Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

The Most Reverend Professor Rowan WilliamsHow would you describe your religious or ideological identity?

I would say that I am a Christian, a member of the Church of England within the Catholic tradition of the Anglican faith.
I originally grew up as a Presbyterian in Wales and became an Anglican as a teenager, partly because of the teaching and practices of the Church, and the sacraments, and although I have been interested in other traditions such as the Eastern Orthodox, I feel the sacramental life and the basic theological principles of the Church are sufficient for me to guarantee a route to Christian identity, that looks respectfully to tradition, but it is willing to consider new questions.

Do you think that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief?

In legal terms I feel Great Britain is, as far as religion is concerned, pretty equal and tolerant. In social attitudes, we are much less so. Socially, we are not a particularly equal society. In economic terms, there is no question that we are unequal; and because of the fact that religious minorities in this country will often be found in less advantaged social positions, it is hard to say that there is social equality between, let’s say, a young Muslim growing up in Bradford, and a young Christian growing up in Worcestershire.
Tolerance is a value which is underlined very much in education these days, and we are reminded of it all the time. Yet there are still outbreaks of real anxiety. It is not so much that people are regularly intolerant, but from time to time it comes up and there is an explosion of anxiety and hostility (as I discovered when I spoke about Sharia Law a few years ago). And of course the international security situation, the fear of terrorism, plays a role in that. We have also seen in recent years growing hostility and prejudice towards Jews in this country, more Anti-Semitic events than for quite a while past. So, there is tolerance, but…

How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your faith in this country? Are there any challenges and if there are, are they social, legal or political in nature?

I don’t think there is any legal difficulty about living as a Christian in this country, but I think there are quite a few questions where people feel that the assumptions that the law makes are no longer those held by the Church historically. The debate about same sex marriage made people feel the gap, and exposed a divide, between not only Christians but also other religious bodies and the law of the State. I don’t think this is ‘persecution’ by the State, I don’t think it is harassment. I think some of what has been said about pressures on Christians and others to conform is not entirely a fair assessment of where we are. Undoubtedly, there are Christians who feel they are under pressure, and although I don’t think it is as widely felt as some people imagine, there is this vague awareness of having drifted away from the cultural mainstream.

How does your religion contribute to human rights? Has it contributed to or influenced the world’s understanding of them?

I think it is extremely important that on the one hand, people who talk about human rights should recognise that a lot of the roots of that discourse are in religious thinking, and on the other hand that religious people should remember that human rights are not a secular invention that have been imposed on the world by anti-religious people. I have said it on several occasions throughout the last few years, but I feel some concerns about the way these two worlds are drifting apart from each other – partly because a lot of human rights advocates are (rightly) concerned about women’s issues, the legal security of gay and lesbian people, about reproductive rights and so on, and there are religious communities who think ‘well, if that’s human rights, we don’t want anything to do with it’. I think this is a really dangerous mistake. If you look back, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was itself heavily influenced by Christian Philosophy in the last century by Christian political philosophers such as Jacques Maritain, in France, and further back, at the very beginning of human rights discourse in the Middle Ages. So, I think we can certainly say there has been an input, particularly in the issue of human dignity.

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

For any contemporary society, universal human rights are crucial. Every citizen needs to be assured that they have the same level of redress, the same level of justice, guaranteed: a system which says everyone has redress before the law, an appeal before the law, for their well-being and protection.

Are there any ways in which your group has a practical influence on human rights in contemporary Britain? E.g. does it actively campaign on any issues which you can think of?

I am, right at the moment, looking at the work which my successor is doing with the Pope and other religious leaders on human trafficking, a new form of slavery. That’s certainly been quite a focus in recent years. There has been a strong emphasis in many church related bodies on the rights of children. The extremely important work which the Children’s Society (a body with strong church links) did a few years ago on the idea of ‘A Good Childhood’ was about the fundamental rights of the child. Many Christians have been involved in debates about penal reform, the rights of prisoners, refugees and detainees. So, I think in all those areas there has been quite an active involvement in recent years.

