How would you describe your identity in terms of religion or belief?

I am a member of the Church of England. I didn’t choose to be a member of the Church of England. I was baptised as a baby. But I accepted that gift. Yes, I am born and bred in Anglicanism, it is part of my family and schooling and village upbringing, and I have always been a member of the Church of England. I have always had a commitment, I have worked on it and I have also studied it.

Is GB an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief?

I think that is a terrible ‘unfreedom’. I am very committed to religious freedom and what is happening here is that your own religion is forcing you into a decision that your conscience doesn’t allow. I know this is happening with lots of people in the Church of England, and in the Catholic Church or in other Churches, where there is little or no room for conscientious objection within those churches by those who don’t follow the teaching of a small number of clerical leaders.

Has Anglicanism had an influence on Human Rights?

It is very difficult at the moment, I think, for people who respect the law of the country and think there is a strong moral ground for the gains we have had in terms of equality, when they find that their own religious bodies don’t uphold these gains. I am personally very committed to the legislation that we have had since New Labour for transparency in public bodies, for freedom of information and I am personally very committed to the Equality Act. So, to belong to a Church which has exempted itself from all those things without any consultation to its members, acting in a way contrary to the way it should as a public body (I think it is, although legally it is not), I think it acts at lower standards than I would have to act as a member of a public body: the university. I find that very distressing. The Church is again and again acting in a way which is not transparent, it doesn’t afford its own clerical employees the same level of rights which other people would enjoy according to Employment Law, actively discriminating against people on the basis of their gender, sexuality and affiliation; and there seems to be no way to deal with it. It is a very murky situation we have got ourselves into it in this country. It has not been addressed adequately.

Historically, in a long perspective, I would say that liberal forms of Christianity, by which I refer to the liberal commitment to live according to your own conscience without damaging other people, have played an important role. I think the legal and cultural ethos in this country was laid down by religion as well as by secularity. Of course, the Anglican Church was a persecuting Church at times, and it did not recognise equal rights of other religions and it was a long struggle, but it got to that position and it has supported many fundamental freedoms and rights as well, through its history. On balance it has. The basic English ethos and commitment to rights, dignity and freedom, is very much tied up with an Anglican ethos. I keep qualifying it… There are exceptions.

Liberalism comes in different waves, often Churches have been supportive of the first wave of liberalism consisting of extending rights to people on the basis of whatever class they have, and they were on the whole very supportive of the second wave, racial equality… so the anti-slavery movement, civil rights movement and so on. However, if you think of the third wave, which is about extending rights to women, gay people, children… they have been very poor there and this is true of the Anglican Church as well. It argued against sexual equality legislation in the 70s and it has consistently argued against, or not supported the extension of freedom on the basis of gender, sexuality and it has not spoken out on children’s rights and it or its related bodies have sometimes been obstructive in letting people look into their archives about abuse and so on. So, it is a mixed record, but overall it is a positive one to do with liberalism, but I worry that we are going backwards now. The Church and its leaders have still not embraced proper lay participation, and partnership with non-church organisations and causes.

There are lots of public statements expressing concern for people living in poverty and their rights not being violated, welfare claimants, and so on…Good. But people speaking publicly in favour of women’s rights, children rights and gay rights? No, I can’t think of examples. Yes, there is one bishop… Alan Wilson, who is an assistant bishop. He is an area bishop in the Oxford diocese. Just a single bishop. He is the only bishop who is speaking in favour of gay rights, which is a very shocking thing… because we know there are gay bishops, but they don’t speak out. I don’t know if bishops are openly gay. It is allowed in the Church of England as long as they are not practising. They are certainly not open about whether or not they are practising.

Do public bodies generally respect Human Rights?

Human rights are generally respected by public bodies in Great Britain.

Does the State get the level of intervention right when it comes to religious practice?

I completely understand that you must be very careful about the State encroaching upon religious freedom, but we are seeing the opposite. Let me give you an example. In schools, we have outdated legislation on religion in schools, dating back to 1944, which allows the right to withdraw your child from collective worship and RE lessons, and that was a right mainly to protect secular people or members of small religious groups from a mainly Anglican… sorry Christian ethos. It has been used now by some conservative Christians, Muslims, Jews, to withdraw their children so they never have to meet a Jew…. If they are Muslims… or a Muslim if they are Christians… or go to a synagogue or go to a mosque… and so on. We are allowing this rather dangerous use of the law of religious freedom to uphold the rights of exclusivist, conservative people to trump tolerance and learning.

