the popular vote – which is to say that at least half the nation consistently repudiated what she stood for.
But isn’t it right, some will say, at least to celebrate her extraordinary courage, determination and single-mindedness – to praise her for successfully ‘imposing her will’ on her generation? And why shouldn’t the Church host such a celebration? But the mere imposition of will, we might have hoped some Church leader would say (not in the service itself, of course), is a pagan not a Christian virtue – more Nietzsche than Jesus. The Christian gospel does not praise mere power but only the just purposes to which it ought to be subservient. ‘Towering figures’ are only as admirable as the virtuous ambitions they pursue. To the many millions who found Thatcher’s policies profoundly unjust, and who personally experienced them as deeply destructive, her imposition of will was oppressive not impressive.
None of this is yet to say that, from the standpoint of Christian political thought, those ambitions or policies were in fact wrong. That would be a different argument, one which others have addressed from different angles (such as here and here). But it is to say that Thatcher is an incurably divisive figure whom it is not possible to honour in such a uniquely privileged state ceremony without implicitly conferring one’s blessing on her political legacy. If you doubt that, suppose that Tony Benn – as far to the left of the political centre as Thatcher was to right – had imposed his will on the nation as prime minister for over a decade and redrawn its entire landscape (that ‘we were all Bennites now’). Can we imagine the political and ecclesiastical establishments being so eager to put him in the same company as Churchill?
For the Church to preside over a funeral for a bereaved family, however famous the deceased, is one thing, and something it should almost always be prepared to do, accommodating the family’s wishes as far as possible. But endorsing the official elevation of a profoundly partisan political figure whose legacy still deeply divides the nation is quite another, and something to which it should have devoted much greater critical reflection.
It is but further proof of how profoundly Thatcher has cast a mesmerising spell on an entire generation that the current political establishment felt itself duty- bound to perform a final act of ritual public deference denied to any other peacetime British prime minister. It’s not for the Church to instruct the state that it can’t stage such an event. But it is (or should be) for the Church to decide whether and how it wants to fall in line with it – to decide whether it is willing to offer its spiritual ministrations to a political establishment with an evident, and contestable, ideological agenda. Might it not have registered to the state (privately at first, and long before the time) its unease at being pressed into political service in this way and then quietly advised that it was in the nation’s interest that Baroness Thatcher be treated the same way as all other peacetime prime ministers? If, in response, the political establishment was determined to have its way, might the Church not then have gathered up its courage and respectfully recused itself from presiding over such a service? But in my more pessimistic moments I fear that the Church’s continuing desire to remain in the spotlight granted by establishment (while the nation has voted with its feet) may render it incapable of even posing such a question to itself. I hope I am wrong.
Dr Jonathan Chaplin is an independent scholar specialising in political theology. He is a member of an Anglican church in Cambridge. He is co-editor of The Future of Brexit Britain: Anglican Reflections on British Identity and European Solidarity (SPCK, 2020).