Richard Harries

Allies or Opponents? Secular and Religious Voices in the Public Sphere

(A Review by Christopher Laurence)

The newly formed LTS got off to a splendid start when over 100 people gathered to hear Lord Harries (former Bishop of Oxford) give the inaugural lecture. Thanks to Bishop Grosseteste University College the lecture was not delivered in the Chapter House but in the Robert Hardy Hall so we could all hear without difficulty. Lord Harries was especially pleased to speak in a hall named after an old friend and began with one of Bishop Bob’s stories. On a visit to an old people’s home he bent down to greet a resident. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. The lady answered gently,”I’m afraid I don’t but if you just go to the matron’s office I am sure she will tell you”.

The title of the lecture was,”Allies or Opponents? Secular and Religious Voices in the Public Sphere”. In mediaeval discourse, we were reminded, religious belief was a universal assumption but it was not always beneficial; hence the arrival of the modern secular state. But these can have very different intentions:France for example wanted to provide freedom from religion, the USA freedom for religion, whereas in England religious freedom is guaranteed by an established church which is probably more valued for its protection of other faiths than by its own adherents.

In spite of the current awareness of secularism as a rising tide, Lord harries contrasted the political leaders of post World War 1 who were mostly agnostic/atheists, with those of today,many of whom are confessing Christians. But Britons are suspicious of people who ‘do God’ publicly, especially in politics, which the speaker thought was not an entirely bad thing. “Fundamentalist rush in” he remarked “where liberals fear to tread”.

He thought we should see secularists as allies. As a listener might recognise a piece of music as a part of a great symphony, so Christians should recognise the origin in their faith of many of the values held most dear by non-believers. What matters is that we should seek reason and integrity in dialogue without force of religious language.

Nevertheless, he said, many liberal secularists were aware of the need of a much stronger moral framework in public life. Liberal socialism and liberal economics are allowing abuses of humanity which all deplore. Many writers in this field are urging a re-evaluation of current liberal assumptions. Here, declared Lord Harries, we should see the opportunity being offered to us for ‘the unexhausted force of religious traditions’.

The lecture gave a splendid start for the new society.

Christopher Laurenc

3 March 2011