So moderate religious majorities are not having their freedoms upheld at the moment. The conservatives are much better at organising themselves and they have captured the whole agenda and they are making lots of claims for freedoms… quite rightly. They should have that, but the effect is to undermine the liberal majorities and nobody seems to care and it worries me, because we are losing the kind of liberal religion which is part of the foundation of our liberties and it has been part of our ethos for such a long time. People have followed this agenda… like in the States… we have to protect religion from the State. Yes, but we have to protect religious people from unscrupulous religious leaders, and leaders who don’t speak for them.

Should religious bodies enjoy exemptions from discrimination law?

I have a general principle which is that the State shouldn’t allow any part of society a complete freedom to do what it likes. The State has a legitimate interest in regulation, particularly of public bodies but also private ones. Equality law extends to the provision of goods and services. The State has a legitimate interest in keeping an eye and stopping things… To think that religions should be exempted from the law is, its own oasis, is what I find dangerous. We need to achieve a better articulation between the State and religion. I think we are going in the direction of religion being the one part of society which the State keeps out altogether, and it is constitutionally anomalous in this country, because the CofE is still the official established Church with lots of privileges. It used to be a lay run Church, which is what is so great about it. The Church of England is governed by the Queen and it was governed by Parliament, and that kept it real, really well articulated, with a very healthy position… usually argumentative, that is great, but now Parliament has given up, it has really lost interest in religion, partially using the rhetoric of religious freedom… yes, let’s them govern their own business, but we don’t have a representative body. The Synod is not representative of most Anglicans and the Church leaders don’t have an idea about what most Anglicans think, because they don’t poll and they are not interested in research. So, you have a State Church which is claiming the privileges of sitting in Parliament, it has a huge amount of public money, but it is not subject to the same kind of regulation… but the state has a legitimate interest.

Is positive living in a democracy? Would you prefer another system?

No, I absolutely love Parliamentary democracy. There is no better alternative. It is the best system we have devised, I am extremely privileged to live under one and I am committed to it.

Do you feel that you have a duty to vote?

Certainly, I feel I have a duty to vote. Christianity is certainly a religion that at its heart has individual liberty. Christ asked people to make their own decisions. So, my faith is very much bound with my commitment to democracy and with the equal value of every single person.

Should Parliament have the final say in making law? Would you like to see a more empowered judiciary, able to strike down legislation?

I haven’t thought a lot about an empowerment of the judiciary and I am not an expert. My general principle is that things are better when there is equal contestation of power and you can see what goes wrong immediately when the legislature is too powerful, and the legislative body is usually much more removed from democratic control. So, I like the system which we have, but I must admit I haven’t considered the counterarguments very strongly, but I love the fact that our representatives are democratically elected. You could say I am a democrat basically, but as de Tocqueville said, democracy must take place in the context of law in order to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority.

We don’t have an ideal democracy, as we know, and it is much more difficult for some people to participate. Political parties, as we know, are in crisis and they have been very slow in modernising. They have been very slow in thinking how in a digital age you reengage people much more actively in the democratic process. So, I think they have a lot more to do to address young people’s disillusion. There are problems at the moment which need addressing.

Does it concern you that the Upper House is unelected?

It is a weird situation in relation to the Upper House. Everyone knows we need reform and there is only one thing stopping it, which is nobody knows what to reform it to. And it is a very difficult problem. The best minds have been trying to solve this one. We all know that the current situation is not good, it is really not good, but nobody has come up so far with a better model. I am always in favour of gradual reform. So, I think personally that it would be better to make a straight division between a smaller body within the Lords, which is actively committed and involved in the work of the Lords, and a peripheral body, which is more of a Gentlemen’s club. That has to be distinguished so there can be more openness and accountability for those who are there, active and doing the real political work. It has simply become too big and expensive. How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?

I think the presence of bishops in the HofL must be rethought. As I said, I am in favour of a good connection between Church and State, so I am not in principle opposed, but it doesn’t work. The bishops are too busy, they are not there too often. If you look at their voting record, you can look it up… some of them only came to vote against gay marriage. That was an abuse of their privilege. So, it needs to be rethought. Of course, there is also the problem of not representing other religions in the country.

Claiming that they speak on behalf of all people of faith is a nice aspiration, but I am not sure all people of faith would feel the same, and until the bishops start taking an interest in proper research which will tell them what religious people of their own faith, let alone all faiths think, it is not a very plausible thing.

Do public authorities respect legislation?

Public authorities deliberately ignoring legislation? Difficult question. Historically there was much more room for these situations. I can’t think of any examples currently though… well, yes, I can think of a recent example… Boris water canon… and his fight with Theresa May. I was happy with Theresa May though!

What does Christianity teach about power and responsibility?

