Tag Archives: United Kingdom

Church of England: UK Ignores Iraq’s Christians

I don’t follow British ecclesiastical politics too closely, but the media in the UK is treating this like a big deal. Over the weekend, the Church of England issued a strongly worded condemnation of the government’s policy of neglect toward Iraq’s Christians. The letter, written by Bishop Nicholas Baines and endorsed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Wellby, makes the same point that commentators in the US, including CLR Forum, have made with respect to American policy: the United States has rushed to help Yazidi refugees, but has done relatively little to alleviate the plight of the much larger number of Christian refugees. According to the Guardian,

Cameron is accused of turning his back on the suffering of Christians. The letter asks why the plight of religious minorities in Iraq, such as the Yazidis, seems to have taken precedence. It notes that, though the government responded promptly to reports of at least 30,000 Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, the fate of tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fleeing jihadists from Mosul, Iraq’s second city, and elsewhere appears to have “fallen from consciousness”.

Baines asks: “Does your government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?” He condemns the failure to offer sanctuary to Iraqi Christians driven from their homes: “The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK government.”

The Guardian describes the letter as “bitter” and “extraordinary.” If you want to read the letter in its entirety, the Guardian‘s article has a link.

Until My Dying Day, Sir

John McGinnis passes along this delightful old recording of an 18th Century ballad about a pliable priest, The Vicar of Bray. Some of you, particularly readers in the UK, may already know the song. It concerns an Anglican clergyman who manages to survive the shifting religious commitments of the Stuart and Hanoverian dynasties by remaining loyal to one, overarching principle: keeping his job.

Under James II, for example, the vicar is a committed Catholic:

When royal James possessed the Crown, and popery came in fashion,
The penal laws I hooted down, and read the Declaration.
The Church of Rome, I found, did fit full well my constitution
And I had been a Jesuit, but for the Revolution.

He switches allegiance after the Glorious Revolution, though, to become a Protestant; then an arch, High Church Tory under Queen Anne; then he switches again under George I:

When George in pudding time came o’er, and moderate men looked big, sir 
My principles I changed once more, and I became a Whig, sir
And thus preferment I procured from our new Faith’s Defender,
And almost every day abjured the Pope and the Pretender.

 And there he plans to stay—for now:

The illustrious House of Hanover and Protestant succession
To these I do allegiance swear – while they can hold possession.
For in my faith and loyalty I never more will falter,
And George my lawful king shall be – until the times do alter.

 No matter what, the refrain declares,

And this is law, that I’ll maintain,
Until my dying day, Sir,
That whatsoever king may reign,
Still I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir.

The vicar of the song was apparently a real person. In a lovely essay, A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray, George Orwell wrote of seeing a yew tree he had planted in a Berkshire churchyard–more of this in a bit. Down the centuries, the vicar has been a byword for opportunism and lack of scruple, especially religious scruple. Perhaps the American Framers knew his song, which illustrates well the corruption of established churches. Not that lack of scruple is unique to clergy in established churches. I’ve heard that even professors can act like careerists on occasion.

Now that time has passed, I wonder if we shouldn’t lighten up on the vicar. Aren’t his tergiversations somewhat forgivable? Sure, you can see him as a hypocrite. But on another view, he’s a charming rogue, a man who uses his wits to navigate what he recognizes to be silly, but quite dangerous, quarrels. After all, who today takes seriously the controversies of the Stuarts? Only historians still get most of the song’s references. Wasn’t the vicar wise to avoid strong positions on matters that ultimately counted for little? One might even see him as an ecumenist, someone willing to compromise on doubtful points to maintain harmony in the church.

It’s a stretch to see the vicar as a sympathetic figure, I know. But, as Orwell pointed out, the vicar did inspire a comic song that still entertains after centuries, and he did plant that tree in the Berkshire churchyard, which gave rest to generations of tired souls. Surely those things count for something. Indeed, Orwell reflected,

It might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground. And, if even one in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.

It’s winter here in New York just now. Come spring, I’m going to start planting trees.

