There was violence at the coronation protests – but not from the protesters

For weeks, the Mail on Sunday and similar papers have warned that “republican fanatics” were planning violent disruption at the coronation.

There was undoubtedly violence at the coronation yesterday. But it was not carried out by republicans. The only people behaving violently were the police and a minority of ultra-royalists who attacked peaceful republican protesters.

At one point fairly early in the morning, as we stood peacefully in the rain in Trafalgar Square, holding placards and chanting, several police officers suddenly pushed their way through us to grab hold of a particular activist who they wanted to search. They dragged the person in question away, pushing other peaceful protesters to the side, grabbing a banner from someone who they later claimed was in the way, and violently shoving people so forcefully that they fell into each other. I happened to be standing near a family with young children. I had to push back against some of the people falling onto me to stop them falling onto the children, as the parents scooped up the frightened toddlers. The police later claimed that all this was necessary to search Patrick – on whom they found nothing suspicious.

A bit later, a policeman told me I was upsetting people. I had been having a fairly calm conversation with a royalist who had come to Trafalgar Square to celebrate the coronation, and had found himself near the republican protest that I had joined. But the police officer clearly thought that it was dangerous for two people who disagreed to talk with each other, and he had come over to tell us to stop.

He then told me that I had upset people because I had sworn in front of children. I replied that I had not sworn all day and certainly not in front of children. He seemed inclined to believe the royalists who had made this accusation rather than to acknowledge that there were competing factual statements. He asked me to move away from the area. I insisted on my right to continue demonstrating where I was standing, next to lots of other republicans. To be fair, he didn’t try to come up with some excuse to arrest me – as his colleagues had done with many other coronation protesters.

As has now been widely reported, police arrested almost the entire staff of Republic at around 7.00am when they turned up to set up for the demonstration. As Graham Smith of Republic had pointed out many times, he and his colleagues had negotiated with police for months and had been repeatedly told that their peaceful, lawful protest would be allowed to go ahead.

But police swooped on the Republic organisers on their arrival in what looks very much like a pre-planned move to arrest the organisers of the protest. It seems they had decided to arrest them and were prepared to use whatever threadbare grounds they could for doing so. They also confiscated their van, full of placards and other entirely lawful materials, and threatened to arrest anyone with a loudhailer. Graham and his colleagues were released late last night, but the police kept their phones.

Often, the police seem to have a very hierarchical understanding of the world. I have several times seen police confused as they ask who is the leader of a campaign or protest that has been organised by people working together as equals. Given this outlook, they may even have thought that by arresting the organisers, they could stop the protest going ahead. They failed. We continued to demonstrate peacefully and vocally, against the coronation and what it represented.

Despite the arrests and outrageous policing, there was a good atmosphere on the demonstration. I’m told this was true of other protests at other sites along the route of the procession. There was a strong feeling of solidarity among republicans of varied views, backgrounds and ages, and we were further encouraged by all the supportive messages sent on social media by people who could not be there in person. I came across other Christian anti-royalists, many of them expressing delight at not being the only Christian at the protest. I was pleased to meet many people who I had previously been in touch with only remotely, including Paul Powlesland and Patrick Thelwell (pictured below), who were both arrested or threatened with arrest for their resistance to monarchy, not long after my own arrest in Oxford last year.

The police crackdown was made easier by the new Public Order Act that had been rushed through and come into force only three days earlier. Amongst other things, it has given the police the power to stop and search people at protests without giving a reason – a power several of them were clearly enjoying exercising for the first time yesterday. As well as 52 people arrested, there were many more people searched.

A police sergeant, trying to insist that they were applying the law fairly to everyone, told me that a royalist had been arrested for assaulting republicans. I am pretty sure he was the only one, despite other assaults by royalists. Later in the day, a royalist tried to pour water over me and another republican, mostly missing – and also missing the point that it was raining and we were already soaked. Some royalists chanted “hang the traitors”, in our direction. It was far more violent and abusive than our peaceful chants of “Not my king”, “Down with the crown” and “He’s just a normal man”.

Only days before, Graham Smith had encouraged me not to worry too much about being arrested. He considered that the police would stick to their agreement with Republic. After being released last night, however, Graham tweeted, “Make no mistake. There is no longer a right to peaceful protest in the UK.”

When they crowned him yesterday, Charles Windsor promised to protect our “liberties”. If he does not even question the arrests of peaceful protesters, he will already have broken his promise. Royalists like to talk of their pride in British history – about which they tend to be carefully selective. But the British traditions of free speech, for which our ancestors struggled so hard, seem to be of little concern to some of them.

Police have of course been abusing the right to peaceful protest for years. They have exceeded their legal power and broken their own laws. Their abuse of power is now aided, however, by a piece of legislation that imposes the greatest restrictions on freedom to protest in the UK since the Second World War. And yesterday has made clear how they will use it.

