Hard on the heels of last week’s blog, which raised questions about the over-looked value of a distinctive Christian education and the right of parents to choose one, came Living with Difference, a report from the self-appointed Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. To read the report, you might be forgiven for thinking that Christianity is done for; all that remains is to neutralise collective worship, place RE in central control and close faith schools. Et voila, neutralism becomes the new social orthodoxy. Job done.
Except, of course, it isn’t that easy, because as Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England pointed out, ‘nobody comes from nowhere’. The neutral public space so often advocated by liberal secularists and espoused by this Commission as a fair solution to pluralism cannot exist. We all believe something and, in doing so, necessarily reject everything else. But liberal orthodoxy is mistaken to assume that in rejecting everything else, we are implicitly rejecting and disrespecting all those people who believe differently. The opposite, I would suggest, is often nearer to the truth.
The route to a fair and just society is not to do God less, but to do God more. The report, in fairness, does suggest doing God more in the context of RE teaching. But it also simultaneously argues for an inter-faith amalgam in which every belief system loses its distinctiveness. Everyone gets a bit of something. Uniformity masquerades as unity. Conformity poses as cohesion. A little bit of God does you good. Too much God does not.
And when it comes to faith schools, the report really does reflect how conflicted society is about religious belief. Rolling out the tired old argument about faith schools being socially divisive, it recommends their closure not because there is proof that they actually are divisive, but because there is no proof that they are not. Ponder on the double think in that statement. Not innocent until proven guilty. Just guilty due to absence of proof of guilt.
Faith schools were picked on again this week when the primary school league tables were published showing, allegedly, that faith schools have tightened their grip on the rankings. The media claimed, in statements wilfully free of evidence, that this is because they select the most academically gifted on the basis of church attendance. Anyone who thinks that has never been inside an inner city faith school, or a church school with a 90% Muslim intake.
Their success, as Nigel Gender’s, the C of E’s Chief Education Officer was quick to point out, is because ‘the commitment to the flourishing of every child and the strong Christian ethos of our schools drives high standards and performance but, more importantly, promotes the well-being of all the children we serve.’ Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service also pointed out (from evidence) that Catholic primary schools ‘are more ethnically diverse than the average school and take in significantly more children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.’
So what’s going on? I would suggest a form of faith cleansing. The new Education and Adoption Bill gives the state a mandate to seize the land and buildings of any church school which fails to prepare children for life in modern Britain. In other words, all faith schools which want to maintain a distinctive faith ethos will be taken over for failure to conform to the liberal secularist social orthodoxy.
Some in the DfE were, apparently, disappointed with the Living with Difference report – Nicky Morgan is reported to be a big fan of faith schools. But what if her definition of a faith school differs from yours or mine? Easy. Just take it over and force it to meld into the new neutral amalgam. That way, the state gets it hands on the highest performing schools. What the advocates of the new neutralism overlook is that in removing the distinctive faith ethos of these schools, they will remove the very thing that makes them so successful.
I think the report is right in saying that ‘Certainty about faith identity in a wider society which is uncertain about national identity and cohesion, and security and safety, may be perceived by others to be inappropriately assertive and therefore confrontational and destabilising’. But reports of the death of Christianity have been greatly exaggerated. Those who hope to marginalise faith and recreate modern Britain as a secular society need to understand that a society at ease with itself (the sort of utopia for which this Commission hopes) is one where its people have genuine freedom. It’s a society where diversity is celebrated, not cleansed. It’s a society built from strong families and mature communities, committed to the common good regardless of belief, ethnicity or culture.
Whatever the neutral lobby might hope, Christianity isn’t headed for the margins any time soon.