UK Supreme Court: Religion Does Not Require God

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom–since 2009, the highest court in the UK–handed down what looks to be a significant decision on the meaning of “religion” in English law. The decision suggests that, for legal purposes, religion does not require a belief in God.

The case involved a couple who wished to marry in a Scientologist church in London. Under English law, marriages performed in a “place of religious worship” are considered valid. Nonetheless, the couple faced a problem. In 1970, an English court concluded that Scientology is not a religion, because Scientology does not hold a belief in God. So, when the couple sought to have their church certified as a place where marriages might take place, the relevant government official refused: if Scientology is not a religion, a Scientologist church cannot be a “place of religious worship.” The couple then sued.

Last week, the Supreme Court sided with the couple. The 1970 opinion was wrong, the court held. Scientology is indeed a religion. For one thing, Lord Toulson’s opinion explained, Scientology does hold a belief in a supreme deity, albeit an impersonal and abstract deity. Anyway, belief in a deity is not necessary. Religion, Lord Toulson wrote, means:

a spiritual or non-secular belief system, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system…. Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being, but it does involve a belief that there is more to be understood about mankind’s nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the sense or from science.

On this definition–and Lord Toulson made clear he was not announcing a categorical test for all circumstances–Scientology qualifies as a religion. The court ordered the government to certify the couple’s church as a place where valid marriages could take place.

There’s a lot going on in Lord Toulson’s opinion, and I can’t do it justice in a short post. Three observations, though. First, it seems entirely correct to say that “religion” does not necessarily mean a belief in God. Some versions of Buddhism do not hold a belief in a deity, for example, and it would be very odd to have a definition of religion that excluded Buddhism. I don’t know enough about Scientology to know whether it should be considered a religion, but the fact that it is not conventionally theistic shouldn’t be dispositive.

Second, it seems correct that religion must have some supernatural component. Otherwise, religion collapses into philosophy. Of course, we might protect strong secular convictions in addition to religion. In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights protects both religious and secular convictions. But the relevant English law in this case speaks of “religious worship,” not “secular convictions,” and pretty much everybody knows the difference between the two. It doesn’t do any good to pretend a law is vaguer than it is.

Finally, note Lord Toulson’s insistence that religion involves a group of adherents. This is very significant. Religion is inherently communal, and some of the most important benefits the state derives from religion–for example, greater civic participation–depend on religion’s being a group activity. In America, some people have begun to argue for a very individualistic definition of religion, one in which a sole practitioner, following her own inner voice, can qualify as a religion for legal purposes. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court rejected this view, and there are good reasons to do so. I’ll have more to say about all this is a forthcoming paper, to be published next month by the European University Institute. I’ll post more on this subject then. 

The case is R (on the application of Hodkin and another) v. Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Dec. 11, 2013).

Noake & Buxton, “Religion, Society and God: Faith in Contemporary Britain”

Next month, SCM Press will publish Religion, Society and God: Faith in Contemporary Britain by Richard Noake (York St. John University) and Nicholas Buxton (St. John the Baptist Church). The publisher’s description follows.

There is a definite and growing interest and awareness amongst the general public of the competing arguments around faith, God and society. The book is divided into two sections. Section One tackles issues of ultimate concern and the place of God in the modern world, whilst Section Two considers the role of faith in public life. The contributors bring a range of different voices – both religious and secular – to the conversation. Section One: Examining God – Richard Harries discusses the challenge to faith from atheism, whilst Dan Cohn-Sherbok thinks about God from a post-holocaust point of view, Daphne Hampson wonders how God might be reconceived in a post-patriarchal context. David Jasper reflects on the role of the arts in leading us to spiritual reflection, and Mona Siddiqui offers a comparison between Muslim and Christian notions of divine love. Section Two: The role of faith in contemporary society – James Jones argues for ‘kingdom values’ in public life, Catherine Pepinster advocates an incarnational engagement with social concerns, Roger Trigg asserts that the Christian values that have shaped our political assumptions cannot be ignored. Estelle Morris defends the place of faith schools in a secular society, and finally Tony Bayfield highlights the need for a truly ‘public square’ where both religious and secular voices can be heard.

