Who owns a religion?


What do I mean by this title? Essentially, those who ‘own’ something get to determine the rules and the acceptable boundaries of use. For example, in sport there are numerous national and international bodies that are recognised as the authority and any change to rules or procedures has to go through them. To extend the sports analogy, sometimes there are some within the sport who feel that the rules and procedures are not correct and form breakaways- this is seen in particular in boxing where there are rival world title belts. Sometimes these breakaways flourish and become the norm (the English Premier League for example) and others flounder (the United States Football League for example).

Having established this analogy it is hopefully apparent that the question I am asking in the title is ‘Who has the right to determine the rules and boundaries within religion?’ This can be seen to be a very broad or a very narrow question and my renewed interest in it was sparked by two conversations I had last week- one real and one virtual.

In the first conversation I was speaking with a person whom I hold in high esteem. We were discussing this very question- I have to admit that I have a vested interest in this- I am a member of a tradition of Christianity that is often placed outside of the boundaries of religion. When this colleague raised the question of ownership I have to admit that I had never considered it in those terms before.

The second conversation appeared on a Facebook group later in the week where someone was asking about the logistics of teaching about the Trinity as a majority belief in Christianity while recognising that there are Christians who do not accept it (in the specific post the tradition to which I belong was mentioned- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)). This sparked a very lengthy debate not least of which were two points that I have different feelings about:

  1. Are these traditions Christian? Surely the Trinity is the normative doctrine against which Christianness is measured.
  2. Should these minority views be given attention in the classroom?

These are two areas that I have published widely on, and I do recognise that some will disagree. On the first point, it really is a matter of definition. In 2005 an article I wrote was published in RE Today and was entitled ‘The Frontiers of Christianity’; I reproduce it below:

I was brought up to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. None of that changed when I began attending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I was 15. I still accept Jesus as my Saviour; I still rely on Him and His atonement for the forgiveness of my sins and to get me through the good and the bad times.

But in joining this Church I have since been told that I have renounced the true Jesus and found myself outside of Christianity. A ‘Mormon’ is not a Christian, and therefore stands condemned in the eyes of some Conservative Christians. I am often told that all I have to do to be saved is accept Jesus, but not the Jesus I believe in. This is not purely the view of some fundamental, evangelical Christians. This view of Latter-day Saints and others is shared by many people throughout the country.

What makes a faith that claims to be Christian outside of the family of Christian Churches? This is a question that can be posed for many religious movements, not just Latter-day Saints. Various criteria have been offered to me at one time or another.

  • You are only a Christian if your Church is a member of the World Council of Churches. This sounds a fair definition; it creates a family of Churches. The problem arises when we realise that the Roman Catholic Church is not a member. So discounting Roman Catholics as Christians negates this definition.
  • You are only a Christian if your Church was founded before the 19th Century. Again this is fair, but in many Christian interfaith groups are Churches who are much younger than that. I worked with a member of the Church of the Nazarene, whose Church was a 20th Century Church. He had no problem being accepted as a Christian on interfaith groups. So not applying this to everybody negates this definition.
  • You do not accept the Trinity; therefore you are not a Christian. This seems to be the most widespread view. It is used to exclude Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Christian faith. My mother in law remembers being excluded from Whit Sunday parades because she was a Unitarian. However, they are now accepted as Christian. Therefore if you accept one you should accept them all. So the acceptance of Unitarians negates this definition.


 We might want to define Christian groups as Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian. This itself raises questions because I believe in the Trinity- Father, Son and Holy Ghost- but not homoousis- they are of one purpose but not one body. This is mere semantics for I know what most people understand of the Trinity is ‘of one body’. If I am to be defined as a Christian who doesn’t believe in that doctrine, then that is fine with me as I am sure it would be others. But do we then define people by different doctrines- for example transubstantiated Christians, and non-transubstantiated Christians. Where is the line to be drawn? It suggests a hierarchy of doctrine, and the Trinity becomes a defining characteristic, which I would argue it is not.

What makes one group Christian, and another not. Nothing more than a person or group’s prejudice.

What do I think? I think people are at liberty to tell me I am not a Christian according to their criteria, but they do not tell me this, they tell me I am not a Christian. People who know me have no doubt that I am a Christian in my belief, and am striving so to be in my behaviour. I seek to emulate my Saviour in all that I do. Jesus is my way, my truth and my life. I only become a non-Christian when I don’t meet someone’s artificially created standard.

Let me offer my own view on what constitutes a Christian:

“A Christian is somebody who considers themselves to be a Christian. If there has to be a criterion against which they can be judged, it would be a belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”

I know this raises issues about groups such as Christian Identity, and even some parts of Rastafarianism, but as a Christian (by my own definition) I feel Christ’s message is inclusive not exclusive. I have no problem in being seen as outside of the mainstream of Christianity, my problem is being seen as outside the whole of Christianity. We are free to disagree with a person’s definition and practice of Christianity but we are not free to tell them who they are. And who am I? A Child of God, a Christian and a Latter-day Saint.

