I’m an atheist. I make no bones about the fact. But I haven’t always been so. I came to the decision over a course of years and a fair amount of contemplation, having been brought up in an environment where the church played a role in people’s lives. For that reason, if others have gone through a similar process and decided that they do have a religious faith, I can hardly complain.
However, what is more worrying is the tone of remarks made by George Carey over the Easter weekend, accusing the Prime Minister of ‘”aiding and abetting” aggressive secularisation’. Now, the few hardy souls who read my dribblings will know that I am hardly a fan of David Cameron, but this is a hugely misplaced barb at him.
The Church of England holds still a privileged position in British political life. There are very few nations now who retain the idea of an established church, and even those few seem to have a significantly different relationship to their state religion as ours. But the Prime Minister is not a religious leader. He leads a country where fewer people than ever feel the need to align themselves with a religion at all. Those who do are by no means uniformly Christian. If the Prime Minister is embracing a form of secularism, it is because it is an inevitable consequence of the growing pluralisation of our society. Because there are differences in religious belief, there are differences in culture and moral and ethical structure. Perhaps this is one reason why there is a burgeoning debate about the nature of Britishness: we have to identify the shared values that bind us as a society that religion no longer provide.
But George Carey seems not to recognise this, preferring instead to make special pleadings for the church in the midst of all this. Given the efforts of some parts Church of England to make itself increasingly irrelevant to the modern world I ask, why does George Carey think the church needs special consideration in these times? What makes it a special case?
While I ask this, I must also remark that the church is still relevant, when it isn’t trying to tear itself apart. Of course it is. Even today, one of Carey’s successors as Archbishop has raised concerns about parts of our culture as part of his Easter sermon, and other churches still are highlighting issues of poverty (and here too). This is as it should be. Churches are an important source of a collective social conscience. But they are not the only one. Perhaps George Carey would do very well to remember that.