How would you describe yourself in relation to religion and belief?
I describe myself as a moderately active Anglican.
I grew up in the Church of England and I moved around within it; now, however, I am very committed to a parish model. I prefer to go to my parish church, although I am aware that people make different choices in this respect.
Would you say that GB was an equal and tolerant society, particular in relation to religion and belief?
Relatively speaking, Great Britain is a tolerant society. It is not perfectly so, but I often make comparisons between France and Britain. I describe France as more democratic than Britain both constitutionally and institutionally, but less tolerant. Paradoxically Britain is less democratic in the formal sense (hereditary monarchy, unelected House of Lords, established Church if you like), but it is more tolerant, and I reflect on that quite a bit.
Are there any challenges for you to live in accordance with your beliefs in this country? If so, are they social, legal or political in nature?
I don’t think there are serious challenges. Equality law is interesting in this respect. In equality law you see difficult issues where the seriously religious are sometimes in tension with other groups, such as organisations associated with same-sex rights. Personally, this doesn’t trouble me at all, but I can see that some people in the Church might have issues with same-sex issues.
Generally speaking we are very lucky. I don’t always like the political results in this country, but I know we have a robust democracy. It doesn’t always produce the answers which I personally want, but it upholds democratic values. For this reason I am very, very irritated by Christians in this country who claim that they are being persecuted. They don’t understand the meaning of persecution. I only have to read the newspapers to realise how lucky I am.
How has Anglicanism influenced our collective understanding of HR?
I don’t know if I am going to refer exclusively to Anglicanism. I am not a specialist in this field, but I don’t think it is accurate to see the human rights movement as solely a secular discourse. For example, do you know John Nurser’s work on the Christian roots of human rights? He looks in particular at the contribution of Frederick Nolde, who was an American Lutheran. More generally there is a whole strand of reflection about the Christian or non-secular roots of human rights. I don’t see human rights as inimical to Christian understanding or doctrine, but sometimes the out-workings in things such as the Equality Legislation can be tricky. Freedom of expression, blasphemy issues and the competing rights of secular and religious groups are difficult, not easy matters.
I admire Dominic Grieve as a defender of human rights in contemporary Britain. He would be very reluctant to withdraw from any European human rights legislation. I too am appalled by the notion that we could even think of stepping outside that framework.
Are HRs generally respected by public bodies in GB?
It is hard to know if human rights are generally respected by the Government and other public bodies in Great Britain. It is difficult to know what they think. The discourse has been distorted in the media, with the effect that the whole notion of human rights has been misinterpreted.
Do public authorities get the balance right between freedom and protection when it comes to intervening in the lives of citizens?
I am always very troubled by any legislation or intervention which is angled specifically at religious people, i.e. because of their religion. For example I would hate to see a law on sects or new religious movements in this country such as they have in France. But I feel equally strongly that any religious person who transgresses the law should not claim their religious ideology or theology as a justification for what they have done. In other words, if a religious person breaks the law, it is the law of the land, not religious law… So, if you abuse children or you claim that you can live contrary to the law, you cannot ask for dispensation on religious grounds.
When do public authorities have a positive duty to intervene in the expression of religious or other beliefs?
Public authorities should intervene if people break the law. This takes us into difficult territory. The rule of law is a cardinal principle. You may have other arrangements in some areas of society. I think that is possible, but if you break the law of the land you should be punished. We live in a democracy, and while we may at times not agree with the law, we vote periodically and that implies that we can change the people who legislate. The system is far from perfect, but it is pretty robust. So, if you infringe the law, you should be held responsible.
Does living in a democracy make it easier or harder to live in accordance with your beliefs? Is there any system of government which you would prefer?
No. As I have said, democracy is not perfect, but it is better than any other form of government. That said, there are different types of democracy. A majoritarian democracy is hard on minorities. That is the case in France. In this country we are relatively fortunate. British democracy is ‘messy’, but it functions pretty well.
Do you feel that you have a duty to vote?
Yes, I feel I have a personal responsibility to vote, because I have a commitment to the society in which I live. I often think of the suffragettes and what women went through to get the vote which is one reason why I feel strongly about it.
Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law, or would you like to see the judiciary empowered to strike down legislation?
I am happy with the elected body making law, though they should pay attention to what the judges say. Given the Constitution we have and the political tradition we live in, I feel confident in saying that the legislature should be the primary law maker, but I can imagine there could be situations in which these things have to be challenged. For the time being, however, I can accept the current model.
Is our democracy problematic for minority groups? Are there some groups which face barriers to participation?
I am sure it is more difficult for some people to participate than others. Indeed we should always be looking for ways to make our democracy more inclusive, but I do prefer the British system to the French, partly because it is made up of a myriad of communities. In Britain community membership exists alongside citizenship; in France that is much harder. The study of women rights, for instance, has been relatively slow to develop in France, because of the overwhelming emphasis on citizenship. It is very difficult to find out how many members of ethnic and religious minorities exist in France, because the data do not appear in any official census, and although I respect French choices in this respect, I think they can be damaging.
