Big Debate: Is Britain a ‘Christian Country’?
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Fierce debate has raged since Prime Minister David Cameron’s remarks over Easter claiming that Britain is a “Christian country” and calling for Christians to be more “evangelical” in their faith and receive more government support.
This week, the British Humanist Association and East Ham MP Stephen Timms join the discussion
Andrew Copson, Chief executive of the BHA
“Even in a strictly constitutional sense it is not true to say that the UK is a Christian country. England and Scotland do have established churches, but in both Northern Ireland and Wales the churches have been disestablished for many decades.
But more than that, our present society – and our history as a nation – are far more diverse and interesting than the “Christian country” description allows.
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Most people in the UK are not believing and practising Christians. More than 65 per cent of people don’t have Christian religious beliefs; more than 80 per cent of us don’t attend churches on regular basis; only 40 per cent of people, when asked if they have a religion and if so what it is, say ‘Christian’. Some measures of cultural affiliation as opposed to religious, like the national census, do record higher “Christian” responses, but even this shows diversity. In Newham, in the 2011 census, only 40 per cent of people said Christian.
Historically, society has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. Much of our way of life, most of our laws, many of our social norms, a large number of our public and social institutions – all of these – have been built, informed, and shaped by a range of beliefs, including Christian ones, but not limited to them at all.
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What the Prime Minister said that was most concerning was not his claim, but his call for us to promote ourselves as such and to bring Christianity more into public life. Some non-Christians, especially older people who grew up in a more Christian culture and leaders of other religions who value their relationship with an established church, don’t mind that.
But it alienates many of us who are not Christian, whether British for generations or newly arrived.
In an increasingly diverse society and one with citizens of a range of religious and non-religious beliefs and identities, we need a national identity that will be inclusive not divisive.”
Stephen Timms MP, Chairman of Christians on the Left
“Is Britain a Christian country? It’s hard to disagree with David Cameron’s claim that it is.
Of course, the role of Christianity in modern Britain is very different from its role in the 19th century. But the Christian religion has shaped our laws and our institutions. It has profoundly influenced what we all think of as right and wrong.
And, according to the 2011 census, more than half the population of Britain describe themselves as Christians.
The role of Christianity is on the rise and not – as often assumed – in decline. In London, church attendance has risen sharply over the past 20 years. And the churches are doing a lot more.
We have seen the extraordinary growth of church-based foodbanks. If, 10 years ago, we had predicted what would happen if tens of thousands were no longer able to afford enough food, we would probably not have guessed that the churches would step in to meet the need.
But that is what has happened, with church-based foodbanks across the country providing food for a million people in the past year.
We are now also a multi-faith society.
Some people say this will lead to conflict. I don’t agree.
According to the census, Newham has the lowest proportion in the country describing themselves as Christians, but also the smallest number saying they have no faith.
Although the different faiths are distinct, their values are shared.
The high incidence of faith in Newham contributes to its cohesion because, thanks to their faith, so many have a sense of belonging.
London citizens are an example of different faiths working together for the common good – a coalition of churches, mosques, synagogues and community groups which started in east London and has come up with ideas like the Living Wage. It provides strong grounds for optimism that distinct faiths can work together to strengthen our society in the future.”
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