Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

Professor Norman DoeHow would you describe your religious or ideological identity?

Each year I promise myself… at Easter, in Holy Week… to address this sort of question. But I never get around to it. I believe in God – I am a Christian; I receive Holy Communion every Sunday; and I play the organ at a church down the road (which I have been doing for almost forty years). I attend church with my wife – and with our children when they were younger – all in the choir. The church is a very happy community and it’s deeply rewarding to be part of it. All this is very important to me – and, yes, it must shape my identity. My father was an Atheist: a teacher, he encouraged critical curiosity; born in 1911, and brought up in the Rhondda, he was the son of a miner who was an elder in a Calvinistic Methodist chapel. I suspect that their home was quite austere: there was no alcohol, no playing cards, but a lot of music; my father was the youngest of five children and was taken to chapel. My father lived till 5 months short of 100: he was interested in church – he thought it was socially valuable, and he used to attend our concerts, give money, and support events. My position is, I suppose, partly shaped by his critical outlook. My mother is a Christian and it was with her that I first went to church, with my brother. Her father was a comedian; she is very soft-hearted with a solid faith; a real diplomat. She painted a picture of church as a welcoming, hospitable and fun place to be. So it was. I have very happy memories of the characters in church, harvest suppers, and Sunday school – wonderful experiences, and the people endlessly fascinating. But the (Anglican) Church in Wales was somewhat counter-cultural in the Rhondda; the church was the minority… more chapels than churches. So, I have faith in God, I classify myself as a Christian but I don’t reflect much on how it shapes my identity. And I am very aware of my considerable faults: I don’t do enough for others – I’m too selfish. That’s part of my religious identity too.

My denomination? The Church in Wales… it is part of the Anglican Communion. It has a genius for division… but also an almost irresistible draw on me. I wanted to be a priest when I was 10 or so, and I remember my mother made me a clerical outfit! As I said, I have been playing the organ in St Edward’s Church Cardiff for the last 39 years and I love the church; I am infuriated with it; I adore the people; I get angry with the people; my family has been brought up there. Javier was in the same church, in the choir; and music is a massive thing: a medium for spiritual expression… choir is really important. Playing the organ and piano, and singing in church has also shaped my identity: it teaches me my limits; that I am basically an introvert, a loner. I suppose I like solitude – in silence I encounter God… sometimes it is very good, and sometimes it is not so good. This is as near as I can get to answer your question.

Do you think GB is an equal and tolerant society, especially as to religion and belief?

What do you mean by equal? Do you mean the State, society, and/or individuals? Do you mean in intent or in action, or both? Do you mean as a matter of fact? It gets complicated. I would imagine the answer varies as between these, and as between intent and action. The State – yes: there is probably a basic assumption by State organs that people are equal – and so should be treated equally – the intended position. But is that the position in practice? Sometimes the legislators, courts and administrators actually treat people equally, in the distribution of rights and duties; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes there are internal pressures for this – like public opinion – sometimes they’re external, the EU and Strasbourg.

In terms of society, private organisations, including Churches, and citizens: more difficult – I can’t generalise their particular positions – using this distinction between intent and action, assumption and practice – but I would imagine it is pretty much the same as it is with the State: people think people are basically equal, and sometimes they treat them equally in practice, sometimes not. Personally, I think people are equal in dignity. But it is self-evident that people are not equal in the sense of exact sameness. They are different. They may be created in the image of God, but they have different talents, abilities, prejudices, relationships with people. So, if they are equal in dignity, which I accept, they are unequal in thoughts, goodness, badness, actions, and so on. And both this equality and this diversity should be taken into consideration when action is required towards them – and by them.

Is there an equal distribution of rights and duties – in law – in the context of religion? Does the State distribute rights and duties equally? In the courts, are these rights and duties administered equally? That is an absolutely massive question. Well: you have the equality legislation which seeks to distribute equal rights, but at constitutional level, some benefits and burdens are distributed unequally. For example, the established, quasi-established and disestablished Churches – in some areas they are treated the same (e.g. they are all beneficiaries of religious freedom), and in others they are treated differently (e.g. their internal rules have different standing in civil law which impacts on their enforceability). But whether such arrangements create an unacceptable inequality is another matter.

Is the GB tolerant? Yes: to a degree. For the State, and probably for private individuals, when ‘difference’ is useful, people value it; when difference is harmless, it’s respected; when it’s odd, it is tolerated; and when difference is harmful, you set limits on it – likes laws.

Are there any challenges for you to live in accordance with your beliefs? And, if so, are they legal, political or social?

No obvious external challenges – but lots of internal ones, derived from my own character, which frustrate putting my faith into practice – like laziness, self-centredness, impatience.

Has the HRA been a positive development for our society?

On balance, yes – it has been an education. I think we have learnt a huge amount about the nature of religious freedom as a result of those 17 years of experience of the HRA – how to imagine its anatomy, its value, and the limits on its exercise. But I wonder how much the experience has actually changed the practice of the courts. I wonder how many of these elements of religious freedom were actually latent, but not articulated, in the pre-1998 common law position on religious liberty. I suspect they were there. But having the ECHR jurisprudence meant that we never really had to look for them very hard. In terms of equality, it is the EU which has driven change, not the Council of Europe and the ECHR.

So – the HRA-ECHR has enriched the UK understanding of religious freedom; but we need to find out whether its basics were already latent within the Common Law before 1998.