Future historians will study yesterday’s events. It may be that 100 years into the future, 6th May 2023 will be mentioned frequently in history books. If it is, it will be remembered not because of the antiquated coronation of a mediocre monarch, but because it was the day that the right to peaceful protest died in Britain

Why I’m protesting at the coronation

I wrote this article for the ‘i’ paper before the coronation. They ran it online on Friday, with an edited version in print on Saturday, the morning of the coronation.

The absurdity of monarchy is clearly on display. Nothing could illustrate it better than the bizarre stories and speculation emerging in the run-up to the coronation.

It’s not just the golden carriage, recycled throne or the idea of a monarch rewarding a grateful populace by giving them a recipe for quiche. It’s the growing attempts to justify over-the-top policing by talking up possible threats that range from the fairly unlikely to the virtually impossible.

If you believe certain newspapers, “republican fanatics” are planning to throw rape alarms into the procession to scare horses and cause maximum disruption.

I’m fairly sure that I fit an enthusiastic royalist’s idea of a “republican fanatic”. Neither I, nor any other anti-monarchist I have ever known, would want to cause distress to animals and put people at risk by trying to make horses run amok in crowded streets. The only time I have seen horses run into crowds in London, they were ridden by police. It is not a scene I am keen to replicate.

Along with other members of Republic, the anti-monarchy movement, I will protest in Trafalgar Square as the coronation procession goes past. I will have a placard reading, “Charles Windsor is my equal”. Monarchy sets the tone for an unequal society, justifying the idea that one person should bow to another and that some people’s lives are more important than others.

Charles is not being crowned king because he is anointed by God, because he’s especially suited to the role or because anyone has chosen him. He has the job because his ancestors violently fought off other claimants to the throne. This is both obviously true and rarely mentioned.

The coronation will celebrate values of hierarchy and subservience. It will involve 7,000 troops – a reminder that British armed forces personnel swear allegiance to the monarch. When the Archbishop of Canterbury places the crown on Charles’s head, he will give the impression that Christianity is about upholding the establishment – despite the reality that Jesus was sentenced to death by representatives of the Roman Emperor – and that there will be Christians like me among the protesters.

I also have another reason for protesting – to assert my right to do so. In September, I was arrested in Oxford after I objected during the official proclamation of Charles as king and “rightful liege lord”. In essence, I was arrested for expressing an opinion in public – at the back of a crowd, with no loudhailer, swear words or personal insults. On the same day that I was bundled into a police van in Oxford, a woman in Edinburgh was arrested simply for holding an anti-monarchy placard. I was preparing to face trial under the Public Order Act until the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges in January, admitting that they were unlikely to secure a conviction.

The police have form when it comes to using monarchy to justify the denial of the right to protest. In 2002, 41 anti-monarchists were arrested after a peaceful protest – some of them while sitting in the pub after the event. Others were arrested pre-emptively ahead of the royal wedding in 2011.

More people than ever are becoming aware of the huge institutional problems with police forces – including the racism, misogyny and homophobia identified by the Casey Report. Yet this is the moment that the UK Government has chosen to give the police even more power and less accountability.

Since last year, the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act has given the police new powers to restrict protests on a level not seen since the Second World War. Even this isn’t enough for Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, whose new Public Order Bill, which has just been rushed into law, goes even further.

We face a toxic combination of anti-protest laws, unaccountable police and scurrilous scaremongering about “disruptive” republicans. It all adds up to a recipe for draconian and heavy-handed policing on coronation day.

Royalists on social media are accusing protesters of trying to “spoil” the day. I fear for anyone who finds their day is spoiled whenever they hear an opinion they disagree with. They seem to think that republicans don’t want to celebrate or have fun. But as we reject monarchy, we can champion equality, democracy, freedom to protest and the dignity that comes with refusing to bow down to our equals. So republicans will be celebrating on Saturday after all.

Christians owe no loyalty to Charles Windsor

I wrote the following article for the Church Times, who published it on 28 April 2023. Apologies for not posting on it here sooner.

Featuring all the paraphernalia of monarchy and militarism, the coronation sends a clear message that some people are more important than others — because of their ancestry. At the same time, the coronation is technically an act of Christian worship. It makes me sad to see the language of Christianity used to bless what is, essentially, a celebration of inequality.

To bow down to another human being, to address him as “Your Majesty”, to grant him privileges on grounds of his family background — all this seem at odds with the radical love for all people inherent in the gospel of Jesus Christ. How can I love my neighbours as myself if I do not treat them as equals? To treat someone as my inferior or superior is to deny the reality that we are all created in the image of God, equal in God’s sight, and called to bow down to God alone.

The prayers and Bible readings for the coronation ceremony have been carefully selected, not least because of the Bible’s ambivalent attitude to monarchy. As Margaret Benn, a former president of the Congregational Federation, put it, much of the Bible is a story of conflict between the kings and the prophets.

The early Israelites viewed Yahweh as their king. When they asked for a king “like other nations”, God told Samuel that “they have rejected me from being king over them.” Samuel linked monarchy with militarism and inequality, telling the Israelites that a king would conscript their sons to fight or make weapons, and their daughters to be servants (1 Samuel 8.4-18).