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

Generally speaking, human rights are respected by public authorities in the United Kingdom. From time to time there is anxiety; people look at the European Court, they look at the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and feel there is a danger of its all becoming a straitjacket or a box-ticking exercise. I think again a lot of this is very much exaggerated, and it is in the interests of some in the media to present sensational stories. Recently, of course, we have had a couple of controversies about the human rights of prisoners or terrorists, and people wonder what rights they have. But of course, that is the thing about human rights… you don’t forfeit them, you continue to have some basic expectations that your security will be guaranteed even if you are a prisoner, even if you are a terrorist prisoner, and the law, on the whole, sticks to its guns on that.

Do you think that the State intervenes too much or not enough in the lives of individuals and groups: a) in general; and b) specifically in relation to freedom of religion and belief?

I think in this country there is a fairly deep-rooted recognition that religious communities are able to do their own business. They are not constrained. But the expectation is also that, if a religious community is in partnership with a statutory body, it abides by what the law lays down. For instance, in a shared enterprise like a school, you would expect the State to be making statutory demands, of course. I don’t think that there is too much to worry about it. There are, however, one or two situations where it is harder, as in the debate a few years ago about Catholic adoption agencies which didn’t want to place children with same sex couples; I think the State could have found slightly better accommodation than it did, but that was a very difficult instance. So, I think the State is generally fairly respectful. There isn’t in this country a tradition of anti-clericalism as such, as you may have on the continent; neither there is a tradition as in the USA of strict legal separation between religious and secular systems. So, we have something of a legacy in the UK of public respect between Church and State, or religion and the State.

When should the State interfere with people expressing their religious or ideological convictions through actions or lifestyle choices?

I don’t think the State is ever in a position to adjudicate on life style choices as such. But clearly, there may be actions where a protest rooted in religious convictions is damaging or threatening to others. I think if we had have in this country what you find in the USA – people patrolling outside abortion clinics, with signs saying ‘murderers should be killed’ – the State would be within its right to say that this shouldn’t happen. Likewise, if you had evidence that some religions were systematically denying their members access to the law, to get protection or redress for problems or mistreatment. You cannot forbid that access. You cannot block it and that access must be clear.

Do you think that living in a parliamentary democratic society makes it easier or harder for you to live in accordance with your faith? Is there any other form of government which you would consider preferable to a democracy?

I don’t think there is a preferable form of government to democracy. I think I go along with those who say democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others! The risk is if we always understand democracy just as the will of the majority; and for me a liberal democracy is one which always embodies the rights of minorities, even if there is a majority vote on something. Democracy is always respectful of dissent. That is the real mark of a liberal democracy – and on the whole I believe we have it here. So I don’t think it makes it more difficult to be religious.

Is it a good or a bad thing that the democratically elected body (Parliament) has the final say in making and changing British law? E.g. should judges have the power to strike down legislation and if so, on what basis?

I have my questions about our assumptions on sovereignty. I am thinking of parliamentary sovereignty, where our attitudes can be over-positivistic: an insistence that we are ‘not subject to foreign courts’, ‘no foreign authorities should intervene’, and so on. I wish we were a bit more flexible and realistic on that. Where we are dealing with international crises and problems, I don’t think we have much choice about collaborating in some ways with some foreign jurisdictions.

Should the judiciary have the power to strike down legislation? I don’t know, to be honest. I would have to think that through. I have said that I am worried about an over-robust doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, the plain view that the law is what Parliament says rather than what the courts say; but it is interesting to recall that historically Parliament was described as a ‘High Court’. In other words, it was itself a judicial body. Maybe we haven’t entirely caught up with what it means exactly to separate the judiciary from the House of Lords, but that is another question.

Do you think that an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority of the people is problematic for minority groups? Do you think that parliamentary democracy is inclusive of all groups and citizens in society, or is it more difficult for some people to participate?