The French are good at principles, and the principles can be right and fair, but if they are applied too rigidly they become excluding and exclusive. We don’t do principles quite so well in Britain, we don’t think that way. Rather we think quite pragmatically, but the danger with pragmatism is that the most powerful voices are heard more and people with the loudest voices get their way.
How do you feel about the unelected nature of the House or Lords?
I think the House of Lords is a paradox. It is unacceptable in principle, but I have to admit that the quality of the debates in the Upper House is much higher that it is in the House of Commons. So, it is formally unacceptable, but in practice it works quite well. At times I despair of the House of Commons. We don’t deserve that level of debate, whereas in the House of Lords it is often better informed. You also get a much stronger representation of minorities, because nobody is looking over their shoulder with regard to the next election. So, it is a complicated thing: it is hard to justify an unelected second chamber, but I value the work that it does.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
I think bishops of the Church of England are there to speak on behalf of believers but also on behalf of whole communities. Again it is a tricky question. The difference between principle and practice… The principle is difficult to justify, but if the bishops use their role well, if they deploy their opportunities carefully, they can be very effective (though not all of them are). What I would like to see in a reformed House of Lords are representatives of different faiths, and other parallel groups. It should be broader. I think you should meet Tariq Modood, who speaks about levelling up rather than levelling down. He claims that the representation of religious communities in the Upper House should be enlarged, rather than reduced. I don’t think the bishops are doing any harm. A recent contentious issue concerned the debate on same sex marriage. That intervention could have been seen as controversial, but on social and economic issues the Bishops can offer a voice to people who are not otherwise heard.
Do public bodies respect the democratic will of Parliament, as expressed in legislation?
I can’t think of examples of public bodies deliberately ignoring legislation. Generally speaking there is a willingness to uphold the law. I think that happens, but if they don’t comply with the law, such bodies should be held to account. We don’t need to agree with all decisions made by Parliament, but we must respect them.
How do you feel about the EU and devolution in Wales and Scotland?
Our EU membership is very positive. I am very committed to Europe, but I travel there a lot. So, for me the EU is a normal and natural thing and I don’t regard it as a hostile reality. In my view devolution is part of the same debate. Where the optimum balance is… time will tell. I was relieved that Scotland decided to stay part of the United Kingdom, but what will these 56 SNP MPs do now… we shall see. I don’t think Wales is quite the same.
What mechanisms should we employ to ensure that those who exercise power are accountable? Is the current system functioning effectively?
A free press is crucial, but it is all too often abused. A good example is what has happened recently (May 2015) with Chuka Umunna. I was disturbed by that, because I thought he was the sort of person who could make a very positive contribution to political debate. I don’t really know why he withdrew from the leadership contest in the Labour Party, but I did think that the level of media intrusion was unacceptable. We get what we deserve though! If we read the papers, we will encourage the trend…
Do you think that Anglicans are appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?
I do think that Anglicans are appropriately and proportionately represented. However, they shouldn’t be there just because they are Anglicans. They should be there because they are the best people, and that goes for any faith community. They should not have privileges as members of a faith community but they should not be excluded either.
Do you think that the judiciary are sufficiently independent?
I do think there is enough judicial independence. That said there is this thing called ‘establishment’… and just occasionally I have seen it in action. You see people who all went to the same schools, who share a common background, and who often know each other, which is not necessarily harmful, but I think it could be… Senior bodies… the judiciary, Parliament, the diplomatic service, the Armed Forces… all those groups should be renewed continuously. Theoretically it happens, but in practice it can be questionable. Private schools and selected universities are disproportionately influential.
Are there any issues which you feel so strongly about that you have campaigned on them?
I have written to my MP on a number of occasions. The most recent time that I have done so was not in my personal capacity, but as a Chair of a Foundation; my letter concerned bursaries for RE teachers. You know the Government withdrew bursaries for this subject, but they have now been restored. So, it was a campaign which worked. I have also demonstrated, a long time ago, in Liverpool. I demonstrated against the Militant Tendency.
In your dealings with public authorities, have your beliefs been understood and where appropriate accommodated?
I haven’t really put this to the test, but I think my personal beliefs have always been respected. I know a fair bit about chaplaincy and I know that chaplains work very hard to accommodate beliefs of many different kinds, as we do in the university sector.
Is it important to you always to act within secular law?
I very much hope that I would not find myself in a situation in which I would feel religiously bound to break the law. So far it hasn’t happened.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out for the vulnerable?
I hope I would speak on behalf of people who are vulnerable, but sometimes I feel I cannot save the world. That said, I am sure I can do more than I do.
