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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I believe—I am out of my depth for, as the House knows, I am not a believer in any of the Abrahamic faiths—that the position is that the Old and New Testaments are covered, as the Old Testament is plainly regarded as part of the Christian Church's faith, but it is the Anglican Church. The Irish Supreme Court pointed out that but for the Church of England, there would be no such crime in this country. There is no Church of England in Ireland, therefore they said it was not enforceable in Ireland.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I am happy to accept that further summary of the position from the noble Lord. I was going to say that I had hoped today for a roar of welcome from the Benches of the right reverend Prelates, because they are so near to saying "Yes". The right reverend Prelate indicates that he gave a roar of welcome in principle, for which I am glad, but he too relied on the principle of unripe time to say that we should do it not today but at some future occasion.

The Church of England should be anxious to get rid of this privileged position. As a secular humanist, I generally support the position of the Church of England. To abolish blasphemy is not to take a step down the road to disestablishment. I would resist disestablishment strongly—I do not say this as a joke; not being an adherent, I may get things wrong, and I apologise if I do—because the Church of England is not a Church that attempts to seize more and more
 
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temporal power. There are Churches of that kind, which tend to disapprove and enforce their disapproval of what goes on in the bedroom, tend to tell you that you have got to believe in myths that seem to evolve, decade on decade, with bodily ascensions and all sorts of other stories, and are very fierce with you—at least in theory—if you do not believe in and do not do what they say in the privacy of your life.

The Church of England has developed, like the rest of law and practice, into a very modern position. It has freed itself from the wish to impose controls of that kind, and it has come very close, even within itself, to accepting the equality of women, which is one of the most important developments of our time. I am very happy that it brings to such problems a broad and liberal mind. It has a bit of a way to go, and I shall judge it as having achieved its final or near-final step on that road when it demands from the BBC that "Thought for the Day" on Radio 4, to which I am sure all your Lordships listen avidly every morning, includes regular contributions from such noted thinkers as Professor Richard Dawkins and Dr Jonathan Miller, whose programme on disbelief I am sure that your Lordships enjoyed last night.

The general position of the Church of England is consistent with and promotes a discussion about freedom of expression. It is my hope that your Lordships will express a view—if invited to do so tonight—and that we shall be with the Bishops when they come to vote in the Contents Lobby, as I believe that the vast majority of this House and the other House would, if given the opportunity. Let us give them the opportunity and settle the matter, which we all know should be settled now.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I oppose the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and supported by the noble Lords, Lord Lester of Herne Hill and Lord Plant, which would abolish the common law offence of blasphemy and other offences that recognise the particular place that the Christian religion has in our constitution and history.

The legal notion of blasphemy dates back many centuries, as has been pointed out. It is part of a Christian heritage that formed our constitution, and I am of the view that it cannot be considered in isolation from our entire constitutional settlement. The Christian heritage of this country goes back much more than 1,000 years, and its legacy is still very much present in our national life. I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, who said that it would not harm any of it to do away with the blasphemy law. If we chip and chip and chip away, in the end what will we have?

The head of state is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. The coronation oath is sworn by the new monarch and is profoundly Christian. The Church of England and the Church of Scotland are by law established. Both Houses of Parliament start their proceedings with daily prayer.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, as an Anglican, I worship in a disestablished Church—the Church of
 
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Wales. One must understand that there are parts of the United Kingdom where the Church is not the established Church.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I am very aware of that fact and thank my noble friend for bringing it to my attention.

There are things that are required by the law of our country, such as Christian teaching and assemblies at schools. Remembrance Day services are an essential part of public life. When national disasters happen, they are always marked by a Church service, as we saw recently. In the United Kingdom, our culture, laws, democratic institutions, architecture, literature, art and science have all been profoundly influenced by Christianity and cannot be understood without reference to it, no more than any of us could understand Chinese art or any of the buildings that you see in Thailand without reference to Buddhism or the Chinese religions. The Christian faith has played a major part in the many great social reforms of our history, such as the creation of schools and hospitals, the abolition of slavery, the improvement of working conditions and the protection of children.

Along with the coronation oath, the blasphemy laws are an important expression of principle: that the name of Jesus Christ is above any other name. As the Bible records, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. Moreover, the blasphemy laws today are essentially a defensive measure. No one will be put in prison for breaking them, unlike the religious hatred offence proposed in the Bill.

It is the symbolic nature of the blasphemy laws that secularists object to. If that were not so, they would not show such interest in repealing the law on blasphemy, given that it is rarely used in practice. I sometimes fear that the campaign to remove the blasphemy laws is part of a wider agenda to remove all association between the state and Christianity and any reference to the only true God in public life.

It is sometimes wrongly claimed that a law on blasphemy is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. In fact, several unsuccessful challenges to blasphemy law have come before the European Court of Human Rights in recent years. In the 1996 case of Wingrove v United Kingdom, the court held that this country's blasphemy laws were compatible with Article 10(2) of the Convention. The court stated:

We are right to have a blasphemy law. There is good evidence that many ordinary people identify with the Christian faith and many Christian moral values. I have said on several occasions in your Lordships' House that the 2001 census found that 72 per cent of the UK population identified themselves as Christian.
 
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Clearly, the state and individuals have embraced secular values and beliefs in many areas, but the UK is not a secular state, and its people are generally theists who believe themselves to be Christians. Even the Guardian newspaper's editorial, following the publication of the census, stated on 28 February 2003:

The truth is that every society that seeks cohesion has laws that enshrine its most fundamental beliefs. Blasphemy law falls into that category and protects our shared values. Any reform or abolition of the blasphemy laws cannot be looked at separately from the constitutional role of Christianity in the state. I oppose the noble Lord's amendment.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, it is extremely rarely that I disagree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, but I shall do so briefly this afternoon. I hope that he will reconsider some of the main strands of his opposition to the amendment so clearly and well moved by my noble friend Lord Avebury.

The right reverend Prelate said that he did not see a connection between religious hatred and blasphemy and that therefore it was inappropriate to make the amendment to the Bill. There is a connection, in that blaspheming is one way of expressing and fomenting hatred. He also said that this was not the time to introduce this reform into the Bill—the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, spoke about that at some length—but I believe that this is the time.

The law of blasphemy, as the right reverend Prelate admitted, is more or less a dead letter. It is nearly 30 years since we last had a prosecution, and when we had one it promoted more confusion than light. As a Low Church ecumenical Anglican, I believe that, if anything, the law is now an encumbrance to the Church, and against the spirit of the age, which is one of extreme liberality of view and expression of view. In a strange way it works against the Church, in that it gives some people the notion that it cannot stand on its own feet and fight its own corner as other faiths and organisations have to do. I see no good argument for keeping it in place except the traditional one. I am a traditionalist: a good tradition knows when to steal away.

For those of us who find the Bill as originally drafted unacceptable in creating an offence of promoting religious hatred, this is a perfect opportunity for the Church to sacrifice this legislative bauble to the greater cause; to find a common position with other faiths, particularly Islam at this time; to claim no special protection; to say that we stand with you, the same under law as you are; and to proceed from there. There are public order laws to prevent the worst infractions of order and decency. Such a gesture would resonate throughout the Church community and among the public at large.
 
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