Saturday, October 28, 2006

Archbishop of Canterbury on religious symbols

In this article published in yesterday's Times the Archbishop of Canterbury reflects on his recent experience in China to throw light on the questions of the right place of religion and religious practices in British society today; as debates continue about the wearing of Muslim veils and Christian crosses in the workplace, and about the place of church or faith schools. He cautions, rightly in my view, against a state-sponsored secularism. China is moving away from that, having tried and failed to exclude religion from public life, and it would be ironic if we are moving towards it. A state which sponsors secularism at the expense of religious integrity and practice is a state which is usurping to itself a role which is very different from what we have understood the state to be about in Britain. The difficulty Anglicans have however, and which the Archbishop does not mention explicity, is that the Church of England has been, and constitutionally remains, a state-sponsored religion. In that sense we are not yet a secular society. Perhaps the over-reaction, as I would see it, of those who bitterly oppose so-called faith schools arises from the spiritual toxicity of a situation and a history in which the Church of England has exercised, and in some respects still does, an authority drawn from its status as the established church but which is no longer freely embraced by the vast majority of the British population.
If the Church of England has a genuine concern to protect religious freedoms in England then I think we should be pursuing vigorously the dismantling of our established status. Then we would stand on all fours with other faith commuities in English society and earn what respect and authority we may gain on the basis of our track record as a faith community rather than on our historical priveleges which now appear increasingly more like burdens.

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