Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

Frank WilliamsHow would you describe your beliefs and identity in terms of religion?

I was brought up as an Evangelical Anglican. I went away to a school which was of Anglo-Catholic foundation and through that I found… I went to a church, I go to a church which described itself in those days as Prayer Book Catholic… I had a very good friend, Canon Richard Barke, who is a retired priest now, and he had a big influence on me, and I describe myself as an Anglo-Catholic Anglican.

Is GB an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?

I think Great Britain is a tolerant and equal society in relation to religion and belief. Well, it is the only society I have really experienced in depth, but it is to me religiously tolerant, and for what I hear from the news I think it is much more tolerant than many other places, and I grew up in ….., which had a very large Jewish population, when I grew up my closest friend next door was Jewish and quite often I’d be in there when his mother would do the Friday night prayers and lit candles and so on. I certainly grew up with an understanding of Judaism and Christianity, and I think now we have become much more multi-faith. I think we are tolerant to each other and we actually care for each other, and the other thing I have noticed is that Jewish people are much more prepared to declare their identity as Jewish people in a way they wouldn’t when I was growing up. I don’t think they want to be separate, but they want to be seen as Jewish and they are proud to be Jewish. I think they were proud to be Jewish when I was growing up, but they were, bearing in mind what was happening in Germany at the time, were a bit more anxious not be overtly Jewish, although they would be happy to talk about Judaism. They didn’t sort of show the fact that they were Jewish so much then. In that sense, we as a multi-racial and multi-faith society, we do accept each other, and I think it works very well.

Any challenges for you in living in accordance with your faith? If so, are they social, political or legal in nature?

I know it is a dreadful thing to say, but I am not aware of any particular challenges because I am an Anglican. As an actor, I suppose I have come across a lot of other people who have a Christian faith and I did a couple of plays in the English Theatre in Vienna and went there, you supply a bit of background, of details for the programme, and I said in my bit that I was a practising member of the CofE, and one of the other actors said ‘I am a practising member of the United Reform Church’, and we became great friends, and when we were in Vienna we used to go together to the Mass… the Anglican Church didn’t use to be there at the right time… and so we attended the Roman Catholic Church when we were there, and I find that very exciting in a way.

Our present vicar spent a long time in South Africa and under him we have become more aware of the importance of human rights, and more importantly, we have become more aware of the fact that in many places human rights are denied, but I think over the years I have seen our society become more accepting, more tolerant, more understanding of people who are different from ourselves.

How does Anglicanism regard Human Rights?

I think it is very important that people enjoy human rights and that they are accepted for who they are. That is the key thing about Christianity in a sense. People need to be accepting of others… in terms of gender, sexual orientation, and so on and so forth. So it seems to me that it is very important that we accept people for who they are.

I think sometimes the CofE runs behind what I think human rights ought to be. I think, for instance, when I was in the General Synod, we were battling with the question of remarriage after divorce. We are now battling with the question of same sex relations and I would have liked to see the Church giving a lead in being more understanding about same sex relations rather than what has happened: the Church being very negative about it. To be honest, I don’t really see the point of two people of the same gender marrying as opposed to being in a civil partnership. I don’t see the difference, but it is obviously important for some people in same sex relationships that marriage should be an option. I know in legal terms this is now an option but there is a caveat, the Church doesn’t have to do it if it doesn’t want to. I think that is a pity, the Church sometimes lags behind.

Do public bodies respect Human Rights?

I think by a large human rights are respected by public bodies in Great Britain.

Does the State get the level of intervention right in relation to religion and belief?

I think the State is quite good in not interfering in matters of belief. Of course the CofE is established and that means that obviously the Church has to, in some ways, go through what I hope it is on most occasions a rubberstamp. I was member for several years of the Crown Appointments Commission and we spent a weekend coming up with two names as a bishop and that had to go to the PM and in legal terms, it was the Queen who actually made the appointment. I think it sort of worked, it seemed strange in some ways that we as a group, including the two Archbishops and representatives of the dioceses concerned, and lay people and clergy people from the Synod, came to a decision and said to the PM: ‘here it is our first choice. You can ignore it if you want. This is our second choice’.

Is living in a democracy a positive thing? Does it help you to live in accordance with your faith?

