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Bishop Reflects on Religious Freedom in Great Britain

Bishop of Nottingham speaks on religious freedom and tolerance at an interreligious ‘Festival of Faith’

Wednesday, April 27, 2022
Office of the Bishop

Bishop of Nottingham speaks on religious freedom and tolerance at an interreligious ‘Festival of Faith’, to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen.

This last weekend, Bishop Patrick McKinney was invited to speak at a ‘Festival of Faith’ hosted by the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Professor Harminder Singh Dua, CBE. Leaders and scholars from various religions gathered at Nottinghamshire County Council’s Assembly Hall to share on ‘Appreciating Religious Tolerance in Great Britain.’ The event was a celebration of freedom of religion in the United Kingdom and also a celebration of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II’s, Platinum Jubilee.  

Bishop Patrick highlighted the importance of faith for Her Majesty the Queen and her recognition of its moral and practical contribution in the life of the Nation. He went on to speak of the positive role of religion in the public square and comment that religious illiteracy or a surface level understanding of religion risks undermining, stifling or even preventing the practice of religious tolerance in our society. The bishop encouraged all those present ‘to continue to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason in every area of our national life.’ He underlined freedom of religion’s place as an essential foundation of any truly open and democratic society and concluded that ‘you don’t need to be religious to want to safeguard that.’  

The full text can be read here:

I think we would all agree, Queen Elizabeth is a quite remarkable woman of faith who has, with the passing of years, become more open and more comfortable talking about the place of faith in her life. This is what she said in her Christmas message 2002:


‘I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God…I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian Gospel.’

In her speech at Lambeth Palace in 2012, as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations the Queen gave us a real insight into how she understands her own role, with regard to our topic, ‘appreciating religious tolerance in Great Britain’, and also her recognition of both the moral and the practical contribution of the various religions to our society. She said:

“Our religions provide critical guidance for the way we live our lives, and for the way in which we treat each other. Many of the values and ideas we take for granted in this and other countries originate in the ancient wisdom of our traditions. Even the concept of a Jubilee is rooted in the Bible.


Faith plays a key role in the identity of many millions of people, providing not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging. Indeed, religious groups have a proud track record of helping those in the greatest need, including the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged. They remind us of the responsibilities we have beyond ourselves.”  

The last point especially, the ‘proud track record’ on the part of religious groups of helping those in greatest need’ has certainly been borne out over the last two years of the Covid pandemic.  We have witnessed, especially then, the positive and generous contribution of the various faith communities, here in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, to helping people in any kind of need, way beyond their own immediate communities.

It is a vital aspect of religious tolerance that the positive role of religions in the public square is acknowledged. I say this because, there are still those who would advocate that the voice of religions should be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere.  There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that people of faith in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. While certainly appreciating and applauding very much the degree of religious tolerance that does exist in the UK, I would still want to encourage all of us here today, within our respective spheres of influence, to continue to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason in every area of our national life.

But we can only tolerate what we see and understand. And religious illiteracy risks      undermining a fuller practice of tolerance in society. Sadly, some government departments and other institutions have sometimes demonstrated only a surface-level understanding of religion, and religions, which can stifle or prevent the practice of tolerance.  

Following the assassination of Sir David Amess last October, considerable concern was expressed that a local Roman Catholic priest, had been refused permission to pass through a police cordon to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick to Sir David Amess as he lay dying.  In the aftermath of Sir David’s murder, a joint group convened by Dame Cressida Dick and Cardinal Vincent Nichols met to consider the issue of pastoral care of crime victims, and the College of Policing subsequently updated its guidelines on Managing investigations. The relevant section of the guidelines, Requests for third party access to a scene to attend a victim  now states, “Immediately after an incident involving death or serious injury, a third party (not a member of the emergency services) may make a request to access the scene to attend the victim. This may include, for example, a priest, of the victim’s faith or religion asking to administer Last Rites or other religious needs, or a family member wanting to comfort a loved one.

From my perspective, this is a positive example of how a greater understanding of religion and religions can lead to a strengthening of religious tolerance or respect.

I also believe that, as people of different religions, we can all play our part in overcoming prejudice and intolerance among ourselves, in the way we speak about other religions. That’s why I believe interreligious dialogue is so vitally important and why I congratulate Professor Harminder on these gatherings which, with others, he has organised as part of his year in office as High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. We are people of faith and the more we gather together to get to know each other, to question and to learn from each other, to find ways to work together in service of the common good, the greater integrity and sense of respect for each other we will have in calling out intolerance and prejudice and hate. Which of us here is unable to say that the witnessing of faith of any kind being lived out generously has not taught us something about the truths we hold in a particular and precious way? 

So, what about the value of freedom of religion? Have we held true to the value the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights placed in it? Are we capable of defending its value to our contemporary society when called upon?  

Article 1 of the Declaration isn’t explicitly about freedom of religion but does speak to its importance for a healthy democratic society. It says, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ There is an understanding in this text that the highest capacities we have as human persons are exercised in our use of reason, and conscience. These are the aspects of each of us that involve the highest capacities of our nature. And, in the Christian tradition, such capacities are the result of the spiritual reality of each person.  

This then leads us to the value of freedom of religion. It is in the practice of religion that such higher gifts are used. The use of reason to ask why? To question what is truth? Where and how do I find it? And the precious capacity in each of us that is our conscience. That sacred ability and responsibility to asses, what is morally right and wrong, and through such practice to grow into better people.

There is no deeper freedom a human person has than to assent to what they assess to be true, to ascertain the good and to do it, and to choose to pray to God when they believe in Him.  This deeper understanding of freedom and tolerance of religion is increasingly a gift to our society that sometimes risks forgetting about such values, regardless of whether one is a believer or not. It is a gift because these practices of freedom and toleration are the essential foundations of any truly open and democratic society. And you don’t need to be religious to want to safeguard that.

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