We love a drop of sherry, but can't take the strong stuff

September 3, 2004

In England, the Church of England is established by law as the national church, and though there is no established church in Wales or Scotland, the Crown is legally bound to protect the position of the Church of Scotland as the national church. Despite this, the UK is one of the most secular countries, with church attendance running at 4 or 5 per cent, and declining. Bishops still regularly make the front pages, and yet radio, television and the press are almost aggressively secular at times.

In the 2001 census, 72 per cent of the British population declared themselves to be Christian, but they do not go to church. This may suggest that the British like having a national religion, but do not particularly want to be part of it. It comes in useful for Royal weddings and funerals, but is ignored when it makes pronouncements on moral issues, and its distinctive doctrines either are believed not to exist or cannot be understood.

The position of the established Church has always been rather odd. From at least the 17th century there have been "nonconformists" in Britain, who refused to participate in the established Church and founded their own independent, Baptist and Presbyterian churches. Roman Catholics never disappeared, and were almost fully integrated into English political life by the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. The attempt to have a truly inclusive national Church was never successful, and at the present time, Anglicans in England are outnumbered by the sum total of Roman Catholic and nonconformist denominations.

The establishment has much diminished in political importance - though 26 Bishops still sit in the House of Lords - and the Church is not supported financially by the State. There are now no legal barriers to anyone setting up any sort of church, and some of the most lively and wealthy churches are independent churches, based rather on the American pattern.

So the Church of England finds itself in a transitional state between being "the church of the nation" and being one denomination among others. And it is a denomination that is in danger of splitting into different groups - liberals, Catholics and Evangelicals - that sometimes cannot bear to speak to one another. Maybe only the Royal family holds it together, and that relationship could easily end in a time of rapid political change.

So do the British have a religious identity? I suppose one could say they are generally Protestant - the monarch after all agrees to uphold the Protestant faith, and thus completely changes the meaning of the title "Defender of the Faith" that the Pope granted Henry VIII and that is still engraved on all coins of the realm - Fidei Defensor . The British favour a tolerant faith that does not ask too many questions, that does not "make windows into men's souls", as Elizabeth I put it. They expect clergy to be kindly, eccentric and in essence innocent, but not too pious or rigorous in belief or practice. Sherry and cucumber sandwiches are just about right. Or is that an England that is already dead in our large centres of population? It probably is, and Christians of all sorts have there become members of various sects without much common sense of identity. Religion has been largely privatised, in that local churches are run by individuals who are judged on personal merit, and the sense of one national religion has passed away.

With privatisation, there is little reason to confine religious activities to Christianity. There are many other religions in Britain, and the Centre for New Religious Movements at King's College London has registered more than 300 religions that have come to Britain since 1948. They include Islam, Bah'ai, Wicca, Mormon (the fastest growing), Hinduism and Paganism.

Often they are do-it-yourself religions, picking out bits from many traditions and centred on a charismatic leader. But there are also faiths that are in large part due to immigrant populations - Muslims from Pakistan or Bangladesh, Sikhs and Jains from India, Buddhists from Tibet. On the whole, these religions are small - less than 5 per cent registered themselves as Muslim in the most recent census, contrary to what most people seem to think. But they are part of British religious life. Some of these movements create moral problems for the liberal society in which they exist, since a small number of them are far from liberal. But the British attitude, legally, is that they should be tolerated unless they can be shown to cause harm, usually by taking from their adherents rights of freedom of thought or expression. Britain is often said by politicians to be multicultural or multireligious. This may seem an odd thing to say in an officially Christian country. It illustrates that Protestant Christianity has become so inwardly diverse and its institutions so badly attended that the establishment has for many ceased to be a reality worth considering.

Yet the idea of a national church has left a legacy of respect for religion, as long as it is not too doctrinaire or exclusive, and as long as it is tolerant and encourages freedom of personal belief. Being multifaith is one expression of such tolerance of diversity. But it strongly discourages religious claims to hegemony, such as the Church of England made in the past. In a sense, the established Church now supports such a position since its own internal diversity and minority position in society has reduced its influence to that of being a generally benevolent but politically weak commentator on social affairs. Britain is, it seems, a liberal and secular society, committed to protect freedom of belief and to forms of political government that are not overtly religious. Yet it protects the rights of religion, mandates the teaching of religion and spirituality in schools, and enshrines in its state ceremonial a Christian faith that allows a great width of interpretation and a hospitable attitude to many faiths. This is very like what the theologian Paul Tillich called theonomy, the pursuit of "culture under the impact of Spiritual Presence", a liberal humanism with an underlying spiritual depth.

It is hard to predict whether the Church will be disestablished in England, or how British religion will integrate into a wider Europe, within which national churches will be pressured to make wider alliances. In this sense, British attitudes to religion are unstable and in transition. Nevertheless, there is a distinctive tone to British religious attitudes that is widely shared in Europe. It is felt to be important that a culture should have a religious or spiritual dimension, and it is acknowledged that Christianity has formed a major historical influence on our present culture that should in some way be preserved. Yet our society has made an irreversible transition to liberal secularism, to encouraging self-critical, non-authoritarian and diverse forms of faith. So the influence of religion on national life should be largely symbolic and divorced from political decision-making. Such a view is under pressure from more assertive voices who would want to see religious laws implemented by the state, and from aggressive secularists who would like to see all religious influences in Parliament and schools abolished.

It seems unlikely that either of these views will gain a wide following.

What characterises religion in Britain is a sense that, like the Empire, traditional certainties have passed away. What acceptable forms of liberal religion there may be is not yet clear. But events following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Hillsborough stadium disaster show that a sense of a greater spiritual reality should be expressed in national life in as flexible a way as possible, and the predominant, though not the only, way of doing this will be within some form of liberal Christianity. The British are not very religious, but they are not very secular either. They want their lives to be touched by a sense of the sacred, but they do not want religious professionals to tell them what to do. I think that is a sensible state to be in. But then I am British after all.

Keith Ward is regius professor of divinity, Oxford University.

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