There are barriers to participation that are social and educational, and there are attitudes of both apathy and suspicion. Turnouts at elections continue to drop. People don’t have much confidence in the process. They feel the parliamentary process is very remote from them, and they increasingly don’t want to get involved. This is something which you hear in public, not just in the bar, in the pub. You hear it everywhere. Russell Brand is a well-known public example. So I am a bit concerned that there is a deficit in the sense of ownership of the parliamentary process; and the party system seems at the moment rather stuck. I don’t think it is working very well. So this is not the healthiest of times for our system.

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

I don’t think the answer to the problems of the House of Lords is popular election. I think that would simply reproduce the problems and alienation felt in the House of Commons. What we need for the House of Lords is a really good democratically accountable Appointments Commission, which would be answerable to the Commons, answerable in some sense to the electorate, but not based on popular elections, because I think for the House of Lords to work you need to have people with relative expertise in lots of fields. We have the scientists, the lawyers, the academics, many of whom wouldn’t bother to stand for popular election. You need a Commission to identify people, I think.

Do you agree with the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?

I would support the presence of some bishops in the House of Lords because they are part of this representation of civil society that I’ve just been speaking about. When the last round of reforms was discussed, the Church accepted the idea of reducing the bishops to 16 – though this would have created a few practical problems for us because very few can be there any one time. Representatives of other faiths? As a matter of fact, you have a good number of people, one way or another representing other groups, people like Inderjit Singh, one of the most senior Sikhs in the country, influential Muslims, the former Chief Rabbi, etc. The issue with Roman Catholics is that senior Roman Catholic clerics cannot, by Canon Law, be members of a legislature, so that is a difficulty. In principle, I don’t see a problem with representatives of other faiths. The problem in practice would be how to identify these people. You may need a subdivision of the Commission to deal specifically with religious communities. I don’t think that should be impossible.

Furthermore, I think there is real truth in the idea that the Church of England can sometimes be at the service of voicing the concerns both of other religions and of the voiceless of our society. Certainly, when I was Archbishop, other religious communities would treat me and my colleagues as people who could who speak on their behalf. We would be lobbying together on many occasions. There is also a factor that I pointed out in discussion a while ago: some parts of the country would be underrepresented in the Lords if the bishops were not there. You wouldn’t have many peers coming from Cambria or Cornwall. Quite often, it happens that the bishop of Truro or Carlisle would be the one speaking on behalf of the people of their regions and in one instance, I remember vividly a parliamentary debate affecting the city of Manchester ( a regulatory proposal about super-casinos), and at that point a number of bishops got up to speak for the communities they knew in the city of Manchester and successfully resisted a proposal that they thought would be damaging for those communities. So it can happen.

In your view, do public authorities try to respect the democratic voice of citizens as expressed through decisions made by Parliament expressed through legislation?

I can’t think offhand of public bodies ignoring legislation. I think there is a general assumption of compliance. There is a great deal of feeling in the last 10 years that we are over-regulated, that Parliament acts more and more by regulation and that this is not always very helpful. One interesting recent example has been the Lobbying Bill. As a chair of several charities, I had a strong interest in this. The outworking of it has certainly created difficulties about what counts as ‘political’ advocacy, how far charities can go in challenging government, and it has laid extra administrative burdens on quite small bodies stretching their resources. We in Christian Aid, the largest charity I am involved with, have been thinking recently whether we need to register in order to get exemptions from certain bits of the legislation.

What does your faith teach you about people with power? Should they be held accountable by human beings, or is that primarily a matter for God? Does this religious understanding have anything to teach wider society?

