Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

How would you describe your religious or ideological identity?

I’m an Anglican, liberal Anglo-Catholic. Particularly in this part of the world, I would regard the Anglican Church as being basically the Catholic Church and the local manifestation of that.  Sorry what was the question again? 

How would you describe your religious or ideological identity?

One of the things which I’ve always done is to question everything about religion.  In fact I question everything about everything.   You don’t just tell me something and I don’t just take that on trust.  I need to assimilate it and understand it for myself.  And with ideological identity I have gone through all of that and come to the conclusion, for myself, that Christian orthodoxy as stated in the Creeds is the only way of making sense of the Church, of Christianity throughout the ages.  So despite the fact that I work with almost a hermeneutic of suspicion (I’m always suspicious of stuff), I’ve come to the conclusion that orthodoxy is the only answer and I’m quite happy with that. 

And what made you choose that?

Right, in a sense it was basically the way I was brought up.  My parents were Anglican, sort of church-going and Anglicanism has been in the family for a long time.  My grandfather on my mother’s side comes a long line of church wardens, but he moved to Argentina, and in a sense Anglicanism was very much part of the ex-pat identity, so when he came back that was heavily vested in the family.  I also spent some time singing in the church choir and but I know that Anglicanism gives me freedom to ask the sort of questions that I want to ask, but there is no ultimate Magisterium.  

Would you say Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief?

I would like to think it was, but I’m not sure that it is.  I realise that there are lots of questions about Islam at the moment.  There seems to be lots of intolerance towards Islam.  There seems to be lots of intolerance in certain section of society about religion in general.  In the media, the BBC in particular I suppose, there does seem to be a sort of balance towards the new atheism, against religion and that makes life difficult. 

How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your faith in Wales?

Challenges to Anglicanism in Wales?  The Anglican church in Wales has got a particular history where it is associated with landowners and effectively foreigners and middle classes.  One of the difficult things about being an Anglican in Wales is that Welsh cultural identity is traditionally vested in the Non-Conformist chapels and we’re sort of fighting against that, but we’re also unfortunately inheriting the historical difficulties that they had.  So for example in my own community, people will tell me that they don’t go to church or chapel because the chapels didn’t support the working men during the strikes. Despite the fact that actually as the vicar I’m interested in social justice and they commend me for that, they won’t come to church because we are tarred with the same brush as the traditional Non-Conformists.

Anglicanism is also in a relatively strong position though because we are still represented in every community or everybody is at least within driving distance of an Anglican church.   We also inherit people from Non-Conformist churches, because they don’t have their own churches, so if they want to go to church they have to come to us in some parts of the country. 

And how does Anglicanism regard human rights?

I would like to think that they are, again speaking from the Church in Wales point of view, Archbishop Barry as you probably know has spoken out on various issues.  I don’t think that he is always right, but the Anglican Church has been seen to be supportive of human rights in general.  That is its general policy on a macro-level, and then working in parishes on the ground. 

Do you think that human rights which apply to everyone are a good or a bad thing for our society?

Personally I think they are a good thing and I get very frustrated when people have said that this is something which Europe is imposing on us.  I think that human rights are crucially important. 

Are there any ways in which the Anglican Churches have a practical influence on human rights in contemporary Britain?

No, to be honest.

Do you think that human rights are generally respected by the government and public bodies in Great Britain?

I think that there is a rhetoric against them. It’s part of the unfortunate rhetoric against various things which are going on.  Human rights and immigration have been lumped together, and you get this rhetoric, from the Conservative Party, the ring wing press and UKIP, against anything to do with human rights because it’s all been lumped together and the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater if we’re not careful. 

Does the State intervene too much or not enough in the lives of individuals?

I don’t think that it interferes too much in most people’s lives.  The State seems to be neutral on quite a few religious issues, unless you’re a Muslim, and there’s this ambivalent attitude, a support of the idea of religious toleration but things can get muddied. 

Can you envisage any particular situations in which the State should interfere with people expressing their religious beliefs?

If the lifestyle choices of actions impinge on other people, endanger life, that sort of thing.  

Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society makes it easier or harder for you to live in accordance with your Anglican faith?

I’ve never really thought about the issue.  One of the things about our current Parliamentary democracy is that it’s not entirely democratic.  We do have some religious representation in the House of Lords, and there is the Establishment thing so that the Church of England can influence things at a sort of Parliament level at a way that no other sort of church, including the Church in Wales can. 

