The Litmus Test for a Free Society


The UK Government with its Counter-Extremism Strategy wants to register "unregulated education settings". David Cameron, in his Party Conference speech, had said a new approach would apply to an institution "whatever its religion". Then he added, "if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down." There followed the recent Government's consultation on proposals for Ofsted [i.e. its school inspectors] to be able to inspect non-school youth groups in respect of British Values. But, as proposed, such inspections would catch many good church youth groups and, without properly defining British Values and without distinguishing tolerance for people themselves from tolerance for their beliefs (and practices), many churches are worried. They are worried that a growing secular extremism in the government means that some mainstream historic Christian teaching will itself be classified as extreme and so some church groups be "shut down". Of course, the promotion of Islamic terrorism among the young in some madrasas must be stopped. So too must obvious sexual and physical abuse of children in any church (or madrasa). Safeguarding procedures are in place to stop the latter. Procedures must be found to stop the former. However, they must not be what the government is currently proposing. The following is my January submission to the Department for Education.

The submission

To: the Department for Education 11 January 2016

Dear Secretary of State,

I wish to register strong opposition to the Government's Proposals for inspecting "out of school education settings" when the Government has not specified violence or child abuse as the "extremism" that needs opposing.

As the proposals stand many church youth groups and holiday clubs together with their Scout and Guide groups could be affected. If this is intended, such censorship is a serious infringement of religious freedom. It is also evidence of "secular extremism" in the Department for Education, which, being serious, itself needs opposition.

The Western Free World's tradition, with toleration being an essential part of that tradition, can only be properly understood in the context of religious freedom and the non-enforcement of religion or belief. John Locke was greatly responsible for the British tradition of toleration with his Letter of Toleration in the late 17th century. For him this meant freedom for all parties in the Wars of Religion. But that freedom meant that religions and beliefs could only be promoted through argument and not through force. So toleration then was primarily a requirement laid on the government in power not to use force to promote beliefs – whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Independent or Anabaptist.

But not all should be tolerated. Beliefs and ideas were to be free. What Locke said should not be tolerated was violence or sexual licence (he was worried at one extreme by Roman Catholics being disloyal to the crown and only recognizing a foreign jurisdiction and at the other extreme by antinomian anabaptist Protestant cults). Interestingly, Locke also said Muslims should be tolerated but not atheists! He famously said, "promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist."

From this history of toleration and from today's wider world, it is being argued that freedom of religion and belief is the most fundamental of freedoms in a nation. Therefore, the state of religious liberty, including the liberty to win converts from other faiths and none, is the litmus test for a truly free society. This was understood at the beginning of the modern era, with the desire for the separation of church and state. However, in the Western world that separation was not so that the state could be free from religion but free for religion. The USA has sought to ensure this freedom and separation through their Constitution (with the free-church non-conformists no longer being enforced to conform by Anglicans following the English 1662 Act of Uniformity). But this American experiment has not been entirely successful (witness their 'culture wars').

In Britain a constitutional and democratic monarchical system has helped preserve freedom of religion and is significantly different to that in the USA. The British system is light of touch and heavy on tradition. Peers, MPs, judges and Church of England clergy have to swear allegiance to the crown. However, the crown, in the person of our Queen, has to promise to govern "according to the laws and customs" of the UK (thus ensuring, in practice, legislative and judicial freedom for the state). She then also has to promise "to maintain the laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel" and has to "preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England" (thus ensuring, in practice, doctrinal freedom for the Church of England, and, with the Church of England being proxy for other denominations and faiths, freedom for other beliefs).

Furthermore, this establishment of the Christian religion and religious freedom has provided, at a public level, grounding for British Values of which the Lockean tradition of toleration is part. Indeed, those British Values depend on fundamental Christian assumptions which most men and women of good will and common sense want to maintain even when not believers themselves. All this is why the proposal for a government body censoring Christian churches in the form of their youth work is so serious. If followed through, it would be another example of the secular-extremism that undoubtedly is provoking the Islamic-extremism that the Department rightly opposes.

At an obvious level, to suggest that churches in the UK are radicalizing young people in a way that merits expensive (to the tax-payer) governmental action, is both laughable and shocking. Even Richard Dawkins, no friend to theism and no friend normally to the Christian faith, has said:

"there are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death. I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse"

(The Times 2 April 2010).

The extra time pressure on church volunteers, if the proposals were given effect, would mean many church youth groups would close, certainly in smaller churches. This would often be in poorer areas where there is no local financial church support for youth staff. Has the Department thought about who, or what, will take the place of such closures and who will pay? Of course there must not be youth meetings where the young are trained to blow up the Houses of Parliament or be suicide bombers on underground trains. But this currently is only a particular problem for our Islamic friends and has to be dealt with as such - not through a blanket proposal that defies the fundamental British Value of freedom of, and for, religion and belief.

Yours sincerely

David Holloway,
Vicar of Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne

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