When this was published, I was surprised to see in the next issue a rejoinder which suggested that I was being disingenuous in claiming my Christianity. I had forgotten to mention that I believed in a living prophet and another book of scripture (the Book of Mormon). In some ways, this type of response came on the social media conversation: ‘Just because I consider myself to be a Muslim doesn’t mean that I am’ was essentially the point being made. In fact, it was then very interesting to me because my conversation partner decided to tell me that a large number of Mormons believe in the Trinity- I found myself being the arbiter of Mormonness and drawing boundaries of my own.

This led to a very interesting internal conversation; how could I condemn others for drawing boundaries when I draw them myself? I think, returning to the original question of this post of ‘Who owns a religion?’ it is somewhat straightforward when there is a central authority- which most denominations have. To be Anglican a person believes… or does… XYZ- and denominations draw very large or very narrow boundaries of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It becomes much harder when we explore the parent faith.

At this point I need to recognise one of the points made in this Facebook discussion. One respondent suggested that Catholic Christianity should not be viewed as a denomination. This comment was left unchallenged, perhaps because I was regretting becoming involved by this point. The suggestion seems to be that as the ‘original’ incarnation of Christianity then Catholicism is normative and everyone else is a splinter group. Aside from Orthodox Christians who may have an issue with that, it rather ignores the reasoning behind the Reformation or Restoration groups who were trying to reclaim the ‘original’ Christianity from what it had become. I think, for the purpose of this discussion it is very difficult to suggest, objectively, who has the original version of a faith- and that is not just limited to Christianity; consider the designation of Mahayana Buddhism as the ‘Greater Vehicle’ while Theravada Buddhists would perhaps argue supremacy based on longevity and closeness to the Buddha’s teaching. In Islam we have Sunni and Shi’a Islam, and then a discussion of Ahmadiyya Muslims whose presence within Islam maybe somewhat analogous to the discussion here.

I am very biased- I am aware of this. I argue for an inclusion of people who consider themselves to be a religion within the context of a parent faith because I belong to a faith that is often excluded. As an educator, however, I believe that there are two different answers to the question of the boundaries of a religion- the first is personal and the second is educational.

Firstly, the personal. Every individual and group has the right to hold views that define their approach to their religion. In this sense, the Trinity becomes normative, or Muhammad as the final prophet is the basis on which believers identify who belongs to their religion or not. All people have this kind of view; we may recognise that others believe differently but we cannot impose our boundaries on others. This is important for inter-faith discussions and our involvement in different activities. Why is this question important for dialogue? Understanding how they view each other is important to both groups. When dialogue is engaged in between the two groups it is important for each group to consider: is it as a member of the same community or as different religions? MacIntyre argues that this type of question is not just important for the validity of the dialogue undertaken, but also for the participating groups understanding of what they are trying to achieve and where they are coming from: “Such a person is confronted by the claims of each of the traditions which we have considered as well as by those of other traditions. How is it rational to respond to them? The initial answer is: that will depend upon who you are and how you understand yourself” (1988, p. 393). In this way how we view others can become an obstacle but not an insurmountable one if we agree to disagree. I have suggested elsewhere that ‘For most Latter-day Saints in dialogue with evangelicals, the question of their Christianity is the elephant in the room. It the argument of this article that it is an unnecessary diversion.’ Disagreeing about this need not be rude, rather it can be an exciting starting point for dialogue. It is also an honest viewpoint of an individual.

Secondly, the educational. As much as a personal view is important, as a teacher of RE we have to be aware of our prejudices and how they might affect those in our classroom. I have suggested elsewhere:

John Hull suggests that any approach to RE should be “a syllabus which can be taught by any well trained and well informed teacher, regardless of his faith, to any pupil whose interest can be caught, regardless of his faith” (1984, p179). It is hoped that the teacher would have a positive neutrality: “It does not mean that the teacher does not care but that he cares for them all, accepting them as they are” (Hull, 1984. p181). To enable a child to be ‘true’ to their own religion and culture suggests that the purpose of RE is to foster faith; and while this may be appropriate in a school with a faith basis, in a state school this is not appropriate.

However, to argue that RE can be neutral also suggests that that it cannot be positive about existing faith. As a subject that engages with pupils own beliefs, it is important that they feel that their contributions are valued and their beliefs (or lack of) are taken seriously. Also, in RE the teacher must be careful that nothing is done that might require a child to contravene their own religion or culture. This does not mean that questions are not asked, rather that practices which might be deemed to be wrong or offensive are avoided. Simple examples might include not having children portray the Prophet Muhammad; or utilising material that might unquestioningly present a perception of a faith that is out of step with the traditional understanding of that faith. Consider, for example the following passage from a GCSE mark scheme:

‘Other candidates might offer examples of denominations which have additional texts or which give different weight to existing texts, such as the Mormons who describe themselves as Christian but who give scriptural status to the Book of Mormon over the Bible’ (OCR, 2012, p. 38).

