Richard Coupe Talk at Westminster March 2024

28 March 2024


I would like to start by expressing my enormous gratitude to Fiona Bruce for hosting tonight’s event, in the midst of so many parliamentary responsibilities; also to  Lucy Williams, who has managed all the details of the evening, and to Guy Hordern who has liaised will all parties to bring this about.

Welcome and thanks to all of you for making the journey and giving up your evening for this event:  representatives from Parliament, universities, SACREs, educational organisations, Faith organisations and groups, schools, Academy Trusts and school governors, and others with a strong commitment to high quality religious education.


“What we don’t understand we fear, what we fear we judge as evil, what we judge as evil we attempt to control, and what we cannot control we attack”.

We are here because we all committed to the value of a high quality religious education. And for those of us at the front tonight, we believe that young people deserve to live in a society which understands diversity of faith and practice.

We need to answer two questions:          



Pew Research has shown that whilst in the years to come the major religions will continue to grow exponentially globally, secularism is unlikely to make any such growth.

Hannah Waite’s Theos publication in 2022, an analysis of those who say they do not belong to a religion in British Attitudinal Surveys, concludes that a ‘no religion’ response is by no means the same thing as a ‘no beliefs’ response, many of whom pursue less orthodox spiritualties; they certainly cannot be assumed to be atheists or against religion.

Colin Bloom’s report last year highlighted the urgent need for a sea-change in religious literacy;

The APPG report in 2020 made the same point about its vital importance.

So what would religious literacy mean?

“Religious literacy enables willingness and ability to live with religious and cultural tensions and with conflicting beliefs and practices. It supports social cohesion by providing safe spaces where different views can be aired, listened to and engaged with without the pressure to conform to an overall perspective.” (University of Chester submission to APPG in 2020)

In other words, it requires, as the APPG report stated:

  • Knowledge
  • Understanding of religion as lived out by people
  • A critical awareness of the questions raised by religion
  • Sophisticated ability to engage with other Faiths respectfully

The theologies of all the major faith traditions have always included:

  • Philosophical issues,
  • Ethics,
  • The supernatural,
  • Transcendence,
  • Revelation
  • Festivals, customs, costumes
  • Sacred spaces
  • Histories and traditions
  • Sacred or special people
  • Focus on us as spiritual beings.

In this country we strive better than most to have a tolerant and understanding society which recognises diversity in faith and seeks to include everyone. But you cannot be included if you are misunderstood.

I am really looking forward to what our speakers have to say and grateful to each of them for their contributions. They will present five different aspects of the transforming effect that good religious literacy could and should have in this country.

We had originally planned also to welcome Imam Monawar Hussein to speak, a supporter of the REN, but his Ramadan responsibilities have precluded this.

Our first speaker is Dr James Orr , Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion in the University of Cambridge Faculty of Divinity, and formerly McDonald Postdoctoral Fellow in Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Christ Church, Oxford.  He holds several research degrees and before entering academia, he worked for several years in corporate law. His research covers a wide range of issues in philosophy and theology. His title is ‘why ‘worldviews’ is inadequate as a framework for serious religious literacy.

Dr Philip Barnes is Emeritus Reader in Religious and Theological Education, King’s College London. He has been Chair of the Postgraduate and Research Committee; a member of the Executive Committee of the Department; Programme Director of the Doctorate in Theology and Ministry, of the MA in Religious Education and of the MA in Jewish Education. He studied theology and philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Hull and was a scholar at Trinity College Dublin. The theory, philosophy and politics of religious education are his specialisms. Tonight he will speak on Why the 2018 Commission on Re misunderstands religious education.

Seeta Lakhani graduated from UCL, and is author of textbooks and online courses in Hinduism; she is an educator who continues her father Jay Lakhani’s work through the Hindu Academy. Her concern for adults’ and children’s spiritual development have led to her being in demand as a talented broadcaster on television and radio discussing Hindu insights and perspectives. She is a committee member of the REN. She will speak from her Hindu perspective on the value and role of religious education.

Monsignor Michael Nazir-Ali was the Bishop of Rochester for 15 years, the first Diocesan Bishop in the Church of England born abroad and was a member of the House of Lords, where he was active in a number of areas of national and international concern. He was previously Bishop in Pakistan.  He holds several degrees, fellowships, visiting professorships and board memberships; he travels nationally and internationally to serve on ecumenical committees and address academic conferences. He is President of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue and is now a Priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and Prelate of Honour to His Holiness Pope Francis. Michael will present us with a global perspective on the state of religions in the world.

Ron Skelton is Headmaster and CEO of The Broadway Academy, Birmingham. He is a Local Leader of Education and former chairman of Titan Trust. He is the current Chair of the West Midlands Police Advisory Board, a member of the Headteachers’ West Midlands Ofsted Reference group, and the Birmingham SACRE. He has spoken at conferences on the subjects of leadership, inter- faith co-operation, community partnerships, school ethos, and ‘British Values.’ He is a committee member of the REN and has brought with him tonight three students whom he will introduce; they describe what high quality RE means for them.