CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

"Healthy Religion"

by Dr George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury
Opening Plenary Lecture at The 2001 Conference
London School of Economics
April 19, 2001

Let me say at the outset how pleased I am to be present for the commencement of your Conference on `The Spiritual Supermarket'. I am grateful to Dr. Eileen Barker for her initiative in bringing us all together to study this important subject. Indeed, I wish to pay tribute to her for the significant leadership she has given in the whole area of New Religious Movements and in particular for the work of INFORM, which is so widely respected.

One of the great surprises of my 10 years as Archbishop of Canterbury has been to discover just how much of my time has been spent in contact with members of other faith communities. Of course my predecessors also gave time to such relationships but I suspect that in the last decade they have become more central to the working life of the Archbishop of Canterbury than ever before. I welcome this because I believe that a crucial issue for all faiths and movements is that of our attitude to those who think. believe and act differently from ourselves.

This is, to many, a troubling question. The encounter with religious pluralism puts our own cherished convictions and experiences into a different and searching context. But I believe that it is a question which any religious community ignores at its peril. Different faith-groups may address this question in different ways but I believe that it is essential to the health of any such group that it does so with openness of heart and mind. To do so can only be for the good; to ignore it can only diminish our humanity and contribute to the fragmentation of society.

Today, as it happens, is a significant day for me personally. 10 years ago today I was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury in a memorable service at Canterbury Cathedral and I was commissioned for my work as the leader of the Church of England. It may seem odd to some that on the 10th anniversary of that quintessentially Christian occasion my major engagement is well away from the buildings and institution of the Church. Here I am at LSE in the presence of adherents of a range of religious traditions discussing the `spiritual supermarket' of our contemporary experience. And I am glad and honoured to be here; it is a healthy place for the Archbishop of Canterbury to be.

You may have noticed that I have already used the words `health' or `healthy' a number of times. I do so deliberately because it seems to me that whereas we may not be able to agree on the truth of a faith, `health' is a concept which provides a useful focus for my reflections. Within today's `spiritual supermarket' what are the marks of healthy - and unhealthy - religion? And let me make it clear at the outset that I am not questioning mainstream faith - the topic of your conference is New Religious Movements and that is the burden of this address.

It is worth recalling that mainstream religious groups usually begin as minority, new religious movements. Christianity certainly did, commencing as a Jewish sect, before replacing all other religious groups as the orthodoxy of the Roman Empire. And the mainstream faiths have also tended to spawn vigorous, controversial and sometimes heretical offshoots. If the prophet and prophecy live on the borders of mainstream faiths, it is hardly surprising that on those borders we find both truth and error.

In the ecology, then, of religious pluralism we feel the tension between the need for freedom and the limits of tolerance.

History has often shown that it is tempting for any religious tradition, believing itself to have a unique and precious hold on the truth of God and the human situation, to be committed to religious freedom (for itself!) until it achieves a position of social dominance. Then a wholly dubious assumption is made. It starts to believe that it is in the interest of the common good that only its own beliefs and practices should be accorded respect and freedom; rival religious claims are to be suppressed as in error and damaging both to social fabric and to the individual's hope of salvation.

The old Latin tag `cuius regio, eius religio' reflects this understanding of the religiously unitary state with its assumption that those with political power will inevitably want to use it to promote their own religion at the expense of others.

This tendency is certainly not unknown in periods of our own history. When Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, arrived in Kent in 597 he was leading what was of course not the first Christian movement in these lands, but his group could readily have been described as a 'new religious movement'. Earlier forms of Christianity had been swept westward by invading hordes from mainland Europe. Augustine was entering a situation dominated by indigenous non-Christian religious traditions. So he came with considerable anxiety, conscious of the vulnerability and marginality of what he represented. His first task was to seek tolerance for his small group of monks and permission to be given for them to settle down and practise and promote their faith - and this was indeed granted to them. However, it was not long before Augustine's Church, representing the traditions of Rome, became powerful and less than sympathetic to other religious groups. A well-known example is the way that at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664 Roman traditions triumphed over and eventually replaced earlier Celtic forms of Christianity.

I have no time to explore the history of the Church through the tumultuous years of the Reformation but patterns of intolerance led both to the persecution of Roman Catholics in Protestant lands and the persecution of Protestants in Roman Catholic lands. Eventually, of course, painful lessons both here and in Europe led, thankfully, to a gradual abandonment of the doctrine of `cuius regio, eius religio'. Whatever complex political considerations may have been involved in the transition to an acceptance of the principle of religious tolerance, it has also been accompanied by the realisation that healthy religion cannot truly flourish in a context in which it is imposed on people. Where the conscience is not free, religious adherence and practice tend to lose their soul.

Of course, it has long been the policy of the Church of England to support the principle of religious tolerance, both here and abroad. Some may argue that what is known as Establishment - the relationship between the Church of England and the State - offends that principle. But the reality is that Establishment is constantly evolving. Today it is not about privilege but about service.

Take the parochial system of the Church. The nation-wide network of parishes means that everyone - regardless of creed, colour or class - can call upon the good offices of an Anglican priest. And it is a commitment to serve the whole nation - intimately connected to the concept of Establishment - that has helped to keep us deeply involved in communities from which so many have retreated.

Take our great Cathedrals: their use for major occasions when the country grieves, or when it celebrates, reflects the deeply rooted understanding that the Church of England belongs to the nation, to all, not to the few.

Take the position of Bishops in the House of Lords: we do not see ourselves as there to pursue narrow Anglican self-interest. Frequently we are advocates for the religious and spiritual concerns of others. And far from resisting the addition of parliamentary representatives from different faith communities, we have actively encouraged it.

