‘New settlement needed to overhaul public life’

11 December 2015

PA

In numbers: prelates occupy the bishops' benches in the House of Lords chamber, during the introduction of the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, in October

In numbers: prelates occupy the bishops' benches in the House of Lords chamber, during the introduction of the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd...

IMAMS and rabbis in the House of Lords; non-Anglican representation at the next coronation ceremony; the abolition of the requirement for schools to hold an act of worship; less selection of pupils by religion for faith schools; and humanists on Thought for the Day are among the recommendations in a new report on religion in public life, published on Monday.

The 104-page document Living With Difference: Community, diversity and the common good makes dozens of recommendations, and suggests an overhaul of British institutions and culture, from the BBC to counter-terrorism strategy, to ensure that the diversity of religious belief in the UK is properly represented.

The report is the result of two years’ work by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, which was set up by the interfaith Woolf Institute. It has heard more than 200 submissions since summer last year (News, 27 June 2014).

The commission was chaired by Lady Butler-Sloss, a former High Court judge, and included the former Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Lord Harries, as well as clerics, academics, and representatives from all the main faiths in the UK.

Besides seeking to introduce more non-Anglicans into public institutions and life, the report also calls for “much greater religion and belief literacy” in “every section of society”, and for the Ministry of Justice to ensure that religious courts abide by British law on gender equality.

A spokesman for the Church of England said that the Church welcomed the recommendations on improving religious literacy, and the recognition of the part that it played in relaying “non-Christian perspectives” to the public square.

But he went on: “We are, however, disappointed that the report misunderstands the role of Church of England schools in providing a rounded education to more than a million pupils from all backgrounds.”

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In a blog, the C of E’s Chief Education Officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, criticised the report’s comments on faith schools. He said that the faith ethos of C of E schools was eagerly sought after by parents, which was why the schools were “vastly over-subscribed”.

The current law requiring collective worship in schools was working well, and removing it would only tempt some schools to abandon the “vital element” of an opportunity to pause and reflect, he said.

Speaking at the launch of Living With Difference at Portcullis House, Westminster, on Monday, Lady Butler-Sloss said that the fact that her report had been attacked by both the Church of England and the National Secular Society — who had described it as “wholly misguided” — suggested that the balance was about right.

“We live in an increasingly plural and diverse society,” she said. “We need a new settlement to overhaul UK public life.” Another member of the Commission, Professor Tariq Modood, cited surveys that suggested that people considering themselves to be Christian had fallen from two in three 30 years ago to two in five today.

Although the commission had been drawn from a variety of faiths, Lady Butler-Sloss said that they had all agreed on the way forward — which she described as not minimising Christianity’s place in British public life, but adding to it with other faith traditions.

Lord Harries said: “We wanted to create a British narrative in which people of all religions and none could feel truly at home.” He said that public events, such as coronation ceremonies, should seek to be as “all-embracing as possible”, and that plenty of non-Christians should be represented.

A national conversation, likened by Lady Butler-Sloss to a new kind of Magna Carta, should begin to draw up a joint statement of fundamental values to underpin public life. Instead of more pontificating from the “great and the good”, this would be a bottom-up process, she said.

The Government’s counter-terrorism strategy was also criticised. It appeared to suppress inquiry and freedom of expression rather than promote it, the report says.

 

THE Woolf Commission’s report is the third this year to call for religious education (RE) to become a compulsory subject in British schools — taught like any other subject according to a national syllabus, and with no opt-out — as a means of achieving widespread religious literacy.

The commissioners also want to see greater attention paid to religion in teacher education so that all primary teachers are prepared to teach the subject, and there is an adequate supply of specialist RE teachers in secondary schools. The report argues for “a massive recruitment and retraining programme for teachers about religion and belief, if these matters are to be treated seriously and deeply”.

Like the pamphlet from Charles Clarke and Professor Linda Woodhead, published in June (News, 19 June), and last month’s report from academics at Goldsmiths, University of London (News, 27 November), the report suggests, however, that education law does not reflect the religious realities of contemporary Britain.

In the view of the Woolf commissioners, catching up should mean the repeal of the requirement for mainly Christian collective worship, and its replacement by “inclusive times for reflection”. In many schools, the requirement was flouted, Lady Butler-Sloss, who chairs the commission, said at a launch of the report on Monday.

Lady Butler-Sloss, a former senior judge, said that she was not in favour of a law that was not generally observed.

The commissioners do not recommend the abolition of schools with a religious character — state-funded church and other faith schools — but their report is critical of those where pupils and staff are drawn predominantly from one faith. It says: “Successive governments have claimed . . . that faith schools and free schools create and promote social inclusion and integration.

“However, in our view it is not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not in fact been socially divisive and led to greater misunderstanding and tension.” Faith schools should be encouraged to adapt admissions and employment policies to bring about a wider mix of pupils and staff, it argues.

The report also says that increasing numbers of parents complain about a lack of choice when the local school is one with a religious character. Although it praises the inclusivity of school policy in some Anglican dioceses, the report has been heavily criticised in church circles. A statement from the Church of England on its website says that the report misunderstands “the role of Church of England schools” and “collective worship in schools”.

The C of E’s Chief Education Officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, wrote in a blog: “The report does not look at the massive demand for church schools, which reflects the much greater number of parents who value our ethos. It simply refers to ‘faith schools’, lumping together schools run for the exclusive benefit of their faith alongside C of E schools, which have, since the 19th century, offered education to all children.”

He did, however, join the Religious Education Council and RE teachers’ organisations in welcoming the Commission’s call for enhanced status for RE.

 

Lost causes?Leader comment

A vision of hollowed-out religion - The Woolf report exhibits an impoverished secularism, says Paul Vallely

Religion and belief in public life: responses to Lord Harries's article in last week's Church Times - Letters to the editor

Faith now is more about food than beliefs - Lord Harries lays out how the Commission grappled with questions of identity and resentment in sketching out its new religious settlement

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