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Andrew Symes: The established Church faces a battle for survival

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Is Britain a Christian country? If not, what religion or philosophy, if any, should be the foundation of our values, laws and customs? What happens if this foundational worldview used to be Christianity, but the majority of the population now no longer adhere to it? Is it time for a new ‘settlement’, just as hundreds of years ago when the Anglican version of Protestantism was established as the nation’s religion, and then subsequent laws were passed allowing increasing toleration of other denominations, faiths and ideas?

This is not just theory for those interested in political history. It’s not just about whether the Monarch is enthroned with a specifically Christian ceremony, whether bishops can sit in the House of Lords, and whether churches can govern state-funded schools. It is about whether our increasingly religiously diverse and plural population is more cohesive and harmonious under an agreed framework of nominal Christian belief, or whether this should (or could) be replaced by a ‘neutral’ set of beliefs. From a Church point of view, is evangelism and the ability to influence society with the Gospel helped or hindered by an ‘established’ church? And from society’s point of view, given the dangers posed by militant versions of religion, wouldn’t it be easier for the government to stop extremism and terrorism if one particular version doesn’t have a ‘privileged’ place and if government controls them all?

These are some of the issues which are raised by the publication of the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life (summarised here). The conclusions are predictable: advocating a major change towards increasing secularism and more diversity of religion, ie an end to Anglican hegemony. The Report receives predictable criticism from the National Secular Society (not secular enough – all religion should be banished to the private sphere), and the Church of England, which points out the vital role of church schools, the public support for Christian freedom of expression, and the fact that widespread apathy about religion (majority of white Brits) cannot be equated with thought-out and committed secular humanism (very much a minority).

The report will continue to generate much opinion and comment.

From an Anglican point of view, can establishment survive? It may be the case that as society and in particular government, law, education, media become more indifferent and even hostile to Christianity, only a very compliant version of liberal Anglicanism, one that does not assert the uniqueness of Christ or question the LGBT orthodoxy for example, could survive with access to the corridors of power. For orthodox Anglicans, perhaps the days of “the best boat to fish from” are numbered?

One particular area in which this applies is in the future of religious education. The BBC Sunday Programme on Radio 4 devoted an entire issue on 6th December to exploring the issue of RE [listen here]. It features a debate between Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association and the Bishop of Manchester David Walker. Important issues which were aired included:

  • The nature of “faith” schools (with a religious foundation). Many are clearly providing a good education, but does this prepare students for living in a multicultural world?
  • Since the Education Act of 1944 all schools are required to conduct assemblies which include a ‘predominantly Christian’ observance of worship. This has been increasingly ignored and voices are growing louder for the requirement to be scrapped (see also here).
  • The teaching of RE. While 20 years ago the subject was considered irrelevant, now it is seen to be potentially explosive. Should students be taught about all religions equally, and how? Should the teaching include, or even concentrate on, helping students make up their minds on ethical issues from a non-religious worldview (see here for example)?
  • How can the government keep control of RE teaching both in school and outside, to make sure that “extremism” is not being promoted?

It is vital that the Church gets more involved in education, not just in the excellent work done in local schools, but in terms of challenging government policies which are being increasingly driven by secularists and LGBT activists. We know that while RE is becoming an increasingly popular subject, fewer and fewer children have sufficient knowledge about Jesus Christ and the Christian faith to make a decision to choose it. Christian freedoms are in danger of being further eroded, for example laws brought in to regulate madrassas will also restrict the freedom of church youth groups. And, though our society is becoming more affluent, young people appear increasingly uncertain about their identity and their place in the world; depression and self-harming are on the increase – surely it would help to encourage young people to choose their own spiritual and moral path based on exposure to living faith, rather than a form of “RE”, which is secular philosophy combined with a bit of information about religious festivals?

There is a widespread view among liberal Anglicans that there is nothing to worry about – as long as church schools produce good academic results and pass their Ofsted tests, their “Christian” character can increasingly be in name only. There also exists an evangelical pietism which says “what happens in schools is none of our business”. It is; our children and Christian teachers are now on the front line in the three way battle between soul-destroying secularism, militant Islam and the preservation of our nation’s Christian heritage.

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Andrew Symes
Andrew is a vicar and theological educator. He is also the Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream.

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