The National Theatre has just revived Harley Granville Barker’s play, Waste, about public and private morality in politics. The action turns on a Bill to disestablish the Church of England and divert the church’s assets to educational purposes. Set around 1930, the key plot themes are timeless – political chicanery, the relation between idealism and character flaws, the power of political outsiders… and the role of religion in society. This is a question for anguished reflection in every age, it seems – and readers of the new report from the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (CORAB) ought to see the play and consider how far the issues have, and have not, moved on in the last eighty-plus years.
When the play was in rehearsal, I met the Director and cast to discuss the issues at stake in (dis)establishment. I made no assumptions about their religious affiliations, and I hope I made the case for both sides fairly – after all, plenty of Christians, including a key character in the play, were passionate disestablishmentarians. This wasn’t a “Christians versus the rest” issue. After an hour’s discussion, one of the cast paused and said, “So, what you are saying is that, if this Bill had passed, the whole way we think of ourselves as a country would be different”. Actors may be better than theologians at summing up a point succinctly….
She was right, because the common assumption that religion is in decline and can safely be relegated to the margins of our cultural life is simply wrong. Patterns of religious observance and affiliation are changing, but religion shows no sign of going away or allowing itself to be relegated to the private sphere. The CORAB report understands this. It is precisely because religion remains a potent factor in understanding British life that the Commission set itself up in the first place. And it is good that the report strongly affirms the notion of the Common Good to which the great majority of the world’s great faiths are committed, and calls for much greater religious literacy among opinion-formers and policy makers. Religion is not just about private morality and behaviour, it is about a vision of how disparate people can live well together. Religious communities reflect the truth, which is now a commonly-held foundation in moral philosophy, that morality and ethics cannot be understood properly without locating them within a framework of traditions, communities, narratives and practices.