It is no accident that leaders of other faith communities are some of the strongest champions of Establishment. They see it not as prejudicing their own interests but as an important buttress for them. For many, Establishment maintains a vital spiritual framework for the life of the nation, and serves as a crucial bulwark against a wholly secular state.

So much for the modern meaning of Establishment. But moving on, at what point do we have to say with Bernard Williams that `tolerance', whilst an inalienable condition of society's wellbeing, cannot be an unconditional human right? Should we simply tolerate religious movements whose activities are demonstrably harmful to others, particularly impressionable young people? I would answer firmly: of course not. But how do we set about assessing what may seem to us, as outsiders, to be unhealthy?

Leaving to one side the issue of behaviour that contravenes the law of the land, there are clearly questions we can ask about any particular religious movement.

For example: Is it an open community? That is to say, if `family' is defined by membership of the group to the exclusion of one's biological family, then we may feel that is not entirely healthy. It would certainly be out of step with the New Testament, where loyalty to one's biological family and involvement with secular society is held in creative tension with being members of the Body of Christ. In the ecology of human societies, any group which is totally isolated and closed off runs the risk of becoming sickly for lack of contact and healthy engagement with differences.

Another important question is: Does the leadership of the group foster healthy criticism and debate? Although many mainstream religious groups have lively charismatic leaders, it is striking that movements which become a cause for concern are often characterised by leadership which is exclusive and immune to criticism. Powerful personalities can become too powerful - the Church of England has not been exempt from that phenomenon, as the sad saga of 'The Nine O'Clock Service' in Sheffield some years ago demonstrated.

This audience will need less reminding than most of how badly and how sadly things can go wrong with religious movements when a whole range of negative factors come together as they did in events involving the Branch Davidian sect at Waco in Texas, exactly eight years ago today which culminated in the deaths of eighty people. David Koresh, the leader, was in no doubt that the world was in the end-times and any moment now the Great Tribulation would begin. Of course, I am aware that many good people still believe that we are in those end-times but for the great majority of them such belief does not involve such violence. Some might think that cases like those of David Koresh and Waco or Jim Jones and Jamestown [sic] are so exceptional that we should not dwell on them. After all, if the champions of secularism are to be believed, all religion is on the way out. Well, of course we know that isn't so. Mainstream faiths, especially in the West, may be facing special challenges but world wide, organised religion is booming. And that is not all. The research carried out in this country by David Hay and Kate Hunt on the spirituality of those who do not go to Church indicates that religious yearnings are just under the surface of so many people's lives. The massive outpouring of religious feelings at the time of Princess Diana's death has been widely seen as reflecting a hunger for meaning and hope in the lives of so many. The yearning, the search for the transcendent, may be there, but the necessary context may not be. In societies in which for many people the great signposts of Christianity have become unclear, it should not surprise us if people are led astray or travel a road in good faith that leads into trouble.

Indeed, as G.K.Chesterton once remarked: `When people cease to believe in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in everything.' In even the most bizarre message there can be just a glimmer of truth which makes it believable. And when it is accompanied by apparently caring and loving people with a plausible message of hope for a tormented world, then the ingredients are ready for a journey of deception and disappointment.

So, be in no doubt that your conference is timely and of great importance to our world.

Let me conclude with some personal observations from the viewpoint of a mainstream and deep-rooted church.

Some might ask: `Is it possible to be firm and comfortable in one's faith and yet be open to new ideas and to be challenged by new understandings of God?' I would want to say that it is. We believe that in Jesus Christ we have the fullness of God's self-revelation and we witness to that confidently; but that does not mean that we have fully grasped all the riches of God. In both the intellectual life and the praxis of the Church we are `on the way'; we have not arrived. And we believe that both our understanding and our practice are shaped by our engagement with the world around us, both the `secular' world and the `religious' world. All people are made in the image of God and it is therefore important to attend to their aspirations and insights, knowing that we will learn through engagement with them. Healthy religion is marked by this kind of readiness to learn from others - whether from sacred or secular sources.

I believe that at its best Anglicanism has a healthy openness to other insights, without, of course, denying its own essential convictions. Take, for example, the question of response to New Age spiritualities. I recall that many years ago when I began to read the work of Christians open to such spiritualities, such as Mathew Fox, very few were more hostile than I in criticising what I took to be syncretistic ideas at odds with mainstream Christianity. It took me some time to appreciate that the New Age emphasis on the sacredness of creation, the

interconnectedness of all God's creation and the need to be concerned for our environment, were all deeply Christian themes - but ones which had been too often neglected in the church.

Finally, ten years into a most demanding but exhilarating challenge, what gives me confidence that my church has a healthy future? Perhaps three things stand out.

First, we are an inclusive Church. It is certainly not true that vagueness and uncertainty is the Anglican way. That is true neither of myself, nor of my colleagues in the House of Bishops, nor of most clergy and lay people. But nor do we want to place unnecessary hurdles in the way of those seeking faith today. In other words, we seek to make room for growth.

Second, we are an argumentative Church! We welcome both honest debate and rigorous thinking. We listen to others both within the Church and beyond. So reason plays a key role in our understanding of God's truth. And that means that doubt is also important too. After all, the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certitude! In my experience, wrestling with doubt has led me to a deeper and better-grounded faith. In those suggestive lines of Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind

Third, we are an engaged Church. As I described earlier, the concept of service, of being available to all, is at the core of our understanding of our mission as a Church. We are deeply involved in the world of the twenty-first century, in its pain, its suffering, its questions, its excitement and its potential. At the heart of our faith is the Christ who did not remain aloof but who proclaimed the Kingdom of God in the midst of this world, sharing fully in its life. We seek to follow his example.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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