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
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