I think my Christian faith teaches both the dignity of human beings and also rejects the temptation to abuse power, to be sinful, and I think Christianity has a very important and quite balanced way to look at human beings like that. I think it explains why we need a rule of law, why we need some State ‘interference’, why religion itself must be controlled. We must be wary of religion, not just Islam, wary even of own historic religion, the Christian faith.

Are Anglicans proportionately represented in public life?

Nobody knows really how well represented Anglicans are. Just under a third of people call themselves Anglicans, decreasing fast. So, it is very likely there are in every walk of life.They are probably overrepresented in the elite professions… I suspect they are overrepresented in the judiciary, because most of them come from public schools and the judiciary comes from higher classes. The CofE is overrepresented in the social elite and almost certainly in Parliament as well. We have a Prime Minister who is a member of the CofE. This Anglican identity is often not explicit, but it gives protection and sometimes it is unfair protection. I completely sympathise with non Anglicans, who feel there is an unfair sort of informal privileging of the CofE.

Are the judiciary sufficiently independent?

I think our judiciary are on the whole independent. Maybe there is an issue, like a lot in the highest professions, there is a tendency for the global elites to be interconnected one to another and be more interested in what peers in other countries think. That horizontal relationship becomes more important than the vertical relationship to your own people in your own countries, because global elites are looking after their own global status. That is actually a bigger worry than being co-opted by national interests. Similarly, religious leaders go around the world taking pictures with one another all the time, and they care less about engaging with ordinary people in their own countries. It is very bad for accountability and connection with the grassroots.

I think the select committee system is good and it could be extended or more influential. It should be given more powers, because the committees provide a cooler and less party driven and governmental biased place. So, I am in favour of those elements and they could be taken further.

Have public authorities shown understanding and shown respect for any needs arising from your faith?

I went to a CofE primary school and it is difficult for Anglicans to answer this question, because it is the majority religion and it has a natural privilege, as I said, but that is shrinking now. Public bodies have a duty now to be aware of religion, they take that more seriously and they are getting better at it, but as the majority religion, Anglicans never had such a problem.
It is important to you to act within secular law?

I am very committed to obey the law because we live in a country where I think, the law still has great legitimacy. That doesn’t happen in all the countries, but I think in this country it is the case and I would not break the law. This does not amount to saying that no laws are wrong, and in those cases I would protest against them and would try to get them changed, because that is the nature of democracy, but unless some extreme circumstances happened in which the legitimacy of the law were lost, I wouldn’t break the law.

Do you feel a duty to speak out for the vulnerable?

Yes, I do try and give some expression to the fact that there are many religious people who are currently finding themselves in a very difficult position because of the way their religion is being governed. So, I feel I need to speak for the weak and the vulnerable, who in this context would be those people. I would feel morally compelled to speak against injustice affecting people regardless of their faith and my social commitment, in my case, comes from my Anglican faith. My commitment is to the third wave of liberalism, to the rights of women, gay people and children.

Is the Rule of Law applied equally? Do some groups receive preferential or prejudicial treatment?

It is hard to say whether the rule of law is applied equally to all citizens in Great Britain. It is clear that there are some groups who are disproportionately in prisons like Muslim people, but whether this is about unfair treatment or it is about unfair social conditions which lead to being in that position, and/or other factors, is a hard judgement to make.

How do you feel about the general increase in police powers in recent years?

I think the empowerment of the police in the last few years is a threat to our civil liberties, but it is understandable. It is a difficult balance to reach. Being pragmatic, terrorism has led to a much greater intervention of security services… it has been a remarkable achievement that we have had fewer attacks because of the emphasis on prevention. So, by their fruit you know them. It has worked, but of course it has been and remains a threat to civil liberties.

Are there any laws which you would like to see changed?

The quadruple lock against gay marriage is a law which I would like to see go. As I said, I would also like more devolution of power to the different regions of the UK, including England outside the great metropolitan areas.

Linda Woodhead MBE FAcSS is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University (UK) and Director of the Institute of Social Futures. Her books include That was the Church, That was (2016), A Sociology of Prayer (2015), Christianity: A Very Short Introduction (2nd ed 2014), Everyday Lived Islam in Europe (with Nathal Dessing and Nadia Jeldtoft, 2013), Religion and Change in Modern Britain (with Rebecca Catto, 2012), A Sociology of Religious Emotions (with Ole Riis, 2010), Religions in the Modern World (2009), The Spiritual Revolution (with Paul Heelas, 2005). She is the co-founder and organiser of the Westminster Faith Debates and a regular commentator on religion on radio and television. She is currently studying the rise of ‘no religion’ and the beliefs and practices of the ‘nones’.