Coronations do not, of course, include quotes from passages such as this. For centuries, coronations have relied on the attitudes that dominate in later chapters, in which Israelite kings such as Saul and David are described as anointed by God. What possible grounds can there be for believing that Charles Windsor (or any other British monarch) is anointed by God? He owes his position to the reality that his ancestors violently fought off other claimants to the throne. It is a wilful denial of truth to pretend otherwise.

When it comes to the New Testament, you have to dig around for a long time to find passages that can be seen as supportive of earthly monarchs. Right at the beginning, we are presented with a choice of kings. Matthew tells us that King Herod, the tyrant who ruled Palestine on behalf of the Roman Empire, was “frightened” — of a baby (Matthew 2.3). The baby, Jesus, was described as “King of the Jews” by the Magi. Herod’s violent response makes clear that he feels threatened by this new claimant to his title. Yet this is a very different sort of king, born in obscurity and relative poverty, who grew up to associate with outcasts and break down barriers.

I am not trying to equate Charles with Herod or Roman emperors. Rather, my point is that faithfulness to the Kingdom of God requires rejection of the kingdoms of this world. I cannot understand how a ceremony of subservience can be compatible with Jesus’s kingdom, in which all are brothers, sisters and mothers to each other, and where those who want to be greatest must be servants (Mark 3.35; 10.43).

Our deeply unequal society desperately needs to hear about the value and dignity of all people, equal and loved by God. As Christians, we should be the first people to seek to live out this principle as we proclaim the salvation offered in Christ. Instead, we seem determined to ensure that people connect Christianity with privilege and pomposity.

Some say that the coronation is an opportunity for evangelism. This is spectacularly naïve. The coronation is an act of counter-evangelism: it conveys the message that the Christian faith is for millionaires in military uniforms or medieval robes, not for people who are worrying about paying the bills, or struggling on apparently endless waiting lists for surgery or mental health treatment.

I am not questioning the sincerity of church leaders who are taking part in the coronation. But I think that they are severely mistaken. I am one of many Christians who will join people of other religions and none in the protest outside Westminster Abbey organised by Republic, a group that campaigns for an end to monarchy. When churches around the UK pray for Charles Windsor the next day, I hope that many clergy will have the courage to avoid speaking of him as somebody to whom we owe loyalty.

We cannot promote the gospel by bowing before our equal human being. Let’s champion the value of all people and proclaim the kingdom of God, in which we are called to live as equal siblings in Christ. We can uphold the gospel not by celebrating the oronation, but by protesting against it.

Ploughing more money into the British army won’t make us safer – quite the opposite

I wrote this article for the ‘i‘ newspaper, who published it online today, Sunday 26th February.

Over the last month, a string of army generals and politicians have warned that British “defence” spending is too low. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to notice these warnings are appearing in the run-up to the Budget on 15 March.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace claimed on Thursday that Britain is likely to be involved in a major war by 2030. Head of the British Army Patrick Sanders wants more tanks to replace the ones sent to Ukraine. And Keir Starmer has called for a larger army.

From the tone of these discussions, you would never guess that the UK had the fourth highest military expenditure in the world in 2021 and that in November 2020, as Britain and the world wrestled with the Covid pandemic, Boris Johnson announced the biggest increase in British military spending since the Cold War.

Placards ready for a Peace Pledge Union protest at the UK Ministry of Defence, 10th February 2023

Looking at Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine, many people in the UK naturally worry about the need to resist aggression, but we must not allow the militarist lobby to exploit this instinct and push for ever more military spending without even bothering to explain how it can help. Nato governments have been sending more weapons and troops into eastern Europe for several years, but this failed to prevent Putin’s vile attack on Ukraine. As a strategy for deterring aggression, high military spending has already failed.

Tory MP and chair of the defence committee Tobias Ellwood claimed that a bigger British Army is needed in case of a war with Russia. But instead of worrying about winning a war, we should be putting all our efforts into preventing one – especially between nuclear-armed states. A build-up of weapons on all sides only makes it more likely that the war in Ukraine could spill over into a global conflict.

Meanwhile, the UK Government and other nuclear-armed powers are refusing to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Nobody could “win” a nuclear war, in which the number of soldiers on each side would be largely irrelevant.

The backdrop to all this is that people are dying in the UK because of poverty, heating costs and an underfunded NHS. These are real deaths happening now. To increase military spending while doing little to tackle the cost of living crisis would mean prioritising hypothetical threats to life in the future over real threats to life in the present.

Equating security with preparations for war is misguided. For many people, “security” means enough to eat, a warm and safe home, the love of family and friends, a reliable health service and not having to worry about whether they can afford the bills.

The UK Government’s own defence reviews in 2010, 2015 and 2018 identified security threats including natural disasters, climate change, epidemics, pandemics and terrorism. The prospect of war or invasion appeared as one possible threat among others. But when the Covid pandemic came, it was ventilators, not missiles, that were in short supply.