There has always been a bit of bad conscience about power in the Christian tradition, partly because Christ doesn’t seem to be particularly impressed by political power; but at the same time, Christians have over the centuries queued up to exercise it. There have been various ways to resolve it, from what I call the Tolstoyan view, in which we don’t have anything to do with political power, to the Lutheran understanding that politics has its own rules and religion has its own rules, so that when you are in the political realm, you just do what the political situation demands, and ask for forgiveness afterwards, so to speak. That seems a bit counterintuitive, because I think the Church is always pressing political power to exercise itself for the good of the whole community. So I see it as an ongoing conversation between church and state power for the good of the weakest in society. The Church will say ‘we will hold any and every kind of political power accountable.’ Where power has been exercised to defend a position against some members of the community and to entrench privilege, we shall question it. I don’t think Christian theologians should just be saying ‘all this power is a very bad thing’; but they should be spelling out what exercising power badly looks like, and examining it case by case.

Do you think that Christians are appropriately and proportionally represented in public life?

My guess is that Christians are statistically over-represented in quite a few public bodies, and definitely in the voluntary sector – just as they are under-represented in the media, especially in broadcast media. I think there is some tradition of assuming that public service is part of what Christians would regard, reasonably, as their calling, and they see it as an expression of spiritual creativity. It is a call for human beings to make a difference in their environment – and one of the ways we can do that is through politics. Certainly, many as well as myself would say that for the average Christian, thinking of a political career is a completely appropriate thing to do.

Do you think that there is enough distance in Great Britain between the people who make law/policy and the people who deliver and interpret the law? Do you think that the judiciary are sufficiently independent, or are judges too closely linked with politicians?
I think there is enough distance between politicians and the judiciary. The reforms of the last few years have made that distinction a bit clearer. As I said earlier, historically the assumption was that the House of Lord was the highest court, and this is no longer the case. I think that the creation of the Supreme Court, with its own building and conventions, has been a good development.

How do you think that the exercise of power by Parliament and the Government should be regulated, and what checks and balances you would like to see?

There are no particular changes in terms of the relationship between Parliament and the Government that I am particularly keen on seeing; but, as I said earlier, I would share the view that a Government can get obsessed with legislation and end up legislating in order to be seen to be doing something. I am not quite sure where you get the balance in that. If you have got a secure majority and a strong ideological programme, and a lot of populist support, it is not too difficult to get rushed legislation through. And this is clearly not the best way to do it, because it may have been drafted hastily. The Lobbying Bill (sorry for going back to that) is a piece of legislation which rightly identified certain problems, but then tried to solve many other problems (real and imagined) elsewhere, with limited information, so that in the end it created many more problems than it solved. How to get the right balance? I don’t really know. It is not a straightforward answer.

How does your group help to challenge decisions which you perceive as problematic, either for your members or for society as a whole?

The main vehicle has to be the bishops in the Lords (to challenge problematic decisions either for itself or for society as a whole). This can be illustrated by the bishops’ resistance in the area of welfare reform last year, where two or three of the bishops saw through quite a lot of the opposition. There will be a degree of back-channel work between Church House and Parliament, and normally the Secretary General of the Church of England will have access to civil servants and will discuss in detail if there is some complex legislation coming up. That is the way it happens, apart, of course, from what everybody does and can do in terms of public lobbying.

Do you think that a) public authorities (e.g. local councils and NHS bodies); b) courts; and c) Parliament understand the needs of your group? Is the understanding of any of these bodies better or worse than others? Why do you believe this is the case?

I think the understanding of public bodies about the needs and beliefs of Anglicans (and other religious groups) is very uneven indeed. I think that specially in local government you are often dealing with people who have a pretty thin picture of what religious affiliation is or what religious doctrine is. To some extent this is also true in the Commons, but I think it happens more often in local government. The EHRC is currently running a Working Party on Religious Literacy, which I chair, a project which we hope it will come to fruition next year with a report; we have had consultations on education, the law, the media and so on just to get some sense how we gauge religious literacy. Going back to a previous point, because of the feeling that the equality and human rights discourse has lost connection with religious conviction, there needs to be more conversations about that, and more recognition that for any type of legislation and administration to work fairly and intelligently, you need a reasonable and intelligent programme to raise the level of awareness about religion.

