Freedoms We Risk Losing

A Westminster lecture

Text The West
The prophet exposes the King’s idolatry: “Daniel and Cyrus before the Idol Bel” (1633) by Rembrandt shows the emergence of religious toleration

Let us begin with the Cylinder of Cyrus in the British Museum. It is the Proclamation of Freedom by Cyrus the Great (Kourosh-i-Kabir as he is called by the Iranian people today) when the Persian Empire reached its zenith. The emperor is mentioned in the Bible as one of God’s anointed who was to bring liberation to the people of Israel, who were at that time in bondage.

The Cylinder of Cyrus was loaned to the National Museum in Tehran for the last year or so (so that it was back home, if you like). At the time, I was engaged in a kind of dialogue with the Iranian authorities and I thought that I would begin my part of the dialogue by saying something about the Cylinder. I said how wonderful it was, this tradition of freedom and tolerance in Iran that goes back to Cyrus the Great. After I had finished, the man who was chairing the meeting on the other side looked at me and said, “Bishop, we are not interested in the past. We are only interested in the future.” Well, can it be right for a nation to forget its heritage? Britain is busily forgetting its heritage and needs to be reminded, but what about Iran and Cyrus? 

As I go around the world, in even the most unpromising places, I find a heritage of freedom and toleration. A couple of centuries after Cyrus, we have the Indian king Ashoka, who, after a very bloody reign, became a Buddhist and then proclaimed freedom for people in his empire. He erected a number of pillars proclaiming peace and freedom which we can still see. Today many people who are Buddhists profess peace and reconciliation for themselves, but there are many countries where Buddhism is the official religion and where there is a great deal of conflict — Sri Lanka, for example, or Burma, where both Christians and Muslims find themselves oppressed communities. If people are going to learn from Cyrus, why not from Ashoka?

Then there is Constantine the Great’s Edict of Milan (which wasn’t an edict and wasn’t from Milan, but let that go for the time being). The interesting thing about the Edict of Milan, as far as Christians are concerned, is that we often think it was about freedom for Christians, at last, who had been persecuted by the Roman Empire for so many years. It was certainly that, but it was also a proclamation of freedom of belief for everyone. Constantine wasn’t just saying Christians are free now; he was saying everyone is free to practise their beliefs, and I think in that sense the Edict of Milan is very significant. 

Coming back to Persia, the true parallel to Milan is the Emperor Yazdigard’s Edict, which brought about freedom and toleration for Christians and indeed for other communities in the Persian Empire. This notion of Millets (tolerated communities) became important for their later status in the world of Islam. 

Then there is what is known as the Constitution of Medina. When the Prophet of Islam arrived in Medina there were strong communities of Jews and Christians there and he promulgated the Constitution of Medina (Sahifat Al-Medina), in which he recognised the equality of Jews, Christians and others with the Muslims in the new city state. The Constitution of Medina marks the first Islamic state, and when people say to me, as indeed they do quite often in my travels, that they want an Islamic state in this or that place, I say to them, will it be like the first Islamic state? And if not, why not? So history does have a relevance for us. 

Of course, there is our own history in this country. King Alfred the Great brought together from diverse sources a common law, but he made very sure that it was in agreement with teaching of the Bible, although he also drew on Anglo-Saxon and Roman law and the customs of the Celts. The great Charter of Liberty that Henry I was compelled, I think, to accept (I mean, that was a condition for his being crowned King by Archbishop Anselm) is the background to Magna Carta and once again the recognition of freedom for ordinary people. The first purpose of the Magna Carta at that time was a limitation of the powers of the King. That is also a biblical idea. The constitutional monarchy goes back to Deuteronomy 17 and to what the Prophet Samuel said to Saul and to David. So Magna Carta was certainly about that, but it also had the effect of promoting freedom.

The question that I ask myself is: if there are all these traditions of freedom and tolerance in so many different cultures, why are we losing these freedoms today in the 21st century when you might have thought there was more fertile ground for their flourishing? If I asked you when the modern age began, what would you say? Was it the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment? These are all very good answers and I am not saying one of them is right or wrong, but I think there is a sense in which the modern age for our purposes begins in the 13th century. 

