Sermon given at Matins on 10 July 2011

10 July 2011 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

Religion in a world of Faiths: The Problem of Religion?


Over the course of the remaining four Sundays of July, I am going to be preaching about the place of religion in what we often call a ‘plural’ or ‘multi-faith’ world. That is, a world in which no single outlook, philosophy, political theory, let alone religion predominates, and where in particular those who practise faith can sometimes regard themselves – quite wrongly as I will argue – as being pushed to one side as the juggernaut of secular modernity crashes on.

The central question I want to tackle is the one posed by the penultimate Lambeth Conference (the 10-yearly gathering of Anglican Primates) whether ‘a multi-faith context is [being] taken as an excuse for marginalising all spiritual and moral perspectives’1. In other words, does faith have the right to speak up in the public sphere?

In this first sermon, I will be looking at how our perceptions of religion have changed here in the United Kingdom over the past half-century and whether we have now come to regard religious faith as a ‘problem’ rather than a ‘solution’. In the subsequent weeks, I will be looking at some of the multi-Faith contexts we find ourselves in and how Christians can relate both positively and critically to Jews and Muslims. And then finally towards the end of the month consider a model of Hospitality and Embassy for the Christian Churches’ engagement not only with other Faith communities, but also with secular culture.

But first let me begin with a personal anecdote.

At the age of 22 and about to start training for ordination, quite by chance, I went by the studios of a scandalously famous local artist, Robert Lenkiewicz, in my home city of Plymouth in the South West of England, and in the window saw a sign – ‘Student Sitters Required, Apply Within’. In the course of our conversations Lenkiewicz naturally asked what I was studying, and could not contain his utter astonishment, despair and incredulity when I said I was training for ordination. What a pointless waste of time, he said, religion will be dead by the year 2000!

In some ways, of course, he was right – established religion in this country, as elsewhere in Europe, has been in decline and not merely since my ordination in 1989!

However, there was a bigger story to tell. Lenkiewicz had grown up here in London, the son of Jewish refugee parents, who ran a hotel in Fordwych Road, where the early residents included a number of Holocaust survivors. For good reasons he was deeply pessimistic about the evil which had been perpetrated in the name of religion, and found his own spiritual expression both in the beauty of art and in his friendship with the friendless vagrants for which he became known.

This view of religion as, at best, a source of indifference or, worse, of evil stands in stark contrast to others who were also moulded in the years immediately before and after the Second World War.

On the evening of 2nd June 1953, following her Coronation here in Westminster Abbey, the newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II gave a broadcast to the nation in which she said:

When I spoke to you last … I asked you all, whatever your religion, to pray for me on the day of my Coronation - to pray that God would give me wisdom and strength to carry out the promises that I should then be making.

This inclusive and generous vision of faith was reflected both in that speech which referred repeatedly to God’s will, his grace and mercy, and in her own public espousal of religion in the nearly six-decades since.

However, those of us who are religious have to recognise the prevalence of an often lukewarm response to faith, and at times outright hostility. As Lord Sachs, the Chief Rabbi put it recently when giving evidence a Parliamentary Committee:

‘I share a real concern that the attempt to impose the current prevailing template of equality and discrimination on religious organisations is an erosion of religious liberty. We are beginning to move back to where we came in in the 17th century - a whole lot of people on the Mayflower leaving to find religious freedom elsewhere’2.

So where are we now? We can identify two key transformations in recent decades. The first is to do with the decline in formal religious observance in Europe, and the second relates to the polarising way in which the religious elements of world conflicts have been portrayed.

More than 10 years ago3, the sociologist Prof Grace Davie charted the way in which religious faith was still important in contemporary Britain but changing in character. As less people attended Church regularly themselves and those who did so went less regularly, the general and public familiarity with the vocabulary of faith diminished.

She argued that it wasn’t so much a decline in believing – even now, 70% of the population will describe themselves as Christian, and a further 6% adhere to another faith, with only a small percentage actively not believing in God.