Poverty, pandemics and climate change continue to be global threats, yet calculations by Scientists for Global Responsibility reveal that the British Government already spends £7.45 on preparations for war for every pound spent on cutting carbon emissions.

This is not about being isolationist or neglecting the needs of people in Ukraine. General Mark Milley, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the war in Ukraine will likely end through negotiation and that it is unrealistic to think that either side can achieve a military victory. It’s a naivety that both Conservative and Labour politicians in Britain seem happy to encourage. History will not judge them kindly if thousands or millions more people in Ukraine are killed, wounded, bereaved or traumatised by the time a settlement is negotiated.

It would be hypocritical to give even more billions to the armed forces on the grounds of defending democracy or human rights. The Ministry of Defence admitted in 2020 that British armed forces are providing training to regimes with appalling human rights records, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Thus while ministers rightly condemn the Russian killing of civilians in Ukraine, UK troops train Saudi forces who are bombing civilians in Yemen.

Despite the euphemistic name, “defence” spending doesn’t make us safer. There are still people who like to say, “If you want peace, prepare for war”. History has shown time and again that if you prepare for war, you are likely to get what you have prepared for.

Conspiracy theories and the road to Fascism (Or: a strange day in Oxford)

If you had wanted to visit a parallel universe today, you could have walked down Broad Street in Oxford. Hundreds of demonstrators had temporarily created a world in which Covid is not real, climate change is a hoax and the biggest threat to human freedom is a proposal to introduce some minor restrictions on which roads you can drive a car in Oxford. In that world, you can also stand next to someone with a placard reading “Keep Britain white” while claiming that you are not allied with racists.

The protest was supposedly about the traffic-calming policies of Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council. Low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) have become a controversial issue in Oxford. I’m broadly in favour of them, while having some objections to the details, but I’m happy to hear the views of people who disagree. There are legitimate concerns about who is most effective and how they can slow down buses by pushing more cars onto main roads.

I also broadly support proposals to limit the number of days on which cars can be used in certain parts of the city, but I can respect people who disagree with this policy. I’ve got less time for people who talk as if driving a car were a human right. They accuse the councils of reducing “freedom of movement” as if driving a car were the ony way of moving about. I think it’s important that (for example) blue-badge holders are exempt, and possibly people who need a car for certain jobs. This is completely different from confusing freedom of movement (which is a right) from freedom to drive a car (which is not).

But even most of the “right to drive” crowd would seem moderate compared to the hundreds of people who descended on Oxford today. It was clear that few of them were actually from Oxford. From their banners and leaflets, and from conversations with them, it was clear that many of them had little knowledge of Oxford or of the background to the LTN controversy (or that they knew that none of the anti-LTN candidates who stood in last year’s City Council elections had managed to win any seats).

By Carfax Tower in central Oxford was a group from the Heritage Party, the organisation set up by far-right posh boy Laurence Fox. They waved union flags and placards denying the reality of climate change. One of them shouted insults about refugees. A Jewish speaker at the counter-protest reported that when she had spoken to the Heritage Party people, they had come out with an anti-semitic conspiracy theory within a minute of the conversation beginning. No wonder that she said she was frightened by what was happening in Oxford today. I was sad to see far-right banners waved on the streets of our beautiful, diverse, welcoming city.

Fascists groups such as so-called Patriotic Alternative had encouraged people to attend today’s protest. Several anti-LTN campaigners in Oxford, after initially backing the protest, had withdrawn their support after realising who was involved.

I was repelled but not surprised by the far-right placards and the anti-LTN leaflets. What was less expected was the huge number of placards and leaflets promoting Covid conspiracy theories. I had optimistically hoped that at least a few people on the protest were local people with genuine concerns about LTNs who may not have realised the agenda of many of the groups there. But as I tried to talk with people in Broad Street, it became apparent that many – perhaps most – of the protestors were part of Covid-conspiracy and climate-denial groups. While they denied being racist and said they did not belong to groups such as Patriotic Alternative, they mostly seemed unconcerned when I pointed out the fascist banners around them.

The conspiracists held placards objecting to things that are not even happening. They were against “climate lockdowns” – as if not being able to drive in certain areas on certain days is the same as not being allowed to move about at all. They objected to people being forced to stay in their own area of the city – it is a complete fantasy to suggest that anybody will be. These ludicrous claims actually prevent any serious debate about the rights and wrong of particular traffic reduction measures, just as Covid conspriacy theories undermined attempts to call for fairer Covid regulations.

When I spoke to a group of people with such placards and pointed out that the council is not proposing such things, they responded by saying “well, not yet” and “they say they won’t”.

It’s a baffling approach. You hold a banner saying that something is happening. You admit when challenged that it isn’t. You then say that it might happen at some point, so you’re going to protest against it anyway. I could perhaps have held a placard reading “Stop Oxford City Council allowing hippopatumuses to rampage down Cowley Road!”. If someone pointed out that the council were doing no such thing, I could have responded, “Well not yet they’re not!”. They worrying thing is that some of the people there today might actually have taken this seriously.

Determined not to be intimidated into avoiding the centre of my own city, I walked down the middle of Broad Street, through the ranks of fascists, conspiracists and car-worshippers. When I politely pointed out an inaccuracy on a placard, I found two people pretty much shouting in my face.

Almost straight away, they moved from talking about cars to talking about Covid. When I drew their attention to the far-right groups involved, they looked really suprised, as if they hadn’t noticed the banners around them. They both insisted that climate change is not real. One of them described herself as a “socialist” and said she was “Jeremy Corbyn’s number one fan”. She also said she worked in a hospital and didn’t believe in Covid vaccines. Her friend told me to listen to her because “she works in a hospital”. I mentioned that one of my best friends is a nurse.

“And what does she say about it?” he asked.

“Why do you say ‘she’?” I asked.

“Well, you assume, don’t you?” he said.

“Do you?” I asked.

Before we wondered too far from the point, I asked why, if he wanted me to listen to his fellow-demonstrator because she works in a hospital, I should not listen to the many other hospital workers who believe in Covid vaccines. Because any nurse or doctor who said anything different must be lying, he said.

By this sort of logic, you can prove anything: it’s all a conspiracy, anyone who says otherwise is part of the conspiracy, anyone who disagrees is lying. On this basis, you can prove that circles are square and that the Moon is made of Irish cheese.

This is why there is nothing progressive about conspiracy theories. Conspiracists claim to be challenging the powerful, but they typically talk in vague terms about “elites” without offering any sort of structural analysis. People in Oxford today attributed the presure on the NHS to Covid vaccines, rather than to years of Tory underfunding. They claimed that climate change is a hoax to benefit the powerful. In reality, most powerful people are doing little or nothing to address the climate emergency and are only acknowledging it at all because of years of campaigning and pressure from below. Despite the lip-service of the fossil fuel corporations, it would be much easier for their profits if we all believed the people marching in Oxford today.

The far-right typically claim to be on the side of the working class, while usually being led by well-off people such as Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson. They divide the working class, through stirring up hatred of migrants, Muslims, Jews, trans people or whoever their target of the moment may be. They divert attention from the responsibliities of the wealthy by claiming that left-of-centre policies promote the interests of the elite. And they undermine attempts to acheve structural change by pushing simplistic explanations that easily fall apart.

More often than not, injustice and inequality are visible and obvious. Most of the world’s wealth and power is in the hands of a tiny number of people. We don’t need conspiracy theories to notice this.

Conspiracists are not challenging the powerful. Often, they are indireclty helping the powerful. Conspiracists are not marching against injustice. They are walking along the road to Fascism.

God is gender-neutral – and always has been

I’ve just been interviewed by Piers Morgan for Talk TV. He was accusing the Church of England of being “woke” – his catch-all term for anything inclusive or vaguely left-wing of which he disapproves. This followed the front-page story in today’s Daily Mail, which claimed that the Church of England might be about to break with “centuries of tradition” by using gender-neutral terms for God.

Morgan said that many people would have “groaned” when seeing the story. I assured him that I had also groaned – because the Daily Mail was wildly and wilfully inaccurate.

The Church of England is having some discussions about gendered language, following a requsest from clergy who are interested in using gender-neutral language. The process could lead to an acceptance of a wider range of ways of referring to God. Given the usual speed of Church of England discussions, even this limited outcome would be likely to take a very long time and be resisted by large chuhnks of the Church.

The Church of England’s own statement on the matter said, “There are absolutely no plans to abolish or substantially revise currently authorised liturgies.”

Thus – contrary to the impression given by the front page of the Mail – there is no chance whatsoever of the Church of England abandoning all male language in relation to God – as the Daily Mail’s Martin Beckford, who wrote the story, surely knows very well.

The story was another chance for the Daily Mail and Piers Morgan to attack “woke” people and anyone who questions narrow binary approaches to gender and sex.

Many of the people who have got angry about this issue on social media today are also people who attack the rights of trans and non-binary people. They are contradicting themselves. On the one hand, such people generally insist that gender is biological and determined by genitals or chromosomes. However, they are now insisting that God is male – even though God clearly does not have any genitals or chromosomes.

There is nothing new about discussions of God’s gender or debates about referring to God in gendered or non-gendered language. Such debates have gone on for centuries. Piers Morgan seemed surprised when I told him that there are prayers from the Middle Ages that refer to God as “mother”.

Mainstream Christian theologians have never taught that God is literally male. In the past, when I have advocated the acceptance of female or gender-neutral language for God, Christians who disagreed with me nearly always accepted that God is not actually male or female. Instead, they have wanted to use only male language for God because they want to stick with precise wording found in the Bible, or because they don’t want to give into a supposed “feminist agenda” or suchlike.

What’s changed for me today is that I have encountered many people on social media arguing that God is literally male. The culture wars seem to have driven outraged right-wingers into theologically nonsensical positions that actually go against mainstream Christian teaching, which has always accepted that God is not literally male or female. I don’t often agree with Church of England media statements, but they were spot on today when telling the media, “This is nothing new. Christians have recognised since ancient times that God is neither male nor female, yet the variety of ways of addressing and describing God found in scripture has not always been reflected in our worship.”