But the question was about your personal practice.

Well, it would depend on who was in charge.  Yes, it’s probably easier in a Parliamentary democracy, but obviously if we had a Welsh Anglican dictator that might make life easier for me personally. 

Do you feel that have a personal responsibility to vote?


Duty from your faith or as a citizen?

I’ve never really thought about it, in a sense my religion is so much a part of my identity that is hard to differentiate.  There is the idea that Christians are model citizens… theory at least.

Are you happy that Parliament has the final say in making and changing law?

It would be helpful yes, because occasionally, particularly in more recent times, every time there is a crisis the government pass legislation quickly and create a whole load of problems.  Then they have to quietly repeal stuff, or at least I hope they do.  In a sense this is what the House of Lords should prevent but doesn’t, perhaps because the House of Lords is now just a load of retired politicos who presumably sleep through the whole thing.  I would be happy about having a much stronger independent judiciary. 

Is our system of Parliamentary democracy sufficiently inclusive?

I’m sure that there are some groups who would feel that they are marginalised by Parliamentary democracy, but there are lobby groups and things who are able to exert influence for relatively small groups.  No system is perfect, but it seems to work. 

What sort of concept of democracy are you embracing?  Is majoritarian democracy problematic?

I think there are problems with the idea…yes.  I think that it was Winston Churchill who said that democracy is all very well until you might the people who actually voting.  One thing about MPs is that they shelter us from the people actually voting 

Do you think it is problematic that members of the House of Lords are not elected?

In a sense I’m quite happy with the idea of a non-elected upper house.  I’m not entirely happy with retired politicos being appointed by that leads to party political problems there which we’ve had in the past.  In a sense if you are going to reform the House of Lords you need to do so in a way that you don’t recreate the problems of the past. 

What is your view on the bishops in the House of Lords?

In a sense, if you are going to create an upper house which is balancing the lower house, I don’t see any problem with having people from specific groups.  I know that Lord Sacks who was the Chief Rabbi is there, but that seems to be a personal appointment.  It would be good to get representation from other groups formally as well. 

What about the present of the Church of England at the moment, as it stands?

It would be nice to see the Archbishop of Wales there too, because at the moment it is just the Church of England.  

But you don’t have a problem with the Church of England as such?


And what about the idea that they speak on behalf of all people of faith?

Well, they can say what they like once they are there, can’t they? 

Do public bodies respect Parliamentary legislation in your view?

Not off hand but I’m sure it exists, particularly local government, they are very adept at working around legislation that they don’t want to enact locally.  There is a long game played out, local authorities will try to do things not in keeping with the will of Parliament. 

Is it good bad that some decisions are made by the EU and the devolved assemblies?

I don’t have a problem with it, in a sense they are Parliamentary democracies in the same way.   You have the right to return MPs and you get to return AMs in the same way, it’s another form of Parliamentary democracy.  If you sign up to the European Union the same applies. 

Have both been positive?

Strangely enough I am happier with the EU than the Welsh Assembly.  Yes, because in a sense that is another check and balance. 

Just one question about human rights, before I start my sections if that is okay.  When we were talking about when the State should or should not intervene, do you have any thoughts about how that might relate to parents and children in relation to religious and ideological education?

Yes, of course some people would say it depends on the religion, some religions are more dangerous than others.  

When it comes to educating children, do you think that there is any sort of line?

One of the problems I have is with, to some extent with religious education.  Actually, I think educating your kids at home I think is a problem.  I’m actually slightly wary about faith schools to be honest, despite the fact that I spend quite a lot of time in my local school which is a church school working with the kids.  I’m sort of, in a sense interested in achieving some sort of parity across the board, so that all kids have equal access to information about other faiths. 

And there are implications beyond religious knowledge too aren’t there? Things like knowledge about science, human sexuality, contraception?

Yes, and those are the kind of things where if you come from a closed, fundamentalist background and are educated at home, these things are given a particular spin or ignored completely, which having a universal education system would avoid. 

There are questions about treatment as well as access to information.  Were you aware of the Child Exorcism Bill and the debate surrounding it?

No, sorry I should have been. 

A bid a few years to go try and make it illegal to exorcise minors?

As someone working in this field, I know that these things are only carried out in psychiatric hospitals when all else has failed, and you have to meet very specific criteria which I can’t see many children meeting. 

It wasn’t really a problem within Anglicanism.

