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Living with difference in a changing society

Living with difference in a changing society

Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good - the report launched today by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life - describes itself as the "first systematic review of the role of religion and belief in the UK today". It's an ambitious undertaking - both in its scope, and in the range of viewpoints it has brought together. At the same time as I served on the Commission with the head of the British Humanist Association, he and I were involved in some pretty public disagreement about a Theos report in which I had argued that "humanists should be Christians and Christians should be humanists".

Parts of the report will make sobering reading for Christians. But we should never be afraid of the facts - so it is important to engage with its analysis of the decline in religious practice and self-identification in modern Britain. Growing up in a small Scottish village, "Church of Scotland" was undoubtedly the default self-description of people who rarely (if ever) darkened the doors of our parish church. "C of E" used to mean much the same for vast swathes of English society. North and south of the Border, those days have gone (or at the very least are going).

Christendom may be over, but there is evidence that the Church is renewing. The report notes that the long-term trends of decline include growth within Pentecostal and evangelical churches, with immigration and church planting being two important causes.

It's impossible to make long-term predictions in this area. What you expect to happen next will depend a lot on what you think about human nature. If you think religion is a dogma which enlightened societies are now abandoning, you will expect a continuing trajectory of decline. If you think, with St Augustine, that God has made us for himself, you will take the signs of a spiritual "restlessness" in our society indicate a longing that only he can fulfil - and you may therefore anticipate a rather different future.

In seventeen years of ministry in the (very much post-Christendom) context of east London, I have seen immigration and church planting lead to substantial numerical growth in a number of congregations. Research being conducted by the Centre for Theology and Community (which we will publish in the new year) shows that these are more than "one-offs" - growth is possible across church traditions where it is intentionally and sensitively pursued. It can and should complement (and not compete with) action with others for the common good.

Action for the common good is an important theme of the report - which singles out Citizens UK as an instructive example of the role religion and belief can play in challenging injustice. It's campaigns on the Living Wage and the welcoming of refugees show the difference between a bogus secular "neutrality" and a genuinely plural public square. The Commissioners express concern that the strings which come with public funding, and the restrictions imposed by the Lobbying Act make it harder for people of faith to challenge the status quo in the way that prophetic figures such as Catherine and William Booth have done in previous generations.

The report paints a nuanced landscape of privilege and of disadvantage for different religions and belief systems in different parts of our public life. In some areas, we argue that religions are unfairly disadvantaged - not least in the attitudes various funders have to faith-based social projects which provide a public good. (It will be useful for churches to read these findings alongside the new Theos/CTC Keeping the Faith guide on the relationship between service provision and "proselytism".)

It is only when the Church has confidence in the future that it will stop clinging by its fingertips to privileges which are no longer appropriate. Living with Difference rightly urges an end to the anachronistic (and much-ignored) requirement for collective worship in every State school, and draws attention (as Theos' own research has) to the sometimes negative social impact of selection by religion in faith schools. This latter issue is particularly difficult, as many Commissioners recognise the immense value of such schools, and the role such selection sometimes plays in maintaining their ethos. That is why the report doesn't call for an end to selection - but a recognition of the competing goods involved, and a reduction in selection on religious grounds wherever possible.

It will be interesting to see how many of the nuances of the report make it into the early days of media reportage. However that plays out, our hope is that it's longer-term impact will be to enable people with deep and irresolvable differences to disagree more honestly, and to live together more constructively. That's an ambition which should make sense to every Christian as we both seek the welfare of our diverse earthly cities, and seek to embody something of the very different city which is to come.

Angus Ritchie is the director of thCentre for Theology and Community, priest-in-charge at St-George-in-the-East and assistant priest at St Peter’s Church, Bethnal Green. He is a Commissioner on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life.

Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good can be downloaded from the Commission's website.

The Commission has published a selection of the submissions it received during its national consultation, 2013-15. These can be accessed here.

Image by Romeo Koitmäe from wikimedia.orgavailable in the public domain

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