Dial back Christianity in British official life, make room for secularism, says new report

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England’s best-known cathedral and mother church of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion. Religion News Service photo by Trevor Grundy

England’s best-known cathedral and mother church of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion. Religion News Service photo by Trevor Grundy

Church of England leaders are displeased with a new report calling for more official recognition of other religious and secularism in UK public life. Photo of Canterbury Cathedral courtesy by Trevor Grundy for RNS.

Church of England leaders are displeased with a new report calling for more official recognition of other religions and secularism in U.K. public life. Pictured here is Canterbury Cathedral. Religion News Service photo by Trevor Grundy

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) Almost 1,500 years after St. Augustine of Canterbury founded England’s first Christian church in 597 A.D., the British people have been told in no uncertain terms that they’re no longer living in a Christian country.

A sensational report released this week by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life challenges this country’s time-tested moral and public values system. In language that raises eyebrows — and tempers — the report says the United Kingdom should cut back the Christian tone of major state occasions and shift toward a “pluralist character.”

Events such as coronations should be changed to be more inclusive, it says, while the number of bishops in the House of Lords should be cut to make way for leaders of other religions.

The recommendations from the commission, chaired by the former High Court judge Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, highlight major changes in British society, such as the decline in people who say they are Anglicans, down from 40 percent in 1983 to less than  20 percent in 2013. 


READ: Church of England Sunday attendance continues downward slide


Although membership in the commission included leaders and academics from every major religious tradition, a spokesman for the Church of England blasted the findings as “dominated by the old-fashioned view that traditional religion is declining in importance and that non-adherence to a religion is the same as humanism or secularism.”

That may be referring to the commission’s call for new policy on religion and belief in the U.K. that would “provide space and a role for all within society, regardless of their beliefs or absence of them.” 

Royal sources say that Prince Charles, 67, would have considerable sympathy with some of the report’s recommendations. The heir to the throne has often spoken of wanting to be, when king, defender of faiths and not just “the faith.”

Key recommendations include:

  • The creation of a  Magna Carta-style secular statement of values governing public life as an alternative to the much-proclaimed but little-understood adherence to “British values.”
  • The scrapping of religious assemblies for schoolchildren, along with ending of the segregation of children by faith at schools throughout the land.
  • An end to the dominance of 26 Anglican male bishops in the House of Lords (the British Parliament’s upper house) and the replacement of some of them with Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis and other non-Christian clerics.
  • The complete overhaul of the coronation service for the next monarch so that leaders of faiths other than Christianity play major roles.
  • A major rethinking on the British government’s anti-terror policy so that radical views can be expressed at universities and institutions of higher learning by preachers and teachers who are currently damned as extremists by security and intelligence networks.

READ: Muslims condemn Britain’s plans to combat extremism


Two years in the making, the report was set up by the Woolf Institute, which was established at Cambridge University in 1998. It is this country’s leading think tank studying relations between Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. 

The Right Rev. Justin Welby, bishop of Durham, was named the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. Photo courtesy of Durham Cathedral

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Photo courtesy of Durham Cathedral

While gathering evidence, the report’s commissioners met with Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury who is spiritual leader of the world’s 800 million Anglicans; Ephraim Mirvis, the South African-born Chief Rabbi (Orthodox) of the Commonwealth; and leaders of Britain’s fast-growing Muslim community (currently estimated at 2.8 million).

Even so, some Christians are furious. They believe humanists and secularists are the brains behind this controversial report, which has been damned as “seriously misguided” by the Church of England, the country’s established church since the 16th century. Its Supreme Governor is Queen Elizabeth II, who holds the title “defender of the faith.” 

At her coronation in 1953, Queen Elizabeth swore “to uphold the laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel, maintain the Protestant reformed religion established by law and preserve the settlement of the Church of England.”

There is not a single reference in the coronation service to a religion other than Christianity or a denomination apart from the Church of England.

But that was over 60 years ago, when most Britons who were asked to fill in forms asking their affiliation simply put “C of E” (Church of England), whether they went to church on Sundays or not.


READ: Proposal to loosen Anglican Communion ties draws mixed responses


Meanwhile, the Church of England is battling internal divisions as well. Welby is busy preparing for a “make-or-break”  meeting in Canterbury next month — one that could determine the long-term future of the Anglican Communion.

He is attempting to hold together a group of 37 Anglican primates who are bitterly divided on the subject of human sexuality.

Church of England sources say the meeting will attempt to repair damage caused by feuding clerics on the explosive issue of full Christian rights for gay men and women and pave the way for the next Lambeth Conference — until now the showpiece of Britain’s Anglican/Protestant Christian heritage — in 2018.

(Trevor Grundy is a contributor to RNS based in Britain)

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  • Neon Genesis

    Of course the Church of England is afraid of the report. They know better than anyone that young people are leaving organized religion in droves and their privileged discriminatory position in the government is their last place of position of influence in mainstream society and this report is a direct challenge to their unjust authority. But it is the Church of England itself and not this report that will continue to kill themselves through their continual hatred of gays and insistence of excommunicating Christians who use their right to marry the people they love just because their outdated views don’t approve.

  • John Nicholson

    A fairly loose bit of reporting. The opening inaccuracy that St Augustine founded England’s first christian church is so wildly adrift that it undermines confidence in the remainder of the article. I am sure it is right to say there will be opposition in the Anglican Church in England to the proposals in the report, particularly among the more traditionally minded, but who the “some christians” are who are furious needs attribution, and there is no reference to what the Archbishop of Canterbury may or may not think. As a life-long Anglican I can only welcome the spirit of openness and comprehensiveness of the report – virtues traditionally associated with the Anglican church at its best.

  • Be Brave

    Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah . . . “should be cut to make way for leaders of other religions.”

    Yeah, you know, like in all of the “Islamic Countries”

    And of course “secularism” one plastered into the wall of power and authority by atheistic power organizations, won’t relinquish that power to anyone or any thing else either.

    Ah yes, what a wonderful world of diversity and tolerance in which we live.

  • John McGrath

    A lot of Christian sore losers here. Christianity cannot make a compelling case for itself. Bluster does not impress.Well, at least, from this report, catholic bishops were not consulted. Or were they?

  • samuel johnston

    Whenever Christian churches are deprived of their power to order non-believers around, they cry “oppression” and “interference” with their religion. Happily, they are correct in the latter. Religion, like sex, belongs indoors, and in private.

  • Larry

    Its funny, ISIS supporters hate secularism also. The idea of government not entangling itself with religion and allowing people to worship as they want goes against their way of thinking. Its why the average fundamentalist Christian is in no position to speak about fundamentalist Islam. They would do the same things if they had the political power and access to heavy weaponry. Different flavors of the same freedom hating rhetoric.

    What a wonderful world of diversity and tolerance in which we live when we keep government away from religion and religion away from government. To protect both is to protect the rights of all.

    But I see how some people don’t like that. Those who seek special privileges and power solely on the basis of belonging to a given faith and sect. They get annoyed at the idea of religious freedom.

  • David Knudtson

    Story says there are 800 million Anglicans worldwide. This is not true. The actual figure is closer to 80 million and even that is a stretch because it includes the stats of England herself which are highly increased by those who are baptised but have no other connection to the Church.

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