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'Faith in the Public Square', lecture at Leicester Cathedral

Sunday 22nd March 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture 'Faith in the Public Square', delivered at Leicester Cathedral.

The full text of the lecture is below:

Thank you very much indeed for your welcome and thank you all for your attendance this afternoon. It's a great pleasure to be back in Leicester - a city for which I have great affection from those years as a canon theologian attached to this cathedral; and a city which, as I was saying to a journalist only this morning, continues to set some very high standards for community interaction and coexistence in this country.

The title that I've been given is about as comprehensive as any title could be and I'm not at all likely to cover very many of the really substantive points in the discussion. But I hope at least to begin a conversation about the kind of society we're actually living in at the moment, what it is and what it isn't, and maybe the kind of society we would like to be living in, and what we might do about that.

I'll start with two of the questions that I find myself most frequently asked, when I meet people in public life in this country, who don't necessarily have a very strong faith allegiance. The first question is, 'How do you cope as religious leader in a secularised society?' And the second is, 'How do you defend the position of the established church in a multi-cultural society?' That second question is sometimes phrased even more pointedly, 'How do you cope with living in a deeply religiously divided society?'

My answer to both those questions tends to be to suggest that they are the wrong things to be asking because they take for granted a number of things which are frankly not the case. I don't believe we are living in a secular society, and I don't believe that we are living in a deeply religiously divided society. I believe we are living in a society which is uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion and doesn't quite know what to do with it, and I believe we are living in a society which is religiously plural and confused but not therefore necessarily hostile.

A secularised society?

The picture of society that some people do seem to work with "that unless a benign government steps in religious communities would be slaughtering each other in the streets" is not quite where I think we are in this country in general, perhaps in Leicester in particular.

Let me spend a little longer on those two questions to see where we go with them and then maybe suggest some rather more general reflections on the sort of society we are and aren't.

First of all then, on this word 'secular'. Thirty or forty years ago a great many analysts of our society took it completely for granted that there was one great narrative, one great story to be told of how Western society was evolving. This was a story of the gradual marginalising of unaccountable authority and private superstition. It was a story of the triumph of public reason. Society was moving steadily, inexorably, towards a point where everybody would have the same standards of argument. Appeal could be made to values and principles that everyone held in common, that were reasonable and defensible without any appeal to supernatural authority. There were of course outposts (Indian reservations as you might say) of stubborn religiosity around but they were on the way out. The story of the world was unfolding happily, peacefully and reasonably, towards its optimal point where everybody knew what everybody else was talking about.

Like many predictions of social analysts, this has been falsified many times over and falsified in ways that are deeply traumatic. Religion, instead of allowing itself to be quietly marginalised, has continued to be a presence, sometimes vocal, often deeply influential in the public square. Even a statement such as that by the former Prime Minister's press secretary, that they 'don't do God', is itself news. In other words, the need for that remark tells us something about the kind of society we are in. You have to explain why you are not addressing question's about God rather than taking it for granted that it's not a question any reasonable person would ask.

And then of course, there's the awareness of religious plurality in our midst and across the world. The immense political and public influence of religious communities of different kinds within so many states around the globe has made it very clear that whatever is happening to religious commitment in our world, it is not simply going into the closet.

But more than that. It would be a great mistake to think that even in our own society, the default setting for everybody or nearly everybody here in Britain, was one of unbelief or indeed, not so much of unbelief as of complete disregard for, or indifference to, belief itself. On the contrary, if anything there seems (in the last decade and a half let's say) to have been a deepening awareness in many parts of the population, of what the old advertisement used to call, 'Those parts that other beers can't reach': that is to say, awareness of those aspects of the human enterprise that don't seem to be catered for by the rational administrative world of agreed discourse where everybody knows what everyone else is talking about. There are forms of belonging and there are forms of imagination that escape those rational contours of thinking, which is not to say that they are irrational or sub-rational or anti-rational, but they are not simply contained within those common public arguments about the common good which sociologists of an earlier generation thought so obvious.

It's an example I've used more than once, but let me point to it yet again: those piles of flowers and toys that you see on the site of road accidents are among the most eloquent symbols of a society haunted by religion and not at all clear what to do about it. When I was growing up and when rather more people went to church, you didn't see those. And yet in the last couple of decades, that sign of imagination, belonging (what is it but a sense of something not catered for in other ways?) has become not weaker but stronger.

