The Woolf Institute is wrong: Christianity is needed in public life now more than ever

This is a guest post by Will Jones who holds a PhD in Political Philosophy from the University of Reading and a diploma in Biblical Studies from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He currently works for the Church of England in diocesan administration in Coventry.


The Woolf Institute’s commission on religion in British public life released its report Living with Difference last week, to a general chorus of criticism, despite being two years in the making.

His Grace did not think the report worthy of engagement, and I am sympathetic to that response – I almost didn’t write one myself. But the truth is this has been a major undertaking by ‘the great and the good’ and will, in some quarters, be taken very seriously indeed. Not everyone, after all, is a right-thinking conservative content to accept the ‘received revelation’ of British nationhood. I therefore pray His Grace will forgive my indiscretion in offering a more substantial response.

To me, perhaps the most notable feature of the Woolf Institute report is the arguments it doesn’t advance. It doesn’t simply try to argue that Britain is a secular country with a secular state, and that religion is inherently unsuited to public life. Such arguments are very popular in ideologically secular states like France and America, where the legacy of Enlightenment thinking still holds sway over the ruling elite. But in Britain, where the Anglican establishment (while much diminished in influence and role) remains a present reality, more subtle arguments are required. Arguments about changing times and the significance for public life of the recent decline in religious belief and practice, alongside increasing pluralism. That the report sees the need to engage these more subtle arguments, and not just fall back on the ideological staples of Enlightenment secularism, shows that the tide, as Justin Welby this week is reported as saying, really is turning.

This more nuanced style of argument presents Christians with new opportunities for defending the public role of their religion: with the secularist trump card off the table, there is everything to play for in engaging the actual debates about religion and public life in Britain. That’s why it is important to engage with this report, however wrongheaded its methods, reasoning and conclusions, because unlike so much on this topic it is actually approaching the questions within the right framework, since it assumes there is a proper role for religion in British public life and government, and we just need to work out what that is. We can work with that.

The central claim of the report concerns diversity, and in particular that in recent decades the growth in British society of diversity, especially the number of people identifying as non-religious, has major implications for the role of religion in public life.

Now diversity is a challenge for any community – much more of a challenge than is commonly acknowledged in these days when it is such a big social fact and the received response is to celebrate it. But it is a challenge, especially diversity in values and beliefs, particularly as they impinge on the public realm. That’s why there is so much current talk about the common good and social cohesion and British values. Communities are bound together fundamentally by what they have in common, not by what differentiates them, and there is only so much diversity of different kinds they can accommodate. Citizens can learn to live with difference up to a point, but at bottom a community is defined and animated by what it shares, not by what it doesn’t.

Historically, British, or at least English, society has accommodated diversity within a state that is institutionally Protestant and Anglican. That settlement has for obvious reasons been subject since the beginning to constant pressure from those dissatisfied with the privileges of a church they do not belong to or agree with. Over the course of time the position of the Established Church has been eroded, first of all by the objections of Christian Nonconformists, then through the growth of atheism and agnosticism amongst the cultural and intellectual elite, and now through increasing religious diversity coinciding with a steep drop in nominal affiliation to Christianity and Anglicanism.

It is in this sociological context that the report proposes a new religious settlement – one which reflects the diversity of British society as it stands today. It seeks to redefine Britain as a pluralist state rather than a Protestant Anglican state, and calls for a “national conversation” spearheaded by “the leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions”, the aim of which is nothing less than to create “a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life”, the most visible and immediate product of which will be a Magna Carta-style “statement of the principles and values which foster the common good, and which should underpin and guide public life”.

The clear problem with this, of course, is its naïve belief in the idea that there are in fact some underlying common values that can be distilled from the diverse religious and ethical traditions of contemporary British society. Even if this ‘conversation’ excludes (as it surely will) the usual suspects, it is pie-in-the-sky to believe that a true consensus on concrete public values will emerge genuinely embraced and supported by all traditions.

So what is plan B – what do we do in the inevitable event that we cannot all agree? Staggeringly, the report fails to consider this eventuality, so confident is it in achieving the looked-for agreement. Though you can bet that at the back of the commissioners’ minds is some kind of Rawls-style ‘consensus’ on liberal values among narrowly-defined ‘reasonable’ people.

Beyond this starry-eyed hope for a grand pluralist consensus, many of the report’s recommendations boil down essentially to promoting greater ‘literacy’ in religion and belief through, among other means, religious education, inter-religious dialogue and personal interaction. Which is fine as far as it goes, but also totally inadequate to address the central problem of pluralist society, which is community and the need for a robust basis for social solidarity and common life.

