Politicians and civil servants lack 'religious literacy'
You can read the Archbishop of Canterbury's New Year message HERE. But he has been rather upstaged by that of the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ail, former Bishop of Rochester and current director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, he talks of a tough year ahead; of challenges which are moral and social as well as economic. And then he asks one of His Grace's favoured themes: 'But to what extent is it right for politicians to bring spiritual considerations to bear?'
The Bishop's response is quoted in its entirety:
In his recent speech on the place of the Bible and Christianity in our national life, David Cameron showed how the political development of the nation is inextricably bound up with Christian ideas. He challenged the Church, and specifically the Church of England, to provide moral and spiritual leadership. Such a challenge is long overdue, but the role of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in national life is more important than the status of any particular church. Whether or not this or that church provides what the Prime Minister is asking for, this tradition must remain central to our public life.Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali is the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury we never had.
Much of what Mr Cameron said is music to my ears. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Many obstacles will confront him if he tries to give effect in legislation to things he has said in his speech.
One issue is religious literacy in the Civil Service, Parliament and local authorities. What Mr Cameron said about Christian ideas being embedded in our constitutional arrangements is no longer understood in the corridors of power. A disconnected view of history and the fog of multiculturalism have all but erased such memory from official consciousness. A concerted programme is needed if this literacy is to be recovered. Church leaders can help with remedial action, but this has to do with the place of Christianity in schools, and the teaching of history. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, knows that history cannot just be about dates and personalities, but must be a narrative of a nation’s emergence from the mists of time. For such a project, the place of Christianity is absolutely central. Education on citizenship cannot ignore the fact that our cherished values have biblical roots.
The proper relation of religion to science is also vital. Young people must be taught to appreciate both the experimental methods of science and the ultimate values which religion offers. Such a conversation must take place in the classroom if we are not to continue being divided by “scientistic” and religious fundamentalists.
Mr Cameron reminded us that inalienable human dignity is founded on the biblical idea that we are made in the image of God. But to whom does this extend? And are there circumstances when a person might lose such dignity?
It was for these reasons that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act recognised the special nature of the human embryo and established an authority to regulate scientific work involving embryos. I support the Coalition’s desire to trim the quangos, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is not perfect. But we need a body, perhaps modelled on the US President’s Council, that can consider the moral implications of developments in bioethics.
As Mr Cameron reminded us, the value of equality comes from the biblical teaching, confirmed by science, of the common origin of all humans. This has to do with the equality of persons, not necessarily the equal value of all behaviour or relationships. Equality of all before the law is a development from the Judaeo-Christian influence on the law, but so is respect for conscience. I would hope that legislation initiated by this Government will, increasingly, respect the consciences of believers. Legislation in America provides for the “reasonable accommodation” of religious belief at work. If such a doctrine had been in place in Britain, we would not have seen the absurd dismissals – and absurd judicial decisions that upheld them – of Christians and others because they could not do certain tasks on account of their faith.
The Prime Minister is aware of the vast scale of social service, prison work, relief of poverty and the like that churches and their agencies undertake. He is right to expect their help with his vision of citizens working for the common good. Churches will welcome greater participation in building up communities. But they cannot simply be surrogate service-providers. What they do springs from their beliefs; the authorities must respect these, if there is to be genuine collaboration. Let us hope and pray that the Prime Minister’s recognition of the importance of Christianity in public life provides a springboard for such co-operation in this New Year.