State Religion, U.K. Style

Having lived in Christian England, Jewish Israel and ‘secular’ America, I think we all have something to learn from the example set by the U.K.

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British Prime Minister David Cameron visits the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem March 13, 2014.
British Prime Minister David Cameron visits the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem March 13, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens

David Cameron recently caused something of a storm by describing (not for the first time), the United Kingdom as a Christian country. Fifty public figures wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph. The letter writers claim that the U.K. is not a Christian country except in a very limited constitutional sense; and that Cameron’s words were damaging and divisive.

According to a recent poll in Britain, 65% of respondents thought of themselves as ‘not religious’, but, perhaps paradoxically, the 2011 census found that 59% of British residents think of themselves as ‘Christian’. This statistic, combined with the low and falling Church attendance rates in Britian is consistent with their being a large and apathetic population of non-religious Christians. Can you be an irreligious Christian? The masses in Britain might respond in one of two ways: (1) like Cameron himself, they might describe their faith as ‘a bit vague’, or lacking in ‘doctrinal purity’, but, when push comes to shove, they do believe; or (2) they might not believe at all, but their Christian identity has for them, despite the teachings of the church, become a cultural identity; like Cameron, perhaps they ‘appreciate [the] liturgy and the architecture’. But, unlike Cameron, they don’t have any faith at all.

I grew up as a proudly identifying Jew in Christian Britain. I was never uncomfortable describing Britain as Christian. I never found that description, as the prominent letter-writers urge, alienating or divisive, nor did I think that the description undermined the esteem in which the Jewish contribution to British society was held. I am not surprised, therefore, to read that Hindu and Muslim reactions to Cameron’s description have been generally positive.

If I had to create a state from scratch, I can’t imagine that I’d establish any form of religion in that state. But, for reasons I find hard to articulate, and that cut against my general political inclinations, I would be heartily against the disestablishment of the Church of England.

The Church of England’s establishment (the Churches of Scotland and Wales are not technically established in the senses in which the Church of England is) carries very little cost. Financially, the Church looks after itself, it receives no tax revenue. It is much cheaper than Israel’s rabbinate. The one notable ‘injustice’ is that a number of Bishops sit in the House of Lords (the higher of the two houses of Parliament). To put this in context we need to note two things: (1) the House of Lords has very limited powers; it can amend legislation (when those amendments are agreed to by the democratically elected House of Commons) and it can impose delays upon legislation (until the House of Commons get impatient and then they have the power to bulldoze legislation through without the agreement of the House of Lords); (2) the number of bishops in the House of Lords is negligible: 26 out of 779 (just over 3%).

Compare this minimal establishment of the Church with what goes on in Israel. Officially, Israel has no established religion. Instead, there are 14 established religious communities, including various streams of Christianity, Islam, Druzism, and, of course, the Orthodox Jewish Rabbinate. Israeli law gives these religious communities (almost) complete autonomy to regulate religious and family law in their communities – all of this, at the tax payers’ expense. If you’re Jewish, you have to marry through the Rabbinate (even if you’re not Orthodox). If you’re Christian, you have to marry through your church. What if you want a secular (or inter-religious) wedding? Israeli law offers no such option. With no official representation in the Israeli parliament, a number of religious institutions force themselves into the daily lives of Israeli citizens. The Church of England, which does have representation in parliament, creates no such difficulties for the citizens of the U.K.

As far as I’m concerned, the establishment of the Church of England has two positive effects and very few negative effects. The positive: (1) the Church is a financially self-sufficient focal point for the (albeit slim) majority of British people who see their cultural identity tied up with ‘the liturgy and the architecture’ and the history of the Church; and (2) the platform that establishment gives to the Church of England means that the Christian faith, and in its wake faith in general, has a non-veto wielding voice in the national conversation. Would the Chief Rabbi of Britain have the same national audience if he wasn’t tacitly compared to the Archbishop of Canterbury?

The British experience has been that giving religion that voice, and that sense of responsibility, has tended to promote more moderate forms of religiosity; and, in an age in which corporate interests and super-donors have a huge power over the legislative process, even the socially minded atheist can celebrate that the British constitution ensures that some air-time is given to people who are dedicated to transcendental ethical goals (even if they’re not keen on the theology). When the Church of England is against the popular will, their bishops have no power in parliament (their number is too few); but sometimes their voices have the prophetic quality of speaking truth to power (think of Archbishop Rowan Williams against the Iraq war).

The establishment of religion in Britain is pretty harmless, and even beneficial to the national fabric, and can be celebrated even by religious minorities. The same cannot be said for the Rabbinate in Israel, which I have written about elsewhere and lamented. But, perhaps outright disestablishment isn’t the way to go, even in Israel.

This year, I’ve been living in Indiana, in the United States of America, the great proponent of the constitutional separation of Church and state. In theory. Go to a shop and try to buy a bottle of wine in Indiana on a Sunday. You can’t. It’s illegal. Religious fundamentalism seems alive and well in this country and certainly makes itself felt in the legislative process. In Britain, state religious schools have grown up trying to juggle the responsibilities of providing excellent state education at the same time as imbuing their students with the tenets and culture of a particular faith: what often emerges (not always, but often) is a more nuanced faith. In America, where state schools are forbidden from teaching a faith, religious parents are tempted to opt out of the state system altogether and create ever more extreme alternatives to it.

Perhaps there is a classically understated maturity to the British approach: an approach that establishes a religion, but without making other religions feel undermined, and without encroaching upon religious (or irreligious) freedoms (as too often happens in Israel); an approach which establishes a religion, but in a pretty tokenistic sense, ensuring that religion is part of the national conversation, but somehow encouraging that religion itself to find a tone that can resonate with the moderate masses rather than satisfy the religious extremists. Perhaps we all have something to learn from Church of England.

Dr. Samuel Lebens, an Orthodox Rabbi, is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

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