Britain 'not a secular society' - Archbishop


Britain is not a secular country but is “uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion”, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said today.

The archbishop made the comments during a speech at Leicester Cathedral, entitled Faith in the Public Square.

Speaking to about 400 people from across Leicestershire, he said although British attendance at church may not compare to 200 years ago, the church offered something that could not be found elsewhere.

He dismissed ideas that Britain is “secular” or “religiously divided” were cliches and said: “I don’t believe we are living in a secular society and I don’t believe we are living in a deeply religiously divided society.

“I believe we are living in a country that is uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion and doesn’t quite know what to do with it and I believe we are living in a society which is religiously plural and confused and therefore not necessarily hostile.”

Dr Williams said church attendance may not be as high as it once was but although Britain may have become “secularised” it is not yet “secular”.

“We are haunted, we need somewhere to put certain bits of our humanity and there’s nowhere else except religious language and imagery,” he said.

“The piles of flowers that you see on the site of road accidents are the most potent symbols of a society haunted by religion and not clear on what to do about it.

“The church is still a place where people have got the emotions that won’t go anywhere else.”

The archbishop hosted a question-and-answer session after his short speech today.

He also said although Britain is now host to a “plurality” of religions and cultures, it is not necessary to deny the country’s Christian past.

He said: “It’s partly that which has turned us historically hospitable to people of other faiths and cultures.”

When answering whether the church is governed by political correctness in its attitude to other faiths, he criticised “paranoid bureaucrats” for approaching issues of religion with an “intense anxiety”.

“The ideal in a plural society is everyone has the respect to say what they want.

“A country in which we are all so nervous about offending each other that we do not say what we think is not a free society.”

He also said there was a place for finding a combination of religious law and the law of the land, referring to past comments about Sharia law that sparked controversy at the time.

The Archbishop today said: “I was not recommending the imposition of Sharia Law in the UK.

“I was saying that it’s a very complex, rather taxing question how the law of The land deals with religious law and comes within it. Can we envisage a society in which our fundamental liberties are guaranteed but that they can solve certain problems within their own law, subject to the law of the land?

“I think there still is a case that the law of the state ought to be finding what combination is possible without compromising fundamental liberties.”

He also commented on faith schools, and said they would not necessarily mean a “betrayal” of the relationship Christianity had with the state in the UK.

During the session, he paid tribute to reality TV star Jade Goody, who lost her battle against cancer this morning.

He said: “What she did in terms of her dying is very brave and very challenging because it’s about different kinds of making peace. We ought to honour that.”