State and Religion in Great Britain: Constitutional Foundations, Religious Minorities, the Law and Education

By Catto, Rebecca; Davie, Grace et al. | Insight Turkey, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

State and Religion in Great Britain: Constitutional Foundations, Religious Minorities, the Law and Education


Catto, Rebecca, Davie, Grace, Perfect, David, Insight Turkey


Introduction

This article examines the relationship between the State and religion in Great Britain. It begins by outlining Great Britain's constitutional foundations and then sets the Church-State dynamic in the different regions of Great Britain within an historical context. Next it describes the current (and much changed) religious landscape and the various religious minority groups that are present in the country. Particular attention is paid to Muslims, who now comprise the largest religious group in Britain after Christians. The main features of contemporary law regarding religion are then outlined. A section on education follows, as this is a crucial issue in the British case, covering the ownership and management of schools, religious education itself, and the place of religious worship in the public educational system. The article then looks at chaplaincy in its different contexts, chaplaincy being a key site of state-religion engagement in Britain, which demonstrates both the continuity of the country's Christian heritage and its gradual change to a multi-faith society. The growing non-religious constituency is an increasingly important feature in this mix. The concluding section reflects on the main debates and controversies surrounding religion in Great Britain. What emerges overall is an entangled, varied and contested relationship between religion and the State.

Constitution of the UK

The United Kingdom is made up of four distinct countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, "Great Britain" consists of England, Wales and Scotland only. The latter term was developed after an Act of Union united England and Scotland under the same monarch and Parliament in 1707. England and Wales had been united much earlier--in 1536 to be precise--when Wales was in effect incorporated into England. Another Act of Union followed in 1801, which merged Great Britain with Ireland to produce a new kingdom called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, or the UK for short. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 established Northern Ireland out of the six north-eastern counties in Ireland; the remaining 26 counties, initially "Southern Ireland" became the independent Irish Free State in 1922. Thus Northern Ireland has never been part of Great Britain.

There are several levels of government in Great Britain. The supreme legislative body is Parliament, which meets in Westminster (London). Headed by the Sovereign, it has two chambers: the upper chamber, or House of Lords, and the lower chamber, the House of Commons. Currently around 790 members are eligible to take part in debates in the House of Lords; the majority of these are life peers. Although there are over 800 hereditary peers, since 1999, only 92 have been eligible to sit in the House of Lords. No peers are currently directly elected, although House of Lords reform has been on the political agenda since the late 1990s. All 650 members of the House of Commons (which includes representatives from Northern Ireland) are directly elected.

While subject to the British Parliament, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own separate parliaments or assemblies. The Scottish Parliament was restored in 1999 after an interval of nearly three centuries, while the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly were set up in 1998. All three bodies have elected members. The Scottish Parliament is responsible for "devolved matters", including education and training, health and social services and local government; and the UK Parliament in Westminster holds responsibility for "reserved matters" such as defense, foreign policy and employment. There is a similar distinction in Wales between "devolved" and "reserved" powers, although more powers are reserved to Westminster in the National Assembly for Wales than in the Scottish Parliament. In September 2014, a referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country was conducted; 45 per cent voted in favor and 55 per cent against, thus Scotland remains in the UK. …

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