Religious leaders don’t represent religious people

Linda Woodhead, University of Lancaster

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Who speaks for us? The ‘who’ and ‘how’ of faith representation

Linda-Woodhead-2Traditionally it has fallen to the leaders of churches and other religious organisations to represent the views of the faith communities to government. However, the divide between religious leaders and the general public, including ‘lay’ religious believers, is becoming greater. New forms of religious representation are needed that take into account the diversity of Britain’s religious landscape.

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On June 3rd, speaking against the government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill (2013), the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told the House of Lords: ‘In general the majority of faith groups remain very strongly against the Bill’.[1]  This is not true. A fortnight earlier the Westminster Faith Debates had published the results of a large national poll which showed that, far from being strongly opposed, most of the major faith groups in Great Britain – including Anglicans – are now in favour of allowing same-sex marriage by a small margin.[2] This is a good example of why politicians and others should be wary of treating religious leaders as authentic spokesmen – and occasionally women – for the groups they claim to represent.

The problem has worsened since the late 1980s, not because religious leaders have become more dishonest, but because religion has changed so much, and slipped out of their control.

RR LW 1The surveys by YouGov for Westminster Faith Debates show that most people in Great Britain still identify as religious, but no longer have any formal involvement with a religious group. About 60 per cent of the population of Great Britain identify as Anglican, Buddhist, Hindu and so on, over half say they believe in God or a spiritual power, but only 15 per cent report that they currently engage in a formal or informal religious or spiritual group, whether for worship or other purposes.[3]

This does not necessarily mean that people are no longer as religious as they used to be – but they are certainly religious in a different way.  Involvement in local, formally-organised, mainly male-led, hierarchical membership groups of all kinds, both religious and non-religious, has declined steeply since the 1970s. But the fact that membership of political parties has plummeted doesn’t mean people are no longer political, any more than the fact that they go to church means they are no longer religious. Virtual networks, informal groups, direct action, irregular gatherings, festivals and spectaculars, consumption- and leisure-inflected forms of participation – these and other developments have changed the way we relate to one another.

Faith communities are often more divided on social issues than the media and religious leaders suggest

These days, women and men want more voice and choice than old-style organisations allow. We are more affluent, better-educated, more equal, and have more information at our fingertips. Social media offer new ways of linking with one another and forming affinity groups. This plus the increased mobility and ‘space-time compression’ of postmodernity mean that the style of traditional neighbourhood gatherings is out of tune with the times.

As a consequence, religious leaders can no longer ‘lead’, because religious people no longer want to ‘follow’. Perhaps they never did, but they are now able to make that refusal count.

Our YouGov survey asked people about where they take most guidance from in living their lives and making decisions. Nobody ticked ‘religious leaders, local or national’, whereas 63 per cent agreed with ‘own reason or judgement’ or ‘own intuition and feelings’ (the next largest is ‘family’, at 13 per cent, then God or ‘higher power’, at 6 per cent). When we allow people to tick all the boxes – i.e. all the authorities they recognise – still even amongst religious adherents only 2 per cent say religious leaders. Only Muslims and Sikhs respond in slightly higher numbers to this less strenuous question – 14 per cent and 12 per cent respectively. The responses are only slightly higher when you ask people who actively participate in a religious group.

As for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘followers’ – those who identify as Anglican or Church of England – none at all say they take most guidance from their religious leaders, and that is true of churchgoers and non-churchgoers. A majority also disagree with their Church’s teaching on a whole range of important issues, including same-sex marriage, euthanasia, policies on women, and political commitments (Anglicans as a whole are slightly more conservative than the population as a whole, whereas their leaders are more social-welfarist than the population as a whole).

So it’s not only that most of us today like to make up our own minds, even on issues that religious leaders once viewed as their special domain, but that when we do so many of us come to significantly different conclusions. Religious leadership is stuck, and the gap with religious people is widening with every generation. It doesn’t help when political leaders reinforce this position by locking religions into morally conservative positions – as with the current government’s proposed ‘quadruple lock’ preventing religious groups from conducting same-sex marriages.

RR LW 2The point about the unrepresentative nature of religious leadership is not just true of the Church of England. In the British context some other faiths have felt the need to build structures somewhat akin to a church in order to interface with governments and related bodies which look for representative leaders in their engagements with faith. But for most groups this is unnatural, given that they are characterised by more dispersed forms of authority than a church. Some, like Buddhists and forms of alternative spirituality, have simply refused to play the game. Others, like Muslims and Baptists, find that their attempts end up satisfying neither their own members nor government officials. The work of organisations like the Interfaith Network to fill the gap as one-stop shops for governments to liaise with all faiths are valiant, but beset with difficult issues of selection and legitimacy.

Surely the time has come to stop playing this game at all. Religion has moved on, and it’s time to rethink its modes of representation accordingly. Religious leaders have a legitimate voice and a legitimate seat at many tables – but on their own terms, and not as representative figures. Different contexts, situations and demands call for different solutions, but we can look to a body like Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighbourhood Partnerships for some clues. It contains a few traditional religious leaders, but its broader membership includes far more, and solves the gender bias in the process.

Better representation in Britain today will similarly include leaders of various kinds of faith-based organisations and NGOs; influential authors and bloggers on religion; media and academic specialists, and so on. Moreover, because at least half the population is religious, it can’t be hard to find people from any walk of life who already possess the expertise appropriate to a particular body, discussion or group together with a faith perspective. They have probably been there all the time – the silenced ‘laity’. It would be healthier for religion, politics and society if a more representative range of people were allowed more say. It could have saved a lot of bother over same-sex marriage as well.

Linda Woodhead MBE is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Religion and Society Programme. Her books include Everyday Lived Islam in Europe (2013), Religion and Change in Modern Britain (2012), A Sociology of Religious Emotion (2011), The Spiritual Revolution (2005), and A Very Short Introduction to Christianity (2004).

[1] Hansard, ‘Lords Hansard Text for 3 Jun 2013-03 Jun 2013 (section 01)’, Parliament, 3 June 2013,

[2] Religion and Society Programme, ‘Religion & Society Events: Do Christians Really Oppose Gay Marriage?’, Religion and Society, 18 April 2013,

[3] YouGov for Westminster Faith Debates, Religion in Personal Life (2013). Data available at

The image of the pro-same-sex marriage protester in San Francisco is included courtesy of Alex Handy and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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