Rowan Williams: Time to take religion more seriously

From the Dimbleby lecture, given by the Archbishop of Canterbury in London

Friday 20 December 2002 01:00

The nation state could put up a pretty good case for relegating religion to the private sphere: internal differences of spiritual vision or moral loyalty posed a problem, and public truth was defined by what seemed the self-evidently truthful vision of liberal modernity.

But as national boundaries dissolve and administrations struggle to secure fields of opportunity against a global backcloth, there seems to be a more significant role for versions of human nature that help us to avoid a reduction of politics to power struggles and a hectic quest for the purchase of individual or local securities.

The sheer presence of the church – or any place of religious activity – in the middle of communities of primary deprivation indicates the continuing availability of space where you can give voice to these accounts of humanity. The historic role of the Church of England has been and still is making such space available. Its history, its constitutional position – however controversial that may have become for some – means that is obliged just to be there, speaking a certain language, telling a certain story, witnessing to certain non-negotiable things about humanity and the context in which humanity lives. A really secular society would be one where there were no more such spaces left.

If it is true that the nation state has had its day and that we are – whether we like it or not – already caught up in a political system both more centralised and more laissez-faire, we are bound to ask whether there is a future for the reasonable citizen, for public debate about what is due to human beings, for intelligent argument about goals beyond the next election.

My conclusion is that this future depends heavily on those perspectives given by religious belief. In the pre-modern period, religion sanctioned the social order; in the modern period it was a potential rival to be pushed to the edges. Are we at the point where, as the "public sphere" becomes more value-free, the very survival of the idea of a public sphere, a realm of political argument about vision and education, is going to demand that we take religion a good deal more seriously?

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