Religious Privilege?

At a recent conversation between two of the officers of Leicester’s Secular Society and two of us from Stoneygate Baptist Church, the question of the “privileges” enjoyed by religious groups in our country – particularly by the Church of England – cropped up. One of the aims of the Secular Society is to eliminate these. Nonconformity campaigned against the privileged position of the Church of England for most of its history, so there was a degree of common ground.

Religion enjoys advantageous tax regulations for its organizations, the public funding of faith schools, the establishment of the Church of England, compulsory Christian worship in schools and publicly funded chaplains in the armed services, hospitals and prisons. Many Christians from outside the Church of England (and no doubt some from within it) have doubts about some of these. The case against State funded faith schools is a strong one, offering opportunities to particular religious groups to promote their beliefs among children at tax payers’ expense. Attempts to increase religious diversity within them have met with limited success. Many offer a balanced and excellent education for children from diverse backgrounds, but the danger of the privilege being abused is considerable. It has always struck me as nonsense to force schools to have an act of Christian worship – or any act of worship come to that – every day. Worship, as I understand it, is for churches and other places of worship, not for schools.

Tax breaks for religious organizations, like other charities, are based on the fact that they are non-profit making and contribute to the welfare of society through voluntary activity of many different kinds, including youth clubs, lunch clubs, food banks, parent and toddlers groups etc. It would be impossible to separate out non-religious charitable activity (a distinction meaningless to most members of faith communities), and to tax churches and other religious organizations as businesses would bankrupt many and destroy a huge amount of the good work they do. With publicly funded chaplaincies, the cost is relatively small, and it is difficult to see how the State would replace the valuable work they do. The presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords does seem anachronistic, but no more than the House of Lords itself.

Underlying so much of this interplay of religion and public life is the historical Christian character of the country, often centred on the Church of England, established by law. In practice, disestablishment would be difficult. If leaders of the Church of England use their public position to promote particular beliefs, it would be necessary, but if they are open to share their platforms with others, it is probably not worth the effort. Hopefully, Christians, both within the Church of England and outside it, can demonstrate an openness and tolerance in public life that will have a good effect on the behaviour and attitude of non-Christian faith groups.

More fundamental are profound differences in convictions about what life is all about. The secularists make great play of the fact that fewer and fewer people are describing themselves as “religious”, but what that means is not at all clear. I’m not sure I am happy with the designation of “religious” for myself, although I have been in Christian ministry for nearly 40 years! An increasing number of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, although the distinction is far from obvious. It is unacceptable to impose any particular faith or religion on anyone, but neither is it acceptable to impose a godless, secular social framework on those for whom religious faith is basic to life as a whole. Faith, spirituality, religion – these ideas lie at the heart of how we understand ourselves. What is called for is a tolerant spirit and a readiness to grant freedom of faith to all – and a wisdom for our law-makers to enable that freedom to be experienced by everyone, whether “religious” or not.

Peter Shepherd (April 2016)