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A recent issue of the New Statesman (19 July 2010) has led me to think about the relationship between secularism and ecumenism. This special issue of the New Statesman was about 'Godless Britain'. (It seems the New Statesman has found that issues fly off the shelf when the cover is about religion. The Labour Party leadership contest never generated quite so much excitement!)
Here is a quote from an article by Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, on page 25:
... these [secular] constitutions [US, Turkey, India] have a common aim: to protect religion. By not permitting the establishment of any particular faith, secularism seeks to ensure that the state cannot be used as an instrument to persecute minority religious communities, and that no religion can be imposed by law on an unwilling populace.
This raises three issues:
- The contribution secularism has made to ecumenism needs to be acknowledged. It seems the groundwork that led to the 1989 new ecumenical instruments in Britain, was laid centuries ago as legislation slowly came round to protect the interests of all branches of Christian faith. It has been a slow path from the wars of religion to the point at which churches are, if not united, at least reconciled.
- So, why have the churches allowed atheists to claim themselves protectors of secularism? They should embrace this commitment to protection of religions from the state. This allows the churches to live side by side and so be more credible.
- Third, it leads us to look beyond the Christian faith and enable Christians to engage as equals with people of other faiths.
Some Christians might argue this is going too far. Who does the secular state think it is, to dictate policy to the churches? If this is a view some hold, it is our own fault for allowing the churches to lose touch with the benefits of secularism. Churches should lead the way, not fight against it.
I suspect another objection would be the secular state should not legislate on the agenda of the churches. Leaving aside whether there is in truth a Christian political agenda, the real question is whether the churches as churches should be able to legislate on behalf of all people. There is no bar to Christians joining political parties and contributing to planning legislation within them.
If Churches did have direct access to legislation, it would tend to divide the churches. There would be no consensus over Christian legislation and those churches that did not agree would walk away.
It seems upon reflection the modern accord between churches is still fragile. If that is so, it is interesting that it is the secular state that holds the churches together.
(The map shows secular states in red, states with state religions in yellow and the gray are undetermined for one reason or another.)