Book Review: Religion in Britain – A Persistent Paradox by Grace Davie, Wiley Blackwell, 264pp, 2015
Professor Davie’s long-awaited second edition to her original 1994 book, Religion in Britain since 1945, should not be a disappointment to those who believe that religion still continues to play an important role in the fabric of the United Kingdom, despite the onward march of secularization. The central theme of the original book was the contradiction between religious belief and practice which manifested itself in the subtitle of Believing without Belonging, a theme which was quickly taken up during subsequent sociological discussions or studies into religion. This follow-up book deals with another central paradox; that half way into the second decade of the twenty-first century, and despite diminishing church attendances and increasing secularism within mainstream society, religion still commands a growing influence in public life and debate, hence the Persistent Paradox of the title.
As a friend of the Theos Thinktank, I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the book’s launch at their Westminster offices, where in front of an audience of academics, politicians, clergy and other interested parties, Prof Davie outlined her findings from a period covering the end of a long succession of Conservative Governments in 1997, through the rise of New Labour under Tony Blair and its thirteen years in office, until replaced in 2010 by the current Tory/Lib Dem Coalition headed by David Cameron, right up to the present day. (On page 28 however, it incorrectly describes David Cameron as becoming Conservative Party Leader in 2003 when it was in fact 2005, replacing Michael Howard after the General Election that year). In the preface, she outlines how the debate about the high public profile given to the churches has become much sharper since the mid-1990’s leaving a nation which she says, still has a deeply embedded Christian heritage, but which is now both increasingly secular in outlook and more diverse with regards to its religious profile. In this second edition only 10% of the original text has been retained, such has been the dramatic change in the last two decades it has necessitated a comprehensive re-write.
The book is divided into five distinct parts covering eleven chapters, with the introduction in part one setting out the framework of factors which need to be taken into account when discussing religion in modern Britain. These include the cultural heritage that Christianity has bestowed both physically with its buildings, but also in terms of the calendar cycle; the role of the historic churches in influencing morality which although diminished in recent decades, still occupies a place in the national psyche at certain times; how Christian religious practice has been marketed in a switch from obligation to attend to one of attendance by choice; the impact of immigration and in particular the introduction of new religious practices in the public arena; and how the presence of religion in the public debate impacts on the secular elite and the framing of parliamentary legislation. The findings for each are discussed in concise detail in the subsequent chapters, each of which is clearly structured to provide an overview of the subject, the specific arguments and counter-arguments involved, before drawing the various threads together in conclusion.
The primary focus of the book is on the Church of England, which as the established church has its own special place within the constitutional settlement of the country. Interestingly Davie makes several observations in the book about the future of the Church in particular her assertion – although not a unique one – that the current structure of the church cannot be sustained financially in the long term, and like any institution facing such a severe crisis, far-reaching and sometimes painful changes may have to be made in addition to those which may already be taking place. The advantages of having a weak established church are also explored in some depth and may be the cause of further debate within the church, in particular what some may regard as an unacceptable reduction in influencing areas of public policy where the church has a special interest, such as end of life care, marriage, rights of the embryo etc.
This takes us back to the central theme of the book. That despite the increasing secularization within a multi-cultural and multi-faith society, when it comes to influence and profile, religion whether Christian and other faith varieties, still manages to make its presence felt in the public arena together with the challenges such a presence brings. Although this book is targeted at a primarily academic/theological audience, it sets out in clear precise language the findings of much detailed research drawing not only on Davie’s thinking and previous work, but also referencing the work of academics, theologians and other experts in their fields, to support or challenge where appropriate, the arguments made.
I found this an absorbing book, easy to read and to digest and one which could and should be read by anyone who professes an interest in the place of religion and religious belief in public life. In her final conclusion, Prof Davie expresses the hope that her book will improve the religious literacy of those that read it.
In my view, this is something that is certainly achievable.