University of Bristol Announces New Religion and Public Policy Website: “Public Spirit”

This summer, the University of Bristol began hosting a new website on religion and public policy in the UK, Public Spirit:

Public Spirit is a forum for researchers, policymakers, politicians and practitioners from the voluntary and community sectors to debate recent developments in faith and public policy that crosses political affiliations and religious traditions. We feature articles and reports from a wide variety of contributors from academia, politics, policymaking and faith-based and community organisations, with the aim of making accessible recent research findings, sharing a range of expertise reflections and analysis and stimulating conversation about religion and public policy.

Welcome to the Blogosphere!

Religious Division and Identity – Richard III and the Rest of Us – Part I

Thanks to Mark Movsesian for inviting me to guest blog here.  I’ll mainly be posting in October, but here’s a down payment inspired by Mark’s entry about the decision to re-inter the recently-discovered remains of King Richard III in Leicester’s Anglican Cathedral rather than give him a Catholic burial.  The Catholic bishop of Nottingham  has approved the plan, and Mark’s post was appropriately relaxed, even tongue-in-cheek, about the whole thing.  But some Catholic commentators are genuinely upset.  They argue that Richard was Catholic, not Anglican, and deserves a Catholic ceremony.  They insist that, for that matter, the Anglican Church didn’t even exist when Richard died.

Fights over long-dead bodies, famous or not, are often both religiously fraught and emotional.  Consider the efforts of American Indian tribes, bolstered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, to reclaim remains that have ended up in museum collections.  But they can also implicate deeper issues about religious identity and continuity — questions that end up involving theology, history, and law.  For example, are prehistoric remains, such as those of Kenwick Man, genuinely the patrimony of modern native tribes?  The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit famously said no.

Back to Richard III, though.  Many Anglicans would deny that Richard III was “Catholic” in the limited contemporary sense of the word that would exclude his membership in the “Church of England.”  The simple reason is that Anglicans claim a direct line back from their Church to the Church to which Richard belonged.  As the COE’s website puts it, “The roots of the Church of England go back to the time of the Roman Empire when Christianity entered the Roman province of Britain. Through the influences of St Alban, St Illtud, St Ninian, St Patrick and, later, St Augustine, St Aidan and St Cuthbert, the Church of England developed, acknowledging the authority of the Pope until the Reformation in the 16th century.”  Thus, Henry VIII might have split the English Church from Rome, but he did not create it anew.  To be sure, Catholics have a different view. But neither position is self-evident by sheer definition.

Continue reading

No Catholic Burial for Richard III

I imagine some of our readers already know this, but here’s a follow up on a story we covered earlier this year. In February, archaeologists confirmed that they had discovered the remains of King Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester. Richard died in battle at Bosworth Field in August 1485; the Tudor victors gave him a rather unceremonious burial in what was then a local abbey. Richard will now be re-interred in Leicester’s Anglican cathedral, most likely next May. Back in February, some Catholics objected that Richard, who was Catholic, should by rights be buried in a Catholic ceremony in a Catholic sanctuary. According to the Law and Religion UK blog, however, the Catholic Church in the UK will not insist. The Catholic Bishop of Nottingham states:

The Bishop is pleased that the body of King Richard III has been found under the site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester, in which it was buried following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and that it will be reinterred with dignity in the city where he has lain for over five hundred years. Richard III was one of the last Catholic monarchs of England and his death was a decisive moment in British history, but the ultimate decision as to what form the interment takes lies with the Government and the Church of England, since he will be buried in Leicester Cathedral. In accordance with long-established ecumenical practice, Bishop Malcolm will be happy to take part in any form of ceremony which takes place to mark his final burial.

A little hard to follow, but the meaning seems to be, as the government has already decided to bury Richard in the Church of England, the government can also decide on the ceremony. So that’s that. The event will surely be less tense than Richard’s coronation. But will they serve strawberries at the reception?

Good-Bye to All That?

A report in last week’s Telegraph suggests that British Christianity is declining more rapidly than previously understood. Initial reports about the 2011 census showed the number of people in England and Wales who describe themselves as Christians had fallen by 10 percent since 2001. But it turns out those figures included Christian immigrants, such as Polish Catholics and African Pentecostals. When one looks only at the native born, the percentage of people who describe themselves as Christians has fallen by an even greater amount–by 15% in the space of one decade. The decline is particularly pronounced among the young. At this rate, the Telegraph predicts, Christianity could become a minority religion in Britain within the next decade.

