Monday, 7 December 2015

Commission on Religion and Belief Report: No help to pluralism, but surrender to the objectives of organised secularism

Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public LifeI am so dismayed by today's report from the Woolf Institute's Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. A great deal to digest and clearly some of the reflections and proposals are constructive. But....

I did a hurried first read through this morning. In parts it buys into a liberal-secularist view that religion is private and the public square is neutral. Thus the default is 'no religion' and 'shared values' in which secularism can proselytise with state sanction, behaving like a religion but claiming it's not. But it's inconsistent: "non-faith worldviews" and religious worldviews ought to be studied as alternates - so are they religions or not? If one or each religion should be relativised in the public square and in education, why provide the secular-humanist religion or worldview the position of "working assumption" in all the areas and school subjects from which religion is not allowed to have any bearing? (I write with some experience of working with those who wrote cross-curricular RE resources that cut both ways, so that study of religion - a legal requirement now more important than ever - was not siloed or confined to one denomination).

Then, surprise, surprise: the proposal directed against Catholic schools as if they were divisive, when the history with its aftermath is of Catholics being the ones to be excluded. This will ensure that all children go to schools in which teachers and governors promote secular humanism as the basic position against which to interpret religion. What will be the point of the Church of England's schools having no relation to church worshipping life, or the bringing to bear of its values on wider society through its historic positive task of the formation of young citizens; and, in a worrying repeat of history in which Catholics are once again threatened with the restriction of their liberty to play a full part in civic life and public services, what will be the point of Catholic schools that are prevented from providing education and upbringing for their own children as well as welcoming children of other faiths and none (which they do)?

Perhaps the commissioners would like to add up the purchase price of the Anglican and Catholic bought and owned premises of all the schools receiving state funds for providing education just like any other, and then compute if they can afford to buy the Churches out. No? I thought not.

Three other observations:

1. Once again there's Bishop Harries' hoary old proposal that at traditional civic services, other religions can celebrate elements of their worship in Christian Churches. He earlier proposed that the Koran be read in Bristol Cathedral before the judges' service. I don't see the New Testament being read out in mosques. There's a question of mutual respect and integrity here. It is unacceptable that Islamic claims, which cannot be extricated from the inherent assertion that Islam is senior to Christianity having surpassed it, have a place for public proclamation in churches. The Christians in other parts of the world having their lives and homes, churches, towns, hospitals, schools and monasteries wrested from them would find this incomprehensible.

2. The coronation service with its central rite of anointing is derived from the inaugural rites of the reign of the Byzantine Christian emperor, with other elements derived from the ritual for making a king in ancient Israel. By nature it cannot be an interfaith service: it is a rite of consecration to God after the pattern of Christ the King. By all means have a non-religious inauguration (we already have: it's called an Accession Council followed by Proclamation of the new Sovereign, the day following the demise of the Crown) - we could have swearing in at Westminster Hall too, but why would that need any religious elements? Leave the anointing and crowning to be what it is (incidentally the last of its kind left).

3. Have people forgotten that 5 years ago, Pope Benedict XVI gave two stunning addresses on (a) Christianity and other faiths in their shared responsibility to society to faith leaders at St Mary's University, Twickenham, and (b) the vital need for the mutual conversation and bearing upon each other of faith and reason, religion and society to civil leaders at Westminster Hall? One of the authors of the commission's report, one Rowan Williams, was present as Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, and seemed to welcome it. Yet - unless I am doing an injustice - it does not seem to have been taken into account or cited in the text or appendices. This is a glaring omission as it has been the most high-profile and widely covered treatment of religion in society in the UK in the last decade. Indeed the Pope was saying and magnifying what the Anglican bishops were saying at that moment, and were not being heeded on. Yesterday's news is tomorrow's kindling, it seems.

Finally, I cannot see how the place of people's personal religion and identity, or that of entire large bodies of various kinds of believers, or the rights of secularists or humanists as identifiable minority organised constituencies, are strengthened by the weakening of others. Even if people don't go to Church much, or don't believe in Christ and his sacrifice like they once did in this country, Christianity is the defining shaper of its history and identity for 1500 years at least. Only 60 years ago, Winston Churchill described our "finest hour" as the defence of Christian civilisation against the malevolent forces of pagan and atheist Nazism and Fascism. Now the great and the good want to dismantle everything that once defined us. This will not help Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus or non-Anglicans to have a greater stake in civil society: it will hand all the say to the secularist thought police who have been dominating our education system, trades unions and local government institutions for decades, forbidding Christian practice behind the pretence that it 'might offend' someone.

Of course, they haven't addressed at all one of the big problems in England for historically excluded Reformed (the Old Dissent) and Catholics (the Recusants) alike: the constitutional establishment bonding the Crown, the armed forces and the Church of England, in which other churches and religions are not permitted fully to participate. As much as I am in favour of the each one of these in their respective offices severally, this exclusive bond at the heart of the British constitution and society really needs addressing - but who would dare?

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