Thus it is really the Daily Mail that is actually breaking with “centuries of tradition”.

Jesus referred to God as “Father”. I am very happy to do so too. The point of the image of “Father” does not lie in the gender associated with the word but with what it conveys of God’s love and care for us. I therefore also frequently refer to God as “Mother” and “Parent”.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Call no-one Father on Earth”. This was more radical in his time than in ours. A Father in that context was an authority figure to whom loyalty was owed. The Roman Emperor was described as the Father of the Empire. By applying the term to God alone, Jesus was challenging the authority and hierarchy found in his own society, as well as depriving the Emperor of one of his titles. By calling God Father, Jesus was making clear that it is God to whom we should be faithful – and that God regards us as a loving parent regards a child.

Jesus was not promoting binary gender. Indeed, he frequently undermined his own society’s attitudes to gender, including women among his followers and allowing women to make physical contact with him in a society that found it shocking.

Writing to Christians in Galatia in around the year 50 CE, the apostle Paul wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Later parts of the New Testament show a more negative attidues towards women, as churches compromised with the sexist and hierarhical attitudes of wider society (this includes writings that are attributed to Paul, but which most scholars believe he did not actually write, such as Ephesians and 1st Timothy).

Had the Daily Mail been around at the time of Jesus and Paul, both of them would surely have been described as “woke”.

Queer Christians have always known that Church of England bishops are too powerful

I wrote this article for the i paper, who published it on 26 January 2023. I had intended to post it on here before now. Sorry for my delay!

I am not sure I can remember a time when the Church of England was not holding a consultation process on sexuality. These processes end with reports or statements that some expect will bring change. Inevitably, the amount of change they introduce varies between almost nothing and literally nothing.

Each time, queer Christians such as me are expected to be pathetically grateful for the crumbs we are thrown from the table. Thankfully, fewer people now seem prepared to do this. The bishops’ newly announced and morally nonsensical policy of blessing same-sex couples but not marrying them has been rightly dismissed by many LGBT+ Christians.

Despite the vital work that many churches do (for example) to support people affected by poverty and to speak up about climate change, churches have managed to give lots of people the impression that their main role in society is to be a bastion of homophobia.

We might wonder why the Church of England’s position matters. There are many faith groups in the UK already carrying out same-sex marriages. The Methodist and United Reformed Churches have recently taken this step after genuinely complex consultations. Quakers, Unitarians and the Metropolitan Community Churches were holding same-sex weddings before they were even recognised in law. The Baptist Union allows each Baptist church to decide for itself whether to marry same-sex couples. The trickle of those voting to do so is turning into a flood. Reform and Liberal Jews decided to marry same-sex couples several years ago.

The difference is that the Church of England is the established church – in England though not in the rest of the UK. Its bishops get to sit in the House of Lords. This makes the UK one of only two countries in the world in which religious leaders are given a vote on legislation. The other is Iran.

Not only is this undemocratic in a multifaith society, it also restricts the freedom of Anglicans to make their own decisions. It would require legislation in Parliament for the Church of England to solemnise same-sex marriages. If the thousands of Anglican priests who support LGBT+ equality were to ignore the bishops and start marrying same-sex couples tomorrow, the ceremonies would have no legal status. In contrast, Scottish Anglicans are carrying out same-sex marriages without needing a change in the law (the established Church of Scotland is Presbyterian rather than Anglican).

Marriage law is complicated, messy and in desperate need of a thorough overhaul. Perhaps the registration of a marriage with the state should be a separate process from any religious (or non-religious) ceremony, giving all faith groups greater freedom and contributing to equality in law.

Reading the New Testament, it seems clear to me that Jesus did not teach his followers to demand privileges for themselves that they deny to others. He practised solidarity with people who are poor, marginalised, stigmatised or abused. Church leaders need the confidence to give up their privileges and embrace the commitment to human equality exemplified by Jesus. If Anglican churches were allowed to make their own decisions about marriage in the way Baptist churches do, there would be Anglican same-sex marriages around the country in a matter of weeks.

I admit I am biased as a member of a Baptist church that recently voted to marry same-sex couples. Being bisexual, I am delighted that I can be married in my own church regardless of the gender of my partner. Our discussions leading up to this decision were deep, difficult and at times painful. I have seen how Christians at the grassroots can listen to each other and make decisions together. But even those of us in denominations that are less hierarchical than the Church of England can be too ready to rely on church leaderships instead of learning from each other as equals and acting on our convictions.

As church leaders lose their social status in a multifaith society, Christians have an opportunity to recognise that the future of Christianity does not lie in institutions but in grassroots movements inspired by Jesus. According to the New Testament, Jesus seems to have had little patience with the religious leaders of his day. Perhaps we should be ready to follow his example.

