Archbishop of Canterbury calls for a 'reality check' on religion in public life

By staff writers
December 20, 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has outlined some of his personal hopes for the coming year in an article written for the Big Issue Magazine – which is sold by homeless people on the streets of many of Britain’s cities. They include a “reality check” in the debate about religion in the nation’s life

In the article, Dr Williams identifies three particular areas where he wants to see change for 2007 – working for an end to crisis and confrontation in Israel-Palestine, a full and proper debate on Britain’s nuclear weapons systems (which Britain’s churches have resolutely opposed), and a more reasoned discussion about the value and place of faith in public life.

On Trident, the Archbishop says he hopes that a public conversation about Britain’s nuclear weapons policy might result in “the brakes being put on before we commit astronomical sums to this [the Trident replacement] system.”

As the English ecumenical pilgrimage to Bethlehem, of which he is part, begins, Dr Williams also writes of his concerns for the region in the months ahead: “I hope that something can happen to stop the escalation of crisis in Israel and Palestine. We’re near a moment of irreversible tipping over into chaos...Pulling back from the brink is not impossible: could this [2007] be the year?”

Describing the picture painted by much of the media throughout 2006 about expressions of faith in public life and the limits of that expression as “surreal”, the Archbishop hopes for a different approach in 2007, which better recognises the vital role faith communities play in everyday life.

He declares: “Perhaps we might be allowed to ask for a bit of a reality check here - even to hope for a bit of recognition of how much basic bottom-line work for cohesion and access and emergency care depends on none other than these ‘faith communities’ in most of our urban and many of our rural settings.”

He says that it is far-fetched to think that Britain “is threatened with unspeakable disruption and division by religious fanatics”, but also warns against “getting a persecution complex” over hostility to religion.

Secular groups have been vocal in speaking out against publicly-funded faith schools this year, and issues ranging from creationism in the classroom to the place of public religious symbols and the link between extreme faith and violence have been in the headlines.

Some evangelical Christians have been complaining about ‘Christianophobia’ and Muslims also say that they are being demonized because of the actions of a tiny minority.

Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The God Delusion’ has become a best-seller, and the new church-backed think tank Theos commissioned a poll which showed that 42 per cent of the public thought of religion as “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eliminate”.

2006 also saw the publication of Faith and Politics After Christendom by Jonathan Bartley, co-director of UK Christian think tank Ekklesia. The book argues that Christians should adopt a more subversive stance on peace, social justice and public life – while rejecting the collusion and privilege between church and state which has turned Christianity into an establishment faith.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s article appears in the Christmas edition of the Big Issue magazine, published on 18 December 2006. The Big Issue is an initiative run by and for homeless people to provide income for them and to challenge the public and government to take action over the housing crisis.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.