Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A new publication in Britain, Faith in the Nation, addresses issues which face many of our countries whose religious and racial landscape is changing and where some regard religion as the problem and others see it as the answer. This collection of essays is published by an influential British think-tank and brings together the views of faith leaders. It was described in the London Times as ‘one of the most important contributions to date on the role of religion in Britain’s increasingly secular but also multifaith society’.

As I heard the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, say recently, ‘The truth is that our world is secular, religious and Christian all at the same time and this will become increasingly true of the whole of the UK as it is of the US. If we are to bequeath a creative culture and good country in which we live, then conversation between these different perspectives on life has to be sustained and deepened. If we are not in respectful and strenuous conversation then there will be more destructive conflict.’

I am grateful that the Prince of Wales, who when he becomes King will be head of the church of England, recognizes the importance of this conversation. Along with leaders of seven other faiths, he attended the opening of a centre for interfaith meeting at the ancient Anglican church, St. Ethelburga’s in the heart of London’s financial district. He said on that occasion, ‘If only we could understand each other’s gropings to understand the mystery, not to do overdo the way in which we decide that we know everything, we might perhaps, reduce the level of conflict and violence and misunderstanding.’

The United States with its separation of church and state rather than having a state church faces different problems than Britain but fundamentally they are related to the question of the role of faith in our societies at home and abroad,

In a foreword to Faith in the Nation British prime minister Gordon Brown says it asks important questions: Can we recognize and value the role of religion in British society without compromising the essential equalities that lie at the heart of the secular state? How can we create space for the voices of religion and secular leaders alike as we debate some of the biggest moral challenges of our day – the impact of climate change and scarce resources, the implication of rapid scientific and medical progress, and the ideological fault lines that rise to the fore in a globalized world. How can we ensure that different faith groups are able to contribute to a shared set of British values, rather than viewing diversity as a barrier to a shared and meaningful national identity. ‘One message comes across clearly that religious belief will continue to be an important component of our shared British identity as it evolves and that British society can and does draw strength from its diverse faith communities,’ writes the prime minister. It is ‘a national conversation we should not shy away from and one this timely publication will do much to further.’

The editors set Faith in the Nation against a background of growing estrangement between the faith communitiesand a society increasingly characterized by individualism, cultural diversity and various kinds of fragmentation. They say that the growing sense of antagonism between some religious voices and a chorus of liberal secularists in the media and elsewhere is spilling over into political debate on such topics as faith schools and human embryology and has had a stunting impact upon our understanding of the place of faith in democratic society.

Contributions vary from John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, who argues that there is too little awareness of Britain’s Christian heritage in contemporary debate to the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor who believes that Catholics are not alone in watching with dismay as the liberal society shows signs of degenerating into the libertine society. The cardinal writes, ‘Religious belief of any kind tends now to be treated more as a private eccentricity than as the central and formative element in British society.’

Dilwar Hussain from the Policy Research Centre of the Islamic Foundation, Muslim, writes that being loyal to one’s faith ‘is ultimately about being a good person, in not only a private context but also in a public setting, being a good citizen working for justice, and to promote the common good.’ Other voices in the document are from the Sikh and Hindu faiths, two of the larger faith communities in the country, For the Jewish faith, the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, provides the strongest call for strengthening national identity. He believes that all faith groups can unite under the roof of the British story, so long as it is honestly relayed, encompassing the failings and successes. Sensitively told, he suggests it is the story of hope.