Rather, the main change was in terms of religious engagement – ‘belonging’ with a definite sense of purpose, rather than a vague identity. She used the phrase ‘believing without belonging’.

In short, many will still long for the comfort and grandeur of faith, the rituals still have power to console, but few will actively engage. The public response to the funerals of Diana, Princess of Wales and of the Queen Mother – and even warmth with which the recent Royal Wedding here was received by 2 billion viewers – would all point to the continuing vitality of religious faith, even when personal practice has become a distant memory. Davie dubbed this ‘vicarious religion’, that is, a faith practised on my behalf by someone else.

This gap between a generalised sense of the importance of faith and the scarcity of actual religious practice has led to some worrying perceptions, my second transformation.

Alongside the warm affection for our religious heritage, last year’s British Social Attitudes survey found that half the country believed our society is deeply divided along religious lines, with a particular – and let me say very clearly – misplaced hostility towards Islam.

Much of this, of course, is derived from the events surrounding both 9/11 and the military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere that have followed. Writing in the Guardian newspaper just 4 days after 9/11, the radical atheist Richard Dawkins said: ‘To fill a world with religion, or religion of an Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used’4.

In the heat of the day, this rhetoric of religion as a violent evil had a cogent force and spawned a wave of anti-theism which has challenged the right of religion to occupy any space in the public sphere. Just as the 1998 Lambeth Conference feared, the atrocities committed by a few who were religious is taken as ‘an excuse for marginalising all spiritual and moral perspectives’5.  

But even as I read Dawkins’ words, they seem terribly blunt and outdated. Alister McGrath has written: ‘being discriminatory about religion suggests a level of maturity that being discriminatory against religion does not’6.

It is undeniable that religious people have done terrible things in the name of their God. It is equally undeniable that quasi-pagan Nazis and atheist Stalinists have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. Neither is an argument for saying that religion or politics are evil in themselves. As Archbishop Temple, writing in 1932, put it succinctly:

‘Religion itself, when developed to real maturity, knows quite well that the first object of its condemnation is bad religion, which is a totally different thing from irreligion, and can be a very much worse thing’7.

Perhaps surprisingly in 2011, we find ourselves in a position where it feels normal once again to talk about faith in the public sphere. Partly, this is due to an increased awareness of global cultures in which any credible understanding of the world today must take serious account of its persistently religious character. We must ‘Do God’: the Divine isn’t going away.

Linked to this, particularly in Western Europe, the old models of state provision allied to market deregulation have proved to be fragile in the extreme. With the UK alone spending £400m/ day servicing interest payments and taking out new borrowing, the ability of central Government to maintain traditional roles, let alone take on new responsibilities has been severely curtailed. This has been one of the key drivers behind the ‘Big Society’ which has looked to Churches, Charities and Faith Groups for support.

More positively, the global coverage given to recent events, such as the Papal Visit or the Royal Wedding, has done a great deal to present a generous and hospitable image of the Christian faith.

But there is much more to be done. Not least in the Churches’ task of evangelism, enabling ‘believers’ to become ‘belongers’. And part of that challenge is how peoples of different faiths can cooperate across their faith boundaries in such a way that religion is indeed part of the answer, not of the problem. Next week, I will be looking at how Christians and Jews can relate.

References:


1. Embassy, Hospitality and Dialogue: Christians and Peoples of Other Faiths, Lambeth Conference, 1998, Report 3, p.12 (http://www.lambethconference.org/1998/documents/report-3.pdf)
2. http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-administration-select-committee/news/faith-leaders-and-humanists-on-big-society/ 
3. Cf. Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000.
4. Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging, Oxford, Blackwell, 1994.
5. Religion’s Misguided Missiles, London, Guardian, 15th September 2001 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/sep/15/september11.politicsphilosophyandsociety1?INTCMP=SRCH Op. Cit.
6. Alister McGrath, Why God won’t go away. London, SPCK, 2011, p.44
7. William Temple, Nature, Man and God. London: Macmillan, 1934, p.22 quoted in McGrath p.43

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