Thursday, May 25, 2006


The Separation Of Church And State?

A few comments lately (here and on other blogsites) have alerted me to the scary fact that I am addressing a global audience (only a few people, I know, but from far and wide), and that our friends overseas, in America in particular, are confused about the relationship between church and state in this supposedly secular nation of ours.

I can't speak with any more authority than my status as an enthusiastic observer of these things lends me, but it seems to me that having quite rightly been on a downward spiral since reason and common sense started to kick in around the time of the Enlightenment, today religion is creeping stealthily back into our lives. From the fear of Bin Laden's bombs as we travel to work on the tube to the mild irritation of 'Thought For The Day' (a sometimes illuminating, mostly patronising religious slot) on Radio 4 each morning, religion touches every one of us, on an almost daily basis.

Unlike in the States, where I hear tell that the separation of church and state is enshrined in the constitution, here we don't even have a written constitution. Although laws start off as bills in the democratically elected House of Commons, they are sent for approval to the unelected House of Lords, where a selection of (some good, some bad) peers, there by merit of birth, political appointment or high office in the church, gets to debate each one and say yay or nay. Many think that the Lords is merely there to rubber-stamp decisions made in the other house, but make no mistake, if they want to stop a bill from passing into law, they can do it.

A strong, well-organised and extremely well-funded coalition of religions is represented in the Lords, which swings into action every time they are handed a piece of legislation that may displease whichever lord they take their orders from. They have their own agenda, which as far as I can gather has more to do with scoring points by saving souls for the next life than with helping humanity in this one. A few weeks ago, for example, they put the kibosh on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, legislation which would have allowed the terminally ill to die with dignity. They very cleverly played down the religious reasons for voting down the bill but you're not telling me that the thought of their all-seeing, all-knowing god catching them in the act of condoning sin wasn't what was truly motivating them.

As the government threatens to farm out the NHS to private companies, perhaps more worrying is the idea of them welcoming a suggestion put forward in the recent Faithful Cities report from the Church of England, that the provision of certain publicly funded social services be handed over to faith groups. Given that Tony Blair has already signalled the government's intention to get the voluntary sector — including faith groups — involved with the provision of social care, it looks like it'll be a shoo-in.

Of course, with two children at primary school (the eldest off to secondary after the summer - a whole new can of worms), education is the area with which I have the most personal experience. If you've read any of my previous posts you'll know that it's my pet subject. Although in theory the school that my children attend is not religious it, in common with all the other state schools in this country, is obliged to hold an act of collective worship each and every day of the school year. That's a religious asssembly in every school in the land, barring schools in the fee-paying, independent sector which make up their own rules as they see fit, but where you can usually be guaranteed a bit of non-commital Church of England hymn-singing will be thrown into the deal once you've written your several-thousands-of-pounds-per-term cheque. I have a suspicion that the devolved Scottish Parliament take a slightly more enlightened view, but as I haven't had a chance to check that out yet, I'll have to reserve comment for another posting.

'Collective worship' is what the law says, and fair enough, if you've got lots of children from different religious backgrounds (I refuse to call them religious children — it's not a genetic condition) in a school collected together in one big hall for an assembly it would seem a little harsh to focus on one religion over and above any other, although they're not so worried when it comes to the children of humanists, athiests and agnostics. What the law also says, however, is that the collective worship 'must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character'. Oxymoronic or what?

The reality is, of course, that most schools simply don't bother to comply with this nonsensical legislation. As I have discovered in my dealings with the head teacher at my kids' school, however, they are coming under increasing pressure to follow the rules to the letter, at pain of losing Brownie points come the dreaded Ofsted inspections, which can see a school's reputation peak or plummet, depending on how the middle-classes receive the results.

On a wider scale, Tony Blair and New Labour's 'radical' education reforms mean, amongst many other alarming things, that if you are an individual with a special interest, hmmm… let's say you're an evangelical Christian with dominionist leanings, for example, or maybe you believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn and you've got a few quid in the bank, all you need is £2million and you can set up your own school. Yes, bring just two million quid to the table, the government will put up the rest (a lot more than two million - all tax-payers' cash, of course) and you can be influencing the hearts and minds of our youngsters in the time it takes to throw up the building. And get this — you get to make a profit! That's some business start-up loan. Too fanciful to be believed? Check this out!

So there you go. I'm sure there are many more instances of religion interfering in our lives, but I'm sure I've said enought for now. If you've made it this far, pour yourself a large drink and let me know that you think!

It's only recently ocurred to me we pay the BBC license, part of which goes towards creating a platform for religions - particularly Christianity.
An aspect of the Church/State issue is the position of the Monarch. I wonder what the reaction would be if William announced he was an atheist. In fact I wonder how many former Monarchs have been in that position? Which political party is ever likely to tackle this subject?
Yes, Simon, and that's with an agnostic as head of religion at the Beeb. They've just appointed a lay Methodist preacher, so things can only get worse.

Fido — I've a feeling Charles is about as close as we're going to get to an 'alternative' voice in the house of Windsor, although he's into some even more dubious mumbo jumbo, from what I can gather. I reckon that's why he's being sidelined. William looks to me like a bloke who's going to toe the line, bigtime. Harry might be our best hope, gawd help us!
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