The Church tries to be democratic. It is a bit weird for me as a lay person to be discussing matters of the virginity of Mary, alongside bishops and clergy, when I think this should be a matter for theologians, but it is clear to me that the Church is trying to be democratic. Sometimes within the Church I think a benevolent dictator would be better, but within the country I don’t think that would be good. It is very important to me that we live in a democracy and we have a say in the way we are governed and I think the Church accepts that as well.

Do your beliefs mean that you feel that you have a duty to vote?

I do feel I have a personal responsibility to vote. My vicar, again, would say that it would be utterly wrong for him to suggest that we should vote for a particular party, but he would say to us that we as Christians have a duty to vote and I think that is right. I think Christians need to get involved with the procedures. Often people who are Christians stand for councils and other bodies.

Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law? Should the judiciary be empowered to strike down laws?

No, I wouldn’t like to see an empowerment of the judiciary here. The way it works in the moment is that the people I have voted for should be the ones who should be making decisions on my behalf, because they have been democratically elected to do so.
I think one of the real problem is the system of election in the UK, because if you live in a non marginal constituency the result of your vote is that that person will be… so only people who live in marginal constituencies are people who have a real possibility of making real change. I think that has become less true in this coming election because a) we have had five years of Coalition; and b) we have had new parties, particularly, I am thinking of UKIP and so, which are going to do very strange things… It is no longer basically the Conservative/Liberal divide. I think the UKIP arrival will give rise to interesting things, whether or not you are in favour of UKIP, and I am not particularly in many ways, but no… I think sometimes one can be unrepresentative because of the way our voting system is and you hear many people saying there is no point in voting because they are all the same.

Is it a problem that the House of Lords are unelected?

Because I was brought up in a situation in which members of the House of Lords were there for hereditary reasons, I think trying to elect the second Chamber would be pointless and I think the reason why we shouldn’t have a second elected house is because at the moment it is composed of people with experience in many ways and with an expertise in certain areas of life. At least being able to say to the elected Commons ‘think again about this one’, which is all they can do. They can’t do throw out everything totally. They can just delay. Actually they are making the Government think about important things.

How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?

I think the presence of bishops in the HofL is completely defensible and it is a good thing. Whilst we have an established Church and I think it is good that we have an established Church, it seems to me… It is good to have an established Church, because the whole of the nation is provided with a religious focus which is necessary. The fact that the Church has a role in the State is important. Having said what I did about bishops in the House of Lords, I also think that Christians of other persuasions rather than Anglicanism, should also have some say. But I think it is right that the CofE should have the majority religious input in the HofL.

Do public bodies respect legislation?

I think public authorities really respect the will of Parliament. In fact, how wouldn’t they? I hope public authorities do. Maybe I am being naïve. I think that is the role of the civil service. When there is a change from Labour to Conservative, the civil servants have to adjust what they are doing. That is my perception.

What does your faith tell you about power and its exercise?

I think Christianity has always said that power has to be linked with responsibility and so I think it is a Christian teaching that if you have power you have to use it responsibly and in a way which is caring for other people. There are certain Christian virtues such as caring for the poor and so on, which I think you need to be able to say to your Parliamentary representatives that it is important for us, and that they cannot actually make legislation which is going to marginalise people who deserve to be part of our society. You can’t have legislation which actually marginalise important sectors of our population.

Are Anglicans proportionately represented in Parliament?

I really have no idea if practising Anglicans are well represented in Parliament. I hope they are, but the other thing, the basic principle of Christianity which has become part of the structure of our society, that even Atheists in Parliament would be reflecting alongside people of Anglicans or Christians views.

Are the judiciary sufficiently independent?

I think there is enough distance between judges and politicians, but there are occasions in which Parliament seems to want to usurp the powers of judges and there are occasions in which judges feel Parliament is getting it wrong and try to at least protest. Maybe this is a way in which all comes about in the end. That was not a very good answer. Apologies!

What checks and balances should there be on the exercise of power?

I think the free press is enormously important, but I think that our most important mechanism of accountability is that every five years we can exercise our powers by voting and I must now go back to what I said earlier about marginal constituencies. You can only really have a proper influence in marginal constituencies. If you feel that the current incumbent of your constituency is wrong, then you shift from conservative to labour or vice versa, or to liberal dem… But you can’t make any difference in a safe Tory or Labour seat.

How do Anglicans challenge policies which they see as problematic?

The CofE must make some fuss from time to time and I think it does it. There are occasions in which some people like the Archbishop of Canterbury can tell the Government that they think that a particular piece of legislation is wrong, because it is actually doing something which is against humanity and certainly against the Christian principles. And also through its spokepersons in the House of Lords.

