English-style secularism: another country, other mores?


Those who observed the coronation of King Charles III in May 2023 might think that the UK is the very opposite of a secular country. In Westminster Abbey, the new head of state received his mandate from the Archbishop of Canterbury and thus became head of the Church of England. However, appearances are deceiving.

The current situation across the Channel is complex, dependent on the contradictions and compromises of British history. Basically, England is becoming a secular society but without having adopted the French principle of secularism.

We often quote the American philosopher, Charles Taylor, which distinguishes three major elements in the secularization of Western societies: the decline of religious belief, the conception of religion as a personal choice of the believer, and the separation between Church and State. Concerning the first two elements, France and England are quite close.

A decline of belief

When for his 2021 census in England and Wales, it was observed for the first time that less than half of the population declared themselves Christian: 46%, compared to 59% in 2011. 37% declared themselves to have no religion. By comparing, the 2019 Eurobarometer matters 47% Christians in France, compared to 40% without religion. There were 10% of people declaring themselves to be of a religion other than Christianity in England and 12% in France. This decline of religious identity is accompanied by a fall in religious practice in both countries.


"Controversies" is a new format from The Conversation France. We have chosen to address complex subjects which often lead to opposing, even extreme, positions. In order to reflect in a more peaceful climate and to advance the public debate, we propose analyzes that call upon different research disciplines and cross approaches.

The “secularism” series aims to decipher possible misunderstandings, controversies but also uses of this term and what it covers within public debate.

We are also seeing fundamental changes in practices, particularly regarding what were until recently considered rites of passage. For example, it was normal for English men and women to marry in church, but 2020 only 15% of couples got married there.

Thus, an average Anglican church only provided four funerals and one wedding in 2020. In contrast, alternative rites abound. It is now possible and accepted to get married, or to formalize your civil union, in outside the church or registration office : in a hotel, but also in a garden, on a boat, at the beach, or elsewhere according to the couple's imagination.

In the United Kingdom, we see that these are very often humanists, belonging to the non-religious movement that I present below, which presides over marriages and other rites in place of priests.

Instead of offering sacraments, they mark the high moments of human life in collective celebrations. They can be called for both weddings and funerals.

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In other social institutions, we can perceive the same trends. In courts, for example, where in the past people swore on the Bible, the accused or jurors can also swear on a religious book of their choice, such as the Koran, the Torah or the Bhagavad-Gita (key text of Hinduism ), or can simply make a solemn declaration. At a trial I attended last year, 10 out of 12 jurors chose to solemnly swear that they would fulfill their duty. The religious choice is therefore a personal option, but does not change anything in the course of justice.

Religion at school

Regarding educational institutions, France and the United Kingdom have a mixed economy which includes public and private schools. In the UK, 6% of young people are in private education for nearly 17% in France. British private schools receive no direct financial support from the state, while the vast majority of French private schools are “under contract” with the State and receive a significant public subsidy.

In the UK, a third of state schools are so-called "faith schools"", the majority of which are primary schools. In France, on the other hand, teaching of a religious nature takes place mainly in schools. private schools, the vast majority of which (97%) are Catholic schools.

It is in state schools that the differences become apparent. We know how much state schools in France must insist on exclusion of religious signs and practices. The situation in the United Kingdom varies across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as each of the "four nations" is responsible for the education of its young citizens.

In England, for example, a third of state schools (including colleges and grammar schools) have a religious status (mainly Anglican and Catholic, but also Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh). This status implies that the school or high school is affiliated with a religious organization, offers religious education classes, and maintains a culture informed by the religion in question. The school can accept children of other religions, or without religion, who can demonstrate their own affiliation while respecting the religious culture of the school. One might think that there is a strong resemblance between the British state "faith" schools and the private charter schools in France.

Note that since the Law 1944, state schools in England other than schools of faith, at primary and secondary level, are obliged to provide teaching on religion once a week, and to hold an "act of Christian worship" every day. In practice, the majority of these schools choose to recognize the diversity of beliefs among students, either in religion classes or in collective gatherings.

