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.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices