U.K. Perspective – ‘Living with Difference’

Ed Kessler – Founder and director of the Woolf Institute

Posted: 07/12/2015 08:31 GMT Updated: 07/12/2015 08:59 GMT
Religion and belief are driving forces in society today. Although there is some divergence of opinion over the extent, there is unanimity that the UK is becoming less Christian, less religious and more diverse. Whilst we are not about to return to a time when religion and religious authorities dominated, these changes raise issues that have to be urgently addressed.

The religious landscape has been transformed in less than two generations and now includes a large proportion of people who identify themselves as not religious (between 30-50% depending upon which sources you prefer), and surveys suggest this proportion is increasing rapidly. At the same time there is a growth in religions other than Christianity, presently around 10%, and in branches of Christianity, especially Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

Driven in major part by migration, the resulting uncertainties about national identity, cohesion and community can lead to over-simplistic conclusions, especially about the negative impact of such changes. These, in turn, may feed anxieties about immigration and the fear of ‘the other’ that need to be addressed.

 The picture is complicated further by the growth of fanaticism, by a suspicion amongst many that religion is a primary source of the world’s ills, and by a blanket denial by others of the legitimacy of non-religious approaches to life. Forms of hatred such as Islamophobia and antisemitism are also pressing societal issues, not only in the UK but throughout Europe and the wider world.

Despite all this, UK public policy related to religion and belief has been piecemeal and kneejerk: a growth in faith schools, but a decline religious education standards; legal reforms which seem to target particular communities; different protections for Jews and Sikhs than for Muslims and Christians; a decline in religious specialism in the media despite the growth in news stories related to religion.

For all these reasons, in September 2013 the Woolf Institute convened an independent commission to undertake the first systematic review of the role of religion and belief in the UK today.

The report is intended to be an alternative to the ad hoc approach we have seen to-date: systematic, consistent and rational, looking at the areas of education, the media, law, dialogue and social action. It seeks to provide a basis for deliberation and policy-making based on research and evidence, the needs of society and the daily experiences of increasingly diverse communities.

Under the leadership of Baroness Butler-Sloss the 20 commissioners from across the 4 nations of Great Britain Northern Ireland – incorporating adherents of the main religious and belief traditions, including humanism – have met frequently. They have taken evidence from a wide range of people, and have journeyed around the country participating in public hearings and received expert testimonies on social and economic, religious and cultural, legal and political, academic and educational landscapes.

There has been general agreement that it is essential not only to understand religion and belief but also to reflect on how different traditions interact with each other at local and national levels. Indeed, it is only with such an understanding that communities can be sustained.

Learning to understand and live with differences is the recurring theme throughout the report. It argues that religion and belief are a combination both of conscious choice and of the circumstances of birth, community and public perception. Whether or not we might want to, we cannot ignore or escape the differences that religious traditions make to our sense of personal identity, narrative, relationships and isolation.

And so the challenge for policy-makers is to create an environment in which differences enrich society rather than cause anxiety, and in which they contribute to its common good. This in turn requires that all communities feel a positive part of an ongoing national story – what it means to be British is not fixed and final, for people in the past understood the concept differently from the way it is seen today and all must be able to participate in shaping its meaning for the future.

This then is the challenge, which we seek to meet in this report and which we hope will be the start of a national conversation. Understanding religion and belief is not an option but a necessity that the Government needs to factor into their approaches. The pattern of religious affiliation has changed and continues to change. Policymakers and politicians need to catch up with events, to enhance their capacity to read a most potent sign of our times – religion and belief.


In the light of a statement made by Baroness Butler-Ross; to the effect that it is time for the Church of England to surrender its claim to be the official state religion in the United Kingdom – commenting that the number of Bishops in the House of Lords should be reduced,  to accommodate other Faith Leaders, in a country where the Anglican Church is no longer representative of the majority of religious believers.

This would require a serious change of perspective for the British Parliamentary bodies, elected to represent a polyglot constituency made up of many different religious faith communities – all deserving of a share in the governance of the electorate politics.

However, there is some precedent for this kind of thinking. For some time now, the heir-apparent to the throne, Prince Charles, has been of the opinion that he would like to be thought of  as ‘Defender of Faiths’, rather than – as is at present the position of the Queen and her heirs: ‘Defender of the Faith’ (meaning the faith of the Church of England’).

There is much to be said for a spiritual entity like the Christian Church to be free from the hegemony of the State. In the past, the close ties of relationship have mostly worked for the exclusive benefit of the Church of England, with special entitlements like, for instance; privileged seats in the House of Lords for certain bishops, and other ranking prerogatives concerning affairs of State. Also – because of its origins being invested in the State – Church Law has to be ratified by the Law of the State to become effective. The responsibility goes one way only, to the Church of England’s benefit, for instance; allowing the Church to avoid the necessity of performing state law-sanctioned marriage of same-sex couples . Being the ‘State Church’ makes things difficult for the C. of E.

The Church of England is unique in its relationship to the State. This is a situation that does not affect the polity or government of any other Anglican Church around the world – all of which are subject to their own ecclesiastical systems of synodical and episcopal government. The early Anglican diaspora was born of a British colonial missionary Church, intent on taking the Gospel to ‘foreign parts’, establishing a model of the Church of England in each of the British Colonies, controlled, initially  – in most cases, except that of the United States of America, whose episcopate was founded by the Episcopal Church of Scotland – by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the rules of the Church of England. In a ‘post-colonial’ world, this may seem an anomaly.

Now that each Anglican Church has its own episcopate, prayer-book, and constitutional government by synod; there is no longer any need for any National Church to defer to the See of Canterbury to amend its constitution. Certain churches of the world-wide Anglican Communion did change the rules, as for instance, ACANZP, with the ordination of women – a canonical procedure only later accepted in and by the Church of England.

What would the disestablishment of the Church of England mean for other Provinces of the Anglican Communion?  Virtually nothing! Except that, when the Archbishop of Canterbury travels to other Provinces of the Church at the moment,  he is received as a dignitary of the U.K. Government. With disestablishment, that honorific would no longer apply. Oddly perhaps, that might give more weight to the spiritual – rather than the diplomatic – welcome given to the Leader of the Church of England,  Primus-inter-pares of the ACC and fellow Anglican Leader on future inter-provincial visits. 

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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