How would you describe your personal religious beliefs and identity?
I’m an Anglican bishop.
What made you either adopt or remain within this tradition?
I was brought up as a nominal Baptist, because my mother was a Welsh Baptist and my ancestor (John Harrhy) in 1715, was the man who broke away from the Church of England to form the Independents who then became the Baptists. For me, to become an Anglican was actually quite a breach. My mother wasn’t a passionate Baptist, but nevertheless I wasn’t baptised as a child because of her beliefs. My father was a sort of nominal Anglican, but as a scientist he struggled with religious belief. We went to Sunday school as children. I think that my first religious experience was in an Anglican setting, just sitting in an Anglican church in front of the Tabernacle feeling overawed by the presence of God and then feeling a sense of vocation, and then having to decide which denomination I should join. I think that by the age of 13 I knew that God was calling me to be a priest. I didn’t really want to be a priest but I knew the inner nagging would not go away and so at the age of 16, I was baptised and confirmed as an Anglican. It is the mainstream Christian denomination in England and presents more opportunities for ministry. In any case, being Orthodox was just too way out and becoming a Roman Catholic would have been offensive to my mother although that was before the changes of Vatican II, so being in the Anglican fold seemed a comfortable place to be and it still is.
Is Great Britain an equal and tolerant society particular in relation to religion and belief?
I think that it is generally getting better. We are becoming a more tolerant society. In the past it was argued that legislation wouldn’t make us more tolerant, and that having laws about racial discrimination would not work, but I think that it has and good legislation can be educational. People are more tolerant of other races, homosexuality and single and unmarried parents; today the majority of children are born out of wedlock. People are more tolerant about divorce and the Church of England now permits the remarriage and ordination of divorced people but people are less tolerant of religious extremists and hypocrisy.
How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your beliefs in the UK?
Personally, I don’t find it a problem but for the church I think there are various challenges. For example, when the Ordinariate was set up, and Anglicans were told that they were welcome to join the Roman Catholic Church and to bring with them their Anglican patrimony, they discovered that they didn’t really know what their patrimony was. I think that having become Roman Catholics they have discovered what Anglican patrimony is. The Roman Catholic Church is built firmly on Canon Law and everything is logical and tidy. For example, the indissolubility of marriage means that divorce is impossible and the only way out of marriage is to have it annulled. So it is legalistic and tidy but not necessarily very pastoral. In contrast, Anglicanism is pastoral but not necessarily very tidy. Therefore we now remarry divorced people. I think that the challenge that we now have is to say that the biblical norms for Christian marriage are lifelong marriage or celibacy, but there are some for whom lifelong marriage is not going to happen. The good news for them is that we are willing to allow remarriage, even in church. But what is the good news for those who are homosexual but not called to celibacy? That is one issue we are still having to tackle.
And how does Anglicanism regard human rights?
Well I think they would pick and choose, and some are more acceptable than others. What happens if one person’s human rights are in conflict with someone else’s? In terms of the right to freedom to work, home family life, right to strike, Anglicanism would support human rights, but there are more difficult areas, that are concerned with human rights but not directly mentioned in the Act. For example, does a woman have a right over her own body so that she may abort her child as some would argue?
Do you think that human rights which apply to everyone are a good thing?
Yes, I think that they reflect where we are theologically, that is that we are created in the image of God and have a dignity which has to be respected. When I was in Canada I came across an interesting situation in which I was leading a retreat in an Anglican convent. In the welcome notes there was a statement which said ‘do not smoke’ which is fair enough, but there was also a statement which said please do not wear perfume or eau de cologne. I asked about that and was told that it was to avoid invading someone’s personal space. The idea was that although you had a right to smell as you wanted to, you didn’t have a right to impose that on others. I wonder how long that will take before it crosses the Atlantic. The concept as to what constitutes human rights is still evolving.
Are there any ways in which the Anglican churches have a practical influence on human rights?
On the whole the Church is more vocal in what it is against that what it is for, on matters like abortion and homosexuality. Although some might say that a woman has a right to an abortion because it is her body, the church would say that you don’t have the right to abort a child which is created in the image of God, except for very good reason. And the same with homosexuality, the church is fairly negative, and many people cannot understand where the church is coming from. Whereas in the past the church was at the forefront of the campaign against capital punishment and in the abolishment of slavery, today we are seen to have been slow to recognise the equality of women in ministry and to recognise same sex marriage.
Would you say that human rights are generally respected by public bodies?
Yes, the general idea respecting human rights is upheld.
Does the state interfere too much or not enough in the lives of citizens?
It is often a tough call. To what extent do you give freedom and to what extent do you control? Some years ago there were issues about seatbelts and crash helmets, and people resented the laws requiring them to be worn, but gradually people came to see that the State did have a place legislating for their greater good.
When do you think that the State does have a positive duty to restrict religious freedom?
