KLICE Comment Jan 2016

'Living with Difference': Time for a Constructive Christian Engagement

Jonathan Chaplin is the Director of KLICE.

The British Christian community is in danger of squandering an important and timely opportunity to contribute to the debate about the role of faith in the public square, a debate marred by much confusion, misunderstanding and ill-temper.[1]

The report

On 7 December, the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute’s Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (CORAB) published Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good, following a two-year national consultation in which hundreds of contributions were received from individuals and organisations.[2] The report proposes a ‘new settlement’ on the place of religion in public life in view of the current rapid shifts in religious allegiance and identity in British society, including the decline in membership of mainline Christian denominations and the significant growth of those who adhere to no religion and to new minority religions.[3] It argues that this growingde facto plurality of religion and belief ought to be better accommodated in the de jure institutional and constitutional status of religion and belief and reflected in public policy.[4]

Aspects of the report's account of the landscape or religion and belief in Britain can certainly be challenged. Yet it seeks, commendably, a ‘vision … of a society at ease with itself … in which [all] feel at home as part of an ongoing national story … [and] to which all … wish to, and are encouraged to, contribute … to the common good’ (p11). It rebuts secularist attempts to elbow religion into the margins of public life while also legitimately questioning whether certain historically inherited privileges enjoyed by Christianity, such as bishops in the House of Lords, or a Christian coronation, are any longer defensible. The report contains a wealth of valuable information and analysis and offers useful insights on how Britain might better come to terms with its growing religious and moral diversity. Its 37 recommendations are wide-ranging and some are controversial, which is why they merit patient, thoughtful responses.

The responses

Crass misrepresentations of initiatives like this from sections of the mainstream media are, of course, wholly to be expected. Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail excelled himself on that score, accusing the report of dragging us into a ‘multicultural wasteland’. But even John Bingham and Steven Swinford in The Daily Telegraph claimed that the report ‘calls for public life in Britain to be systematically de-Christianised’. It does no such thing.

Oddly, several critics blamed CORAB merely for calling itself a ‘commission’, insinuating that this was some kind of ploy to lend a spurious ‘official’ legitimacy to what is only a ‘self-appointed’ private body operating in civil society. It never claimed to be anything else. It does not pretend to be fully representative of the growing diversity of religions and beliefs in Britain or to speak for all of them. The authority of the report lies in the quality of its arguments alone, which is why it is a shame that so far few Christians have seriously engaged with them.

Accused of succumbing to ‘secularism’, the report overall calls for more public space for religion – which is why the National Secular Society rejected it as ‘completely at odds with the religious indifference that permeates British society’. From a legal perspective, church-state expert Bob Morris criticised it (unconvincingly, I think) for ceding too much ground to the special interests of the religious groups represented on the commission, at the expense of the public interest.

One might have hoped that wider Christian responses would have been more affirming, yet most I have seen have been overwhelmingly negative and often summarily dismissive.[5] The Evangelical Alliance, at least, announced that it ‘welcomes the call in this report for government to acknowledge and embrace authentic plurality’ and promised to ‘play our part in securing a free and diverse future, and continuing the evangelical contribution to the common good’, while noting areas of concern. Others were less generous.

Ruth Gledhill trashed the 100-page report in 400 words on the day of its release as a ‘wasted opportunity’, under the headline ‘the worst report I have ever read’, leaving one doubting whether she had actually read it. Campaigning organisation Christian Concern also repudiated it outright on the same day without offering any analysis or counter-argument. It merely declared that ‘pluralism can only ever deliver greater fragmentation and confusion, as the last few decades should have taught us’ and that only Christianity can provide a ‘coherent narrative that is sufficiently robust to give us direction and real British values’.

Church of England Newspaper (CEN) erroneously asserted that the report ‘recommended that any vestiges of the UK being deemed a Christian society should, in effect, be killed off’, rejecting the report as ‘classic multicultural dogma’. In the same issue Andrew Carey brusquely advised readers to ‘move along, nothing to see here’ (while then noting several welcome recommendations). He asserted that the commission had fallen victim to a ‘default secular pluralism’ but without pausing to define this term or cite any textual evidence behind it. (Later, however, CEN did give space to commission member Angus Ritchie to defend the report.)

In Church Times, even the normally measured Paul Vallely waved it aside as a ‘hotchpotch’, charging that it was an ‘ideological document that assumes from the outset that liberal humanism is the only sensible option in a diversifying society’ and that it sought to ‘neuter [faiths] with an impoverished secularism’. He too cites no textual evidence for this claim and I think he would struggle to do so.

