What to pray for in a post-Christian Europe

Faith and Reason v The Rev John Kennedy looks to King Henri IV of France for a bolder, more subtle vision of European union - a Europe that is both Gospel and Church.

There's a great movie showing in London - La Reine Margot. Brilliant, passionate, harrowing, it celebrates a great European hero, Henri of Navarre, from 1594 Henri IV of France. It provokes complex thoughts about Europe. It is, moreover, a change from the grey, boring, but slightly worrying Europe of the responsible press.

The story can be briefly told. In 1572, the Protestant Henri sought to unite war-torn France by marrying the Catholic Marguerite of Valois. All went reasonably well until his mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, ordered the murder of the Huguenots gathered for the nuptials. 6,000 were slaughtered on St Bartholomew's Night, 24 August. Henri converted, until it was safe to return to the Protestant faith.

Two decades later, faced with a continuing war, Henri conceded that a peaceful France must be a Catholic France. His enemies attributed to him the cynical phrase "Paris is worth a mass". They mistook his real faith, which was above all in France. Henri was perhaps Europe's first great post-Christian prince.

For Henri had a larger unifying scheme, a proposal to unite Europe in a grand Christian republic, whose emperor would be elected by the rulers of the European nations. The chief obstacle to this was Habsburg power, and it was while preparing for an assault on the Empire in 1610 that Henri was assassinated.

His compatriots tend to admire him as clever, brave, sardonic, sceptical and craggily attractive. His nickname points up an irreducible difference between the English and the French. "Le vert galant" just doesn't mean the same as "Ladies' Man".

Anglo-French antipathy was as fundamental a European theme in Henri's time as in ours. His great counsellor Sully reported from James I's court: "The English hate us; it is undoubtedly an effect of their arrogance and pride, for no nation in Europe is more haughty and insolent, nor more conceited of its superior excellence."

Plus a change. What fascinates is the difference between Henri's aspirations for a united France, and for a united Europe. He saw that France could be united only as a Catholic state; but that French, German, Spanish, English and Swedish Europe could be united only if confession and nation were surrendered to some larger cause. Such a Europe would be inevitably post-Christian, for any attempt to harmonise the conflicting European confessions inevitably resulted in yet another Christian division.

Henri's vision has taken nearly four centuries to be fulfilled. The European states have consolidated themselves inside borders often remarkably like those of his time; even the religious patchwork of Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran is much the same now as then.

So what do Christians pray for in such a post-Christian Europe? Each of our nations is gathered within a culture of consent, determined largely by language and custom. It is within those boundaries that we have found it possible to be most fully at ease with ourselves, and not much further outside. To pray for more is to ask for too much.

But what about beyond those boundaries? If there is a consensus within the Union, it is at kind of Euroscepticism; that the "Europe des Patries" dreamed of by Henri is about as far as we can go, and to dream beyond that is to invoke the nightmare of empire. To gather conventionally around a single currency is as arbitrary and limiting as to gather around a single confession, and just as likely to end in chaos. And we already have a single currency; it exists in cyberspace, along with the Peseta and Barings, and its local value changes by the nanosecond.

Further, Europe is already too big and too linguistically diverse to be a single polity in a conventional sense. But just as Henri was stuck with a Catholic France, so we are stuck for the moment in the clumsy, grey botch we call the European Union. It is worth looking forward to something different.

Europe's future union has to be both bolder and more subtle. It has to be both Gospel and Church. Its Good News must be one of a shared humanity. Its Church must be a complex of institutions that obtains consent to the patterns of shared humanity that we want, and adopts the compulsions that we thereby need. But our history should warn us; the writ of those consents, and compulsions, will not run far beyond the boundaries of each nation state.

Clearly a wider Europe is now possible; to pray merely for a Union of 16 is to ask for too little. It is exciting to imagine a civilised and peaceable Europe from Reykjavik to Vladivostok. Here is a goal worthy of our dreams and capable of our achievement, if we deploy Henri's great quality - to know when to settle for something less, and when to reach for something greater.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power