‘Living with Difference’: The Butler-Sloss Commission’s report reflects the interests of its members rather than the public interest

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The Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life published its report, ‘Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good’, on 7 December. Bob Morris discusses the report, arguing that its recommendations reflect the nature of the Commission’s membership rather than an open-minded commitment to the interests of public life and policy.

The issue

Britain is experiencing considerable change in its religious landscape. Two quite different phenomena are taking place simultaneously: on the one hand, about half the population is prepared to say that it belongs to no religion, and on the other hand recent decades have seen the growth of the number of non-Christian religions present in what was formerly an almost wholly Christian country. In other words, Britain is experiencing both secularisation and pluralisation at the same time. As a result the question arises of how the country should adjust to the new situation. . In such discussions, religious bodies have displayed anxieties particularly about the place of religion in a more secularised ‘public sphere’.

What follows explains the nature of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life set up by the Woolf Institute to look at the issues, summarises its main recommendations, records some initial public reactions, and tries to assess – primarily from a constitutional point of view – what it might all be taken to mean.

The Commission

Chaired by a former Lord Justice, Rt Hon Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, and published on 7 December, this report was the culmination of a two year study ‘to consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain and the significance of emerging trends and identities’, and ‘to make recommendations for public life and policy’.

Established in 1998, the Woolf Institute situated in Cambridge and linked with, but not part of, the University claims that it is ‘a global leader in the academic study of relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims’. Its Director, Dr Edward Kessler, was Vice-chair and convenor of the Commission.

There were eighteen other Commission members representative of a wide range of religions including the non-Abrahamic and extending to the chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA). Others included were professors of sociology and human rights (Tariq Modood and Francesca Klug) plus four ‘Patrons’ viz a former secretary of the Muslim Council of Great Britain (Iqbal Sacranie) and three peers –  Bihkhu Parekh, Rowan Williams and Harry Woolf. Another peer, Lord Harries (a former bishop of Oxford), was a member of the Commission itself.

At just over 100 pages, the report is divided into nine chapters, the last of which contains a checklist of next steps directed at implementing its findings and recommendations. Two introductory chapters set the scene, including by rehearsing scrupulously the data recording the character of the present religious landscape. Further chapters discuss vision, education, the media, dialogue, the organisation of faith-based action, and the law. Amongst the recommendations, the following are of principal interest perhaps to Constitution Unit readers:

  • A ‘national conversation’ should be launched by faith and other ethical leaders to create a shared understanding of ‘the fundamental values underlying public life’.
  • Policies designed to improve ‘religious literacy’ should be promoted in the education system and for the media.
  • As recommended in the Wakeham Commission on the House of Lords in 2000, pluralisation of belief should be reflected in membership of the House of Lords within the twenty-six seats reserved at present for the Church of England, at national and civic events (including the coronation), and in publicly funded chaplaincies.
  • The requirement for a daily act of worship in schools should be abolished, and faith schools should reduce selection on religious grounds.
  • The BBC’s mandate for religious broadcasting ‘should be extended to include contributions from those who would speak from a non-religious perspective, including humanists’.
  • The Ministry of Justice should develop a researched and supportive oversight of minority religious tribunals and courts.

Public reception of the report

The reception has been mixed. A general welcome for the recommendations for improving religious education and literacy has been matched by Anglican and Roman Catholic objections to the schools worship and selection procedure recommendations. Some commentators have argued that the report represents a capitulation to secularism and abandonment of any idea of Britain being a Christian society. The National Secular Society considered the Commission’s ‘multifaithism’ ‘completely at odds with the religious indifference that permeates British society’. Confronted with attacks from both sides as it were, in a BBC interview on 7 December Baroness Butler-Sloss claimed that that fact meant the Commission was probably on the right lines (BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 7 December).


At the outset it has to be understood that the Commission was not a government initiative but a private venture by the Woolf Foundation. There had been no public call for it to be set up. Its reference to being a follow up to the Parekh Runnymede Trust committee of twelve years before was a claim to a sort of self-appointed legitimacy by way of quasi-apostolic succession, reinforced by the association of Lord Parekh himself.

Further, there were special features about its membership which require bearing in mind. Although tasked to make recommendations for ‘public life and policy’, its membership (as noted above) was predominantly confined to ‘faith’ interests prepared to admit one branch of ethical non-belief. This was likely, if not actually bound, to influence the nature of deliberations by setting up a situation where it would concentrate on the concerns of religion rather than on the wider interests of the community as a whole. Putting it another way, if it had been a government initiative, a very different and more widely-based membership would have been expected together with an outcome which weighed special interests and did not simply record them.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the recommendations are influenced by the nature of its membership. This is not to say that it has been done in, as it were, bad faith. But it does flow naturally from the character of the sponsoring Institute: supported by an Institute dedicated to the study of interfaith relations, the Commission largely assumes that the interests of religion are to be taken as read rather than, like as with any other institutions, open to and tested by challenge.

