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Rabbi Mark Goldsmith

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The Power of Unity: Religious Pluralism in the U.K.

Posted: 05/07/11 21:21

Every year two thousand Jews in Britain head for a University in the middle of the country for Limmud. This is a cross community education experience with hundreds of different workshops on Jewish religion, life and culture which happens to take place over the Christmas holiday period. It feels wonderfully countercultural to be learning Judaism when the rest of the country is enjoying the rather secularised British Christmas. The University obligingly takes down the Christmas trees and the tinsel for us and a corner of England becomes Jerusalem for a week.

Generally though Britain is a multicultural society. The Government's National Curriculum requires children to experience religious education throughout their school career. This begins, even in places where there are hardly any Jews, with children in most elementary schools lighting Hanukkah candles, learning about Diwali, the Hindu festival and Eid, the Muslim end of Ramadan, together with putting on the school Nativity Play telling the birth narrative of Jesus. It means that the majority of British children, even if religion plays very little part in their own family life, end up knowing a little about all of the larger religious groups in the country.

The only place where this does not necessarily happen is in the more right-wing schools of the burgeoning faith school sector. There are thousands of faith schools which are wholly supported by the British government so that they are fully within the state education sector. The vast majority of state supported faith schools are Christian, controlled by the Church or England or the Roman Catholic Church. There are also more than thirty Jewish state schools, and a small number of recently established Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools. They are not required to teach about other religious communities though some do.

The national narrative though the experience of children, is that religion is important and that every religious option is of equal value, however in state schools which are not specifically of another religion school assemblies are meant to be mainly Christian in character.

In the mainstream of British life people are encouraged to be religiously pluralistic. Local Councils and the national government promote and fund inter-religious cohesion at all kinds of levels, from multicultural festivals to local multi-faith fora to talk about local issues with a faith dimension such as facilities in new housing estates. Organisations like the Council of Christians and Jews, the Three Faiths Forum, the Scriptural Reasoning Society and the Co-Existence Trust work to bring faith groups together in dialogue. However, they do not count among their activists evangelistic Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Islamist Muslims. There is almost in Britain, a coalition of liberal religion stretching across the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.

A Rabbi like me who is part of this informal coalition will tend to meet like-minded clergy of all religious groups at event after event where we celebrate our open-mindedness! All of us wring our hands over the faith schools that do not teach about other faiths and the religious leaders who preach separatism. It is entirely possible to live in a separatist community in Britain and many ultra-Orthodox Jews and Muslims do so. However, a more regular way of British living was experienced at our Synagogue at the General Election a year ago when we held a multi-faith hustings for our Parliamentary seat with Christians, Hindus and Jews from our local area together asking the candidates questions.

Religious pluralism's mainstream place in Britain is often demonstrated at times of national celebration and commemoration. At the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations and the President Rabbi of the Movement for Reform Judaism sat with Christian faith leaders in the front of Westminster Abbey. Each year National Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th will bring people from a variety of faith communities together to mark and abhor genocide in our past. The Jewish community's national Mitzvah Day and its Hindu counterpart national Sewa Day brings faith groups on the streets together to volunteer help to the wider community.

Britain is a comfortable place to come into contact with faiths other than your own. The contact is mostly in the name of community cohesion and does not often get far beneath the surface of just enjoying each others less challenging rituals or volunteering together for a shared community need. Yet, unless your religious outlook requires separatism, you will find that if you look for other people of goodwill in Britain you will find them.