Politics and Religion in the United Kingdom

By Harp, Gillis J. | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Politics and Religion in the United Kingdom


Harp, Gillis J., Anglican and Episcopal History


Politics and Religion in the United Kingdom. By Steve Bruce. (London: Routledge, 2012, Pp. ii, 191. $130.00.)

Sociologist of religion Steve Bruce has written an illuminating study of the interaction of religion and politics in the United Kingdom. Although this present volume began as a collection of previously published essays, all but one of the book's ten chapters were substantially reworked. The author ranges widely in his book from the English Reformation, to the Irish Troubles, to Methodism and the trade union movement, to recent attempts to form Christian political parties, to the role of religion in the public square in culturally diverse contemporary Britain. Bruce begins with a helpful historical overview, combined with a portrait of the religious makeup of early twenty-first century Britain. Bruce organizes the history of religion in Britain into three phases: the first, existing prior to 1800, was "an era of communal organic religion" when faith and practice were closely attached to certain geographical regions and to ethnic identity; the second, characterized by voluntary individual association, ended in the 1970s when Britain became "a largely secular society with a culture of wide-scale religious indifference" (14). The author understands the English Reformation as the beginning of the "separation of religion and politics as two distinct spheres" (2). By the late seventeenth century, England had "a semi-Protestant state church" combined with many "dissenting Protestant sects" and Scotland possessed a "thoroughly Protestant state church" (6). Establishment survived in England and Scotland, though it was dismantied in Wales and Ireland. As late as 1930, "over 80 percent of the population had been baptized [in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland] and about 30 percent of the adult population was in membership of some church" (9). In the following three decades, secularization advanced, though the number of Roman Catholics also increased dramatically. Today, although Britain is still in some sense a Christian country, a 2005 census revealed that only 6.8 percent of the population attended church or chapel on a given Sunday. Still, the author contends that "little of Britain's secularity is due to secularism" since religious Dissenters were chiefly responsible for undermining "state-imposed national religion" (15).

Subsequent chapters note the difficulty of maintaining a single unifying religious tradition, given the internal divisions within the United Kingdom. …

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