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Butler-Sloss: 'Public-life faith report was misread'

11 March 2016


Established: the Duchess of Cornwall visits Forest & Sandridge Church of England primary school, Melksham, last month

Established: the Duchess of Cornwall visits Forest & Sandridge Church of England primary school, Melksham, last month

THE authors of a report that called for more representation of non-Anglican religious belief in public life have dismissed suggestions that they hope to “end Christianity” in Britain.

The former High Court judge Baroness Butler-Sloss, who chaired the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, which produced the report (News, 11 December), said that she had been inundated with emails after their recommendations were made public.

“I got an enormous number of emails accusing me of wanting to end Christianity and close down faith schools,” Lady Butler-Sloss said at a discussion in Parliament on Tuesday.

“The idea that I, an active member of the Church of England; a former bishop; and at least four different clergymen, including a Pentecostal bishop, would want to end Christianity is quite funny.”

The report, Living With Difference: Community, diversity and the common good, made dozens of recommendations, and suggested 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 was properly represented.

Besides Lady Butler-Sloss on the commission was the former Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries (Comment, 4 December). Other members included clerics, academics, and other religious leaders.

The report called for imams and rabbis to join bishops in the House of Lords; non-Anglican representation at the next coronation; an end to compulsory worship in schools; less selection of pupils by religion by faith schools; and humanists on Thought for the Day, among other things.

Baroness Butler-Sloss said that many Christians had jumped to the wrong conclusions, particularly when it came to faith schools. “I think a lot of Christians have really misunderstood what we have been saying.”

Lord Harries agreed, and said: “We wanted to take our history as a Christian nation into account. The Christian legacy is still very strong indeed.” Rather than reject it, they had wanted to write a new “national story”, which included all of the faiths present in the UK.

Ibrahim Mogra, another of the commissioners and the assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said that he and every Muslim he knew wanted to maintain Britain’s status as a Christian nation.

“Muslims by and large are very happy and comfortable with the idea that Britain is still a Christian country. We are very content with the Church of England continuing to be the Established Church, and for Her Majesty to be both the Sovereign and the Supreme Governor of the Church.”

The debate on faith schools had been overblown, Lady Butler-Sloss said. She had attended a Christian school herself, as had her children, and the report acknowledged that many faith schools were “absolutely first-class”.

But, she said, “there are other schools that don’t do so well, and are more introspective, and exclude those who don’t support their particular point of view.” There should be a discussion about how to open up such schools to other religions as well as non-believers, she said.

Another member of the Commission, Dr Ed Kessler, said that he had asked the C of E to host a meeting on how to make faith schools “plural, open, and welcoming”, but had been rebuffed.

“This is not a desire to remove the Church or any faith community from running schools. But we ask the question in some schools, where there is no encounter between children of different faiths, ‘Is this a good thing?’” Dr Kessler said.

The Labour MP Stephen Timms, who was chairing the discussion as part of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, said that some schools would argue that maintaining their unique ethos, which Lady Butler-Sloss had earlier praised, required a degree of faith-based selection in admissions.

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