WHEN Theresa May was defending her proposed counter-terrorism
Bill on Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday of last
week, she invoked the spectre of groups seeking a "them-and-us"
mentality that would divide the nation. The solution, she argues,
is for a law that gives greater powers to the State in outlawing
assembly and free speech for those regarded as "extremist".
There's the rub: who is extremist? A Muslim friend, a scholar
who has been at the forefront of Christian-Muslim dialogue,
teasingly describes his faith like this: "I'm extremist in my love
The Church of England sits in an uncomfortably ambivalent place
with regard to so-called "British values" and what are loosely
described as "democratic values" by Mrs May. Our Established status
inclines us to an inheritance that is essentially conservative, but
we would be betraying our founder (and I am not thinking of Henry
VIII here) if our default position could never be described as
WE NEED to ask what is Christian about "British values". A sober
assessment of the cause of gender equality, for example - a
contemporary British value, perhaps - might wake us up to the
realisation that Christians have often been lagging behind the rest
of society. Sometimes, non-Christians teach us truths that bring us
back to who we are meant to be, because we live in a world graced
with God's presence.
The glorious problem that we have is the very diversity of
influences shaping life as it is today. So many of our communities
are circumscribed by values from "elsewhere". For Christians, our
ultimate horizon is the Kingdom of God, not a mythical vision of
warm beer, cricket, and evensong.
Admitting anything else drives us towards the sort of privatised
religion that is good for no one. We live in porous, messy
societies, so that across Britain people will be influenced by
texts and sources that have their origin from Arabia to Hollywood,
Google to Oxford. The pragmatic plurality of British society surely
behoves us to a hospitable view of Establishment that can speak
with and for the freedoms of other faiths.
This is not to dismiss concerns about specific practices or laws
that may inhibit freedoms. Nor is it necessary to be so apologetic
that the Church's positive impact on freedoms in the UK is
overlooked. As Larry Siedentop eloquently argues in Inventing
the Individual: The origins of Western liberalism (Penguin,
2015), there are many elements of our liberal freedoms that can be
traced directly to a Christian heritage: a heritage that we ought
to be able to acknowledge and celebrate.
Yet presenting a pristine vision of so-called British values as
a counterpoint to extremism risks a wilful ignorance of our diverse
heritage. There have been layers of influence on British culture,
from the pagan Romans onwards, that underscore the reality of a
mixed cultural landscape. Ignoring this complexity and pitting
British values against a vague, indefinable notion of extremism is
liable to put any number of faith communities into the category of
"them", besides sharpening the sense of dislocation of so many
already beleaguered British Muslims.
THIS Bill is being presented at a time when the new Government
is threatening to repeal the UK's implementation of the European
Human Rights Act. These two trajectories are at risk of giving
unprecedented powers to the Government, which may be used to
curtail genuine religious freedoms.
The paradox that Mrs May failed to notice is that in shoring up
national unity in the name of a fight against extremism the
Government is in danger of exacerbating divisions in society.
She referred to the "Trojan Horse" controversy here in
Birmingham as exactly the sort of thing targeted by the Bill. While
the Government may have forgotten that the issue was primarily
about religious conservatism and bad governance, and not extremism,
many of my Muslim neighbours in Birmingham have not forgotten the
scaremongering that they were subjected to.
Our criminal laws already give the police powers to tackle those
who are intent on conspiracy to violence. Unpalatable or irrational
views are held by people of all faiths and none, but education and
social and economic integration are the tools to address these
issues, not the criminal law.
Am I at risk of surveillance from MI5 by suggesting that these
measures expose two classic drawbacks to the democratic system as
we know it: the inability to see beyond the term of an election,
and the tendency of politicians to over- estimate their power to
EXTREMISM will be with us for a while yet, and requires of all
communities the ability to listen patiently and seek the
flourishing of everyone. There is action that we can take. I think
of the charity The Feast, which started in Birmingham, and is now
represented in Luton, Bradford, and London.
It seeks to gather Christian and Muslim young people together in
a shared exploration of their faiths. The activities are not big
events that make the headlines, but are opportunities for trust to
be built up, and difference to be celebrated rather than avoided.
Friendship rather than fear will be the best inhibition to
Looking at the political map of Britain after the General
Election, it seems that our nation is already looking like "them
and us". Here in Birmingham, issues such as employment and child
poverty, benefits sanctions and foodbanks, have coloured the city
"red", and suggest a divide to which the Government would be wise
to pay more attention.
The Revd Dr Richard J. Sudworth is a lecturer in Anglican
Theology at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, and
Priest-in-Charge of Christ Church, Sparkbrook, a Muslim-majority
area. He is the author of Distinctly Welcoming: Christian
presence in a multifaith society (Scripture Union,