How Religion in the UK Influences Public Life

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  • 0:01 Religious Demographics…
  • 0:41 Official Religion
  • 1:24 Protector of the Faith
  • 2:31 Politics and the House…
  • 3:37 Other Religions
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Despite the fact that only 20% of the population follows it, the Anglican Church is still the official faith of England and Wales. While important, its role has changed through history, and other traditions have gained significant influence as well.

Religious Demographics of the UK

Like many Western countries, the United Kingdom has a great deal of diversity with respect to religion. Around five percent of the population is Muslim, while sizable populations of Hindus and Jews also exist in the country. However, by far the most dominant faith in the United Kingdom is Christianity. That said, excepting Northern Ireland, where Protestantism is intrinsically tied to national identity, a scant majority of the British population claims no religion. That in and of itself is not all that strange - atheism and agnosticism are growing relatively quickly, now that many of the stigmas of being irreligious are disappearing. What is shocking, however, is that despite that, the United Kingdom has an official religion.

Official Religion

Technically, the United Kingdom has two official religions. In England and Wales, the Anglican Church reigns supreme, while in Scotland, it is the Church of Scotland that has power. The role of the Church, especially the Anglican Church, has varied greatly throughout English history. At one point, soon after its establishment as the Church of England, all nobles were required to swear an oath as Anglicans. In fact, it was a desire to distance themselves from the Church of England that caused many American colonists, most famously the Pilgrims, to cross the Atlantic in search of a new life. Today, the Church plays a much more symbolic and ceremonial role, especially in providing ceremonies for important events, like coronations.

Protector of the Faith

Earlier in the lesson, I made the point that Northern Irish Protestantism is central to what helps to separate Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. In many ways, the same could once have been said about all of England and the Church of England. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was Henry VIII's frustrations in gaining divorce after divorce in his attempt to have a son and heir, England cut ties with the Roman Catholic Church during the 16th century. However, that presented a problem. In the time of the Roman Catholic Church in England, the Pope had ruled the Church. Now that the Church of England was independent, who would run the Church? Appointing a religious figure as the supreme leader of the Anglican Church would have carried the likelihood that the religious leader of the country could have disagreed with the king. That was not acceptable. As such, Henry VIII named himself as the head of the Church. With the brief exception of Queen Mary I, every ruler of England from that time on would be Anglican. Later, once Scotland was added to the realms of the Crown, the monarch would also swear an oath to protect the status of the Church of Scotland.

Politics and the House of Lords

Yet it is not only the royal family that the Church of England affects. In many ways, it helped to create the modern party structure of the United Kingdom. While social class was always important, issues of religion were never far behind. In short, the Conservative Party spent much of the late 18th and 19th centuries trying to maintain power for the Church of England, while the Liberal Party largely opposed such efforts, trying to gain expanded recognition for Britain's other religious groups. Ironically, by the end of the 1920s, the Church was trying to distance itself from the state - a rejected update to religious texts in 1928 led the Church to say that it did not need Parliament's permission to manage its beliefs.

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