How should religion fit into British public life?

Commission finds that much greater understanding of religion and belief is needed in every section of society


A new report, published this week by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, and made up of the great and the good of the British establishment, challenges the role of faith in contemporary society.

The report questions how best British public life can adapt to a much changed religious landscape, revealed in successive censuses, and growing radicalisation among some religious sub-groups.

As the report explains:

“Religion and belief are driving forces today. Society is not about to return to the past when religion and religious authorities dominated. It is clear, though, that they raise issues that have urgently to be addressed.

“The religious landscape in this country has been transformed in the last few decades and now includes a large proportion of people who identify themselves as not religious, and censuses and surveys suggest this proportion is increasing rapidly.

“At the same time there is a growth in religions other than Christianity, and in branches of Christianity such as the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. The picture is made more complicated by the growth of fanaticism.”

The coronation of the next monarch and the composition of the House of Lords are challenged, with the Commission calling for these longstanding British institutions to be restructured to reflect modern societal norms.

The Commission, however, falls short of recommending that these medieval institutions be abolished altogether as part of the formation of an updated, secular state.

Chaired by former high court judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the Commission does make some radical proposals, including:

  • A national conversation should be launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life.
  • Much greater religion and belief literacy is needed in every section of society, and at all levels.
  • The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national and civic events so that they are more reflective of the UK’s increasing diversity, and in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England.
  • All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society, and the broad framework of such a curriculum should be nationally agreed. The legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed, and replaced by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection.
  • Bodies responsible for admissions and employment policies in schools with a religious character (‘faith schools’) should take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion.
  • A panel of experts on religion and belief should be established to advise the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) when there are complaints about the media coverage in this field.
  • Relevant public bodies and voluntary organisations should promote opportunities for interreligious and inter-worldview encounter and dialogue.
  • Where a religious organisation is best placed to deliver a social good, it should not be disadvantaged when applying for funding to do so, so long as its services are not aimed at seeking converts.
  • The Ministry of Justice should issue guidance on compliance with UK standards of gender equality and judicial independence by religious and cultural tribunals.
  • The Ministry of Justice should instruct the Law Commission to review the anomalies in how the legal definitions of race, ethnicity and religion interact in practice and make recommendations to ensure all religious traditions are treated equally.
  • In framing counter-terrorism legislation, the government should seek to promote, not limit, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and should engage with a wide range of affected groups, including those with which it disagrees, and also with academic research. It should lead public opinion by challenging negative stereotyping and by speaking out in support of groups that may otherwise feel vulnerable and excluded.

Kevin Gulliver is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and a director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute and chair of the Centre for Community Research. He writes in a personal capacity

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