Dr Jenny Taylor spoke on ‘When Words Fail: Religious Literacy and Post-Multicultural Possibilities’ at Contemporary Christianity’s annual Catherwood Lecture in Public Theology on Thursday evening.
Will Leitch of the BBC and I were respondents to Taylor’s lecture. You can read my full remarks here.
Taylor is a cultural analyst, journalist, author and founder of Lapido Media, a consultancy specialising in religious literacy in world affairs.
Taylor’s wide-ranging talk informed listeners about Lapido Media, a charity that ‘has pioneered the religious literacy movement in the UK: a movement which seeks to recover a discourse that encompasses all that it means to be human, social, political and spiritual.’ In her work as a journalist, Taylor had been appalled at the British media’s lack of understanding about what makes religious people ‘tick.’ She also lamented the churches own failure to communicate about the good they were doing in the world. Lapido means ‘speak up’ in the Acholi dialect of Northern Uganda, where Taylor worked previously.
Taylor also has detected a lack of understanding of religion among secular British policy-makers. She said this has been a contributing factor to misguided multiculturalist policies that created a divisive identity politics that has left the nation broken.
The main body of Taylor’s lecture offered insights into how people of faith might engage in a public sphere where ‘multiculturalism has failed.’ Quoting Lesslie Newbigin, she called on Christians to recover a sense of confidence and take action to help society recover. She said:
There has been better integration in Britain than in France or the US, but inner-migration has nonetheless been a distinct feature. The Church of England, in its famous report Faith in the City in 1985 recommended leaving migrants alone. … Small wonder that what Trevor Phillips described as ‘ghettoes’ – communities characterised by some degree of ‘enclavement’ – formed.
… Mass immigration coincided with a loss of cultural confidence in a country where the fruits of Christendom which were available and highly prized, were now free-floating. They were no longer anchored to any explanatory schema. Words had failed. Consequently, writes Lamin Sanneh, the greatest challenge for the churches is not living with Muslims as such but overcoming the obstacles that the modern disaffection with Christianity has thrown up. ‘The secular programme for religious pluralism has focused primarily on rescinding the claims of Christian uniqueness, a strategy that lowers the threshold for the religious uniqueness represented by other religions, and opens the way for Muslim radicalism.’
On ‘religious literacy and interfaith possibilities,’ Taylor argued that the Government’s language of ‘tolerance’ is ‘not enough.’ Once again drawing on the work of Sanneh, she said that a better alternative is ‘an insistence on reciprocal plurality,’ particularly in the Muslim world. Closer to home, she drew on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book The Home we Build Together: Recreating Society, to argue that the nation needs a covenant rather than more identity politics. Sacks wrote (p. 142):
Those bound by a covenant voluntarily undertake to share a fate. They choose to link their destinies together. They accept responsibilities to and for one another. Covenants redeem the solitude of the “lonely crowd.”
Taylor concluded by summarising five ways forward:
- Abandon identity politics
- Test and repeal all laws and plans that tend to cause ghettoes by default
- Insist on reciprocal plurality with foreign countries we do business with
- Refuse to tolerate mere tolerance
- Design a voluntary covenant with the nation
Leitch shared some of his experiences as a journalist in Northern Ireland, including covering stories such as Pastor James McConnell/Peter Robinson’s comments about Muslims, and the shooting of missionary Maud Kells (from Cookstown) in the Congo. Leitch wryly remarked that Robinson’s remarks about trusting Muslims ‘to go down to the shops for me’ had kept a dead story alive. He also described the decision to show Kells reciting Psalm 23 on television, as this gave viewers an authentic view of her faith, and how ‘our local audiences loved her.’
My own remarks focused on how Taylor’s ideas might offer insights into secularism, multiculturalism and the possibilities for a ‘covenant’ on the island of Ireland. I noted:
- Northern Ireland and the Republic have not experienced secularism to the same degree as Britain, so the challenges of faith-based activism in the public sphere are different
- Multiculturalism has not been tried in Northern Ireland, where we remain locked in a ‘two communities’ paradigm; and ‘interculturalism, the official Government policy in the Republic, perhaps has better theoretical possibilities than multiculturalism – but it has not been adequately supported on the ground
- Covenant can be a divisive concept on the island of Ireland (due to sensitivities over the Ulster Covenant of 1912, opposing ‘home rule as Rome rule’), so the extent that a ‘new’ covenant is possible or desirable here is very much up in the air
 Sanneh, Faith and Power, p. 65.