Police search 16-year-old for holding anti-monarchy placard

GreaterManchester Police have searched a group of teenagers and threatened them with arrest because one of them was carrying an anti-monarchy placard. This happened on Friday (20th January) when Charles Windsor was visiting Bolton.

This latest example of the suppression of peaceful protest is a reminder of just how quick British police are to prevent any expression of anti-monarchy opinion.

Nate Norris, aged 16, was holding a sign reading “Abolish the monarchy”. He was joined by some friends, aged 16 and 17, none of whom had placards or banners. They were approached by police before Charles Windsor had even arrived.

Despite no evidence whatsoever of any physical threat to anyone, the police searched four 16- and 17-year-olds. They issued them with a dispersal notice, telling them to leave and threatening them with arrest if they returned within three hours – so they would not be there when Charles Windsor turned up.

Nate tells me that when he asked why this was being done, the police pointed to wording in the dispersal notice that claimed that “there are reasonable grounds to suspect your behaviour has contributed to or is likely to contribute to members of the public in the specified locality being harassed”.

Nate asked them to explain why they thought this. There is some footage of this part of the incident: Nate can be heard asking what behaviour the police are referring to, and a police officer can be heard repeatedly avoiding the question. At one point, the policeman said, “If you don’t know what ‘bevhaviour’ means, feel free to Google it”. This should make him a strong contender for Patronising Copper of the Year. But then again, there’s likely to be a lot of comepeition for that title.

In short, Bolton police searched and dispersed a small group of peaceful teenagers because one of them objected to the monarchy. Did they think that Charles should not have to cope with seeing a critical placard? This is in no way compatible with democracy and the right to free expression.

The low standards of the police have been increasingly obvious in recent months and years, not least through the latest revelations about the number of officers accused of sexual or domestic abuse. The general police contempt for the right to peaceful protest seems to have become more visible just as the Home Secretary is offering them more and more powers to shut down dissent.

There are few issues on which the police seem as keen to deny the right to free expression as the monarchy. While I know this from my own experience of being arrested in Oxford last September, I am aware that my case is one among many – as the incident in Bolton shows.

Three cheers for Nate and his friends for standing up to monarchy and for challenging the police about the legal basis of their actions. Too often the police seem to think that the law is what they say it is, and that everyone should do what a police officer tells them without question. It is entirely understandable that some people do not feel confident about challenging the police, given the imbalance of power involved.

As the government tries to further criminalise peaceful protests, and to effectively ban strikes in some industries, our right to resist must be constantly reasserted. The coronation in May is likely to be a big test for this.

Ahead of William Windsor and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011, people planning to protest were pre-emptively arrested before the event, while others were arrested on the day on very dubious grounds. That must not happen again. Between now and May we must speak up loudly for the right to dissent – and make our voices heard on the day itself.

Harry Windsor and I have one thing in common

The following article appeared in inews on 13th January 2023.

It’s been a strange week to be a British republican. Militant monarchists have achieved something I would barely have thought possible. They have made me feel some sense of solidarity with members of the royal family – by attacking them.

From the way some people talk, you would think Harry and Meghan were left-wing radicals. But they have not called for any substantial change in society. They are wealthy people at the heart of the establishment. They have triggered the irrational wrath of royalists for daring to show something other than unquestioning and silent loyalty to the institution.

As the media exploded with extracts from Harry’s book, I was distracted by my own run-ins with monarchical power. I was arrested in Oxford last September when I objected to a proclamation declaring Charles Windsor to be our “rightful liege lord”.

After three months of faffing about, the police told me just before Christmas that I was being charged under the Public Order Act with using “threatening or abusive words or behaviour”. In the same week, police decided not to investigate Jeremy Clarkson over a column in which he celebrated the idea of pelting Meghan Markle with excrement.

But a week ago, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges against me on grounds of insufficient evidence (or to put it another way, I had not committed a crime).

I have been moved and humbled by the hundreds of supportive messages I have received. Abusive messages ranged from single-word expletives to calls for me to be hanged for treason. Andrew Schraeder, a Conservative councillor in Basildon, tweeted that I should be sent to the Tower of London (well, it is a nice day out).

It’s a reminder of just how much hatred and vitriol can be spewed by people whose identity is bound up with subservience to supposed superiors. The thinly veiled racism and misogyny that further fuel the assaults on Meghan Markle say a great deal about the attitudes of people who want us to bow down to a hereditary head of state.

I have very little in common with Meghan and Harry. At first I was inclined to dismiss the gossip and rumours of the book as a distraction from real issues. But over the past week, I have realised that the controversy reveals a lot about the Windsor family’s remoteness from reality – and why to me the monarchy is so dangerous.

The statement that keeps coming back to me is Harry’s claim that when he used the P-word at the age of 21, he did not realise that it was racist because he had “heard many people use the word” as a child.

How can anyone reach the age of 21 in the UK without knowing that the P-word is deeply racist and insulting? I knew this when I was eight or nine, despite going to a primary school at which nearly everyone was white. Yet someone brought up surrounded by advisers and press secretaries was apparently unaware of it. What do they teach people at Eton?