For surely it is obvious that awareness of and understanding of one another’s differences can only take you so far in establishing bonds of solidarity, which are ultimately grounded in what you have in common not in what sets you apart. People want and need to live in a community with a shared public life which helps them to feel part of it, which makes them feel like they belong to and are caught up in something great and good. This common life can’t simply be replaced by learning about, and learning to live with, difference. You can’t build a community out of curiosity; you can’t replace shared life and traditions with learning about one another’s. At some point you actually have to have something which is what we do, which binds us together as a community, as a nation. You need a basis for cohesion, not just an aspiration for it, and that has to be more than just a commitment to respecting and tolerating difference.

This is the role, in part, that Christianity has played in this country, as long as this country has been this country, at least as far as the religious dimension of public life is concerned. The Christian religion has provided a solid and coherent basis for a religious dimension to public life, one which is also affirming of freedom and accommodating of dissent and difference, so that it does not insist on adherence even while it carries out its public role. Other beliefs are respected and accommodated within bounds set by the common good, and a widespread lack of religious practice and affiliation is also taken into account (though, as others have pointed out, lack of religious affiliation should not be mistaken for straightforward lack of belief).

But the truth is, if we decide to depart from this basic Christian framework for the religious dimension to our public life then we have nowhere else to turn. As Malcolm Brown at the Archbishop’s Council points out, there is no neutral basis we can look to to ground our public life. Christianity is our public religion, for good reason.

Specific practical measures recommended in the report, with some remarks of my own, include:

  • A nationally agreed curriculum in religion, philosophy and ethics mandatory for every publicly-funded school. This surely goes against the heart of what religious freedom in education requires.
  • Reducing religious-based selection and employment in state schools. Again, clearly contrary to religious freedom in education, and also at odds with respecting religious diversity in society, which the report itself advocates.
  • Acts of collective worship in schools should be replaced with inclusive times of reflection. These sound incredibly dull and vacuous, and will inevitably end up being inclusive in the sense of adhering to the current prevailing secular creed rather than accommodating a true diversity of points of view, out of fear of being offensive.
  • Reducing the number of bishops and including other faith leaders in the House of Lords. There is nothing presently preventing governments from appointing faith leaders to the Upper House on an individual basis, but doing so on the basis of office would be highly controversial, not least because of the current low public perceptions of the country’s second largest religion, Islam. Church of England bishops sit on account of establishment, which is a longstanding mutual relationship between a particular institutional church which serves various public functions and the state. That arrangement makes sense. Nothing else on the table does.
  • Humanist contributions to Thought for the Day. You might have thought that non-religious perspectives already received enough of an airing on the BBC and in the media generally, without needing also to encroach on perhaps the only specifically religious spot in the Radio 4 schedule.
  • Not disadvantaging religious organisations in delivering social goods via public funding decisions provided they do not aim at seeking converts. The first part is welcome, but the proviso is another of those rules that is applied asymmetrically to religion. We are after all perfectly happy for agencies providing social goods to promote any of their other services and meetings, and also to educate people in their philosophies about how to think and treat others – respect, equality and diversity, safeguarding and the like – but suddenly not if we call it religious. And this despite the fact that the benefits to individuals and society of faith and church involvement have been demonstrated in countless studies. Why not just embrace religious freedom, and allow religious organisations to promote a religious way of life in the context of supplying public goods? If there are certain forms of religion we are worried about then we can apply carefully targeted restrictions. But let us not unnecessarily constrict Anglicans and Catholics, for example, in making the most of their opportunities to increase their membership in the context of social action, which is of course a basic part of Christian mission. We need to remember the benefits to individuals and society of church involvement, and stop treating it like a danger or a problem from which people need protecting.
  • Set the Law Commission to the task of ensuring all religions are treated equally. The idea of treating all religions equally needs to be handled with great care. While in certain senses and contexts it is entirely appropriate, in many areas different religions need to be carefully distinguished according to criteria of cultural and social significance. Otherwise we risk creating a false and iniquitous obligation to treat Christianity in exactly the same way as any other religion, despite Christianity being much more significant to British society than, say, Jainism. Any idea of treating religions equally must ensure that there is ample scope for reflecting the very different relationships between our society and the different religions practised within it.

Overall the report has the feel and look of an opportunistic move by humanists, secularists and representatives of other faiths, abetted by some complaisant Anglicans, to capitalise on the current predicament of our society after 50 years of cultural revolution and social fragmentation. The aim has been further to erode the role of one of our great historic sources of social cohesion, our background Christian religion and the religious establishment which represents it. That is hardly what our society, suffering with historically high levels of fragmentation and listlessness, needs right now.

No wonder Ruth Gledhill, like His Grace, has delivered such a damning verdict on the report. Certainly, it is a substantial contribution to the conversation, but with so many august voices and so many resources behind it it should have been so much better. What is needed now is something similarly grand to deliver the alternative narrative, one in which we confidently re-affirm the welcome public role of our historic faith.