Britishness, Christianity and cultural cohesion
A Briton has the right to oppose or support British policy in Iraq or Libya and may campaign to that effect, write, agitate and stand for election towards the chosen end. It is also elementary that he does not have the right to stone adulterers to death, bomb the underground or attempt to blow up aeroplanes. But religious practices which conflict with traditional British liberties are forcing politicians to address what it means to be British and to question the discriminatory anachronism of maintaining the Established Church with a Protestant Head of State in an increasingly plural and multi-faith society. While few would defend such abhorrent practices as forced marriages, ‘honour killings’, female genital mutilation or child abuse, there is emerging an increasing tension between the assertion of individuality over the common good, and ‘human rights’ over community cohesion. Since there are no agreed criteria by which conflicting religious claims can be settled, religion is increasingly relegated to the private sphere: morality thereby becomes largely a matter of taste or opinion, and moral error ceases to exist.
The modern era is obsessed with three themes – autonomy, equality and rights. These are the values that allow each to be whatever he or she chooses. Left unfettered, the assertion of these leads to anarchy, so a values system has to be imposed for society to function at all. As society expands to encompass ever larger numbers of religious, ethnic and linguistic groups, rigid social structures are stretched to breaking point. The church requires either cultural homogeneity or an élite sufficiently powerful to enforce conformity. But this negates the limited degree of Christian religious pluralism which the passing of the 1689 Act of Toleration specifically permitted. Dissenting traditions have gained in number and influence and have weakened the grip of state religion. The costs of coercing religious conformity are no longer politically acceptable: the state is not willing to accept the price in social conflict and so adopts a position of ‘neutrality’ on the competing claims of various religious bodies and moral values.
The ultimate source of the state’s values system is the subject of much debate. In order to constrain religious expression in the public sphere, the Republic of France has legislated to prohibit the display of all religious symbols and articles of clothing from its public buildings. More recently, President Sarkozy stated that burqas are to be banned, which comes into effect next week. He asserts that the garment 'demeans and debases women’.
In the UK, customs to do with dress, food laws or daily prayers have long been considered inoffensive as long as there is no compulsion or imposition. But the advent of shari’a courts, while considered ‘unavoidable’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury, are, according to former Bishop of Rochester Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, perceptibly inconsistent with what have become inalienable values such as equality between men and women in the sight of the law, inheritance rights, the education and employment of women, and the freedom of young people to chose themselves whom they will marry. There have been rabbinical courts (Beth Din) in the UK for three centuries, and the Protestant state has similarly granted to Roman Catholics the right to take account of their own religious sensitivities. But these judicial provisions have always been subject to Statute Law, and appeal has always been possible from their judgements. This settlement is now being challenged by shari’a courts, some proponents of which insist that their dispensations are superior to parliamentary statute.
There is no doubt that some religious practices may coerce some, especially women through such conventions as child marriage or inequitable divorce settlements. But mindful of minority ethnic voting communities, politicians are treading carefully along the via media between religious liberty and cultural prohibition. On this model of Britishness, there is no demand for assimilation. But it does require integration: cultural relativism cannot be justified when the outcome is a moral injustice. And if the Established Church is not the ubiquitous and cohesive antidote to that, God knows what is.