A few more thoughtful, albeit still decidedly negative, commentaries did appear. Jenny Taylor from Lapido Media welcomed the report’s recommendations on religious literacy (its chapter on the media is one of its better ones) but, under the headline ‘Public religion report is recipe for social breakdown’, alleged that it ‘continues the half-century-long war of attrition against the Christian character of the country’. She formulated what is, admittedly, a widely-held position in certain British Christian circles:

‘By effectively saying that the public space is “pluralist”, it further privatises any one expression of faith as true. The report makes no attempt to acknowledge or appreciate the debt the nation’s public life owes to Christianity. Perhaps the incoherence was unintended, but the outcome effectively makes a religion of having no religion-in-particular, and the effects of that are worrying. It is naïve to believe that a new set of fundamental values to underpin public life can be determined merely by pooling the ethical aspirations of all faith and ethical traditions in the nation.’

However, as I suggest below, to accept that ‘public space is pluralist’ is not at all to imply the privatisation of faith. And if public values can’t be supported and nurtured by a wide variety of faiths and beliefs, then we are indeed in danger of social breakdown.

Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England Malcolm Brown suggested that CORAB had been taken ‘hostage’ by a version of secular liberal humanism. In what is nonetheless the most sustained Christian response I have seen so far, he correctly notes that ‘morality and ethics cannot be understood properly without locating them within a framework of traditions, communities, narratives and practices’. Yet he goes on, problematically, to attack the ‘fiction that the state should adopt some kind of neutral position in order to accommodate … the diversity of religions and beliefs within society. This is a fiction because nobody comes from nowhere. There is no neutrality; no “trusted umpire” to hold the coats whilst “religions and beliefs” slug it out in the public square’.

Well, there had better be. Brown elides the vital distinction between the moral neutrality of the state (a fiction indeed) and the legal doctrine of the religious neutrality of the state. The latter is in no way incompatible with a full recognition of the importance of plural traditions. On the contrary, it is the guarantor of their protection against hegemonic majorities and a means to ensure that when they ‘slug it out’ in the public square (as they should), they do so peacefully. The principle is quite properly upheld by the European Court of Human Rights, which denies to the state ‘any power…to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs’ and also ‘requires the State to ensure mutual tolerance between opposing groups’ (Refah Party v Turkey, 2003, §91).

Brown too hastily dismisses the report’s call for ‘equitable’ solutions to tensions thrown up by religious diversity. True, the report does not define the term precisely, and yes, ‘equity’ should not be read as mandating strict arithmetical proportionality. But consider this: there are about 6000 state-supported schools of a Christian character in England and Wales, but only about a dozen Muslim ones, even though Muslims now number 5% of the population. Is there no issue of ‘equity’ here at all? Is the Church of England, which likes to present itself as the ‘host’ and champion of religious minorities, entirely relaxed about that distribution of public educational resources?

Brown’s deeper concern is about the report’s supposed ‘assumption that the growing number of people who report that they have “No Religion” can safely be assumed to be, de facto, humanists and that, ergo, they can be adequately represented by humanist organisations’. I have searched diligently for this assumption in the text (Vallely also claims to spy it) but have returned empty-handed. Nor do I recognize the broader charge that CORAB propounds a secular liberal humanism.

Vallely, Taylor, Brown and others overlook the substantial theological arguments in favour of state  impartiality towards a plurality of extant religions and beliefs, and that this is the surest way to protect their public standing. Rowan Williams calls this ‘interactive pluralism’, evangelical commentator Os Guinness terms it ‘chartered pluralism’, and orthodox neo-Calvinists dub it ‘principled pluralism’. It is also implicit in Vatican Two’s epochal Declaration on Religious Freedom. It is grounded in a profound Christian commitment to freedom of conscience and the vocation of all to contribute to the common good according to their own lights. This version of ‘pluralism’ is not a concession to secularism but an attempt to deny it a public monopoly.

Some problems

The commission traversed an ambitiously wide range of territory and so it is hardly surprising that the report contains several weak spots. Here are four examples.

First, the report indeed does not sufficiently acknowledge the implications of the formative historical predominance of Christianity in British public life (the place to have done that would have been the all-too-brief section, ‘The ongoing national story’, pp21-22). The further, and distinct, claim by some critics that this legacy has bequeathed to us many of our valued political and civic norms and institutions is a more contestable one that demands precise formulation and defence; it isn’t enough for critics merely to assert it. Yet the report shows no curiosity at all about this question. At one point it reports as fact that modern civic values like reason, dissent, toleration, rights, democracy and the rule of law all derive straightforwardly from Enlightenment humanism rather than Christianity (p15; cf. pp17, 18). Yet the work of contemporary philosophers such as Alasdair McIntyre, Charles Taylor and Larry Siedentop demonstrates that this is a highly dubious assertion. In fact, commissioners need only have consulted the important work of one their own patrons, Rowan Williams’ Faith in the Public Square, to have recognised this.

