It is a presupposition of liberal, socialist and feminist politics that Britain is a secular society in which religion and politics belong in separate spheres of life. Baroness Thatcher’s funeral this week made me wonder how true this is.
The funeral was a very public event, with numerous political supporters and opponents present, but nonetheless a religious ceremony. The Bishop of London’s address acknowledged the “storm of conflicting opinions” about Lady Thatcher but lifted her above them. “Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings”. Bishop Chartres put the Lady and all politics into a wider perspective. "This is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling. It is also the place for the simple truths which transcend political debate."
If secularisation means that religious institutions no longer dominate government and politics as they once did, and still do in countries like Iran, Britain is a secular state. That does not mean that religious perspectives no longer influence our politics. The 26 bishops in the House of Lords, sometimes speaking against government policy, is one sign of this. The Church's roles in welfare and education diminished as government programmes took over but faith-based Academies, church food banks, street pastors and numerous faith-based projects caring for people with disabilities, drug problems and other needs, tell us that we are not yet a fully secular society.
However, in so far as secularisation is about change from a society in which religious belief is unchallenged and unproblematic to one in which it is understood as one option among others,[i] Britain is increasingly secular. Individual participation in religious activity has changed. It is no longer a social obligation for a majority but now a personal, contingent choice. This has given rise to “more informal, spontaneous, less hierarchical forms of religion”.[ii] How, in this context, churches and Christians think and act will determine how secular Britain becomes. If they accept that their faith is just a minority option and limit their public utterances to ‘spiritual’ matters rather than offering well informed, biblical perspectives on any issue in the public agenda, they will make secularisation more certain. The incidence of family breakdown, sexual abuse, economic crisis, racism, the loss of community and environmental problems do not suggest that secularisation is delivering a happier, sustainable society.
At his inauguration, Archbishop Welby declared “for more than a thousand years this country has to one degree or another sought to recognise that Jesus is the Son of God; by the ordering of its society, by its laws, by its sense of community”. The Church's best response to secularising trends is to continue to do this, prayerfully anticipating that this is more likely to deliver social stability, community harmony and responsible citizenship than secularisation.
[i] A definition offered by Charles Taylor in “A Secular Age”, Harvard University Press 2007
[ii] Veit Bader “Relegare Working Paper on Religion and the Myths of Secularization and Separation” March 2011