It doesn't connect very well with the historic faith of this country but it's there, and whatever it is, it's not secular. And to pick up another phrase that I've used several times of late, a phrase which I owe to a former student of mine - was thinking particularly from the point of view of a Church of England pastor, 'The church is still a place where people put the emotions that won't go anywhere else.'

In a rational, carefully administered, secular society there ought to be no superfluous emotions, images, sensations and aspirations. They ought to be catered for but they're not. And the Church and other religious bodies remain as a place where those unformulated, almost unconscious, questions and aspirations are still allowed to breathe. You may not know at all what you believe about the context of the universe, the nature of a creator, life after the grave, or whatever. But from time to time, you need to be somewhere where those questions are understood to be serious, and you need to find some language and some imagery that allows you to state that you think they are serious. Even if it's only leaving the flowers by the roadside.

And it's at that level that I think we are conspicuously not a secular society. We are secularised to the extent that we can't claim the mass of the population accepts the same religious philosophy or any religious philosophy, however people describe themselves on the census. We are secularised to the extent that the place of the established church in this country is not what it was two hundred years ago when it had major influence, as of right, on legislation and indeed on the religious liberties of people in this country. But we are not secular in the sense that we all, or most of us, accept that the questions facing human beings are fundamentally to be dealt with reasonably, neutrally and in ways in principle, accessible to everybody. We are, as I said, haunted. We need somewhere to put certain bits of our humanness and there is nowhere else except religious language and imagery for them to live and breathe. What we do with that as religious believers is another question (but one that perhaps will be worth teasing out in a discussion period later on).

A religiously divided society?

Then what about this question of being a religiously divided society. The paradox is that as we have become more religiously plural in this country we have become more aware of religion as an issue. Sadly in the eyes of government that often means an awareness of religion as a problem - the 'Faith problem' - the need to build into various policies, the 'faith element' the need to get Faith leaders round a table to prevent them quarrelling with each other, and so forth.

And those of us who are heavily in the business of interfaith dialogue react with, I think, some puzzlement and often frustration to this set of assumptions. But at the very least, we have become aware in understanding religious pluralism that there are substantial communities of people in our midst for whom religious belief is not a private eccentricity but something which actively shapes and dictates their moral priorities - their sense of who they are. Communities of people who do not regard religious commitment as a minor, private eccentricity, a matter of individual choice which can be tolerated a little bit grumpily by the society around.

So the truth behind this 'deeply religiously divided' slogan is not in fact that we are looking at the potential for inter-communal religious violence on the sort of scale you might have seen in India in 1948. It does mean that we are living with an awareness of communities that find it a lot harder to disentangle their human aspirations, their political vision and so forth, from their religious faith, and that at the very least puts a question on the agenda of everybody else in this society.

Now, I began with those two (I have to say) 'clichés' that you often hear: secularisation and religious conflict so as to try and dig a bit deeper into the kind of society we are, and to suggest that the kind of society we are is in fact at a very interesting stage. Gradually and rather reluctantly, a number of people are beginning to recognise that the second point I made is in fact a rather substantive one for understanding all kinds of social issues. Once you've grasped that there are substantial and powerful communities in this country: Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, whatever; and once you've grasped that those communities see their human priorities, their political and social values, as integrally bound up with their religious convictions, it becomes a great deal harder to say that the public square is only for people who are prepared to leave their clothes at the door.

That I think is the most dangerous model we've got at the moment: by all means, come into the public square but leave behind the very specific convictions and visions that make you the person you are. That's not a very healthy recipe, I think, for social engagement. And it deprives the social world, the public square, of some of the deepest well springs of motivation that exist. What I would prefer to see in our society is a context in which it was perfectly possible to own up in public to where our deepest convictions come from, and to bring into the argument of our society our sense of convictions, values and visions which we don't hold because we happen to like them but because in some sense we feel we have been drawn into them. By what? as a Christian, I would say by revelation.

Now that in itself takes something for granted about society which not everybody does take for granted. It is tempting to think that the ideal form of society is, as you might say, a 'top down' model. One in which the policies, the visions, the images, the sense of the human, was, so to speak, franchised from the top. The rational government, elected by rational electors, on rational grounds, produces a rational vision which rational persons opt into. And while it can bear, as I said earlier, the tolerated eccentricities on the fringe, that's the default setting.

