I just read Andrew Brown’s piece on Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and thought I’d say a word or two here.
A long time ago, I did a Religious Studies degree. I’ve never been religious – I kind of slipped into it from a Philosophy degree because I found it more interesting. From the perspective of mainstream politics, I’m finding it more interesting than ever.
I had a wee chat with Rowan Williams at Lambeth Palace the other night, of the sort I’ve had with Cardinal Keith O’Brien over the last few years (he’s the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and comes to my Falkirk constituency quite often). I’m struck by how while each man has different ‘lines to take’, as it were, on a number of issues, they face the same fundamental challenges as religious leaders in a modern age.
It’s pretty clear that most folk have a place for religion in their lives at some time or another – often times of need. Yet it’s also true that, as Rowan Williams has said this week, religion is often regarded as a very marginal thing at best, weird at worst. Of course, the media plays its part – the newspapers who regard religion as important tend to be conservative while the liberal publications tend to marginalise it more – but as ever, it’s pretty daft to simply blame the media (much as most of us politicians enjoy that, obv).
No, I think some of the biggest challenges faced by clerics who seem to me to be of such obviously good basic intent, is that the ‘leap of faith’ implied by religious conviction can’t, ultimately, be based upon rationality. People believe because they do. And if we’re to allow people to believe what they like and to practice their faith freely, which most of us agree with surely, then that implies accepting that reason is not going to sort out all of those tricky areas when the faith leads people to hold views which diverge from what we might call the civic norm. Perhaps the Equalities Agenda is one of the best illustrations of this – where proponents of Sexual Equality (of which I’m one) sometimes view priestly statements as bigoted. Where religion is viewed as a marginal activity, then there’s a danger that the civic, ‘mainstream’ view deals with the religious view by getting out the pejoratives. Yet that doesn’t seem right, to me anyway.
No words of wisdom from me on all of this, I’ve no more idea that anyone else about how to allow folk to practice their faith without being subjected to vilification while ensuring other minorities get fair treatment. But I’ll try a comment.
While it’s non-negotiable that all folk should be treated equally in their daily lives, the free practice of religion does surely require that clerics should be able to articulate the values of their own faiths without be condemned as bigots. There are boundaries, of course, but where we draw them is probably best judged on intent, rather than the impossible notion that somewhere in the subsisting realms there’s an ‘ideal’ matrix which squares religious faith with civic norms, however progressive.
We’ll muddle on, I guess, and maybe improve things iteratively, slowly, as a consequence. Which places intelligent, empathetic and tolerant dialogue – not marginalisation, at the core of it all. Well, it’s just a thought……