The State has a duty to protect people from damaging themselves and others even if for religious reasons. Similarly, it has a duty to legislate regarding drugs, smoking alcohol and motoring laws; and yet it also has to allow people to make mistakes and to sin. One of the differences between Christianity and Islam is that both say that adultery is wrong, but only Islam would wish to criminalise it. People have to have the space to do things which are wrong, as long as they are not injuring themselves or others.
Balance between the rights of children as independent people and the rights of parents.To some extent we don’t choose who and what we are; we don’t choose our parents, class, race etc. Therefore I think that to baptise a child is permissible because it is part of being born into a particular environment and culture associated with a particular religion. On the other hand, I don’t think that people have a right to carry out genital mutilation, particularly female genital mutilation because that is harmful to the child and is not a mandatory requirement of any religion.
Is living in a Parliamentary democracy a good thing?
Yes, I can’t think of a better alternative. I would rather live in a democracy than a dictatorship no matter how benevolent. There can very occasionally be conflicts between Canon Law and State law as for example in the case of the seal of the confessional and professional confidentiality. In a prison, for example, there are certain rules in terms of what must be observed by the chaplains, so a chaplain has to reveal an attempt to escape, an attack on another prisoner or officer. There are I believe 5 different things about which he or she cannot kept confidentiality. The Archbishop of York is proposing that there should be an exception to the seal of the confessional for child abuse. In the past, judges have respected the seal of the confessional, even though the courts could require the information to be revealed, judges have not done so.
It may be that in the future the government would try to introduce legislation, but they would do that in consultation with the church. They did that recently with the Marriage Act, and asked whether the churches wanted to be included or excluded from the legislation regarding same sex marriages. The Church in Wales at present does not allow same sex weddings but wanted the freedom to change its mind and the opportunity to do so was incorporated into the legislation.
Do you believe that you a personal responsibility to vote?
Yes, I do. Both as a Christian and as a citizen although I don’t think that I could separate the two roles. The greatest forces for good and evil are religion and politics. Christians have a duty to learn what they are voting about, and to vote not necessarily in their own economic interests but according to Gospel principles.
Do you think that it is good or bad that Parliament has the final say in making and changing law?
Yes, if Parliament doesn’t make laws who could or should? The principle of ‘separation of powers’ would prevent the judiciary from doing so.
Do you think that an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority is problematic for minority groups? Is our democracy sufficiently inclusive?
It makes attempts to be inclusive. It is interesting how many minority groups are represented in Parliament. Parliament also listens and is aware of minority groups. Racial and religious minorities are represented as MPs and members of the House of Lords. Also there are disabled and gay members of both houses. I was looking at some regulations for joining the army and one thing they don’t allow is anyone with offensive tattoos, but they go out of their way to allow people from different ethnic backgrounds, faith groups and sexual orientations to belong. The same is true of the police and similarly they do not allow offensive or visible tattoos.
Do you think that it is problematic that members of the House of Lords are not elected?
Well, I think it is as problematic as the Commons being elected on a first past the post system, that doesn’t seem to be very democratic. The reform of the House of Lords is slowly taking place. They often appoint people who are very able within their own field, and often the level of debate in the House of Lords is excellent, and so there are strengths. They don’t have the final say but are able to introduce and amend legislation and have more time to consider legislation than the Commons. I think that the Upper House works quite well.
Do you think that the Lords Spiritual should have a place in the House of Lords? What is their function?
I suppose that there is a quid pro quo arrangement, because the Church of England is the Established church so the government has a theoretical say in the appointment of bishops. The argument has always been that if the Church wants to retain bishops in the Lords then they must accept government involvement in appointments. Because the Church of England sees itself as the Church of the Nation it sees itself as representing everyone, not just signed up members in the same way that MPs do not see themselves as representing only the people who voted for them. Bishops will speak for minority groups and do provide a conscience for the nation. There is always a bishop on duty when the House of Lords is sitting. There are also members of the House of Lords from other Christian churches and faith groups which is very positive.
Do you think that public authorities try to respect the will of Parliament through legislation?
I think that they claim to respect it, but don’t always manage it or they respect the primary legislation but that is undermined by secondary legislation or devolved powers. For example, a petition has just gone to Downing Street because some drugs and treatments are available through the NHS in England but not in Wales.
Do you think that it is a good or a bad thing that some decisions are made by the EU and some are made by the devolved assemblies?
On the whole I think it is good to have devolved assemblies, but if you do that and also take away votes from Welsh and Scottish MPs on English issues do you really need a Westminster government? And I think that having a strong central government is vital, so there needs to be a balance.
As far as the EU goes I rather agree with the Pope. The vision of a European community is great and it is has introduced some good legislation regarding the environment, clean beaches, workers’ and women’s’ right and the Human Rights Act. But then equally there are some issues where legislation appears ridiculous or unacceptable, and people didn’t expect that the EU would develop as it has with so much power and legislation. It was intended to be a way of maintaining peace in Europe and trading rather than developing a European superstate. I supported ‘Remain’ so I regret that we shall be leaving the EU.