But what if actual societies are a great deal messier than that? because in fact they are. Actual societies are bundles of very different kinds of belonging. If I asked any one of you, what do you belong to? I might have, I suppose, up to thirteen, fourteen or fifteen answers from each one of you, depending on how you heard the question. You'd belong to a family, you'd belong to a religious community, you'd belong to a golf club, a library, a political party, the governing body of a local school, and so on and so forth. Actual society is a jigsaw of those different kinds of belonging. If you say the only sort of belonging that matters, in public discussion, is belonging to the state as a citizen, then that citizenship itself becomes a very thin and watery thing.

And I go back here to the vision of one of the very great Anglican thinkers of the beginning of the twentieth century, John Neville Figgis, a monk of the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, who argued consistently in a series of brilliant and rather eccentric lectures and sermons in the first decade of the twentieth century that the Christian view of society was to see it as 'a community of communities', to use his phrase - not one great monolithic system of belonging, but the state itself as holding together, brokering, negotiating between, dealing with a great range of ways of belonging in human society, some religious, some secular. And he argued that one of the great tragedies of modern politics was the steady and subtle erosion of that sense of plurality in the name of an all powerful state. He was a kind of anarchic socialist really, and very, very hard indeed to place, in any conventional political map.

But that was his argument and it seems to me it's one we still need to be having. Is our basic model of the public life of society one in which, essentially, first and foremost, most importantly, we belong to the state? Or is it one in which we belong to a whole range of different networks, and have somehow to create, through and with the state's apparatus, a just, equitable and (as I've sometimes said) argumentative relationship between them all, where we are allowed to use our belonging in one area to question certain things about another? where we expect to be finding our way around the tensions of different sorts of belonging? in ways that recognise the depth and the seriousness of the different sorts of belonging we are involved in.

Now that is, I think, a question well worth asking right at the moment. We have before us, in our present situation, a number of what I would think of as rather dangerously over-simple models of politics, economics and social belonging. We have a very high and ambitious rhetoric about the global market, or at least we did until about six months ago: a high and ambitious rhetoric that told us that the essential thing about us was that we were consumers on the level playing field of the global market, where our best hope of human destiny was to get ourselves into the most advantageous purchasing position. It was never like that - and I suspect it was never going to be like that - but it certainly isn't like that at the moment.

Or, we were faced with variations on a theme of state belonging and state authority, the 'top down' model which takes the rational, the secular, for granted, the kind of thing that the French legal system has always regarded as the best way forward, and which quite a lot of people in the commentating classes in this country have thought desirable. But that runs up against the obstinate plurality of the different things we belong to. And it doesn't work very well, and it's only enforceable, it seems, by some very ambitious attempts to smooth out the diversity of actual human society.

Or we've been faced with multiculturalism as it is sometimes sadly interpreted, by people who think it simply means a whole series of 'Indian reservations', non-communicating little groups of people locked up in their corners, dominated by their own prejudices and their own superstitions, among which the state has somehow to keep the peace.

But what if our belonging in society were indeed that interlocking pattern where we are always trying to find how different sorts of belonging map onto each other; how fairness and equity between those communities can be guaranteed, and how each can properly challenge and enlarge and perhaps change the other. I don't think that's such a wild hope. As a matter of fact, I think it connects with the best that our society at the moment is capable of producing. I think there are very good examples in civic life. And I am happy to say, without trying to butter you up, that Leicester is a very good example in that respect.

There are good examples of that interactive plurality. And I think if we're going to defend the place of religion in the public square, that's the way in which we ought to frame it, that's the context in which we ought to be making the argument, a context that puts some quite serious questions about the kind of society we are and want to be.

One last comment (a slightly difficult one in some ways but it needs to be said, I believe): those of us who adhere to traditional religious faiths do so, as I hinted earlier, not simply because we believe that's what we like or that's what suits us. We do so because a vision has laid hold of us. We are compelled by a sense of what is true, and life-giving. And we don't just think of that vision or our response as a hobby or a private matter. And there is no way therefore in which we are going to be able to cut it off from the ways in which we approach our society and decide what we want for it. Lose sight of that and you have a situation where the state, however you interpret that, ends up dangerously drifting towards a position where it arrogates the right to determine belief itself. We've been there before in our history. We've been there before even within the twentieth century, whether in the near paganism of the Third Reich or the atheism of Soviet Russia and Communist China, and they are not either edifying or successful experiments.

We can do better than that. I think we have done better than that and I hope that this conversation this afternoon will help determine and shape a little bit some of the specific ways in which we can do better at that. So thank you very much for your forbearance and I look forward very much to hearing more from you.

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