Commission on religion and belief in Britain seems to annoy secularists and faith communities alike

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The Commission on Religion and Belief in public life (CORAB), chaired by former high court judge Baroness Butler-Sloss, has undertaken a major inquiry into the place of religion in modern British life. The report argued a major overhaul of key areas – including education, law and media – needs to take place in order to properly reflect pluralistic diversity in 21st Century Britain. For a more liberal/secularist report, see The GuardianFor a more conservative report, see The Telegraph.

It seems worth pointing out, before going any further, where I agree with the report.Welcome most of all, is the report’s view on the government PREVENT programme and its position on free speech and debate for students. It was quite right to argue that students must be able to voice all forms of opinion on campus. If free speech and debate is to thrive, it cannot be impeded by the constant threat of certain words and view being deemed unsayable.

Whilst I deplore the secularism of the NSS, whose raison d’être is to remove all expressions of faith from view and drive all people of faith from holding any position in public life, I am highly sympathetic to arguments in favour of disestablishment and removal of bishops from the House of Lords. As I have argued here, here and here, I find state churches problematic and do not believe any one faith (or those who purport to have none) should have places enshrined in parliament by right. That is not to say we should not have people of faith in government nor that they should hang their faith beliefs up at the door, but that Anglican bishops should no more have a constitutional right to sit in parliament than Rabbis, Imams or Independent Church ministers.

As I have commented here, I am not particularly in favour of state-sponsored faith schools. I am equally not interested in maintaining the pretence that schools in any way have meaningful acts of “Christian worship” in school assemblies (see here). Certainly in the case of assemblies, I would much rather we stopped pretending they were in any way Christian rather than pressing on with the usual soporific nod to God that children currently endure. Typically, it bears little to no resemblance to anything scripture actually says. I can only imagine that most real believers are just as irritated by the terrible presentations of what scripture doesn’t say as are the likes of the BHA and NSS (albeit for entirely different reasons).

I am also broadly in agreement with the report that a wider cross-section of society ought to be represented in public life. Whether in law, media or government a more full representative sample of the breadth of belief within the UK strikes me as reasonable. Just as Christians tend to want those who share and  understand their beliefs in positions of influence, that is hardly a uniquely Christian desire. Humanists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and everyone else generally feel the same way.

The report, unfortunately, falls short in a number of significant regards.

Though I am sympathetic to the report calling for the removal of bishops from the House of Lords by rights, I find the solution no less palatable. If the principle of sitting bishops is deemed inappropriate, I fail to see how removing them in favour of imams, rabbis and evangelical ministers goes any way to solving the problem. I have made no secret of my desire for a fully elected upper chamber (or an indirectly elected upper chamber based upon proportions of commons vote) based upon my view of how things ought to be in a democracy, and indeed, how they are in almost every other liberal democracy. Insisting on a wider range of unelected members of faith groups does nothing to address the fundamental issue. Again, that is not to say that members of faith communities cannot stand for election or should not win party nominations (they can and do already in the commons). It is simply to say that nobody should be there by rights, whether hereditary peers or CofE bishops. If churches (rightly) want to be free of interference from politicians, it seems that deal cuts both ways.

Worse still, The Guardian state one of the “striking trends” noted by the report in modern Britain is “The decline in Christianity, now a minority of the population – and among those, a huge shift away from mainstream denominations to evangelical and Pentecostal churches.” Now, I don’t mean to nitpick, but if a major and supposedly insightful report into religion in modern Britain makes such a basic category error as forcing a distinction between “mainstream denominations”, evangelicals and Pentecostals then how are we to trust its conclusions as credible? At best, the comment lacks necessary nuance and, at worst, it belies a total absence of knowledge and insight into the nature of British Christianity.

This is no small thing. Pentecostalism is a mainstream, evangelical Christian denomination. That is, mainstream, evangelical and Pentecostal are all terms narrowing in specificity but all equally reasonably applied to Pentecostalism. Similarly, evangelicalism is not, in and of itself, a denomination but it is a mainstream theological strain within Christianity. What, for example, would the report make of evangelical Anglicans? Anglicanism clearly being deemed a “mainstream denomination” but evangelicalism having been pointedly distinguished from Church of England believers. If the report cannot handle basic theological, ecclesiastical and denominational terms as these – and it clearly underlines basic misunderstandings of what these various groups actually think and believe – how can its conclusions on the nature and scope of religion in public life be trusted? Given this, it is ironic that the report laments “serious shortcomings ‘in religious and belief literacy’ among media professionals”.

The report similarly falls into the trap of presuming that a decline in Church of England adherence overall automatically infers growing atheism, agnosticism or secularism. Whilst Church of England adherence has fallen overall, we must return to the lack of nuance stated earlier, for the evangelical wing of the Anglican communion is happily growing. Indeed, the report notes that evangelical and Pentecostal (which, as already noted, the latter is also evangelical) churches are growing too. Moreover, even those who have parted ways with the Church of England, and not fed into other churches, still does not necessarily imply atheism, agnosticism or secularism. Many are the people who claim to be “religious” without feeling the need to attend church regularly or at all. Indeed, even non-adherence to religion is not necessarily the same as humanism and secularism.

It is, unfortunately, these shortcomings that undermine the very premise upon which the commission was founded. I can only imagine it is these glaring issues that have led to the report currying no favour with the NSS – who argued the measures did not go anywhere near far enough – and have annoyed more than a few ministers and bishops (both within and without the CofE). You can read the full report here and the respective CofE and NSS responses. I shall let you, dear reader, decide upon the value of the report.