Religious Liberty in England

This paper was written in May 2003 for the French journal ‘Espace de Libertés’.  A few notes in italics in the text mark points that have become out of date.

In the United Kingdom – or more particularly in England and Wales – history has produced a much different situation from that in many European countries. Here the power of the church was curtailed much earlier than elsewhere: the sixteenth century saw the break with Rome and, after 20-30 years of religious persecutions, the final establishment of a moderately protestant Church of England. The seventeenth century saw one king executed, another deposed and expelled, and an intervening period of republican puritanism.

By and large, the English reacted without enthusiasm to any of the extremes offered to them by their rulers. Instead, they embraced the values of free enquiry, sceptical philosophy (Hobbes, Locke and Hume) and the practical science of the Enlightenment from the last quarter of the seventeenth century onwards – earlier than elsewhere in Europe. The outcome, starting with the Bill of Rights in 1688, was a progressive assertion of checks and balances on the exercise of power first by the king and then by the landed aristocracy in Parliament and a gradual extension of religious tolerance and political rights without the extreme upheavals that characterised some other countries.

One aspect of this relatively tolerant pragmatism was that, with the political power of the churches limited, there was never a strong anti-clerical movement in Britain. Anti-clericalism in the nineteenth century was often associated with the radical politics of movements for extension of the franchise and parliamentary reform rather than standing alone. Instead the struggle was for the progressive emancipation of Jews, Quakers, non-conformist denominations and Catholics. As each group was grudgingly allowed full civil rights the power of the established church declined. In Wales it was disestablished in 1920 but England – and Scotland – still have established Anglican churches.

The disadvantage of this benign evolution of a modern democracy is that our unwritten constitution remains a residual theocracy, with many laws enshrining religious privilege – though there is little positive discrimination against non-believers. These more important religious privileges are these:

(a) The position of the Church of England as “established” builds the church into our constitutional arrangements, the Queen being ex officio the head of the church and bishops being appointed by the Crown on the advice of the government, etc.

(b) There are 26 places reserved for Church of England bishops in the House of Lords – the upper house of Parliament. No other Christian denomination or other religion or institution (barring the most senior judges – another point of current dispute) [NB: with the creation of the Supreme Court the Law Lords have now been removed from Parliament] has this privilege of automatic representation. Despite strong public support for removing this ex officio right any change is bound up with overall democratisation of the Lords, which the present Government is plainly unwilling to pursue.

(c) One in three schools in the publicly funded system is a school owned and run by religious faiths: these account for one in four school places. Almost all of them are Church of England or Roman Catholic: the Catholics have roughly equal numbers of primary and secondary places while the Church of England’s provision is concentrated in primary schools. There is a small number of other Christian schools and an even smaller number of Jewish schools. The Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus have recently been allowed a few schools each. However, these minority groups are expanding their provision and the Government’s policy is strongly in favour of more faith schools. These religious schools fall in two categories: (i) “voluntary controlled” schools are totally paid for by public funds but have relatively few religious privileges (opt-in denominational religious education, power to require the head & a small number of other teachers to be of the appropriate faith);
(ii) “voluntary aided” schools, where the religious body has to find 10% of the building costs (including major repairs etc) but all other costs are met from public funds: these have much stronger religious privileges, covering worship, religious instruction, staff appointments etc.

(d) The Government has recently started fully funding new legally independent schools after their sponsors (usually big businesses but sometimes religious bodies) make an initial contribution of 10%-20% of the capital cost. At least one of these “academies” teaches creationism in science lessons and its sponsors will open a second academy this year and plan five or six more. The Government is unmoved by widespread protests. [Since this was written the Department for Education has pronounced that creationism must not be taught as science – but in its approval of academies and ‘free schools’ it continues to flirt with creationist organisations.] 

(e) In ordinary (“community”) schools in the public system – attended by 75% of pupils – the law requires a daily act of religious worship which must be “wholly or mainly broadly Christian”, and all pupils must be given religious education, which covers Christianity and the other main world religions but almost invariably (and officially) excludes non-religious lifestances. Parents are given the right to have their children excused from either or both the worship and the religious education. [Sixth form pupils may now excuse themselves from worship.]   These requirements are overseen by local Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education, and the religious education syllabuses are drawn up (usually following official models) by local Agreed Syllabus Conferences. These two local bodies usually have the same membership. Each is composed of sub-groups, of which one (except in Wales) is for the Church of England and one for other denominations and religions. Humanists are banned from appointment to the latter. [In 2010 the ban was silently withdrawn but not negated.]  In practice, there are Humanists on about 40 SACREs/ASCs but almost always as members of one of the other two sub-groups – teachers and the local education authority.

(f) There is still a common law offence of blasphemy, although there has been only a handful of cases in the last 100 years. However, it is the basis for banning of videos that are blatantly blasphemous, and this practice has sadly been upheld (because of the existence of the law) by the European Court of Human Rights.  [The law on blasphemy has now been repealed.]

(g) Christian chaplains are paid for by public funds in the armed forces, prisons and hospitals. No similar provision is made for humanist advisors, although the door would probably not be firmly closed to this if there was demonstrable demand.

(h) Marriages may be conducted by most churches and (although the law is not uniform for different denominations) these generally count as valid for civil purposes. Humanist celebrations of weddings are not valid, and the couple have to register their marriage at a second ceremony at the public Register Office. Current proposals for reform will not remedy this situation, which we have challenged by reference to the European Convention on Human Rights. [A determined campaign by the British Humanist Association won inclusion in the 2013 Act that legalised same sex marriage an obligation on the Government to consult on marriages conducted by ‘belief organisations’.]

There is only limited public concern about these religious privileges, and with no history of anti-clericalism in England and Wales comparable to that in many European countries, until recently the ‘polite’ assumption was that religion of a watered-down Anglican variety was a good thing for society and the individual, although taking it seriously was somewhat embarrassing. The growing self-confidence of immigrant religions, persistent campaigning by the Humanists, especially in the field of religion in schools (where we have made allies of many religious groups by advocating educational approaches to religion in schools), and the advent of the Human Rights Act are together forcing a change in attitudes and may produce changes in the law.

[The remainder of the original article – a description of the principal humanist organisations – has been removed as it is substantially out of date.]