Moving the Goalposts
Antony Bell defends the current law on blasphemy
A New Definition
In 1977 the late Mary Whitehouse brought a civil action against a homosexual magazine Gay News for a blasphemous libel; Judge King-Hamilton defined blasphemy in the course of this trial in words which have never subsequently been criticized, as follows: ‘any writing concerning God or Christ or the Christian religion, the Bible, or some sacred subject in words which are so scurrilous or abusive or offensive that if they are published would tend to vilify the Christian religion and lead to a breach of the peace.’ Last year the government formed a select committee of the House of Lords to examine and report on the law relating to Religious Offences. Christians who have sought to give evidence before this Committee have been surprised to discover that its members have adopted a new definition of blasphemy, which differs substantially from the true legal definition. They were even more surprised to find that the academic lawyer who put forward this definition excluded any reference to God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible, and made blasphemy an offence only if it outrages the Church of England.
It appears that this lawyer, Dr David Feldman, has no experience which qualifies him to introduce a fresh insight on blasphemy. His opinion on a criminal matter is worth little more than anyone else's. So what does the Committee have in mind?
The Common Law of England is an inconvenient obstacle to the judiciary in seeking to establish the basis of human rights adopted by the European courts as the norm in criminal justice. Why should it prove an obstacle? Because the Common Law of England has its roots in the Christian religion and the Bible. Why then, the argument runs, should a society now comprised of many ethnic and religious minorities whose religion is not Christian be bound by laws which stem from Christian doctrine? Yet members of the Select Committee who are not Christian are happy with the law of blasphemy as it stands. What then are its benefits?
1) The blasphemy law protects the constitution. The Christian faith is woven deeply into the fabric of the constitutional tapestry. The Bible is presented in every courtroom of the land. Should Parliament abolish the law against blasphemy it will be stating that God in Jesus Christ and the Christian faith have no place any longer in the constitution.
2) It maintains the blessing of God. We know how far the law of the United Kingdom has departed from the just laws of God for a peaceful and godly society. Are we as a nation prepared to say, ‘we do not care about God or his blessing’?
3) The law is a protection for Public Order.
4) It acts as an umbrella. The current law is drawn in the context of the holiness of God in Christ and the Christian Faith. It presumes that it is good for man to have a religion, and that Christianity is the religion of the land. Nevertheless the existence of the law acts to protect all faiths from scurrilous attacks. At the same time it does not inhibit passionate and honest argument or proselytization.
5) The blasphemy law protects what is left of our culture. It holds at bay some of the nastier elements of broadcasting. It is the last wall of resistance to the rising tide of evil on screen and in print.
6) It maintains a sense of the sacred. The sense that there is something to call holy is a vital part of the social psyche. It almost stands as a beacon of light holding back the darkness of a materialist and irreligious night.
So we are bound to ask wherein lies the motive of the Select Committee and by implication the Government which has set it up.
Role of the CofE
There are influential elements within the government and the judiciary who are vehemently hostile to the Christian religion. The Church of England is the public institution which stands behind the Christian constitution of our country. Yet the majority of convinced Christians in the United Kingdom today are not to be found in the Church of England.
They are members of other Christian bodies, but they rely upon the constitution to sustain their religious freedom. There are those who believe that if they can attach the law of blasphemy to the Church of England alone, then it can be presented as a sectarian law, and the way is clear to replace it with a law against religious hatred. It would open the way to the rejection of the universal claims of the Christian faith embodied in the doctrine of the Incarnation, and reduce its status to that of one faith among many, and its proclamation restricted to its sacred buildings and private meetings. It reveals a desire to privatize religious belief. Those who would suffer most from such a change would be those bodies which employ public preaching and open air evangelism: the Salvation Army, the Church Army, evangelists such as Billy Graham, and any preacher who carries his message into the market place and the high street.
The freedom to evangelize
The Church of England clergy, although many do resort to the open air from time to time, are not reliant on such freedom in the way that the bodies I have mentioned are. The Christian faith undergoes frequent vilification from atheists, free-thinkers, homosexual groups and others, but the freedom to evangelize remains protected. How long would that freedom remain under a law of religious hatred which has removed it from the heart of the life of the nation? Those of other faiths value the tolerance which the Christian constitution of our country embodies and they accept it as the umbrella under which they may practise their own religion without fear. The concept of religious hatred has no place within the law of a tolerant and peace loving society.
Antony Bell is a retired priest in the Diocese of Bath and Wells
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