I think the judiciary do pretty well in terms of awareness of the needs of the Christian community. There was a notorious episode a couple of years ago… Lord Justice Laws, who is an Anglican himself, said in court that the court is not here to uphold Christian doctrine, and there was a certain amount of outrage; but I think he was simply articulating the fact that the role of a court is the interpretation of the law, not primarily the interpretation or the enforcement of religious points of view. Some people thought this meant that the law is now Godless. Personally I think this is an absurd reaction, but this is one part of the present spectrum. I don’t feel that there is the level of disconnection in the courts that you find in local government, and sometimes in employment tribunals and the like.

Is it important for you personally always to act within secular law? What circumstances, if any, justify breaking human law?

Broadly speaking, I would say it is important to act within the law, and if you do act contrary to the law, you should be liable to punishment. There are occasions in which people’s conscience makes them say ‘I can’t uphold this, I’ll take the consequences’. There are occasions in which people do things on the edge of illegality – well, it is a matter of public record that once I was arrested for saying public prayers on an airfield, as part of an anti-nuclear protest. I was never brought to court because I don’t think anyone was quite sure of what precise illegality I had committed. There are people who withhold their taxes in order to show their opposition to military actions and things like that. I respect that, but I also feel that withholding taxes is potentially very complicated, because if you give people the right to opt out on one issue, just how many issues can you include? I am wary – but I can see there are circumstances in which people understandably feel they have to act like that.

It is rooted in the (often misunderstood) Anglican doctrine of ‘passive obedience’. Active obedience means cooperating freely with what the Government does. Passive obedience is saying ‘well, I’ll do what I am told to a point, but if I can’t, ok, I’ll go to jail’.

Does the Church of England currently campaign for changes to the law, and if so, why and how?

I don’t think the Church of England is now campaigning for any particular legal change.

Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties, particularly the weak and the vulnerable?

My understanding of Christianity is very much to speak on behalf of the weak and the vulnerable. Back to what we discussed earlier, on the presence of bishops in the House of Lords. It is a very important platform for national and international issues; and in addition to the domestic examples I quoted, there have also been bishops like the late bishop of Winchester who made a point of speaking regularly and informatively about the Democratic Republic of Congo on which he had made himself something of a specialist.

Do you think that the rule of law is applied equally to everybody in British society? Do some groups experience either preferential or prejudicial treatment?

This is a hard question to answer. I think that from time to time people become aware of major flaws and malpractice, such as financial malpractice, which seem not to be regarded with the same abhorrence as breaking windows or stealing a video. There is a general issue about equality between the rich and the poor, and a general issue also about the number of people in prisons with mental health problems. You can reasonably say that if you have severe mental problems the law is not going to be your friend.

Should the same rules which apply to private citizens, apply equally to public authorities including the police? Should they be allowed to suspend certain rules under specific circumstances? If so, when?

I think it is very dangerous indeed to spell out circumstances where the rule of law can be suspended.

Is there anything else which you would like to tell us about your views on freedom and belief in contemporary Britain?

Perhaps just a brief comment… We probably need more and more intelligent conversation about the role of International Law. It is not directly what we are talking about today, but it was related to it. More and more people are becoming uneasy… there is this understanding of ‘sovereignty’ as something which should not be interfered with – but precisely because of the more than local issues like the environment, terrorism, and so on, effective action about these matters needs an effective international response, which means some qualification of the principle of absolute national sovereignty. I don’t think we have much clear consideration of this at the moment – as nobody is going to win an election on this.

Rowan Williams is currently Master of Magdalene College Cambridge, having retired from his role of Archbishop of Canterbury. Prior to this he was Bishop of Monmouth and Archbishop is his native Wales. Archbishop Rowan is one of the best known theologians of his generation, as well as an acclaimed author, poet and speaker.