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Tuesday evening saw the last of the Westminster Faith Debates, as 450 people converged on Westminster Hall to witness a most amicable conversation between former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and former Telegraph and Spectator editor Charles Moore. Organised by former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, the Religion and Society Programme, and Theos, the religion and society think tank, the discussion centred around the appropriate place of antithetical religious and non-religious beliefs in a democratic society.
After introductions from Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead, the director of the Religion and Society Programme, it was Charles Moore who set the tone for the evening by questioning society's ability to cope with the competing (yet exclusive) truth claims found in a 'post-Christian' world. This notion of conflict in dialogue was one that underlined much of the later discussion, and was a subject on which a former prime minister and the head of a divided Anglican communion undoubtedly had much to offer.
In responding to Moore, Blair trod the middle ground as carefully as one would expect from the man who brought us New Labour, talking about the need for 'a democracy-friendly religion and a religion-friendly democracy'. While he was adamant that religious arguments and viewpoints had their place in the public sphere, he was just as firm that these concerns had to be balanced with the equally valid convictions of others. Perfectly reasonable people, as he sought to remind the audience later on, can have very serious disagreements, something that makes a proper democratic process of decision making so important.
Responding to Moore's questions about Human Rights and the feeling of victimisation among some British Christians, the Archbishop was similarly balanced and considered, admitting that he was 'just a little wary about jumping too quickly in to the victim posture,' and pointing out that it was 'a few extremely difficult cases' that had polarised discussion. On the issue of Human Rights interpretation by secular judges, however, he was a little more forthcoming, highlighting the need to reconnect Human Rights discussion with its religious roots, and suggesting that ideas about natural, inalienable rights are innately theological, rather than secular.
When questioned about the dangers posed to religion by its fundamentalist and radical facets, both men spoke about the need for greater dialogue and understanding between all religious and non-religious groups. Asked if Islam was really as peaceful as he claimed, Blair pointed to Christianity's own tattered history by way of response, highlighting the rather uncomfortable role played by John Calvin in the execution of a political rival to show how a violent minority can taint the perception of a peaceful majority. While interfaith dialogue may sometimes be a case of preaching to the converted, Williams admitted, those who engage in it are able to take better understandings of other faiths back to their own religious communities, aiding the dissemination and spread of more accurate ideas about different faiths and traditions.
While the questions at the end of the debate often covered similar ground, they also threw up some surprising gems, including Tony Blair’s candid admission that he forced two members of his office to get on their knees and pray with the head of the Salvation Army, and just the hint of an argument between Blair and the Archbishop on the advisability of allowing super casinos to be built in an impoverished area of Manchester.
The theological highlight of the debate, however, was the Archbishop of Canterbury's response to a question from the audience about the place of spirituality and religious arguments in the public square. Straightforward, overtly religious arguments cannot dictate public policy, Williams admitted – but nor should they need to. In a democratic and pluralistic society, arguments cannot be based solely on Divine authority. This, however, should not be a problem. If Christians are convinced that something is not in line with the will of God, then they cannot be afraid to look for pragmatic, secular reasons to support their opinion, because if God never meant it to happen, then it simply won't be good for us, as individuals or as a society.
Such a balanced and insightful view was indicative of the way that all three men approached a delicate subject. Indeed it was a fitting end to a series of debates that have brought a nuanced and careful approach to what can often be an extremely polarised discussion. For that, much credit must go to Linda Woodhead and the team at the Religion and Society Programme. In stripping away the angry rhetoric and allowing space for some of the subtleties of faith to be expressed, the Westminster Faith Debates have contributed to an incredibly important conversation that looks set to continue for many years to come.
Tom Andrew is currently undertaking an internship at Theos
Watch the final Westminster Faith Debate here.
Posted 25 July 2012
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.