Religion and Belief in public life
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Friday December 05 2014
Last week members of the House of Lords debated a motion to take note of the role of religion and belief in British public life.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford, led the debate, talking about how Britain’s religious landscape had changed over the years and “that religion is visible and agitative in a way that it was not before. It has a voice, or rather a variety of voices that want to be heard in the public sphere.”
Looking at religion data from the 2011 census, Lord Harries told the House that there were 33.2million Christians, 2.7million Muslims and 14.1 million people who said that they had no religion – making this the second largest category after Christianity. He attributed the cause of some religious revival in general to post World War Two immigration, which saw an increase in people practicing religion, often making religion a “badge of identity” in an age where identity politics is prevalent.
Lord Harries went on to talk about how the Church of England had made conscious efforts to build relationships with other faith communities. An example of the church extending its hospitality to other faith communities, Lord Harries spoke about preaching at a service in 2013, marking the beginning of the legal year in Bristol. He told the House how the mayor and high sheriff of Bristol were both Muslims and the latter being very devout, requested that a passage from the Qur’an be read out in the cathedral. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol arranged for a reading to occur inside the cathedral once everyone had been seated but before the actual Christian service began. The lines between the religions were not blurred and Lord Harries called this act a “brilliant creative act of accommodation“, making the Muslim high sheriff feel welcome but at the same time, did not “alienate the core congregation.”
Lord Harries went on to say that this hospitality should be reflected in public ceremonies, including the next coronation service.
Lord Alderdice described religion as “an essential component of the human condition and a group phenomenon.” He criticised the Government for not paying enough attention to the complexities of religious matters, which are becoming increasingly important to the people it serves. He pointed out that when a society believes its “group identity or future is under threat, it regresses to simplistic, black and white, dangerous, threatening ways of functioning.” He highlighted the need for the Government to understand the complexities of religion, “both in its advanced forms and those of regression and dangerous fundamentalism.”
Baroness Falkner spoke at length about faith schools operating in Britain. She argued that many of them were failing in their duty to provide children a well-rounded education. The Baroness highlighted cases from across religions to illustrate her point – informing the House that a Jewish school, Yesodey Haratah school in East London, had faced Ofsted criticism for editing exam questions on human reproduction and evolution. In response to the criticism, the school now ‘advises’ girls not to answer questions which contradict their Orthodox beliefs. She also spoke about Muslim faith schools in Tower Hamlets, which left students “vulnerable to extremist influences” by focusing on conservative interpretations of Islam.
Baroness Falkner spoke in favour of ending the law which required all state schools to hold a daily act of “broadly Christian worship” and stated her preference for parents to teach their children about religion at home and in their places of worship, arguing that it was in the national interest of community cohesion to have children of all different backgrounds educated together in an inclusive and respectful environment.
Lord Warner, the chairman of the APPG Humanist Group raised similar concerns, describing a meeting with the original Trojan horse whilstleblower at Park View school in Birmingham as well as a former Haredi Jew who had received his entire education in Yiddish. The student was unable to speak in English despite being educated in Britain until his 20’s. Lord Warner also spoke about an American network of Christian schools, ACE, operating privately in Britain, which he said followed a curriculum “widely considered to be creationist, homophobic and misogynistic.”
Far from focusing on a particular type of faith school, both Lord Warner and Baroness Falkner highlighted the importance of protecting children, ensuring that they receive a “balanced and broadly based” education as they are entitled to under current education legislation.
Interesting in the reflections of the peers is the consideration of all faith schools, not a judgmental preoccupation with Muslim schools which has often been the case with media coverage on the issue.
Lord Blair of Boughton, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, pointed out that after 9/11, ignorance had become very dangerous. He pointed to the basic lack of knowledge about Christianity and other religions in mainstream schools. He expressed concern, stating that “many children appear to be brought up in a world in which religion equates with danger, with Islam equalling mad-eyed bearded men acting with great cruelty, Christianity being something taught by Koran-burners in Florida, and Judaism being synonymous with the actions of the Jewish state.”
He argued that if faith schools were to continue, all should be required to teach comparative religion which emphasised common compassion.
Towards the end of the debate, the Parliamentary Under- Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Lord Ahmad, spoke about recognising the positive contributions of faith communities. He highlighted the contribution of the 400,000 Muslims who took part in the First World War alongside people from other faiths. On extremism, he told the House that the government are in the process of developing a strategy for tackling extremism, and will be engaging with faith leaders of all denominations as part of that work.
Lord Ahmad also touched on the government’s counter terrorism work and internet radicalisation, saying that faith communities with the “right voices, the moderate voices, the voices of respect should come forward and beat that challenge on the internet”
The Daily Mail picking up on the remarks of the Bishop of Oxford on the “brilliant creative act of accommodation“ quite predictably spins it in a negative and divisive manner by headlining its article, “Koran should be read at Prince Charles’ coronation says top bishop: Critics attack proposal and accuse Church of England of ‘losing confidence’ in its own traditions”.
It is disappointing to see the outreached hand of friendship and common humanity among religion be represented with an exclusionary zeal as if reciting from the Qur’an would in any way dilute the Christian basis of the ceremony.
Lord Harries quoted from a speech delivered by Her Majesty the Queen in 2012 about the Church of England:
“Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. It certainly proves an identity and spiritual dimension for its many own adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for others faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely.”
Shame the Daily Mail chose not to celebrate this dimension, as Lord Harries put it, of the Church “exercising its historic positon in a hospi