Britain is a mixed belief society, says Archbishop of Canterbury

By staff writers
March 24, 2009

Britain is not a secular country but a mixed belief society “uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion” in terms of its Christian past, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has said.

The remarks, which differed in tone and content from the Archbishop of York's muscular "Christian country" rhetoric, came during a speech at Leicester Cathedral entitled 'Faith in the Public Square'. The presentation was followed by an open question-and-answer session.

Speaking to some 400 people from across the English Midlands, Dr Williams said that although church attendance could not be compared to 200 years ago, the church still had a vital and unique contribution to make in the modern era.

He said: “I don’t believe we are living in a secular society and I don’t believe we are living in a deeply religiously divided society.

“I believe we are living in a country that is uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion and doesn’t quite know what to do with it and I believe we are [also] living in a society which is religiously plural and confused and therefore not necessarily hostile.”

He suggested that although Britain may have become “secularised” in its public life, it was not ideologically “secular” in a way that was antipathetic to faith.

“We are haunted, we need somewhere to put certain bits of our humanity and there’s nowhere else except religious language and imagery,” Dr Wiliams said.

“The piles of flowers that you see on the site of road accidents are the most potent symbols of a society haunted by religion and not clear on what to do about it.

“The church is still a place where people have got the emotions that won’t go anywhere else.”

He said that although Britain is now host to a plurality of religions, this did not need to threaten the country’s "Christian past... It’s partly that which has turned us historically hospitable to people of other faiths and cultures.”

The archbishop advised public officials not to approach issues of religion with an “intense anxiety”, as sometimes happened these days.

He declared: “The ideal in a plural society is everyone has the respect to say what they want. A country in which we are all so nervous about offending each other that we do not say what we think is not a free society.”

The speech drew on the "Christian inheritance" language that has often been used by church leaders defending the legacy of Christendom, but its tone suggested an openness to engagement with change, plurality and secularity in British society.

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.