Second, the report’s operative conception of ‘pluralism’ is poorly-defined, leaving unclear the sense in which members of diverse communities should, as the report counsels, be ‘embraced’ by society (p7). For while all (lawful) religions and beliefs should certainly be guaranteed equal legal protection, civil respect and suitable access to public resources and fora, neither individual citizens nor public bodies are under any duty to affirm the content of the beliefs or practices of others, nor, therefore, to ‘welcome’ just any ‘difference’, as the report implies (p25). Indeed some citizens will feel under a compelling duty to criticise or condemn such beliefs and practices, even if lawful.

At points the report seems to get this, recognising that ‘embrace’ does not imply ‘endorsement’. It commends the anti-poverty work of the Booths in Victorian England as an example of how ‘the demand to integrate must not be allowed to silence the prophetic and disturbing voices of those who challenge injustice’ (p66), and expresses concern that the Lobbying Act might inhibit charities from criticising government policy (p65). Yet, chapter 6, on ‘dialogue’, left me wondering whether it would, for example, accept that the charge of ‘injustice’ might also be legitimately brought against the very regime of equality and human rights law that the report frequently invokes.

Third, as many commentators quickly observed, the report presents an inadequate account of ‘faith schools’. On the positive side, it offers robust support for religious education, proposing a better curriculum and better training (pp33-34). Its proposal that secular humanism be mandatory in the RE curriculum (p37) is, to me, compelling (albeit now abruptly rebutted by the government) – how else could children learn to identity and critique the ‘secular liberal humanism’ that is so influential in public life and that critics themselves claims to see in this report? The report’s proposal for a tightening of church schools’ admission policies is controversial but at least merits ongoing debate. Its questioning of whether a ‘mainly Christian’ daily act of collective worship is any longer sustainable (in non-church schools) (p37) is surely valid – this isn’t ‘de-Christianisation’ but rather a call to end publicly-funded spiritual hypocrisy.

Yet, as commentators have been quick to point out, the report fails to draw the fundamental distinction between church schools, which are long-established and much in demand, and newer private faith schools which are of a wholly different character (many perfectly fine, some deeply troubling). It implies that that all ‘faith schools’ are ‘socially divisive’ (pp33, 36, 38) whereas in fact many church schools, especially Anglican ones, are key integrators of their local neighbourhoods. Given that the Church of England’s most senior education officer, Nigel Genders, made a submission to the commission, this is a surprising misconstruction (see his subsequent responsehere).

Fourth, while the chapter on law is in some ways measured and constructive (e.g., it affirms the need both to combat Islamophobia and to scrutinize ‘sharia tribunals’), it regrettably fails to throw its weight unreservedly behind the formal recognition of the principle of the ‘reasonable accommodation of religion and belief’. This requires that, where generally applicable laws (e.g. in employment) produce substantive and unjustified inequality of treatment for adherents to certain religions or beliefs, such adherents may be entitled to exemptions, as the law currently allows in limited circumstances (p70). The report’s weakly-argued judgment that the formal recognition of such a principle in British law wouldn’t make much difference to the protection of religion and belief (pp72, 77) is a missed opportunity to strengthen exactly the kind of pluralism the report seeks to champion.

The future

In any event, whatever we make of such questions, they illustrate the kinds of debate that the report invites, resources and demands. They touch on different dimensions of the new ‘settlement’ on religion in British public life that we most assuredly need – unless you think that our current jumble of ad hoc, inconsistent and often resented arrangements are already just the ticket.

Commentators find themselves under almost irresistible pressures to produce instant media responses to documents like Living with Difference. But some might pause to reflect on whether they should have put out holding responses (rather like the EA’s) and taken more time to digest the report’s actual arguments. There is still time for Christians to do that work of digestion and to formulate more considered contributions to the ‘national conversation’ that the commission seeks to facilitate. I hope those in a position to do so will yet seize the moment before it slips through our fingers.


[1] Strictly, I should say ‘English Christian Community’ as all the participants in the debate I discuss are based in England.

[2] KLICE has no connection to the Woolf Institute and did not contribute to the report.

[3] There is, however, now evidence that the long-term decline of Christianity in Britain is being reversed, notwithstanding the continuing decline in mainline denominations. This complicates the account of decline in the report.

[4] For a useful overview, see Frank Cranmer on the Law and Religion site.

[5] An inventory of responses can be found here.  See also the excellent rejoinder by CORAB member Angus Ritchie, and a stout defence of the report by CORAB convenor and Woolf Institute Director Ed Kessler.


Culture and Christ Meets once a month on the evening of every 2nd Wednesday from 7-9pm for fellowship and engagement with cultural issues, both academic and other. The aim is to develop a community for support, exploration of our different areas of expertise, grappling with the issues of our day, etc.