These numbers have worrisome implications for the future of the Established Church. In a country where only a minority is willing to describe itself as Christian, what would be the basis for maintaining state Christianity? A spokesman for the Church of England admits the census numbers present a challenge, but notes that recent attendance figures have been stable, and that the committed core “of the faithful remains firm.” Maybe so, but state churches, almost by definition, need to draw support from society as a whole, not only the people who attend every Sunday. Perhaps those respondents who said they weren’t Christians nonetheless think the established church serves a useful social function and want it to endure. But maybe not.

UK Supreme Court Decides Important Ministerial Employment Case

Yesterday, the UK’s Supreme Court decided an important ministerial employment case, President of the Methodist Conference v. Preston. In many respects, Preston tracks the US Supreme Court’s recent ministerial exception case, Hosanna-Tabor, though the British case does not refer to Hosanna-Tabor and doesn’t explicitly address church autonomy concerns.

In Preston, a Methodist minister sought relief under UK employment law for unfair dismissal. The question turned on whether Preston was an “employee” for purposes of the law, which, in turn, depended on whether she worked for the church under a “contract of employment.”  By a 4-1 vote, the Supreme Court held that she did not.

In the past, Lord Sumption’s opinion explained, UK cases drew a bright line between clergy, who were understood to hold offices of an essentially spiritual nature, and mere employees. But these rulings depended on “social instincts” that do not obtain in today’s more “secular and regulated context.” Today, the question turns on the precise terms that govern a minister’s employment. In other words, the UK courts must apply what Americans would recognize as a “neutral principles of law” approach. Courts must look at the terms of a minister’s employment in light of the surrounding circumstances to see what the parties reasonably intended.

Here, Lord Sumption wrote, the context made plain that Methodist ministers like Preston are not contractual employees. Preston had no contract with the church; her employment was governed completely by the church’s constitution. Her ordination, conferred by the laying on of hands, was understood to be a lifelong covenant. Her stipend was not seen as consideration for her work, but as a subsidy to allow her to serve the Lord. In short, by its terms, ministry in the Methodist Church was “a vocation, by which candidates submit themselves to the discipline of the church for life.” No special circumstances in Preston’s case altered this conclusion.

In its insistence on looking to the particular circumstances of a plaintiff’s employment, Preston echoes the flexible approach to the definition of minister that one sees in Hosanna-Tabor. Unlike the American court, though, the British court didn’t much address the underlying church autonomy values that ministerial exceptions serve. In large part, this reticence results from the different texts the courts were construing. Preston is a straightforward statutory question without constitutional implications; Hosanna-Tabor, by contrast, depends on an understanding of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment.

(H/t: Law & Religion UK).

Conference: “Rights and Rites: A UK Perspective on Law and Religion,” at Fordham

If you are in the New York City area this coming Tuesday, February 26, you should consider attending this interesting conference sponsored by Fordham Law School’s Institute on Religion, Law, and Lawyer’s Work: “Rights and Rites: a UK Perspective on Law and Religion.”  Here’s Fordham’s description of the conference:

Ms. Archbold will critique the UK legal approach to religion, comparing the US and French constitutional approaches to religion (which are at opposite ends of the spectrum) to the UK approach. Ms. Archbold will ask whether there is a fundamental tension between the anti-discrimination and human rights approaches, while reviewing the landscape of UK and European Court of Human Rights case law, including the veil, religious symbol, school admissions, and religion and sexual orientation discrimination cases. Being from Northern Ireland, Ms. Archbold will offer insight into particular anti-discrimination and positive public duty provisions in Northern Ireland that have been demonstrated to be effective in reducing discrimination on the grounds of religion.

Speakers:

Claire Archbold, Head of Legal Services, Northern Ireland Department of Justice

Moderator:

Professor Michael W. Martin, Fordham Law School Clinical Associate Professor of Law

Register here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 | 12:45-1:45PM