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

Moral duty to vote? Absolutely yes. I think it is an estoppel thing. How can you go and complain if you have not contributed to the process? It is as simple as that… estoppel.

Does it concern you that the House of Lords is not elected?

A second chamber serves a very useful function. For me it does not matter so much how a person is admitted to its membership. What is more important is the quality of those individuals, their competence to hold government to account, to scrutinise draft legislation effectively, and to intervene to uphold the freedoms and responsibilities of the people, and to hold them accountable to the body which appoints them. Provided these are satisfied, for me the process of admission – by direct election or by appointment – is of secondary importance. So, in principle I see nothing wrong with an unelected second chamber, provided that those who make the appointment are elected somewhere down the line.

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

My feelings are that it is odd. But I understand it historically. The question is whether the bishops adequately discharge their functions as members of a second chamber. So, we must look at the evidence. What do they do? Do they contribute? How? Do they have a critical attitude themselves about what their position is? I think the gathering of all that evidence and a solid debate about it is needed, and I can’t see that has happened. But it should.

What do your beliefs teach you about power and accountability?

Power – the facility enjoyed by an institution of democratic government to carry out its work effectively – is essential. Accountability – the obligation to exercise power in a responsible way – is also essential. These are constitutional fundamentals. I suppose when a constitutional system possesses these, it has ‘authority’ – when power is given to these institutions by the people and these institutions exercise it lawfully… that’s the rule of law.

I suppose my beliefs also teach me this. I am sympathetic to the spirit of natural law thinking – that there are universal principles about the right way to live, that these are somehow present in the make-up of humans… whatever the origin of these universals, that there are moral standards applicable to all, and that they can be used to shape and to assess the legitimacy of human actions. I think the Christian faith teaches this – and it is part of my own beliefs. It is possible to apply these ideas in the realm of the State and government action – and to apply them to churches. I also appreciate how contested this approach is.

So my beliefs teach me that… in the State, in the church, in social and family life… power is necessary because power is the freedom to act – and that accountability is necessary – because service to others is also an aspect of the exercise of power – and universal principles about what is right and wrong… difficult though they may be to find… should be used by anyone with power – public or private, institutions and individuals – to ensure that accountability is practised. This approach is obviously not the preserve of only Christians.

Do your beliefs require you to speak out for the vulnerable?

Yes – but I am not very good at it. My duty as a Christian is to honour God, to honour people, to be sympathetic, respectful, cheerful, attentive, caring… but I am pretty poor at it!
Examples? There have been examples where I have spoken out… where I have felt the moral pressure of my own conscience to do so… and the intellectual challenge to do it. My faith I suppose has played a part alongside the fact that I am an academic lawyer. An example of this was the remarriage of divorced people in Church. The position of the Church in Wales in the 1990s was ‘no’ to the re-marriage of divorcees. That was the position of the Bench of Bishops, the position of all the lawyers… and that was a matter of fact and it affected people deeply, including ones I knew. I was asked to contribute to the debate. I did. What I said was unpopular. I said that the blanket prohibition was unlawful and the bishops had no right to convert what is a matter of discretion for ministers to make a decision in conscience into a duty – for me, the position was unlawful. The opinion was eventually adopted and re-marriage in church following divorce is now recognised in the Church in Wales.

Much the same happened with my work on the Anglican Communion Covenant: personally, I was concerned about the possible break-up of the worldwide Anglican Communion. I was asked to be involved in a process designed to maintain communion. I proposed adoption of a covenant to clarify the meaning of communion, the nature of relationships between the churches, the nature and exercise of the autonomy of each church, and how disputes should be resolved to enable the highest degree of communion compatible with autonomy. Again, the proposal proved hugely controversial – around the world – a covenant was drafted, ratified by around ten churches, but the process is currently on hold if not abandoned.
So, yes, my beliefs have stimulated… if not required… me to ‘speak out’ in the sense of using my limited expertise in canon law… in concert with my commitment to the church… to be involved… when invited… in several projects that touch on the vulnerability of people. But whether it has been helpful is for others to judge – I have certainly found it challenging.

Is there anything which you would like to add?

I think your project is an excellent one – all the very best with it.

Norman Doe (LLM Wales, MTh Oxford, PhD Cambridge, DCL Lambeth, LLD Cambridge, Barrister Middle Temple) is the Director of the Centre for Law and Religion, which he set up at Cardiff Law School in 1998, and was also Director of Research at the Law School (2011-2014). He is from the Rhondda and studied law at University College Cardiff, for his doctorate at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and theology at St Michael`s Theological College, Llandaff and Mansfield College Oxford University. He was an honorary member of the senior common room at Magdalen College, Oxford (1996-97), visiting fellow at Pusey House, Oxford (1997), visiting scholar at Bangor Law School (2007-8), visiting fellow at Trinity College Oxford (2011), and visiting research scholar at Corpus Christi College Oxford (2015). In 1991,heI set up the LLM in Canon Law at Cardiff Law School and I serve as the director of this programme, in 2002 I set up the LLB module Law and Religion, and in 2016, he had the honour of receiving a copy of: F. Cranmer, Mark Hill, Celia Kenny and Russell Sandberg (eds), The Confluence of Law and Religion: Interedisciplinary Reflections on the Work of Norman Doe (Cambridge University Press, 2016). He also teaches public law.