I think that people of other faiths and none have absorbed important Christian principles. So, I think, interestingly, I belong to an organisation called Theatre Chaplaincy UK and I think we have found recently that there was a time when some theatres would say they didn’t want to have a chaplain there and that if they had an Anglican chaplain, they would need to have a Rabbi, an Iman, and so on, but lately it seems that theatres are more accepting of having chaplains. Speaking personally, I have found that the fact that a theatre has a chaplain is seen as a positive thing by all sorts of people.

Is it important to act within secular law?

I don’t know the answer to your question. I think I am by a large law abiding and I do uphold secular law and I can’t think of an occasion where I would deliberately want to break secular law, because it has moved forward in the last 30 or 40 years, beginning to understand that people have different viewpoints in various things. When I look back at my younger age we still had capital punishment. I remember as a young man speaking against it, because I thought it was totally unacceptable. Therefore, I don’t know… I have often thought if I were in a jury and someone were accused of murder in the days we had capital punishment… would I have actually been able to exercise my jury thing or would I have said I don’t care if he or she is guilty or not… I will say he/she is not guilty, because what is going to happen to him/her is so immoral… By a large, I would uphold secular law nowadays, because it seems to me it is much more moral and understanding anyway.

Is the Rule of Law applied equally? Do some groups experience preferential or prejudicial treatment?

I would like to say that we are ok and everybody is on an equal footing. We have had too many instances of police’s racist problems. I think we have had a situation where we don’t always treat people in the same way, and of course we have this terrible scandal… In the past like MPs were not prosecuted for things other people would have been prosecuted for. I think this is still a problem, but it is changing and we are doing something about it.

Has the increase in police powers over the past 15 years been appropriate?

I think there is a sense in which in some ways it seems to be too much of an encroachment on our freedoms (by the police), but on the other hand, in our society with all these terrorist threats it has become necessary. However, going back to what we discussed much earlier, that question about responsibility and power, sometimes I think you can get people who have the power and don’t exercise it responsibly. By a large, however, we are on our way to get things right. I think, however, stop and search powers are not exercised even nowadays in an even-handed way. I think you can say that if you are black and a teenager you are more likely to be stopped than if you are white. I think that is wrong but maybe the police perceive that there is bigger crime in certain communities and that is why they target some people.

Is there anything which you would like to add on this topic?

A phrase which was used a lot after the events in France was ‘the right to offend’. I am not actually very happy with this expression. I think you can offend people and if your object is offending, that is quite questionable. I was brought up when there was censorship in the theatre and it seems to me that censorship got it wrong anyway. There were some taboo subjects which could not be seen on stage but allowed many other things which could be much more questionable. I campaigned and I remember speaking in the General Synod about this, for the abolition of censorship. I thought we had to get rid of it because people would censor themselves. I think this has gone out of the window and I think there is now too much people deliberately getting out of their way to offend other people for no reason. You can offend people for a reason, you can say that something is corrupt and then you offend them by putting this forward. But if your desire is to use a four letter word just to offend people, I think that is very questionable. I get very depressed when we hear some comedians just using the four letter word and the audience really loves it. It is dreadful. It is bad art and it is bad for the country. Let’s face it. Our Lord was happy to offend people, but he didn’t deliberately set out to offend people. He didn’t just think ‘I am going to offend people’. He, however, would say things that some people would find offensive, but that is very different. Say something which is true and then people get offended, that is fine. If you just want to offend people deliberately, that is a very different thing.
I think one of the things that theatre and entertainment can do is in a subtle way is enable people to understand some things which are normally outside their understanding. I go back many years to people like Ken Loach who always tackled social issues, and a very powerful play, that on TV said more about homeless and their problems than any number of speeches and sermons. That is the power that theatre and TV have. They can highlight various defects of our society, and you know I think people do have a sense of tears and joy, and I think these two things are important and theatre administers them and doing so can point out important things in life.

Frank Williams is a well known English actor who has played a wide variety of roles in his long and distinguished career, many of them in comedy parts. He is perhaps best remembered for his portrayal of the long-suffering and slightly fussy vicar in Dad’s Army, but his appearances include characters in Jabberwocky, One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing and All Gas and Gaiters, amongst many others. In his personal life he is a committed Anglican and served for many years as a lay member of the Church of England Synod.