What does your faith teach you about people with power?
‘From those to whom much is given much will be required’ ,I suppose would be the text. Those with power must exercise it appropriately and with humility. St Benedict gives us a perfect picture of the abbot. In one sense he has absolute power, but he has to listen. He has to make decisions prayerfully and for the greater good of the whole community, not for his own personal ends. He must listen even to the newest novice because he may have something to say which the community needs to hear. Power must be tempered with justice, mercy and humility – that would be a good Anglican approach.
Would you say that practising Anglicans are appropriately and proportionately representing in public life?
Yes, in some areas maybe even over-represented. Some do and some don’t bring their faith into the public arena, but I’ve certainly talked to doctors, judges, lawyers and policemen who take their faith into their professional lives, and when they see a conflict they feel the need to sort it out.
Is there enough distance between Parliament and the judiciary?
Yes, the judges are independent, and they rightly value their independence. It is Parliament’s job to create the laws but not their job to tell the judges how to go about their business. It is important that there is a ‘separation of powers’. Sometimes laws are poorly or quickly made by Parliament, like for example, the Dangerous Dogs Act, and then the judges have to decide how to apply the legislation.
Are you happy in general with the checks and balances on Parliamentary power?
Yes, because it is always open to reform. It is not set in stone, and we can always criticise and improve the system. Commissions get set up to look at areas of concern and their recommendations are often implemented. On the whole it works.
How does the Church in Wales help to challenge decisions which it perceives as problematic?
It takes it up with the Welsh Assembly government. The bishops meet at least once a year with either the First Minister or other ministers. The archbishop has a particular role of liaising with the government. Also the Governing Body can pass a motion if it feels that there is a particular issue, and their debates are reported so it would get publicity in the media. The one issue which comes up all the time is the care of disused graveyards which in England are passed to local authority care. The Welsh bishops are always pushing the Welsh government for a similar arrangement in Wales but don’t seem to be getting very far.
Do public authorities have a good understanding of the needs of practising Anglicans?
No, not at all. It is not just Anglicans. I remember someone was admitted to hospital and they put down ‘RC priest’ as his occupation and yet the religion box on the form was filled in as ‘unknown’. Unlike the United States, Health Care Plans give little attention to the spiritual needs of a patient. It is better in prisons, where every prisoner is interviewed by the chaplain as part of their admission process.
Is it important for you always to act within secular law?
In theory there could be legislation which as Christians we could not obey. When I have protested I have always stayed within the law, and I have never been involved in violence or criminal damage because I think that such things are wrong. We have a right of peaceful demonstration and a voice when legislation is being introduced, but in another country where that does not happen, I could imagine where it might be necessary to break the law.
Is the Church in Wales campaigning for any legal change?
It campaigned to get the Marriage Act changed so that Wales was subject to the same rules as England. This was done through a private Act of Parliament introduced by Lord Rowe Beddoe.
The Church would respond to anything to do with such issues as abortion or euthanasia. It responded to proposed legislation to allow assisted dying and conversations took place between Baroness Findlay and the bishops. Bishops also expressed disquiet about legislation regarding ‘presumed consent’ for organ donations.
There was an interesting debate amongst the bishops on proposed legislation to ban parental corporal punishment, when the bishops could not agree amongst themselves, so it was decided that the bishops could act individually. Whilst we all disapproved of corporal punishment we did not want to criminalise otherwise loving parents who sometimes resorted to it. So when you hear bishops making individual comments on other issues, it may be that there is no collective view.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties, especially the vulnerable?
Yes, and one of the bishop’s ordination vows deals with this, there is a duty to speak for the poor, oppressed and the voiceless.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally?
No, I think that black young people know that they are much more likely to be stopped whilst driving a car, or searched than their white contemporaries.
How do you feel about the general trend in the last 15 years to increase police powers?
The problem is that police need powers to do their job but some of them abuse it. I know that in looking for search warrants the police will go to certain magistrates rather than others, because some will sign anything whilst others will ask questions.
Are there any legal rules which have an adverse impact on your personal freedoms?
Well, I would like to drive a lot faster. Other than that I can’t think of anything which I find restrictive.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
I think that religion is sometimes seen as being reactionary, conservative and out of touch, and that can lead to society trying to push religion to the edge and exclude it, rather than giving it a voice. Pushing it out and trying to silence it is more likely to encourage extremism; it is better to give religion a voice. The world should listen to the church and I think that the reverse is also true, and that sometimes the church needs to listen to the world, particularly in relation to women’s equality and homosexuality.
Dominic Walker is the former Bishop of Monmouth having previously been Vicar of Brighton and Bishop of Reading. Whilst in Brighton he was involved in the protests against live animal exports. He became chairman of ASWA in 1998 and Vice President in 2004. He has been President since 2008. He has also been a Vice President of the RSPCA since 2001.