Religious and political leaders are calling on Britons to take a hard look at their moral values and return to active religious belief.
In a speech to the House of Lords July 5, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, warned that the country is in danger of "squandering its Judaic-Christian moral inheritance" and "descending into chaotic gangsterism."
Prime Minister John Major immediately endorsed the speech, praising what he called Archbishop Carey's "moral crusade." "That is what archbishops are for," Major said.
The call by Britain's most senior Church of England bishop has been supported by Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders as well.
But it has evoked hostility from educators, who deny Carey's contention that schools are largely responsible for the moral decline by failing to impart a sense of moral duty to young people.
The catalyst for the debate in the House of Lords, begun by Carey, was a decision by the Schools Curriculum Assessment Authority - a government-funded education watchdog - to examine the spiritual and moral development of schoolchildren. The authority set up a panel of teachers, youth workers, employers, trade union officials, magistrates, and lawyers. It plans to issue a statement on moral rules to guide young people.
A Gallup poll published last week showed that 72 percent of British adults believe "we leave it too much up to individuals to behave in terms of their own moral code." The survey also showed that 47 percent of British adults say adultery is wrong in all circumstances. Nearly as many (44 percent) say it can be "justified occasionally."
Only 20 percent of those questioned thought Britons exhibited "a common set of moral standards."
Carey also used his speech to demand that schools comply with a law that requires them to hold daily religious assemblies. Educators reacted angrily. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said Carey had a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the work now going on in schools to ensure that "pupils understand the difference between right and wrong."
Mr. Hart put the blame on parents for "appearing to think it does not matter whether their children lie or commit criminal offenses."
Nigel de Gruchy, leader of the National Association of School Masters, called for "a better example from the leaders of society," adding: "From the royal family downward, they all proclaim moral principles and then do their own thing."
"Teachers already do far too much preaching," Mr. de Gruchy said.
In the House of Lords, however, peers of all political parties and religious persuasions agreed with Carey's criticism. Lord Jakobovits, a former chief rabbi, said: "If our children are raised in a moral vacuum, then an essential ingredient of our civilization will progressively disappear."
Jakobovits was backed up by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds David Konstant.
Carey, who has held office for five years, has complained for some time that rising crime, drug abuse, and marital breakups reflect deficiencies in British family life and Britain's education system.
In the House of Lords debate, he said there was a tendency to see morality as "a matter of individual taste" and to banish God "to the realm of the private hobby." Britain had descended into "ethical relativism" and "privatized morality."
His strictures coincided with an announcement that a final divorce settlement between Prince Charles, heir to the throne, and his estranged wife, Diana, is likely to be agreed upon soon. Both have publicly admitted to adultery.
In the search for solutions, Carey noted an official report showing that only 20 percent of secondary schools were holding daily religious assemblies, as required by law.
There are indications that the government will act to enforce the religious-assembly law. Schools that do not hold a daily act of "mainly Christian" worship could be forced to do so, Education Secretary Gillian Sheppard said Saturday.
Teachers' groups contend that criticism of children's moral values is off the mark. Hart cited a new survey showing that 9 out of 10 schoolchildren between the ages of 11 and 16 believe it is never right to steal money, and 8 out of 10 feel it is never right to cheat on schoolwork.
Britain does not maintain the same separation of church and state in as the United States. Although religious freedom is observed, the Church of England is considered the state religion.
Carey's linking of morality with a return to Christianity is likely to stir controversy among non-Christians, such as Britain's more than 1 million Muslims. And Karen Pappenheim, director of the National Council of One Parent Families, says: "Clearly, back to Christianity is not going to work. Nonchurchgoers can't be left out of the frame."