Julian Browning reads and re-reads Living With Difference
I sail through life without reading reports, assessments, minutes, consultations, and those white-faced documents of indeterminate length which cling all too closely to diocesan emails; but I was required by some ambitious sermon preparation to read this one: Living With Difference, community, diversity and the common good, being the Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (CORAB), Chair: The Rt Hon Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss [sic] GBE, published by The Woolf Institute, Cambridge, 7 December 2015. Yes, I have read all 104 pages. Twice. The first reading took me, with several breaks for strong coffee, through swamps of jargon towards the shrine, or perhaps the prison yard, of CORAB itself. But I read the report twice because I was sure I had missed something first time round. Surely, in a survey of historical and contemporary religion and belief in Britain, there would be a mention of the Christian Gospel? But no, not even a footnote about St Augustine of Canterbury and his daring visit in 597. It turns out that history, or what CORAB calls ‘an ongoing national story’ is to be rewritten. The tone is silkily patronising: ‘What it means to be British is not fixed and final, for people in the past understood the concept differently from the way it is seen today…’
That prepares us for CORAB’s basic premise, which is that we live in a ‘changing landscape’, and don’t you dare think otherwise. We must accept three trends: the increase in the number of people with non-religious beliefs and identities; the general decline in Christian affiliation, belief, and practice; and the increased diversity amongst people who have a religious faith. The words of warning spill out in the ‘Executive Summary’: anxieties; geopolitical crises; uncertainties about national identity; fear of “the other”. But fear not, little ones, CORAB has the ‘systematic, consistent and rational’ answers, as opposed to your pathetic ‘piecemeal and kneejerk’ fretting. By page seven, Living With Difference has become ‘Learning to understand and live with differences’. Can you spot the extra words? Yes, we’ve plenty to learn. If any of you want to join in the ‘national conversation … launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life’, you must stop thinking for yourself. We’ll teach you how to think the CORAB way.
Let me be fair and summarise what the Report contains. A huge amount of work has gone into it, and it has megastar billing. Its Patrons are Professor Lord Parekh of Kingston upon Hull, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, OBE, the Rt Revd and Rt Hon. Lord Williams of Oystermouth, and the Rt Hon. Lord Woolf, CH. After the initial softening up of the reader’s mind (‘Landscape – meanings and changes’), the Report takes us through six Conversations: Vision – standing at a crossroads; Education – how we learn and think; Media – reporting and representation; Dialogue – the quality of relationship; Action – ordinary people of good will; Law – to help us live with our differences. Then there’s the rhetorical question, ‘What Next?’, and the checklist – for those of you who haven’t taken notes – of your ‘next steps’, plenty of graphs, and statistics to skip (‘The British Humanist Association  determined that 36% of Britons have a “humanist outlook on life”‘), and, of course, ‘Ways Forward’. ‘There should be more bilateral dialogue between Abrahamic and Dharmic traditions and between those who are religious and those who are not; more encounter and dialogue among young people should be promoted; and more women should become involved in interfaith structures.’
I hear you beg for mercy. I cannot discuss the entire Report without bringing about a major depression among our readership, so let’s look at just one ‘Conversation’: that on Education – ‘how we learn and think’. This has received the most coverage in the Press, and has even prompted the Minister of Education to remind CORAB that Britain is a Christian country. Under CORAB, ‘Governments should repeal requirements for schools to hold acts of collective worship or religious observance and issue new guidelines building on current best practice for inclusive assemblies and times for reflection …’
Times for reflection? Just time to confiscate a few mobile phones and catch up on some marking. It gets worse. ‘Religion-or belief-specific teaching and worship’ in publicly funded schools is to take place, for those who request it, outside the timetable: in other words, when everyone has gone home.
Here is a good example of CORAB’s brazen deceit, for this extracurricular worship is ‘in line with the autonomy of young people and their human right to freedom of religion and belief’. What does that mean? ‘Please Sir, can the school stay open so that I can say Evening Prayer and catch a late bus?’ It’s a denial of the right to have a religious education. Future generations are to be taught about all religions and ‘world views in ‘a broad and inclusive way’.
