RELIGIOUS PLURALISM IN CONTEMPORARY BRITAIN
When it comes to questions about religion and belief, Great Britain discloses a fascinating web of contrasts and contradictions. Even the most casual glance reveals that the spiritual canvas is not cut from a whole cloth, but stitched together as a patchwork quilt, made up of panels of varying colours and textures, and at whatever level the picture is examined, dramatic differences can be discerned. In order to explore this, we shall first consider the distinct journeys through history experienced by England, Scotland and Wales, before looking at variations within those national communities in the modern world, and finally examining how the contemporary challenges are managed.
Contrasts Between the Component Nations
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, each of the component nations of the State has been shaped by unique religious, political and social forces down the centuries, and inevitably, these separate journeys have led to distinct legal and cultural contexts in the present day. In England, king Henry VIII famously severed ties with Rome when the Papacy refused to acquiesce to his demands to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a reformation driven by the self-serving agenda of a monarch, as opposed to a groundswell of popular opinion and religious fervour, spawned ongoing conflict. Resentment simmered between zealous Protestants, who wished more thoroughgoing changes to worship and doctrine, and at the other end of the spectrum, Roman Catholics, who longed for a restoration of the old faith. To complicate matters still further, there were many people with no desire to return to the Church of Rome, but very much wanted the new Anglican religion to retain its bishops, ceremonies and sacramental practices. Predictably, these “High Church” sympathizers fought like cats and dogs with the Protestants who pursued to “purify” the Church of England.
Of course, some of these Puritans sailed off to North America on the Mayflower, but plenty of their brethren remained at home, and tensions eventually boiled over into civil war, aided, it must be said, by the autocratic, narcissistic and inept kingship of Charles I. All of this eventually led to trial and execution of Charles, a period of republican government under a Lord Protector, the eventual restoration of the monarchy and a vindictive purge by Charles II of those associated with tyrannicide/regicide, the unplanned succession of Charles’ Catholic younger brother James to the throne, Parliament deciding to sack James by inviting his daughter and son-in-law to invade with an army, James essentially running away and the beginning of parliamentary monarchy with the coup d’etat which became known as the Glorious Revolution.
From this time onwards, England managed to avoid both direct religious conflict and further revolution (except for the minor matter of the American War of Independence!) In the wake of the turmoil, the Church of England was a hegemonic and oppressive force, and the law kept non-Anglicans out of Parliament, the universities, judicial appointments and all roles other than canon fodder in the army and navy (non-members of the Church of England were welcomed to serve in horrendous conditions as ordinary soldiers and sailors, although were not deemed trustworthy enough to be officers). Over time, this regime increasingly came to be seen as unjust and irrational, even though there were no further moments of revolution to shatter the constitutional order and bring sweeping changes, which meant that Anglican privilege was never dismantled, and the approach was gradually to share it out instead.
Consequently, English society inched its way towards religious equality by slowly conferring the legal perks enjoyed by Anglicans on citizens on other faiths. It had always been axiomatic that the law should support the practice of the Church of England, and therefore, fairness demanded that it expanded to accommodate and assist all believers. From this point, it was a short and natural hop to protect matters of conscience more generally, not just in relation to religiously orientated positions such as atheism and agnosticism, but also ethical stance, e.g. pacificism, vegetarianism and veganism. The result was an environment which valued tolerance and neighbourly coexistence, and fostered a legal and political culture of positivity towards religion and belief. Since, the Church of England has continued to provide a voice and representation of religion in the public square into the twenty-first century, but in a way that is inclusive of other perspectives, often providing platform on which other faiths and ethical positions are invited to stand. Precisely for this reason, establishment has survived into the modern era, and it is not a mainstream political issue, even now that the majority of the population no longer identify as Christian.
In stark contrast, Scotland has had a very different journey. Unlike its southern neighbour, this nation experienced an ideological reformation driven by an elite excited by the new teachings from the continent, and forced through in the teeth of royal opposition. The Presbyterian Kirk emphasized that temporal and spiritual power should be kept strictly apart, a position eventually reflected in the Church of Scotland Act 1921, the statute which still governs the national Church. Tragically, Scotland also witnessed hundreds of years of bitter sectarian conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and even when bloodshed ceased, bigotry remained amongst certain factions of both communities. Within living memory, some Scottish factories arranged separate shifts for the express purpose of keeping Protestant and Catholic workers apart.