Four examples of the effects of this state of affairs on the Commission’s recommendations illustrate the problem. These are the recommendation in favour of humanist contributions to BBC religious broadcasting and new conditions on the conduct of faith schools (long advocated by the BHA), that counter-terrorism measures should not limit freedom of enquiry, speech and expression but promote it, and support for a previous Royal (Wakeham) Commission proposal in 2000 that religious representation in the House of Lords should be widened if within the present ceiling of twenty-six seats currently all occupied by Church of England bishops.

It is difficult to avoid concluding that these recommendations chiefly represent the product of negotiation within the Commission rather than a focus on the wider public interest. If the BHA was present, how could one of their cardinal aims be resisted when conceding it would not injure but possibly help secure the continuation of the religious broadcasting slot? Similarly, the schools recommendations (which so angered Anglican and Catholic interests) appear to have gestured amongst other things to BHA opinion but without infringing on the practice of state support for faith schools. The concern about possible untoward effects of anti-terrorism legislation – a concern particularly of some minority religions – are responded to if in very general terms. The recommendation for widening religious representation in the Lords – where the UK is unique amongst sovereign democracies in having it in the first place – fails to consider and deal with the arguments against corporatist representation in a legislature or why religious interests should be given priority. In these respects the Commission was not a body weighing the public interest but a group addressing primarily the concerns of its own members.

This is not to say that the report is valueless. Judging from its public consultations and city meetings, its work engaged a large number of people. The report’s copious footnotes demonstrate the breadth and up-to-dateness of the literature available to it. Material on its website is certainly worth having. Should the Commission or the Institute make it accessible, no doubt many of the submissions it received will more than repay reading. But the self-interest of the majority obtrudes: nowhere is the question asked and answered why religion deserves special treatment.

On the contrary, Lord Harries, both in the Lords debate he initiated on 14 November 2014 about the Commission and at the launch of its report, stood on what has been called ‘Anglican multifaithism’ as endorsed by the Queen in 2012 in a Lambeth speech at the beginning of her Diamond Jubilee Year. Speaking of the Church of England, the Queen said:

Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country…. gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely.

Like the Queen’s speech, the report was judged by a Church Times writer to advocate an ‘Anglican-plus policy’. The same item also recorded Lord Harries as saying:

‘We want a crowded market place in which all traditions make their voices heard’[…] Rather than downgrade the C of E, the Commission wanted to make the Established Church more inclusive, using its ‘historical position’ not to fight its own corner but promote everyone else.

Similarly again, the Commission’s report was very much an Anglo-focused initiative. The Church of England is established only in England and its former dogged defence of its privileges – not to mention a recent history of misogyny and homophobia – does not suggest an open mind to championing or balancing religious freedoms.

The report made only the briefest reference to the other parts of the UK though one nugget will be of interest in the context of devolution. In evidence to the Commission, a Roman Catholic Scot who had felt marginalised in a Presbyterian sectarian society considered that the creation of the Scottish parliament had allowed the writer to begin ‘to develop a sense of Scottish civic identity which allowed me to be Scottish without denying  my cultural, religious or ethnic roots’. (Report, p. 24)

A limited conception of what the Commission was really about seems to have resulted in its failing to do justice to the submissions it received. Ruth Gledhill, a former Times religious affairs correspondent who took some trouble and interrupted jury service to give evidence, thought it all a wasted opportunity: ‘Rarely have I been so disappointed by a work of the “great and the good”’. A thoughtful and closely argued submission from the Cardiff Centre for Law and Religion, Cardiff University, received no apparent reflection or acknowledgement in the limited discussion of legal issues though the recommendation in favour of a government study of religious tribunals should be generally welcomed. It is almost as if the Commission was overwhelmed by what it had ignited. Instead of thinking it all through, the Commission has settled it seems for presenting a negotiated shopping list it could almost have written in the first place without bothering to go through an elaborate consultative process.

There is, of course, no reason why religious interests should not get together to express their common concerns and aspirations. Their anxieties seem at times liable to tempt them to conclude that they are being marginalised in public discourse whereas this report and the discussion it has already provoked, and will continue to provoke, indicates otherwise. Whether the religious presence in public life should continue to receive special treatment indefinitely is another matter but it is impossible to believe that religious voices will not be heard in deciding where, if at all, changes should be made.

Should Lord Harries move for a Lords debate on the report, it will be interesting to see what that chamber and the government minister called upon to respond will make of it.

About the author

Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant. At the Unit, Bob has been involved with a variety of interests, and has latterly tended to lead on ecclesiastical and royal issues.

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