Don’t for one moment imagine that this is to be that old uncomfortable three-legged race of Christian, Muslim, and Jew. No, what used to be called Divinity is to be a centipedal conga, from Anabaptist to Zoroastrian, with the Jains and the Jedi Knights waving from the centre. And since the sky’s the limit, let’s risk an avian metaphor and welcome into our overcrowded nest the Two Cuckoos: Humanism and Atheism. These two old birds, perpetual litigants, still twittering about the Spanish Inquisition, can’t believe their luck. They are to be taught in schools! All this has to be monitored, of course, with the utmost seriousness and we are sad to say goodbye to ‘denominational authorities’; but we welcome warmly the ‘state inspectorates’, who will ensure that all our pupils lap up this tasteless, unappetising interfaith gruel.
Enough. You can read the rest of the Report yourself. What does concern me is why this Report, by intelligent professional people, is so unsatisfactory, and why it misses the mark, despite the distinguished cast of twenty Commissioners: Shaunaka Rishi Das, the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, Rabbi Dr Norman Solomon, the Revd Dr Robert Tosh, and the rest of them. Three reasons occur to me.
First, the Commissioners, being Establishment figures, have done their work too well. They have provided the Government with what it wants: a picture not of the future landscape, but of how things look now. Many schools have abandoned acts of worship. The Report just confirms the status quo: we have a pluralist society. CORAB provides the imprimatur. There is nothing new here: it’s just an exercise in the preservation of the dignity of the Commissioners.
Secondly, the absence of the Gospel is telling. Christian society is unique in its tolerance of other opinions and ‘world views’. The Mystery of Christ transcends all creeds, anyway. Our strength as a society does not come from pooled data, from CORAB’s ‘shared values’. It comes from the faith of countless individuals, and from the commitment each has made in solitude to the most profound relationship of their lives: their relationship with God, however that might be expressed. Our relationship with God informs and develops our relationship with others and our relationships in society, and for most of us in this country this starts and continues with a relationship – however sketchy, however fraught, however marginal – with Jesus Christ. CORAB prevents this relationship from developing, removes the Gospel from public life, and replaces the Gospel with ‘shared values’, without saying what these could be. Don’t get caught on a Mission Committee: CORAB is very firm about ‘inappropriate seeking of converts’, and not just in Birmingham.
Thirdly, Christianity is made out to be a cultural force in this country, not a religious one. All we have, or so it appears in Living With Difference, is this sorry tale of decline; so we might as well be suppressed and dissolved, like the monasteries of old. According to CORAB, we are just one voice in this discordant croaking of different cultural languages, and apparently we are confined to our native habitat of the British Isles. But Christianity is a worldwide religion, in which Anglicans have an honoured place. Our religious keynote is freedom, a freedom received by God’s grace at Creation, confirmed by the new freedom of the Resurrection. CORAB says this is one of many choices in the religious supermarket. But for Christians, freedom isn’t a choice, it’s a gift, freely made and joyfully received.
Maybe this dampening down of the Christian fire is a modern phenomenon. At the moment I’m reading about the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos. You may have read his Diary of a Country Priest of 1936. He also wrote this: ‘Modern civilisation … is perfectly capable of getting the ordinary citizen little by little to barter away his higher freedoms in exchange for the simple guarantee of the lower freedoms: for instance, he will give up his right to freedom of thought – now become useless, since it seems ridiculous not to think like everyone else – in exchange for the right to listen to the radio and watch movies every day.’ [Le Chemin de la Croix-des-Ames, Gallimard, 13 January 1945, trans.] Yes, that’s it. They are squeezing the life out of us.
Taking courage from these initial insights, boldly I approach the Shrine of CORAB. Surely we can agree, I say, that Britain is a Christian country, that the Muslims stand at 4.8%, that our history, institutions, ethics, social organisation, monarchy, law, art, literature, and music are inextricably bound up with Christianity, that it is our duty to hand on this weighty baton to the next generation, and that Our Lord has entrusted us with His Life, so why, in the name of St Augustine of Canterbury, should we settle for less? But there was no answer, for on those issues, and indeed on anything of real interest to those of any religion or belief, the oracle of CORAB is silent. ND