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Andrew Symes: Curtailing religious freedom is the beginning of the end of all freedoms

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As Britons we can be justifiably proud of Magna Carta, remembered with great ceremony this last week, and how its key principles underpin our modern understanding of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, not just in Britain but around the world.

But with pride must also come caution, and continual re-evaluation of where we stand in relation to Magna Carta’s principles. These have been a great success in checking the power of the state. They are also based on acceptance of Christian ideas, in particular the existence of an ultimate higher authority, God himself, rather than a supposed “neutral” secularism, as the arbiter of what is good rather than bad, unfair and oppressive law.

Religious liberty and democracy in this country have always been inseparable from the State’s acknowledgement of God’s rule. This has been recognized throughout our history by King Alfred, by Archbishop Langton and at least some of the barons of 1215, by those who opposed the totalitarian instincts of the Stuart kings, by the drafters of the 1689 Bill of Rights, and the slavery abolitionists.

A new book on Magna Carta which explores the contemporary relevance of the Christian values behind the document was launched at a meeting on June 15th in a committee room of the House of Lords.

One of the authors, Roger Trigg, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, addressed the meeting to restate the main point of his chapter in the book, that Magna Carta begins with the statement that “the English church shall be free, and have her whole rights and liberties inviolable”.

Why is this important, and on the wider issue, why is religious freedom important?

Professor Trigg argues that far from being “as of mere antique curiosity”, this first clause of Magna Carta “constitutes a first attempt to codify a principle that must lie at the root of all freedom”.

He goes on to explain that this is for two reasons. Firstly, the church is a primary example of independent civil society, which though ideally pro-nation, acts as a buffer between the individual and the power of the state, and is where local democracy and freedom of belief and association is first exercised. State totalitarianism and/or corruption, i.e. lack of accountability, begins with the curtailment of the independence of civil society.

Secondly, according to Professor Trigg, freedom of religion is vital for individual liberty. “Citizens cannot be truly free if they are not able to live according to their beliefs […] if we do not have access to different forms of teaching about what is good and right. When the state alone decides, even if it is according to the will of the majority, freedom is at risk”.

Contradicting the secularists, Trigg argues that simply allowing people freedom to worship is not religious freedom at all; one must be able to manifest and articulate one’s faith in public. Today however we are seeing this right curtailed in circumstances when expression of faith is seen as harming the rights of other competing faiths, ideologies and lifestyles.

A contemporary example ironically or providentially, appeared on the BBC News on the same day as the Magna Carta celebrations.

Rev Jeremy Pemberton is taking the Church of England to an employment tribunal because last year the acting Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham would not issue him with a licence to officiate and as a result he was not eligible for employment as a hospital chaplain. The reason for the Bishop’s refusal was Mr Pemberton having contracted a civil marriage with his same sex partner in violation of the guidelines issued by the House of Bishops on February 15th 2014.

To their credit, the Church of England are fighting the case, saying that this clergyman has clearly breached the internal rules of the organization which the C of E has a right to make and enforce on these matters because of the ‘locks’ that were promised during the passage of the same sex marriage legislation, but also because of Magna Carta – “the English church shall be free”.

However, the implications for the Church of England losing this case are immense. It would be a denial of that first principal of Magna Carta. It would mean that the courts and the state (ultimately controlled as states always have been by a small group of unelected lobbyists) can have authority over the church in matters of doctrine, ethics and appointments. It would be the end of religious freedom and so according to Professor Trigg, by interfering in independent civil society and violating the consciences of individuals it would mean the beginning of the end of all freedoms.

What about the argument that ‘the law is the law’? This was famously articulated by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and is outlined and refuted by Michael Nazir Ali in the same volume on Magna Carta.

If ‘the law is the law’ backed by a state that assigns to itself ultimate authority, then freedom has gone.

An independent Church which is free to teach and remind society about God, and a commitment of civil society to non-violence and mutual respect and tolerance ensures that the state is assisted in its tasks and is accountable. Bad laws can be repealed and justice and individual liberty can flourish.

A longer version of this article can be found here.

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Andrew Symes
Andrew is a vicar and theological educator. He is also the Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream.

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