Living With Difference

Living with Difference, Rabbi Norman Solomon
The population of Great Britain has increased in half a century from 45 million to almost 65 million and its religious make-up has changed dramatically. 50 years ago 95% of UK citizens would have described themselves as Christians of some sort; in the 2011 census only 59% in England and Wales identified themselves as Christian, while 25% said they had no religion; of those who claimed a religious affiliation Muslims were the largest group, followed by Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and others. However you look at it, this is a large number of people to fit on a small group of islands, with plenty of opportunity for majorities to oppress minorities or for minorities to annoy one another or for individuals to be lost or squeezed out. How do you get all of them, whether they like it or not, to live happily together as one great society working from the common benefit?
That is the problem addressed by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, set up by the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, under the chairmanship of Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. The 18 Commissioners, of whom I was one, included experts in law, theology and education and were drawn from across the religious and humanist spectrum of the UK; the results of two year’s work, including consultations with groups and individuals throughout the UK, were published in December 2015 in a Report under the title “Living with difference : community, diversity and the common good” (www.woolf.cam.ac.uk/news/detail.asp?ItemID=1004 ).
We addressed both the national problem and the needs of minorities and came up with a number of recommendations, several of them aiming to promote mutual understanding and acceptance. One of the most sensible and practical calls was for teaching, in faith schools as well as others, about the variety of religions to be met with in our society – training of suitable teachers is vital. This is complemented with measures to encourage the acceptance of a minimum of pupils of other cultures or religions in faith schools, to ensure that the young actually confront and learn to accept difference.
The Commission rightly drew attention to the risk that faith schools can be socially divisive and lead to greater tension - witness the consequences of segregated education in Northern Ireland. However, we stopped short of calling for the abolition of faith schools, preferring to recognize the benefits of the current system while calling for modifications to bring it in line with current social realities. How well are we preparing our children for the realities of the society in which they must find their place when they leave school? They should of course be taught about cultures and religions other than their own, but it is perhaps more important that they should actually meet with others on a regular basis, in the classroom and on sports field, learning to accept difference as a normal component of society.
Can the law help us to live with our differences? The law, the Report reminds us, “cannot change people’s hearts and minds. It can, however, restrain the heartless and can encourage the mindless to have due regard for matters they might otherwise neglect”. The Human Rights Act 1998 introduces a positive right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion or belief equally with discrimination on grounds of age, disability, gender, race and sexual orientation.
Should the law go still further and insist on compliance with human rights legislation by religious courts, including Batei Din (rabbinic courts) as well as Muslim Sharia courts and others? The London Bet Din already acts within the framework of law as a Court of Arbitration in civil disputes; on the other hand, it could not, as a rabbinic court, agree to end gender discrimination in such matters as divorce law, to the extent to which it can operate in that sphere. It is not easy to determine the circumstances in which the practice and teaching of religion should be treated as exceptional under human rights legislation; clearly it would improper to invoke equality law to insist, for instance, on the right of women or of homosexuals to be appointed as rabbis or imams.
Issues of Church and State were discussed, noting that the Church of England is no longer the dominant force it was when the present constitution came into being; Prince Charles, as we know, has expressed a wish to be ‘defender of faiths’ rather than ‘defender of the faith’. Is it still appropriate for the second chamber to consist of Lords Spiritual, drawn from the CofE, together with Lords Temporal? The Report recommends that representatives of religions other than the Church of England be appointed to the House of Lords, as indeed were the previous two Chief Rabbis. I was not happy with this, partly because I can see no way of deciding who should represent each community or even what communities should be represented, but principally because I take the view that if there is to be a second chamber – a question not within our remit – its members should be appointed or elected ad personam, not on the basis of ecclesiastical or other office.
I was occasionally bemused to hear fellow-Commissioners bewail the “religious illiteracy” of the media, in the professions generally and in government; how many times have I heard in gatherings that journalists (the favourite target) are “scientifically illiterate,” or “artistically illiterate,” or “economically illiterate,” or lacking in understanding of whatever it is the group specializes in! There are many calls in the Report for better religious education of journalists, teachers and administrators; this is certainly desirable, but I do not know how it is to be accomplished.
Publication of the Report in December attracted a lot of media attention, much of it welcoming, some of it predictably off target – we were accused, for instance, of calling for the abolition of Christian teaching in schools, when what we actually recommended was the dropping of the statutory requirement stemming from the 1944 Act that the school day should start with a compulsory act of Christian worship – a provision already largely ignored in practice. The real test will be how much of our recommendations find their way into legislation and common practice. People of all religions and none stand to benefit from the acceptance of difference, and from the outlawing of discrimination. At the same time we are all challenged. We expect others to be more understanding and accepting of us; are we – in the different religious communities - ready to take on board, especially in our school system, the measures that would lead our children to understanding and acceptance of others, and to a sense of identity with British society as a whole?

Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon, Oxford.
January 2016


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