While seemingly objective, there are elements that would question a Mormon child’s understanding of their own faith. Firstly, the Book of Mormon is given equal weight to the Bible however, the sentence that suggest “Mormons describe themselves as Christian but give…” causes issues as it suggests that they might think of themselves in this way, but they can’t be because… A better rephrasing might be “such as the Mormons who describe themselves as Christian, which claim is disputed by others…” This does not mean that RE is not challenging, but is respectful of a faith’s self-understanding (2015, p. 5).

What does this mean for the educationalist? It means that we have to teach ‘Big tent’ religions. Whatever our personal views about the Christianness, or the Muslimness, or any other religion of a particular group the self-identification becomes important because in teaching children that their faith is outside of what we consider to be a certain religion, we are imposing our bias on them and questioning their sense of self and identity. This may be at odds with our own personal views, but I think is the only approach open to us as teachers of RE. To return to the question of ‘Who owns religion?’ let me suggest that I don’t know, but I know it’s not me and I don’t think it’s you either so we have to be as inclusive as possible.

At the beginning of this post I posed a second question: Should these minority views be given attention in the classroom? Unsurprisingly, I have written at length about this, but a brief summary is ‘as appropriate’ and perhaps only in the sense that we use the words ‘most’ and ‘some’:

There are minority religions and also non-faith worldviews that have a significant local or national presence that, when included in RE, could give pupils a wider understanding and experience of Religious Education. The Review of Religious Education in England (hereafter RE Review) suggests that the aims of RE should include helping children to “Know about and understand a range of religions and worldviews.” It then footnotes what is meant by the phrase “religions and worldviews”: “[It] is used in this document to refer to Christianity, other principal religions represented in Britain, smaller religious communities and non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. The phrase is meant to be inclusive, and its precise meaning depends on the context in which it occurs, eg in terms of belief, practice or identity” (RE Council, 2013, p. 14). It has been argued that the “major focus of RE is the study of diversity of religion and belief in the UK and how this influences national life” (DCSF, 2010: 8).As such the inclusion of less large world religions, and also non-religious worldviews could be seen to prepare children in a better way for life in the United Kingdom; indeed Miller suggests:

‘I’m convinced that RE has to move away from the “safe six” and be far more adventurous in what is included in RE – and NRMs are so much more obvious in society than some of the religions they study that we owe it to children to help them develop an informed understanding of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, Hare Krishnas and all the others they encounter – literally – on the streets’ (in Holt, 2010, pp. 80-81).

I have argued elsewhere (see Holt, 2010) that there are reasons why teachers might feel justified in excluding smaller religions from the RE classroom, but these reasons and concerns are outweighed by the need to be religiously inclusive and sensitive to the pupils own worldviews:

‘The most persuasive argument for the inclusion of NRMs is in those environments where they may constitute the pupils’ own world views. The good teacher builds upon the experiences of those pupils. The bad teacher would dismiss a child’s faith as not relevant or else would have an erroneous understanding of that faith, upsetting and confusing the child and their family’ (Holt, 2010, p. 85).

Arguments could similarly be made against the inclusion of non-religious worldviews in the RE classroom, after all it is Religious Education. However, it could be argued that as the UK becomes generally more of a secular and post religious society that non-religious (not-necessarily, though possibly, atheistic worldviews) are becoming more of a norm within secondary schools. There is still a Christian underpinning of society, not the least of which is evident in the laws and celebrations of the country, but it is not unusual to find children who are agnostic, atheist or who consider themselves religious but not affiliated to any particular group. Although the main focus of RE should be religious beliefs, teachers need to be aware of the pupils they teach, and also the wider society in which their schools function.

It is perhaps ironic that in terms of the original discussion that sparked this post I probably wouldn’t explore the nuances of Trinitarian beliefs across Christianity but just recognise there is a debate. I would only explore the debate further if pupils wanted it, or it met the demands of the specification.

Further writings by James in this area:

Religious Education in the Secondary School: An Introduction to teaching, learning and the world religions (London: Routledge, 2015)

“Inclusion” in L. Philip Barnes, Andrew Wright, Ann-Marie Brandom ed., Learning to teach Religious Education in the Secondary School 3rd edition (Routledge, 2016 forthcoming)

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” in Brian Gates, ed., Religion in National Systems of Education. Insider and outsider perspectives on Religious Education in England  (2016 forthcoming)

“Interfaith Dialogue: A Way Forward in Setting Ground Rules” in Sacred Tribes Journal Volume 7 Number 1 (2012), pp. 70-79

“Jehovah’s Witnesses and the R.E. Classroom” in REsource. 26: 2 (Spring 2004) pp16-19

“The frontiers of Christianity” in RE Today 22:2 (Spring 2005) p34

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the R.E. Classroom” in REsource. The Journal of the Professional Council of Religious Education 24:3 (Summer 2002) pp6-8


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