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Religion and Belief in Public Life: Report from Oxford

The following is a report on the 2015 Vincent Strudwick Lecture sponsored by the Graduate Theological Foundation and organized and hosted by Kellogg College, University of Oxford. The 2015 lecture was delivered by The Rt. Revd Dr. Rowan Williams, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, on October 26. Learn more about The Revd Canon Dr. Vincent Strudwick and this lecture series on religion and public life.


“Religion and Belief in Public Life: proposed new legislation in a time of cultural change”

The title was chosen because a Commission was appointed to report on the tensions and opportunities facing the UK and its coherence and health as a nation in this time of political, economic, religious and cultural difference and change.

The “Woolf” Commission is due to report, and Dr. Williams is one of four (Inter-Faith) Presidents of the Commission which has been chaired by a distinguished judge, Baroness Butler-Schloss.


Dr. Williams began by saying he was not going to deal with the details of the report, but rather with the issues and principles that lay behind its inquiry and conclusions.

“We are in a ‘dark night’ of institutions” he began, so that religious institutions of all faiths, share with other traditional bodies, the skepticism, hostility and indifference that all such institutions suffer.

So how can the beliefs and values and tasks that these institutions have served for the community be preserved in the changes to society that are emerging? The temptation is to pass laws, so that everyone, and the new values needed for a plural society, is protected. “Legal Universalism” is a popular remedy for a civil society in degrees of conflict and change. Yet while the law is a vital building block in constructing a coherent society with outcomes for the common good, it is a much more complicated and hazardous process than most politicians and lawmakers believe.

Dr. Williams then gave some examples from a context in which there is increasing secular pressure to insist that ‘religion’ is a private matter, and has no place in public life, and for the law to begin to reflect that. While emphasizing that he was making no moral judgement in the issue, he instanced the recent case of a civil registrar (of births, marriages and death) who was dismissed because on the basis of her beliefs, she was not prepared to register gay marriages which are now legal in Britain. He said it raised the question of the rights of minorities; and whereas some former minorities are now mainstream, care must be taken to not create other disadvantaged minorities, such as (for example) a Muslim working in a supermarket who refused to sell alcoholic drinks.

This could force many religious minorities to be withdrawn from public life, and enhance the secularist agenda. The fair, pluralist (including secular) society to which we aspire, would not be served by this.

So what must we do?

Dr. Williams said it is part of the role of religious faiths to patiently pursue a dialogue, listening and questioning, and serving in public life, and keeping the complexity of the task before society. It is this way that a culture change takes place, where law is a blunt instrument. It is if we pursue this task that religious liberty becomes fundamental to all liberties, for we must keep the debate going. It will not be an easy task, but for the believer, it is important not to worry, but in faith to keep the debate going for God’s sake and the sake of all.


Thank you to The Revd Canon Dr. Vincent Strudwick for his help in compiling this information.

You will be able to read more about the Vincent Strudwick Lecture 2015 and see numerous photos in the upcoming November issue of Foundation Footnotes, our social media pages, and this blog in the coming weeks.