Given the fact that you have specific permission to do these things or you are not insured, whatever body is doing this must have the rules so that it would be insured. 

What does your faith teach about people with power?

Okay, in a sense power needs to be exercised by somebody.  So if you are going to exercise it there is an accountability before God and if you are a Christian or not, that applies.  On a theological level there is accountability.  And more generally, people are accountable to those they represent or have power over. 

Do you think that Anglicans are appropriately represented in terms of Parliament, LAs and the Judiciary?

I suspect it depends on where you are.  There are a surprisingly large number of practising Anglicans in the judiciary, and even your average MP will spend a lot of time handing around Anglican churches.  So in that sense practising Anglicans probably have a lot of influence.  With LAs it depends where you are, as in Wales there are some LAs where the RC church would have greater influence. 

Is there enough distance between the executive and judiciary?

Yes, because the executive are there basically to exercise the policies of a particularly party, the judiciary appear to be independent. 

Are you relatively happy with the checks and balances in place in the Constitution at present?

Probably not, as I suggested earlier when Dr Oliva was asking me about the role of the House of Lords and judiciary.  There is, the way I see Parliamentary democracy working at present, it seems to be dictated by the right wing press or public opinion in an unhealthy way, and checks and balances are always needed. 

How does the Church in Wales seek to challenge decisions which it sees as problematic?

Right, some of it through lobbying.  It also depends who enacted the law, or how the problem was created.  When the Church of England unilaterally changed the marriage law, their synod could simply do that.  The Church in Wales had to use a member who was a member of the House of Lords to get legislation through Parliament and it was pretty much the last Act of Parliament of the last but one Parliament, so it went through easily.  It rectified something, but had to do so through Parliament.  On other occasions it’s lobbying, or, in the case of some archbishops in the past, if you write articles in the Guardian, people might take notice. 

Do public authorities have a good understanding of the needs of practising Anglicans?

Probably not.  I think that part of it is the general assumption is that Anglican is the sort of default, so sticking C of E on your form at the hospital when actually the Church in Wales hasn’t been part of the Church of England for 94 years, it still hasn’t cottoned on.  They don’t take any notice of the needs of practising Anglicans, because so many people are nominally Anglican but don’t actually practise, that when you come across somebody who does actually practise they’re not quite sure what to do. 

Is there any way you can think that that might be addressed?

I don’t know.  In a sense it depends on the institution.  Schools….it’s difficult to know outside a Church in Wales school, they would be much more attuned to their needs.  Hospitals, working with hospital chaplains. 

Is it important to you always to act within secular law?

Traffic offences….. 

Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustice affecting third parties?

Yes, I have done in the past.  For example, leisure provision in my parish where it is a major issue, the LA closing the local leisure centre was a major problem.  It didn’t affect me personally as I can get in the car, but was aware not everyone was in that situation. 

Is the Rule of Law applied equally in GB at present?

I suspect, or at least I hope, that it would be applied pretty much equally.  I know that, it depends on what you mean by the Rule of Law.  The police will get bees in the bonnet about local issues and that manifests at a local level, so there will be people who feel persecuted by the police, not necessarily the people who are being persecuted either. 

How do you feel about the extension of police powers over the past ten years or so?

I am exceedingly concerned.  There’s another series of Bills going through Parliament to give police even more powers.  The snoopers’ charter got thrown out, mainly because one of the government partners jumped up and down about it; otherwise anyone could have access to more or less any data.  You do wonder whether Britain has become much more of a police State since Tony Blair came into power.  So it’s not just the Conservatives or the Coalition, it was actually Tony Blair’s government that introduced so many additional, legal measures which closed down a lot of loopholes and gave the police enormous powers which they do abuse.  They have always abused such powers as they’ve had, but now that they’ve got even more.  When the police ask for more powers the response should be why, rather than when do you want them. 

Are you aware of any legal provisions which have a direct impact on your capacity to live your life in the way that you would choose?

Personally, I can’t think of very many.  I was listening to someone who said that every time he saw a police car he felt guilty, but it’s mainly when I’m in the car that I feel guilty. 

Do you have any comments you would like to add?

Not at the moment.

The Revd Dr Jason Bray is currently Vicar of St Giles Parish Church in Wrexham, and was previously Vicar of Blaenavon in the South Wales Valleys. He served for many years as a training officer for the Diocese of Monmouth, and as a tutor in Biblical Studies at St Michael’s College, Llandaff.