I think the whole question of child abuse is interesting in this respect. It is horrifying, needless to say, but how did it last so long without anyone doing anything about it? People must have known what was happening. So why are we paying attention now to something that has been going on a long time and why we didn’t do so before? I am absolutely convinced that there will be other similar issues ahead. That is a sociological answer. What interests me is why, suddenly, people pay attention to an issue such as this. Historically speaking slavery is another example.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally to everyone in society? Are there some groups which experience either prejudicial or preferential treatment?
I don’t know enough about this question to give you an informed answer, but I think it is worth noting how expensive access to justice can be. This must have an influence on how people deal with these issues. Unless you get legal aid, for many people it is really out of the question to hire a lawyer, without which you are in a difficult position. This really worries me. I think legal aid is crucial… Access to the law should not be a privilege, but I can’t see how you can stop people who have money spending it in this way… Whenever people go through a divorce, it seems like the lawyers are the only winners, but we need good lawyers and their time is expensive.
How do you feel about the general trend towards an increase in police powers over the past 15 years or so?
I think the empowerment of the police is a tricky question. If I am honest, I grew up in a household where the police were always respected, but I have lost my confidence a bit. There have been too many cases where something seems to be amiss, or covered up. There may be many reasons for this. We have a culture of blame and people cover their mistakes, rather than admitting them. Hillsborough had a big impact on me. I think the police have lost trust.
The overreaction to terrorism raises important issues about our limited understanding and knowledge of religion. I don’t feel that Christians are persecuted in this country, but Muslims are in a more difficult situation, because they are constantly vilified. We should differentiate between the many law abiding citizens who come here and bring up their children in this country, and the very few people who are exploiting the democracy they inhabit.
I wouldn’t really like to see the police armed in this country. I think there are issues which must be dealt with, but it would be an indictment of our society as a whole if we had armed police. We must be cautious about overreactions.
Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive?
I cannot think of any legal rule which I, personally, would like to see abolished. This is proof, in my view, that relatively speaking we live in a tolerant society. I can do the things that I wish to do.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
The only thing I thought about is explained in my new book. I am very interested in the idea of a weak State Church. A strong State Church can be excluding and exclusive. For example, you could think of the Orthodox Church in Greece or the Catholic Church in Poland. I think, however, there are huge merits in a State Church which has a distinctive constitutional position, but has no power but quite a bit of influence, because that can be used very effectively on behalf of different faith communities and indeed those of no faith. I think to oppose establishment and democracy is not a helpful thing to do. Establishment is not in itself undemocratic. The important thing is how it is used. For this reason I would be interested, if you talked with people like Jonathan Sacks and/or representatives of Free Churches, in learning what they say about establishment. They are usually much more supportive than the secular spokespeople imply.
A post-BREXIT postscript (17 August 2015)
Revisiting this transcript in the weeks following the EU referendum is a sobering experience. I say this for several reasons. First, as already indicated I am deeply committed to Europe and to the European Union and am, therefore, distressed at the outcome. Second I realize that this position is coloured by my own relatively privileged background, in the sense that I have been in a position to gain a great deal from European opportunities.
For both these reasons, I was taken aback both by the vehemence of the debate and by the decision itself. The comprehensive rejection of ‘experts’ took me by surprise. Subsequent reactions, moreover, have not only revealed the deep divisions in British society, but have called into question the capacity of our institutions to deal with difference. Our much prized ‘tolerance’ is clearly under strain.
A further point is worrying. The BREXIT debate ran right through our major political parties – indeed it was provoked by a long standing tension in the Conservative Party. The latter however remains intact (so far anyway). The same cannot be said of the Labour Party, which continues in profound disarray, thus depriving Britain of an effective opposition – a cardinal element of a mature democracy.
Grace Davie is professor emeritus in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Exeter UK. She is a past-president of the American Association for the Sociology of Religion (2003) and of the Research Committee 22 (Sociology of Religion) of the International Sociological Association (2002-06).
In 2000-01 she was the Kerstin-Hesselgren Professor in the University of Uppsala, where she returned for extended visits in 2006-7, 2010 and 2012. In January 2008, she received an honorary degree from Uppsala. She has also held visiting appointments at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (1996) and at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (1998 and 2003), both in Paris.
In addition to numerous chapters and articles, she is the author of Religion in Britain since 1945 (Blackwell 1994), Religion in Modern Europe (OUP 2000), Europe: the Exceptional Case (DLT 2002), The Sociology of Religion (Sage 2007/2013) and Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox (Wiley-Blackwell 2015); she is the co-author of Religious America, Secular Europe (Ashgate 2008), and co-editor of Predicting Religion (Ashgate 2003) and Welfare and Religion in 21st Century Europe (2 vols) (Ashgate 2010 and 2011).
She is a Lay Canon of the Diocese of Europe and served on the Doctrine Commission that produced Being Human: A Christian Understanding of Personhood in 2003.
Contact details: Department of Theology and Religion, University of Exeter, Amory Building, Exeter, EX4 4RJ.