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Both Crosses and Veils Must be Allowed - Times Article

Friday 27th October 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, on the issue of the public expression of religious belief.

The following is an article written by the Archbishop on the issue of the public expression of religious belief, especially in the context of his visit to China. It followed media coverage of two separate but high profile UK cases involving a Christian employee protesting her right to wear a cross on a necklace, and a Muslim wishing to wear a veil, both whilst at work. The article appeared in the Times newspaper on 27th October 2006.

Coming back from a fortnight in China at the beginning of this week, into the middle of what felt like a general panic about the role of religion in society, had a slightly surreal feel to it. The proverbial visitor from Mars might have imagined that the greatest immediate threat to British society was religious war, fomented by "faith schools", cheered on by thousands of veiled women and the Bishops' Benches in the House of Lords. Commentators were solemnly asking if it were not time for Britain to become a properly secular society.

The odd thing was to come into this straight from a context where people were asking the opposite question. Wasn't it time that China stopped being a certain kind of secular society? The political and intellectual world that is emerging in the new China is having to cope with a vacuum where cohesive social morality ought to be, a vacuum shaped by the past 50 years of Chinese history.

The culture of total state provision collapsed during and after the Cultural Revolution; under Deng Xiaoping, the new tolerance of capitalist enterprise fostered a driven and selfish climate; the one-child policy designed to save China from demographic disaster resulted in an ageing population, a generation of children both indulged and crippled with expectations — and a record of forced abortion and sterilisation. Frustrations about not having the " right" to a male child intensified a contempt for women's dignity among the uneducated public.

And now the approach of party and government to social cohesion has dramatically changed. NGOs working in China agree that their freedom to operate is far greater than ten years ago; indeed, there is a real burgeoning of new and local NGOs, as fresh issues are identified (not least around the welfare of children and the disabled). Government is pragmatic enough to work out when to back these.

Among such initiatives are a good many that are rooted in the Christian Church. The Chinese Government now repeats regularly that religion is essential to the "harmonious society" it aims to create — the sort of statement that would have been unthinkable ten or fifteen years ago. Of course, it is religion on the Government's terms. What China means by religious freedom is not unrestricted liberty of association. Before the visit to China, we were told that we should see only what the Government allowed us to, and that we would be conscripted into a propagandist agenda that ignored the continuing repression of religion.

You cannot be unaware that religious activity is controlled by strict regulation and that the manifold possibilities of infringing these regulations give ample opportunity for malicious or corrupt officials to intimidate, imprison and maltreat supposed "offenders" who (deliberately or accidentally) fail to go through the motions of registering. But, for all the undoubted scandal of this, it is simply not possible to say now that there is a general strategy to eliminate religious belief or practice. The rhetoric of encouraging religious co-operation with the goals of national renewal is here to stay.

This means that religious bodies have a very particular remit at the moment, to do with the care of those who fall through the sometimes very large holes in the legal system (one of the most poignant examples being children whose parents have been executed; up to now, these have been left wholly without access to proper care and educational supervision). Sometimes they are well ahead of general social awareness — the Church is one of the few bodies talking about the challenges of autism. Sometimes they are catching up with growing social concerns, notably about moral responsibility for the environment and care for the elderly. Sometimes they are simply caught up in ambulance work — particularly in the desperately needy area of rural health care. But there is a clear recognition that both the motivation and the volunteer base that will make for a sense of responsible citizenship is not going to be there without the religious communities.

And for those who claim that state-registered believers are not "real Christians", I can only say, on the basis of what I have seen in both urban and rural settings, that some of them put up a remarkably good imitation of loving their neighbours as well as of personal fervour and commitment. After all, even now, no one joins a church of any sort in China for an easy life.

To put it in slightly different terms, there is a sense that civil society needs religion. China historically has a top-down flow of social policy and action; but without a coherent morality, without a clear vision of what human dignity entails, short-term, corner-cutting strategies will always be tempting (forced abortions, forced evictions — a serious problem in fast-developing urban settings — or local legal processes that are effectively beyond review or appeal).

The declared intention of the Chinese Government to strengthen the "rule of law" is a not very oblique recognition of the dangers of running a society by decree rather than developing a full system of legitimate and accountable authority. Just how far this will develop, as economic change advances and information access widens, remains to be seen.

We in the UK do not have anything like this history of top-down rule by regulation. Yet when people talk about whether we should "become a secular society", I wonder if they realise that they are in effect echoing the idea that the basic and natural form of political organisation is a central authority that "franchises" associations, and grants or withholds their right to exist publicly and legally within the State. Up to now, we have in practice taken for granted that the State is not the source of morality and legitimacy but a system that brokers, mediates and attempts to co-ordinate the moral resources of those specific communities, the merely local and the credal or issue-focused, which actually make up the national unit. This is a "secular" system in the sense that it does not impose legal and civil disabilities on any one religious body; but it is not secular in the sense of giving some kind of privilege to a non-religious or anti-religious set of commitments or policies. Moving towards the latter would change our political culture more radically than we imagine.

So the ideal of a society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen — no crosses around necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils — is a politically dangerous one. It assumes that what comes first in society is the central political "licensing authority", which has all the resource it needs to create a workable public morality.

Few places have tried as systematically as China to set this in stone; and now there is a tacit admission of defeat.

Here in the UK, the daily reality of faith in ordinary communities is bound up with the maintenance of civil society, with enabling citizens to ask constructively critical questions of the State and to co-operate with statutory bodies to meet urgent needs. We could do with some common sense and realism about this. It would be something of a paradox if we had to look to the emerging China to find it.

© Rowan Williams 2006

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