Are French and English secularist traditions that far apart?


Those who watched the coronation of King Charles III in May 2023 would be forgiven for thinking that the United Kingdom is the very opposite of a secular country. In Westminster Abbey the new head of state received his mandate from the Archbishop of Canterbury and thus became head of the Church of England. But appearances can be deceptive.

The current situation across the Channel is complex, a product of the contradictions and compromises of British history. In reality, England is on its way to becoming a secular society, but without having adopted the French principle of laïcité.

The American philosopher Charles Taylor is often quoted as distinguishing three major elements in the secularisation of Western societies: the decline of religious belief, the concept of religion as a personal choice of the believer, and the separation of church and state. With regard to the first two elements, France and England are fairly similar.

Losing their religion

The 2021 census in England and Wales showed for the first time that less than half the population declared themselves to be Christian: 46%, compared with 59% in 2011. 37% said they had no religion. By comparison, the 2019 Eurobarometer pinpoints 47% of Christians in France, compared with 40% with no religion. There were 10% of people declaring a religion other than Christianity in England and 12% in France. This decline in religious identity is accompanied by a fall in religious practice in both countries.

There have also been fundamental changes in practices, particularly with regard to what were until recently considered rites of passage. For example, it used to be normal for English men and women to get married in church, but in 2020 only 15% of couples held a religious wedding ceremony.

The average Anglican church held only four funerals and one wedding in 2020. On the other hand alternative rites abound. It is now possible and accepted to get married, or to formalise a civil union, outside the church or the registry office: in a hotel, but also in a garden, on a boat, on the beach, or anywhere else the couple fancies.

Moreovoer, it is now very common for humanists to preside over weddings and other rites in place of priests. Instead of offering the sacraments, they mark the high points of human life in collective celebrations. They can be called upon for both weddings and funerals.

The same trends can be seen in other social institutions. In the courts, for example, where people used to swear on the Bible, the accused or the jurors can now swear on a religious book of their choice, such as the Koran, the Torah or the Bhagavad-Gita (a key Hindu text), or they can simply make a solemn declaration. At a trial I attended last year, 10 out of 12 jurors chose to solemnly swear that they would do their duty. The religious choice is therefore a personal option, but does not change anything in the course of justice.

Religion at school

As far as educational institutions are concerned, France and the UK have a mixed economy that includes state and public schools. In the UK, 6% of young people are in private education compared with almost 17% in France. British public schools receive no direct financial subsidy from the state, whereas the vast majority of French public schools receive substantial public funding.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with pupils during his visit to Harris Academy secondary school.
in south-west London on 6 January 2023.

Henry Nicholls/AFP

In the UK, a third of state schools are so-called “faith” schools, the majority of which are primary schools. In France, on the other hand, religious education takes place mainly in public schools, the vast majority of which (97%) are Catholic schools.

It is in state schools that the differences emerge. The extent to which state schools in France must insist on the exclusion of religious signs and practices is well known. The situation in the UK varies across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as each of the ‘four nations’ oversees the education of its young constituents.

In England, for example, a third of state schools (including secondary schools) have religious status (mostly Anglican and Catholic, but also Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh). This status implies that the school or college is affiliated to a religious organisation, offers religious education courses and maintains a culture informed by the religion in question. The school may accept children of other religions, or of no religion at all, who may manifest their own allegiance while respecting the school’s religious culture. There is a strong resemblance between British state ‘faith’ schools and public schools in France.

It should be noted that since the 1944 Act, state schools in England other than faith schools, at primary and secondary level, have been obliged to provide instruction in religion once a week, and to hold an “act of Christian worship” every day. In practice, the majority of these schools choose to recognise the diversity of beliefs among pupils, either in religion classes or in collective gatherings.

Families can choose

In the UK, parents can choose to withdraw their children from religious activities, with trends increasingly leaning in that direction. Pupils themselves can exercise this choice from the age of 16.

Schools interpret these obligations in their own way. For example, the act of worship may take the form of a meeting focusing on school life (academic or sporting successes, discipline and behaviour). And lessons on religion can cover beliefs and practices of all kinds.

Year 2 pupils play during break time at Halley House School in east London, 8 March 2021
In England, a third of state schools have a religious status (Anglican and Catholic in the majority, but also Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh).
Daniel Leal/AFP

Not only do parents have the option of withdrawing their children from these activities, but headteachers can also request that the school be exempted. Ultimately, there is a diversity of situations, between religious enthusiasm and secular practice.

Confrontations are rare and it seems that the system of personal choice by pupils, parents and teachers in terms of religious beliefs and practices contributes to school peace.

The changing role of religion

The separation of state and church in the political and legal spheres raises more pressing questions. The Anglican Church receives no state subsidy, but it is “established” like the Church of England since Henry VIII’s Reformation in the 16th century.

Today, the monarch is still the head of the church, although decisions are actually taken by the government, which is responsible, for example, for approving the appointment of bishops. 26 bishops sit ex officio in the House of Lords and make their voices heard there.

The Church’s political position is mainly symbolic, but it does act as a spokesperson for spiritual and ethical values, which gives it a certain influence in public opinion.

Members of the House of Lords wait for the official opening of Parliament to begin in the House of Lords Chamber, London, 7 November 2023.

26 bishops sit in the House of Lords by right and make their voices heard.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/AFP

Towards a secular regime?

Criticism of religion is now widespread, and a growing minority is calling for the privileges of religion to be excluded from community life. In the UK, two major associations represent this perspective: Humanists UK and the National Secular Society.

Humanists present themselves as non-religious freethinkers who propose a rational and ethical worldview. They draw on a long European and even international tradition, and encourage debate on philosophical and social issues. While in France humanism can be claimed by many intellectual tendencies, the use of the term in the UK is in practice limited to non-believers.

Humanists form a support network and provide a large number of celebrants for non-religious rites of passage. They are people trained and accredited to conduct ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, without reference to religion.

They are close to the National Secular Society, which campaigns for a “secular democracy where everyone is treated equally, whatever their religion or belief”. Its aims include strengthening the separation of church and state, abolishing religious schools, excluding religion from health institutions and affirming the equality of all before the law, regardless of belief. Its outlook therefore corresponds closely to certain interpretations of the French principle of laïcité.

Two similar but different histories

The complexity of the current situation could be developed further. The differences between the four “nations” of the United Kingdom are becoming more pronounced with the rise of nationalism in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In addition, the Church of England is part of an international community of 46 Anglican churches around the world, especially in former colonies. There are a wide variety of perspectives, particularly in relation to social policy, ranging from the role of women, LGBTQ+ rights to relations with the state and with other religions.

Similar complexities can be found in regions of France that have a different relationship with secularism (Alsace-Moselle, overseas France). This reinforces the idea that England and France face the same challenges.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done to get to the point where both countries can better understand each other’s experience. The historical paths of France and the UK are very different, despite their geographical proximity. These differences run through their institutions, their political, social and intellectual structures and their languages. And while the two countries often face comparable problems, such as the place of religion in modern society, it is clear that each will have to find solutions suited to their own culture and history.

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