Thought for the Week (Archive)
Religion - A Force for Community Cohesion? (16/11/2009)
If you're one of those people who likes to collect odd historical facts, then you may know that both Elizabeth I and our present Queen were 25 years old when they acceded to the throne. This week - this Tuesday in fact - marks the day when Queen Mary I died and her half-sister Elizabeth I came to the throne of England in 1558.
It also marks in some respects the real beginnings of the Church of England. Elizabeth needed very quickly to bring stability to the throne and the country, and to do that she wanted a religious settlement that would alienate as few Catholics as possible, while embracing as many Protestant streams as she could.
It was a difficult balancing act. Some Catholics tried to assassinate her (like Guy Fawkes), some Protestants tried to turn the church into a holy huddle. Elizabeth, Queen almost by accident, achieved most of what she wanted, and brought political and religious stability to the country. In the process she set the course for the Church of England, and its commitment to the civic life and social stability of the nation in the name of God and the Queen.
The ways the Church has carried out that mission have changed over time, been attacked as politically and theologically misguided, and more recently been regarded as an anachronistic irrelevance. Yet Elizabeth's settlement has persisted with its determination to make religion a force for - in the modern phrase - community cohesion, instead of a motivator of tribal and communal violence.
This week also sees the first national interfaith week in the UK promoting understanding between the different faith communities, and effectively, encouraging people of other faiths to see their religion making a contribution to the stability and civic life of the nation. The website of the West Midlands week is here: http://www.westmidlandsifw.org.uk/home2/
Many of those who belong to other faith communities particularly value the Church of England. To them it symbolises the way in which God matters in public, social and community life, and therefore that religion has an honoured place in society. Indeed, our minority religious groups value the Church of England for all the reason angry atheists attack it.
Looking back on the bloody reign of Mary, and the often scarcely less violent one of Elizabeth, provides a reminder of how dangerously divisive religion can be in a community. There are plenty of places in the world today where that same potential for violence is turned into actual bloodshed. That is why initiatives like an inter-faith week matter. They are about harnessing those energies for the common good.
Whatever else you may think about the Established Church, it was the particular genius of Elizabeth (a monarch who surely deserves the title "the Great") to put faith at the service of uniting the nation of England while it was dividing the continent of Europe. Today, in a very different society where people of different cultures and different faiths rub shoulders daily, the Church of England still stands for the unifying power and place of God in public life.
"If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" (Romans 12:18). If she had lived in today's society, Elizabeth I would have approved of the way an interfaith week helped religions commit themselves to civil peace and stable community life.
Revd Doug Chaplin