It should be no surprise that the Windsor family seem to be unfamiliar with basic notions of equality and respect. Monarchy promotes inequality. To me, an inclusive or egalitarian monarchy is no more possible than warm ice cream or vegetarian lions.

You and I are expected to address someone as “your majesty” – someone human like us, fallible like us, with good and bad points like us – because his ancestor William the Conqueror invaded England. This assault on human dignity is not only demeaning, it is bafflingly nonsensical.

That’s why we need to move the debate beyond Harry’s book and onto the nature of monarchy. In a week that has seen news of the life-threatening underfunding of ambulance services, headlines have focused on people who are unlikely ever to need an NHS ambulance or to struggle to pay the heating bills. Monarchy distorts society, with the squabbles of the super-rich treated as more important than the crises facing the rest of us.

We can build a better society only on the basis of the equal value of all people. We cannot do that while tugging our forelocks to millionaires or accepting arbitrary arrests resulting from police power and prejudice. We need to trust ourselves, respect each other as equals, and get off our knees

Ready to resist the coronation

I wrote this article for the ‘i’ newpaper, who published it today.

The death of a monarch who had been in the job for 70 years is surely the right time to ask major questions about whether to continue with monarchy. Such discussions are being squashed at the time when they are most needed.

Voices critical of the monarchy are rarely heard on air. Parliament has not debated the future of the monarchy or the acceptance of Charles as head of state. Anti-monarchy protestors have been arrested on spurious grounds. 

The Windsor family’s advisers may hope that public sadness about Elizabeth’s death can simply be turned into enthusiasm for Charles. Perhaps they hope that they can rush ahead to the coronation without us really noticing that a new head of state has been declared with no public debate. This would insult our intelligence.

Now is a crucial moment, in the run-up to Charles’ coronation, to raise and debate vital questions about power, wealth and equality. The cost-of-living crisis is a reminder of how far the very wealthy are removed from the realities that the rest of us face. While seven percent of the population who attend fee-paying schools are vastly over-represented among MPs, judges and newspaper editors, the need to tackle such a clearly unfair situation is not even a major debate in British politics. Protests at Charles’ coronation must be about championing the equal value of all people.

Since my arrest in Oxford for objecting to the proclamation of Charles as king, I have been even more determined to join the protests when he is crowned. There are rumours the coronation will take place in the spring. I suspect the organisers will not want to wait too long, hoping that grief for the previous monarch will lead people to suppress doubts about her successor.

Groups such as Republic are planning to demonstrate at the coronation. We can expect demonstrations in local communities around the UK at the same time.

We are likely to face many attempts to stop us protesting. New laws such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act are restricting our freedom to speak out, but police have always been draconian when it comes to resistance to royalty. During the royal wedding in 2011, peaceful protesters arrested by the police included five people who were ordering coffee in Starbuck’s after leaving a small-scale demonstration.

For royalists, British history is about kings and battles. Supporters of the status quo have accused me of “ignoring British history”. They are missing the point. The inspiring struggles of Levellers, Chartists and Suffragists – ordinary people standing up for justice – are as much part of British history as the monarchs and militaries who tried to suppress them. 

We have our rights not because the rich and powerful handed them down to us, but because our ancestors campaigned and struggled for them. If we are to speak out against monarchy, militarism and inequality, we need to champion not the history of British rulers, but of British resistance.

Preparations for the coronation have got off to a shaky start. The organiser – Edward Fitzalan-Howard, Duke of Norfolk – has just been banned from driving. He cut across a police car to drive through a red light while speaking on his mobile phone. Magistrates rejected his argument that he should be allowed to drive at a “crucial point in the history of this nation”.

But there is no chance of Fitzalan-Howard being sacked from his role as coronation-organiser. He has inherited the job of Earl Marshal, which involves overseeing royal events. Just as Charles Windsor is an hereditary head of state, Edward Fitzalan-Howard is an hereditary events manager.

This won’t be the last time in the run-up to the coronation that the sheer strangeness of hereditary privilege is on embarrassing display.

Monarchy means having the next person in line regardless of who they are or what they have done. In the days after her death, many people praised Elizabeth’s dedication and sense of service. But her possession of such qualities is not an argument for monarchy. It is exactly the opposite. If we have a monarch who is good at the job and has values that we share, this is simply down to luck. If the militant Welsh nationalists who tried to assassinate Charles in 1969 had been successful, we would now likely be preparing for the coronation of King Andrew.

Of course, monarchs have considerably less power than they did 400 years ago. My main problem with monarchy is that it sets the tone for other aspects of life. In a healthy society we would find it demeaning to be expected to bow down to someone and call him “your majesty” because of who his ancestors were. Such behaviour can only appear normal in a society that upholds and celebrates inequality.

Democracy can only be partial when the top role in society is hereditary. Here’s to the day when we have democratically run local communities and democratic control of workplaces. This can never happen if we remain as forelock-tugging subjects of a king, but only if we live as equal citizens, respecting each other as equals and confident of our place in the world.