Families can choose

In the United Kingdom, parents can choose to remove their children from religious activities, which is happening more and more. Students themselves can exercise this choice from the age of 16.

Moreover, schools interpret these obligations in their own way. For example, the “act of worship” can take the form of a gathering relating to the life of the school (academic or sporting success, significant event, discipline and behavior). And courses on religion can cover beliefs and practices of all kinds.

Not only do parents have the option to remove their children from these activities, but principals can request that the school be exempted. Ultimately, we see a diversity of situations; between religious enthusiasm and secular practice.

Each school is responsible for formulating its regulations on internal discipline (behavior, hairstyle, clothing, wearing of signs, etc.) according to the context of the school and its social composition.

It is rare to see confrontations there and it seems that the regime of personal choice of students, parents and teachers, in matters of religious beliefs and practices, contributes to school peace.

The evolving place of religion

The separation of state and church in the political and legal sphere poses more acute questions. The Anglican Church receives no state funding, but is "established" as the Church of England since the Reformation of Henry VIII to the XVIe century.

Today, the monarch is still head of this church, even if decisions are actually made by the government which is, for example, responsible for approving the appointment of bishops. 26 bishops sit by right in the House of Lords (equivalent to the French Senate) and make their voices heard there.

The political position of the church is mainly symbolic, but it exercises a role as spokesperson in favor of spiritual and ethical values, which gives it a certain influence in public opinion. On the other hand, since the XNUMXth centurye century, its status under the law is residual. She has little direct political power, and she is careful not to use it wherever possible.

Towards a secular regime?

Currently, criticism of religion has become widespread and a growing minority is speaking out in favor of excluding the privileges of religions in collective life. In the United Kingdom, two major associations represent this perspective: Humanists UK and the National Secular Society.

The humanists present themselves as free thinkers, non-religious, who offer a rational and ethical vision of the world. They draw on a long European and even international tradition, and encourage debate on philosophical questions and social. While in France humanism can be claimed by many intellectual tendencies, the use of this term in the United Kingdom is in practice limited to non-believers.

The humanists form a support network and provide a large number of celebrants for non-religious rites of passage. These are people trained and accredited to conduct ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, without reference to religion.

They are close to the National Secular Society, which campaigns for a “secular democracy where everyone is treated equally, regardless of their religion or beliefs”. This society aims in particular to strengthen the separation of church and state, to abolish religious schools, to exclude religion from health institutions and to affirm the equality of all before the law, without distinction of belief. His perspectives therefore correspond closely to certain interpretations of the French principle of secularism.

These two associations are active members of the association Humanists International, which brings together 130 associations around the world. We note that no French association belongs to it. This absence is little commented on, but we can think that, on the one hand, the notion of humanism does not have the same meaning in French, and that, on the other hand, the promotion of secularism is part of daily debates. on republican values ​​in France, and is not conceived as the role of an international NGO.

Two close but different stories

We could further develop the complexity of the current situation. The differences between the four "nations" of the United Kingdom tend to become more evident with the rise of nationalism in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the Church of England is part of an international community, which brings together 46 Anglican churches throughout the world, especially in former colonies. We find very diverse perspectives, especially in terms of social policy (role of women, inclusion of homosexuality, relations with the State and with other religions).

Comparable complexities are found in regions of France which have a different relationship with secularism (Alsace-Moselle, Overseas France). This reinforces the idea that England and France face the same challenges.

However, there is significant work to be done to get to the point where both countries can better understand each other's experience. The historic routes of France and the United Kingdom are very different, despite their geographical proximity. These differences run through their institutions, their political, social and intellectual structures and their languages. And if the two countries often face comparable problems, such as the place of religion in modern society, it is obvious that each will have to find adequate solutions according to their own culture and history.

Michael Kelly, Emeritus Professor of French in Modern Languages ​​and Linguistics, University of Southampton

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of InfoChrétienne.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Muhammad Aamir Sumsum

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