On the sunnier side of the street, the Presbyterian Kirk was a driving force behind an education system, which from the Reformation until the nineteenth century was second to none in Europe. Furthermore, the exclusion of non-Anglicans from Oxford and Cambridge had the unintended consequence of boosting the academic life of Scottish universities, and driving enterprising Scots into medicine, engineering, technology and commerce. Without a doubt, Scotland became one of the intellectual powerhouses of the Enlightenment, and has maintained a progressive culture, both socially and in terms of research and inquiry. A confluence of all of these factors, has led to a more secular society than is found in England. Having been racked by sectarian strife for generations, and possessing a national Church which upholds a rigid division between secular and religious authority, it is not surprising that in this context, faith in the public sphere is treated with caution, bordering on suspicion at times.
Interestingly, the landscape in Wales is very different again. Having lost political autonomy far earlier than Scotland, the Welsh had Anglicanism imposed on them at the Henrician Reformation. From the outset, this was perceived as an unwelcome development, foisted on them by a culturally and geographically distant regime. Pockets of loyalty to Roman Catholicism persisted in Wales for longer than many parts of England, and over time many of the Non-Conformist Protestant denominations found Wales fertile ground for evangelism. By the XIX century, it was clear that more of the population identified as “Chapel” belonging to one of the various Protestant faiths.
Understandably, resentment brewed over the socially privileged position of what was perceived as the English Church, and the financial support that it received, and this frustration eventually gave rise to a successful campaign for disestablishment. The Welsh Church Act was passed in 1914, although this it did not come into effect until after the First World War. It was anticipated at the time that Anglicanism in Wales would naturally be left to die back and wither on the vine, but events played out very differently. There were a variety of reasons for this. First, although Non-Conformists exceeded the number of Anglicans by a wide margin, there were many different denominations within Welsh Non-Conformity, and these smaller communities were less well-placed to adapt to the transformed social conditions, as well as a continuing downward trend in church attendance in the course of the twentieth century. Second, legal disestablishment was only partial in nature. Despite the fact that the Act of Parliament removed some of the high level features, such as episcopal representation in the House of Lords, it left in place many of the grass-roots arrangements which had far more influence on the daily life of citizens, including marriage law and the framework of prison chaplaincy. Third, legislative action cannot readily bring about a change in culture or social behaviour, and Anglican clergy continued to fulfil the same role that they had always done at public events, for example, being the focal point on occasions like Remembrance Sunday (an annual commemoration of those killed in armed conflict) and a figure who could coordinate community responses in moments of crisis or tragedy. The convergence of all of these factors has meant that Wales effectively has a quasi-established Church, albeit one with a distinct culture and perspective from that of Anglicanism in England.
Contrasts within Nations
All of the above reveals that there is immense diversity between the component nations of Great Britain, but it should not be forgotten that there is considerable variety within them as well. The three settings have experienced a blossoming of religious pluralism due to human migration from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, but patterns of settlement have, needless to say, been asymmetrical, as individuals and families choose to make their homes where there are economic opportunities, and where they have existing ties. As a result, there are areas of some towns and cities with a majority Muslim, Hindu or Chinese population, and other contexts which remain predominantly white British.
Furthermore, not all of the divergence is the result of people from other States, frequently former colonies, choosing to permanently relocate to Britain. The Scottish Islands represent an important example of a very different backdrop to contrasting religious culture. The Gaelic speaking population of these areas tend to be extremely religiously conversative, and collective life on tightly-knit insular communities still revolves around churches and their strict teachings. Undoubtably, these groups are wildly out of step with mainstream society in mainland, urban settings, and how well their needs are recognised and responded to by public authorities is questionable. Less than 2% of the Scottish population speak Gaelic, and despite statements of sympathetic intent from the Scottish Government, policy and fiscal commitments to preserving the language are flimsy. For instance, there is not even a right on the part of parents in state schools in Scotland to opt into Gaelic medium education should they choose this for their children, and consequently, families moving to the mainland for work face barriers to maintaining fluency across the generations. All of this intimately relates to religion, because the elements of heritage and culture cannot easily be hived off. Contemporary Gaelic speaking communities represent indeed the survivors of intentional persecution, prejudice and forced displacement, and justice demands that their rights and needs are given due attention.
