Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Westminster Faith Debate: Religion in Public Life

This was the grand finale of the Westminster Faith Debates;  and, as is the want of grand finales, this event had the biggest names, t he largest crowd and the best venue. The speakers were Tony Blair, - fresh from a Prime Ministers’ Downing Street Dinner with the Queen -, the Arch Bishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and Charles Moore. They strode in to the room at Methodist Central Hall together and took their seats in front of the assembled audience of 450.  A few introductions from Charles Clarke and Professor Linda Woodhead, a masterfully timed, laughter-inducing eyebrow flicker from Rowan Williams, and the discussions began.

The topic in hand – Religion in Public Life – wasn’t new. Indeed, it was a matter that the Ancient Romans also had to debate. The speakers can be forgiven therefore, for not coming out with anything original.  What was said has been heard before, but it was interesting to hear it from such worthy voices.

The Archbishop spoke of the church being a place where people put a lot of emotion. They expect it to have a holding or brokering capacity. The church will also, he said, rally round and help out when the nation is in crisis. Good to know! Charles Moore spoke of his journalistic frustration at religions becoming less interested in communication as they get more organised.  Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” is a media mission, he said mischievously, and the Gospels are, among other things, extended pieces of journalism. Good point, but how does one make an ancient institution such as the Church of England, media savvy?
Tony Blair, ever the polished politician, encapsulated the political desire to merge the needs of all faiths and communities together so that everyone can get on and live harmoniously in a neat and pithy phrase: We need “religion friendly democracy, democracy friendly religion.”  When questioned about legalising gambling by the Salvation Army, Blair said that the case was a good example of what he meant. He didn’t agree with the Salvation Army, but they made their case well and he, after consideration, pursued the course of action that he genuinely believed to be best for the country.  That’s how democracy works. Religions must be allowed to make their case passionately from faith, but they must accept that they are not always going to get things their way.

This country has been banging the drum for such democratic pluralism for quite a while now, and clearly it is easier lauded than achieved. There are obstacles in its path. In a Telegraph interview preceding the debate, Blair pointed out that many faiths have an ‘exclusive truth claim’ for their religion: that it alone contains the path to true salvation. This claim can make it difficult to accept that other decent and honourable people will reject the claim, and believe something else.  
There was no definitive answer to that, but all agreed that open, honest and good quality dialogue helps. Blair argued that greater religious literacy would help all of us understand each other, and realise how much religions have in common. People must speak openly about their faith, he said, mentioning that while leader of the opposition, he was visited by a representative of the Salvation Army, who after the meeting, got him and a couple of nameless reluctant aides on to their knees for prayer. They said ‘for God’s sake;’ he said ‘exactly!’

     Dialogue, though, can be impeded by the widely held concern that faiths are being programmatically pushed out of public life in favour of a new “religion of human rights.” What role can there be for the churches voice in the public square in such circumstances? To this the Archbishop replied that an omnipotent “God does not need disciples to win his arguments”.  We mustn’t conclude, he said, that the public square is on some centre ground where all sound people will agree, and where religion is tolerated as an off beam eccentricity, for religions are more involved in public life than that. Human Rights conventions, for example, owe much to the contribution of Christian ethics to society. Religions can and should, advance solid arguments in public, based on faith and grounded in practical fact.  Blair and Moore spoke in agreement.
And with that the debate was over. The three stood up and walked out the door opposite to the one through which they had entered, and were gone. The rest of us were left to find a way out through a crowd of clergy, activists, think tankers, and representatives of numerous groups, religious and secular and anti religion. All discussing what they had heard.