Before I stand accused of being protectionist or parochial, after all I am a Parish Priest, let me say that there bits of the Dame Elizabeth’s report that I agree with.
I would, for example, accept the fact that church going has fallen over recent decades (although this not true for all churches in all contexts – the report does have a certain urban, metropolitan ‘Islingtonesque’ feel about it).
I would also be quite happy to accept that the number of Church of England bishops (sorry episcopal colleagues) sitting in the House of Lords should be reduced and, that senior representatives of other faiths should be appointed to the upper house.
I think it is vital that the Muslim faith, in particular, is both institutionally represented and provided with a place at the ‘top table.’
We all need Muslim leaders who will challenge members of the Muslim faith to practice their religion in accordance with the highest and noblest of religious values whilst, educating non Muslims on the ethical foundations of Islam and, prophetically calling us, ‘non Muslims’ to exercise true hospitality and, integration.
I am, however, very unhappy with this reports use of numbers, or statistics, as grounds for a radical reshaping of public life.
We are told that 50% (approximately) of respondents do not describe themselves as religious. This seems to lead to the conclusion that they can therefore be described as ‘secular.’ This is all a little bit binary!
Is ‘secular’ really the opposite of ‘religious?’ Would some of the 50% who are ‘non religious’ prefer to self-describe as ‘spiritual but not religious,’for example? I don’t know, but I am wary of the conclusions reached and, the implications drawn.
Staying with the numbers, apparently ‘only’ one in six people self-define as Anglican. I would argue that one in six is a positive, sizable, and statistically significant, number!
In fact I could suggest that if 50% of folk are still happy to affirm a belief in a deity made tangible through religious affiliation and, 18% consider themselves Anglican then, despite the fall in numbers regularly worshiping in a formally constructed gathering, this country remains characterized by religious sensibility (either innate or explicit) and, Anglican identity.
One final point on the numbers: participation in religious attendance remains the most popular form of active voluntary activity in the land. So just how ‘secular’ are we really? Not very I suggest.
We also need to think very carefully about the consequences of locating religious dialogue and practice at the margins of society, even if (doubtful) this can be done through a combination of political and social policy. And here I am going to be protective and parochial.
If religion is to be located at the margins of society then the consequence will be extremism. I strongly agree with Rachel Sylvester writing in today’s Times:
‘Downplaying religion overall is foolish and wrong. In France state imposed secularism has cleared failed. Not only have the terrorist recruiters taken advantage of dispossessed Muslim young people but Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National has exploited anger among the white working class as well. This is not a nation at ease with itself. It is not faith that is the problem but extremism………..religion should be reclaimed from the extremists and integrated into the mainstream, rather than forced into the shadows, where hardliners can flourish unobserved.’
The world desperately requires an increase in ‘good religion’ and a simultaneous decrease in ‘bad religion;’ this cannot happen if policy makers seek to sideline or marginalize all religious discourse. The report fails to understand this most basic of facts.
I suggest that Rachel Sylvester has a far greater (innate) understanding of the form of wisdom advocated by the prophet Jeremiah in his discourse on ‘public theology’ (chapter 29, for instance) than Dame Butler-Sloss and her co-authors.
Sylvester, like Jeremiah, understands that healthy religion is supportive of pluralism and diversity. Radical secularism, by contrast, because of its critique of religion stands opposed to diversity and pluralism; this is the irony in the secularist agenda.
One final problem: The report is very top down (and metropolitan) biased, and whilst this has strengths -the recommendation that Islam needs far greater institutional recognition for instance – it also runs the risk of being overly abstract.
My own experience as a Parish Priest allows me to suggest that ‘religion’ will not allow itself to be pushed to the margins as the result of a concerted socio-political strategy.
Let me illustrate: this week I will be officiating at two funerals, and next Saturday at a wedding,a fairly normal pattern. The families who I will be supporting at major junctures in their lives are not regular church goers. Under the Butler-Sloss scheme they are therefore, presumably, ‘secular.’ yet, every time I meet a ‘secular’ family preparing for a funeral, or a couple planning their wedding I ask them ‘why do you want a religious wedding / funeral’ and, I always get an answer which is ‘innately theological.’
One final illustration: A few months ago a teenager at one of our ‘secular’ schools tragically died in a car accident. I visited the school and offered the church building as a place where the school community could gather to remember the deceased student. I offered the building free of commitment to any form of religious activity. I was keenly aware that the school is not a faith school.
The school subsequently asked me to lead the gathering (they seemed to possess some interesting insights into the theology of ministerial priesthood) which they felt should include, hymns, a bible reading, a short talk and prayers. We also heard a poem, some music by Passenger and a few short tributes.
The act of remembrance designed by the school looked remarkably similar to the Common Worship outline of a Memorial Service. The school community, at a time of need, wanted religion to play a prominent part in helping them come to terms with an awful situation. The community had an innate sense of the value of religion. And, as a parish priest, I would argue that so do many people, irrespective of whether they formally self-describe as religious, and this is something that the Butler-Sloss report doesn’t recognize.
So there you have it; my issues with the Butler-Sloss report. The consequences of the report’s recommendations may well be extremism, rather than pluralism and secularism, and, whatever conclusions are drawn from the numbers, history and experience suggest that religion will always find its way back into the heart of life, for this is where it belongs.
That it does so is due to the fact that many people have an innate sense of religion, to be drawn from in times of need and crisis, and I doubt whether the report’s methodology was able to capture this.
If the innate is to be recognized and drawn out it, of course, requires that religion remains, explicitly, in the public square, as I say, where it rightfully belongs, not simply for its own sake, but for the benefit of all.