Judgment ‘raises fundamental questions about church and state’

30 May 2010

Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir -Ali is the former Bishop of Rochester and is now President of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue.

Lord Justice Laws’s judgment on the Gary McFarlane case in the Court of Appeal – that legislation for the protection of views held purely on religious ground cannot be justified – has driven a coach and horses through the ancient association of the Christian faith with the constitutional and legal basis of British society.

Everything from the Coronation Oath onwards suggests that there is an inextricable link between the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the Bible and the institutions, the values and the virtues of British society. If this judgment is allowed to stand, the aggressive secularists will have had their way.

It also raises a number of fundamental questions to which answers need to be provided. Will there be, once again, a religious bar to holding office? We have already had a rash of cases involving magistrates unable to serve on the bench because of their Christian beliefs, registrars losing their jobs because they cannot, in conscience, officiate at civil partnerships, paediatricians unable to serve on adoption panels… Will this trickle gradually become a flood, so that rather than conforming to the Church of England, the new discrimination tests will involve conforming to the secular religion as promoted by Lord Justice Laws?

Laws mentions the case of the civil registrar Lillian Ladele – who objected on religious grounds to “gay marriage” and refused to conduct ceremonies – as a precedent for his judgment, and believes that the issues in this case are identical to the ones in the other. In that judgment, the court treated the Christian faith and its tenets as on a par with mere prejudice or bigotry. It attempted to distinguish belief from practice and to identify what is “core belief ” from Christian moral teaching. This is not a distinction that those who believe in biblical, historic Christianity would recognise.

Such is Lord Justice Laws’s enthusiasm for a secular Britain that he charges on with some even more breathtaking assertions. He claims that religious faith is subjective, irrational and incommunicable. There may be some faiths like that, but the Christian faith is not one of them. It is committed to a proper understanding of how the world is and who we are, but also to what makes for a better world and better people.

On the moral level it provides us with a basis for the “inalienable dignity” that so many declarations on human rights recognise and which is squarely based on the biblical view that we are made in God’s image. Similarly, our understanding of equality is derived from Christian teaching about our common origin, and our idea of liberty from the historical struggle to be free, culminating in the Christian-led struggle for the abolition of slavery. Lord Justice Laws asks for proof – but that is seen in changed lives, a transformed world and a commitment to social justice. Christian rationality is not just about the laboratory or legal histories; has he never heard of minds such as those of St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Newton, Boyle, architects of a civilisation the decline of which his judgment epitomises? As to communicability, the Christian Gospel means “good news”. It is about communicating this news of God’s gracious purposes. How can it be thought incommunicable?

The Laws judgment seems infected with the post-modern contagion of individualism. The religion of the Bible is about the significance and worth of individuals, but it is also about the corporate, whether that is the People of Israel or the Church. It is this sense of the corporate which leads to involvement in society and to making a contribution to public debate, in terms of what makes for the common good, and to personal and social prosperity.

As far as I can tell, Mr McFarlane was seeking to have conscience recognised not only in terms of law but also in the context of good employment practice. Britain has a long and honourable record in recognising conscience, whether in the context of war or of medical professionals who refuse to participate in procedures that may lead to the premature termination of human life. Indeed, there is evidence of magistrates – even judges – being excused duty on similar grounds.

Recent legislation has not been notable for upholding this long tradition of respect for conscience and I fear that we are entering an absolutist era where there is no room for believers. What we need is a balance between a government’s desire (mistaken or justified) to provide rights for one group of people and its duty to provide for the consciences of other groups on whom the granting of such rights might impinge. The most charitable thing to say is that we have not got it quite right yet. But it is not too late, like the Prime Minister, to say sorry and to make amends.

In a situation of fundamental crisis, both financial and political, it is radically mistaken to attempt to remove a nation’s moral and spiritual tradition from under its feet; a tradition that can provide the basis for moral and spiritual renewal and which can serve as the basis for a hospitable and just society.

From Daily Telegraph, 30th April 2010.

Find out more about Gary McFarlane
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