Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Minutes of Evidence

Letter from Peter Sedgwick, Archbishops' Council of the Church of England, to the Chairman

  Thank you for your letter in which you ask whether the Archbishops' Council, on behalf of the Church of England wishes to change its evidence given to you on 18 June 2002. This was confirmed in your examination of Mr Stephen Slack and Rev Dr Peter Sedgwick on 24 July. I apologise for the delay in replying to your letter.

  The Council remain of the view that it is important that any legal provisions relating to religious hatred and blasphemy should be both enforceable and, where necessary, seen to be enforced. The Law Commission in its 1985 report Offences against Religion and Public Worship argued that any law on this matter should command public confidence. This is, of course, the prerequisite for any legislation, and it draws as well on a tradition of Anglican theology which sees the law as expressing the binding "(of) each to serve the others' good" (Richard Hooker The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity). Law must be both consensual and express the well being of a society.

  It has been clear for some while that the law on blasphemy is unacceptably uncertain. There are also difficulties as regard the mens rea, or intention, required to obtain a conviction. These points were well made by the Law Commission in its 1985 report, and we would not wish to disagree with their analysis of the problems. Bishops have over the years said in the House of Lords that they would be happy to co-operate with the reform of the blasphemy law so long as there was an acceptable alternative; but mere abolition of the law was not acceptable. The opposition of the Church of England to this recommendation of the Law Commission's report has been consistent over the last two decades.

  It is for this reason that the Archbishops' Council gave evidence to your Committee expressing its support for Lord Avebury's proposed legislation on incitement to religious hatred, though as you will note we also asked for greater protection of religious worship than Lord Avebury's bill allowed. We believe that a step by step approach is the best way forward, in which the effective working of a new offence could provide the context in which the current offence of blasphemy could be abolished (para 20 of our submission of 18 June 2002).

  Although, as noted above, the law is regrettably uncertain, we do not share the view that the crime of blasphemy only protects the doctrines of the Church of England and we would accordingly argue that your definition of the offence was too narrow. We understand the offence to be committed when words are spoken or published which contain contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, the Bible or the formularies of the Church of England. We believe that in practice it therefore protects the sensibilities of those who express belief in Christianity (the core credal beliefs of Christianity are, after all, common to all Christian denominations). Nevertheless even with this wider definition we believe that the law should be changed. Paragraphs two to seven or our submission make the case for this response to the changing nature of English society.

  We believe that all Christian denominations are united in their desire to protect the sensibilities of their worshippers religions. There will, however, be perfectly legitimate divergences of Christian interpretation of the best way in which Christian, and other religious faiths should be protected. This may also be influenced by different views of the extent to which the law needs to reflect the position of Christianity as the historic faith of the nation. The submission which we sent continues to represent our own considered view and we note that it received the support of the Catholic Bishops Conference in England and Wales in their letter to you of 23 July 2002. For these reasons we do not wish to change our previous submission to your committee. We look forward to reading your final report.

20 January 2003

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