Another source of pluralism within modern Britain comes from new religious movements. Wicca represents the only widely practiced and truly indigenous faith from the United Kingdom, in the sense that it first germinated here, as opposed to having been transplanted from elsewhere. This and other Neo-Pagan movements are rapidly growing, and again, for many adherents are closely linked with other facets of their identity. For example, for some Pagans, their spirituality is connected with the folklore of Wales or Cornwall, and this dimension relates either to a desired connection with their ancestors, or their predecessors in the physical space that they inhabit.
Taken altogether, it is apparent that the religious make-up of each of the national paradigms is a kaleidoscope of distinct and interacting parts, constantly forming and reforming with the dance of human movement and the ebb and flow of cultural tides. This reflection raises the question of how this can be managed to promote social cohesion, whilst also recognising the value of diversity and individual considerations.
Responding to the Picture
As might be anticipated, at the level of overarching principle, there is a clear and straightforward commitment to religious and ideological freedom, signed into a ratified treaty and brought within domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998, the instrument incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into the law of the State. Nevertheless, this doesn’t reveal much about the practical reality of resolving conflicting needs and wants on the ground. Whilst the vibrancy of pluralism should rightly be celebrated, it would be naïve to gloss over the reality that different outlooks on the world and desires to manifest these will sometimes result in clashes, often with both sides having fundamental rights at stake. Should local councils in the Outer Hebrides be compelled to open swimming pools on Sundays, even though this will make sustaining the community experience of the sabbath untenable (and it represents one of the remaining bastions of a culture which has been systemically attacked)? To what extent is it appropriate to allow parents to veto their children receiving sex education in school?
Sometimes, there will be more than one human rights compliant answer to the question, and the side upon which decision-makers come down in finely balanced cases will depend upon prevailing attitudes towards religion and practice. The concept of Constitutional Culture encompasses the bundle of norms and expectations which govern collective life, some of these are legal and some of these are purely social, but all of them influence the thought-processes of state decision-makers. As well as judges and lawyers adjudicating on disputes, countless other actors make choices every day which determine what religious questions are dealt with, e.g. social workers, doctors, local government officials, police officers and even school teachers, being the manner in which these decisions play out clearly influenced by the overarching Constitutional Culture in respect of religion. For these reasons, the differences that we have observed between the nations composing Great Britain have critical implications for the way in which diversity within them is managed at a grass-roots level. It is far from insignificant that echoes from disputes of the past are still reverberating in the present, and if nothing else, this should give contemporaries cause to reflect upon the legacy that they in turn will leave for the future.
Ultimately, the links between religion and other aspects of identity are as intricate and involved as root-systems beneath a forest. One challenge facing the UK going forward is, without a shadow of a doubt, the complex interchange between faith and regional identity. Both religious pluralism and questions of devolution frequently feature in media discussion, but the interchange between the two is rarely spoken about. As noted above, some Pagan movements are intimately tied to a sense of place. However, when the 2021 census was published, much was made of the (wholly expected) evidence that Christian no longer represented the majority identity, and far less discussed was the less anticipated finding that Cornwall has a very high number of practising Pagans. This shift in the religious sand has taken place alongside a resurgence of Cornish identity, and the literal resurrection of its language, the once extinct tongue now recognised as living by UNESCO. The relationship between these phenomena needs further academic digging, but it is clear that individuals and the communities in which they live are both organic and multifaceted. Great Britain should rightly celebrate its ideological pluralism, but it can only do this, and understand it fully, if it sees the richness of religious diversity against a backdrop of diversity of all kinds, whilst making space for discussions about region, language, gender, race, sexuality, disability and what it means to be human.