We need to defend the role of religion in public life

by Edward Leigh MP

The recent ruling by the High Court asserting that it is unlawful for local councils to begin their sittings with prayers has added to the worries expressed by many Christians and other believes about the growing secularisation of our society. I welcome Communities and Local Government minister Eric Pickles’s statement that the new Localism Act will overturn this ruling and ensure local councils have the right to begin with prayers should they so decide.

As it happens, the council prayers case was brought to the High Court by the National Secular Society, an organisation which is given a level of media attention completely out of proportion to its size or relevance. In fact, it was pointed out recently that the NSS has about as many members of the British Sausage Appreciation Society.

Unlike the National Secular Society, which wages a continual campaign against the public presence of religion, the British Sausage Appreciation Society does not see any need to bring court cases against the nefarious influence of sausage’s rivals – the nefarious influence exerted by eggs, buttered toast, or fried kippers. Indeed, one suspects the aficionados of the British sausage have discovered something the secularists have missed out on: all these can survive together and even get along well with each other without one affecting any other to its detriment. The secularists would have us break our fast on a tasteless God-free gruel, but I will always prefer the Full English.

A number of recent events have given us further opportunity to reflect on the role religion in general and Christianity in particular play in our public life. At a Lambeth Palace gathering of leaders from nine different religions, the Queen highlighted the “critical guidance” religion offers our society.

“Faith plays a key role in the identity of many millions of people,” our sovereign noted, “providing not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging.”

But the Queen also spoke out in defence of the role the Church of England plays in Britain today. I am not an Anglican myself but I wholeheartedly support the fact that we have an established church here in England. Attacks on the state religion are often launched under the false premise that enshrining the Church of England is somehow bigoted against Catholics, non-conformists, and members of other faiths.

In reality, these attacks against the Anglican church are attempts to further secularise our society. Non-Anglicans such as me must be very wary of attempts to manipulate us in favour of the secularist agenda when we prefer to see an English society infused with faith, even if guided by the imperfect institution that is the Church of England.

I welcome the Queen’s defence of the Church of England’s role in public life and I would echo her assertion that the established church “has helped to build a better society – more and more active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

This emphasis on the common good was also accentuated in Baroness Warsi’s address to Pope Benedict XVI this week while leading a Cabinet delegation in a visit to the Vatican. Baroness Warsi took the initiative by hitting out against the “anti-religionists” who are “attempting to remove all trace of religion from culture, history, and public discourse.”

“My theory is that we are so afraid… of going backwards in history to the bad days when religion was imposed on people by despotic regimes,” the chair of the Conservative party continued, “that we have got to the stage where aggressive secularism is being imposed by stealth.”

Warsi’s words and Pickles’s action show that, while not perfect, the Government is willing to engage with the world of faith in a way that has been all too lacking recently. Rather than shutting out those who disagree with us, we need to continue the great conversation between all men and women of good will. As Pope Benedict put it in his Westminster Hall speech during his UK visit: “the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief … need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation.”