To be, or not to be?

The past several weeks has seen a focus on “enthronement” events. In Rome, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Cardinal from Buenos Aires, was enthroned as Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church. A week or two later, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, the former Bishop of Durham, was enthroned as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican family of churches. During both enthronements, and despite the impressive titles of both men and the pomp and spectacle of both events, much was made of the humility of both leaders.
The new Pope’s work with the poor in Buenos Aires was constantly reiterated, although accolades stopped short of identifying him with the “liberation theology” movement in Latin America. Whilst seeming to be liberal with respect to the social ministry of the Roman Catholic Church, there would seem to be little doubt that Pope Francis will continue the conservative tradition with respect to the moral issues facing his church, for example, those to do with abortion, euthanasia, women priests, human sexuality and the traditional doctrinal issues that history, archaeology and rationality have called into contemporary question (“Limbo” being a recent casualty).
It would appear that the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury will also face testing times within the assemblies, churches and committees of the Church of England, not to mention the challenges posed by the development of Anglican communities throughout the world, notably those in conservative Africa.
Heads of organised religions, and all heads of states for that matter, claim to have the weight of authority and tradition on their side. It is well to remember, however, that authority is developed where power resides and is, therefore, open to having its legitimacy challenged where and when power relations change; tradition is open to interpretation, historical criticism and rational questioning.
The above returned to my attention whilst watching a recent edition of BBC television’s flagship ethics programme “The Big Questions”. The programme focused on a single question, “Should the United Kingdom become a secular state?” The question was effectively asking if the UK should disavow favouring any one religious faith and make all religious faiths of equal value under the law in an all-inclusive secular state. The presenting question presumed, of course, that the United Kingdom has not already become a secular country, an argument at least worth stating!
Whilst going over this question in my mind, it occurred to me that the head of the British state is the reigning monarch. By virtue of wearing the crown, the monarch also becomes the Head of the Church of England. This fact is recognised in the coronation ceremony of the British king or queen (a reminder of which recently appeared on television with a review of the present queen’s “jubilee” celebrations). The actual coronation is presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It follows from this that a Roman Catholic cannot, at present, assume the role of British monarch.
It is a further twist in the story that the Roman Catholic Church forbids leadership roles in the church for women. A woman is not presently able to become a priest, never-mind a Pope – even if she could become the British queen! The saga becomes more complex when it is realised that, at present, the Church of England does not permit women bishops. Irony of ironies, a woman cannot, at present, become a Church of England bishop, never-mind the Archbishop of Canterbury, but could become the head of that church! Apart from the anachronistic nature of this overall situation, there is also the matter of blatant forms of religious, political and social discrimination being involved on several levels.
I am of the view that the foregoing are primary reasons why the United Kingdom should become a secular state, or, to be more precise, to continue to be shaped as and by a secular state. Despite its religious institutions or the influence of organised religion on the British state, the United Kingdom could hardly be described as a “religious” country, that is, a nation-state in which the beliefs and practices of religion predominates, generally or specifically, in the life of the majority of its citizens.
This is certainly true if British national life were to be seen as orbiting around the philosophy and ethics of the Christian religion. The picture is multi-hued and far more complex. Contemporary religious life in Britain has seen the indomitable rise of non-Christian religions such as Islam, as well as the continuing presence and influence of other religions, notably Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism, not to mention the significant numbers for whom life is underpinned by no religion, secular values or overt atheism.
Such a situation has given rise to recent complaints by notable religious personnel that the management of contemporary life in the United Kingdom is prejudiced against the Christian faith, or is becoming so, or, at least, makes it more difficult to live as a Christian. I seem to recall that a Jewish rabbi and teacher of ethics once said that the faithful would face the testing of their faith! Perhaps a faith that has been used to having a monopoly in the life of the British nation-state requires some testing, even if it is only a matter of levelling the playing field on which that faith has been practiced.
The defenders of the view that the United Kingdom is, or should remain, a religious, if not overtly Christian, country would claim that the philosophical and ethical super-structure of the nation-state has been built on Christian foundations. A critical account of how or to what degree the UK is a Christian nation would need to recognise that there are multiple versions of Christianity now practiced within the nation-state, with significant differences in doctrine, ethics, politics and social concern. Culturally, Christianity, especially in a multi-cultural state such as is the United Kingdom, no longer has a single identity. There is no guarantee that today’s Christians, British or otherwise, share the same religious views as their spiritual ancestors or would wish to live under the same religious authority as they once did.
The Christianity of Western Europe has been radically reshaped by the views and events of the Enlightenment, political, cultural and social revolution, and the advancements in mass education. It can no longer be claimed that, at root, all Christians believe and practice the same form of religion. They do not. Indeed, the very foundations of the historical and formative stages of what is today called the Christian religion are being called into question as never before.
Therefore, the argument that all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on the Christian heritage of the United Kingdom should be abolished is both strong and forceful. The primacy previously afforded the Christian religion would be replaced by an all-inclusive secularism where no single faith or group of faiths, for example, the Judaeo-Christian duopoly, predominates or is given special privileges.
If this transformation were to take place then substantial outcomes would follow. The development of all faith schools would be curtailed, especially where those schools are funded by the British tax-payer. Similarly, tax credits should be withdrawn from non-state funded public (private?) schools – credits that were initially given so that charities could establish education amongst the poor, not to subsidise a privileged education for the wealthy. The call of the muezzin would be given the same place and respect as the peal of church bells, or none at all for both. All faiths would be subject to the law of the land, a legal framework that would gradually slough-off the remaining vestiges of rules and regulations framed by a religious reference to life and national culture that can no longer claim eternal veracity or relevancy.
Further, the link between the reigning monarch and the Church of England, a link formed from the vagaries of the rule of the Tudor king, Henry VIII, would be abolished. The Church of England would be dis-established and, if the monarchy is to survive, perchance in a form radically different to its present appearance, then it should be open to persons of whatever or no faith. This is the situation in many countries that enjoy an advanced form of democracy and who enjoy a secular head of state. If this were to happen then the privilege accorded the Church of England in having some of its bishops presiding in the House of Lords would be withdrawn. In a democracy, all institutions would be free of any form of discrimination and deference would be accorded only to those which, by practice and example, earn respect.
That is not to say that organised religion should be proscribed. On the contrary, all forms of religion should be present and practised as an expression of the diversity of the social and cultural life of the nation – a phenomenon of the continuing social and cultural evolution of the British nation-state (as, indeed, of any nation-state). Each religion would be free under the law to express itself, practice its beliefs, develop its future and subject its fortunes to the demands of the market-place. However, this would be done within the freedom of secular state laws that treated all religions equally and sought to shape a harmonious reality for all religious belief and practice.
Should the United Kingdom become a secular state? It would seem to me that an honest appraisal of the situation would strongly suggest that it has already become so!


About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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