What happened in the 13th century was that the Western world received back the writings of Aristotle from the Islamic world where they had been translated, studied and commented upon. That much is common knowledge — you hear it in politically correct classes. What is not as often heard is how the Islamic world got it. The answer is that the Islamic world got not just Aristotle but Greek knowledge in general, of science, philosophy and so on from the work of mainly Christian clergy who translated either directly from the Greek into Arabic or from Syriac. This knowledge was transmitted to the West either through Jewish traders or through the Arabic-speaking Christian communities in the West, i.e. the Iberian peninsula. In the past the emphasis had been on a divinely-ordered society, governed by a mixture of divine, natural and positive law. The emphasis now was on the providential nature of the world itself, that it was governed by natural law, on the particular, and therefore on the human person having his or her own identity and place within this world that was ordered in this kind of way. To this the Christian, out of the teaching of the Bible, added that human beings had been made in God’s image and this was something quite new — we don’t find it in Aristotle. Aristotle believed in what you might call natural subjection, that there are some people who are born to be free and others who are born to be slaves. He said notoriously or famously, depending on your point of view, that people living in the northern part of the world could be enslaved because they had courage without intelligence, and people in the southern part could be enslaved because they had intelligence without courage. The Greeks, of course, had both. So the idea of inalienable human dignity is not to be found in Aristotle and is of Judaeo-Christian provenance. 

But this new importance of the person resulted in a greater recognition of freedom and of conscience. From it emerged the idea that such persons had to consent to how they were governed and so a new kind of democracy, different from the harshly selective model of the Greeks, could gradually develop. From it also arose the idea of natural rights which belonged to us inalienably and could not be taken away. This assumed especial importance in the New World as some Christians tried to defend the fundamental freedoms of the indigenous people. The Enlightenment received these ideas and embellished them and they serve as the background to contemporary documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is interesting to note that in equivalent Islamic declarations, Article 18 (which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and belief) is entirely absent.

Most countries are signatories to the UN Declaration, so why are we facing the situation that we are and what actually are the threats to this hard-won tradition of freedom and tolerance that we have?

It seems to me that there are several such threats. The first is old-fashioned tyranny; that’s not gone out of business. Eritrea is a very good example. The most terrible persecution of Christians started with the evangelical Christians in Eritrea but has now also spread to Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians: people being imprisoned in containers, left out in the heat of the day and the cold of the night; torture, beatings, all sorts of things, and the reason, as far as I can tell, is just personal tyranny and the fact that the rulers of Eritrea seem paranoid about these different Christian churches and people. The Orthodox Patriarch has disappeared and no one knows where he is, but this is an example simply of paranoid dictatorship, nothing else. 

Another threat is totalitarian ideology, for example in the form of one kind of Marxism or another. The situation in China is much improved, partly because of the sheer numbers. In 1949 there were perhaps five or six million Christians-Catholics and Protestants — in China; there are now perhaps a hundred million, maybe more, so the numbers are such that they cannot be ignored and their situation, at least in the big cities, has improved in terms of freedom of worship and of witness. But it remains serious in other respects, particularly with the unregistered churches, the so-called house churches, although many of them are so big that you cannot really call them house churches. The situation of those Catholics who still profess a loyalty to the Pope remains serious. Some Catholic bishops are still either in prison or under house arrest and many clergy of that part of the Catholic Church have been in prison, have been tortured or been in labour camps, as have the leaders of house churches. So there is a long way still to go as far as freedom is concerned for the people of China. The other example of these remnants of Marxism is Vietnam, where the evangelical churches have grown exponentially. While Roman Catholic Christianity has been present in Vietnam for a long time and has also suffered grievously at the hands of the rulers, the evangelicals are now finding that the heat is on them and people are being prevented from worshipping, their churches are being destroyed, they are being deported from their villages to other villages and sometimes being detained and fined simply for being Christians. Again and again villagers are told, “In this district you cannot be a Christian.” Laos is another example of continuing terrible persecution for evangelical Christians, partly as a remnant of Marxist ideology. 

There are other examples of persecution. As I mentioned earlier, regrettably, in spite of the example of Ashoka, there is the persecution of Christians and Muslims in Burma, sometimes (I am sorry to say) led by Buddhist monks. This is also the case in Sri Lanka, both with regard to Christians and also in terms of the Tamil ethnic minority. The West has a rather idealised picture of Buddhism, but that is not so in Burma or Sri Lanka and some other countries. In India there has been persecution of Christians, again because of the ideology of Hindutva, that is to say, the belief that the only real citizens of India must be Hindus, that others — such as Christians and Muslims  — cannot really be citizens of India unless they become Hindu in some way or other. 

All of this is real and has to be noticed but as Rehman Chishti MP has said, 80 per cent of the persecution of Christians that is taking place today is taking place in the Islamic world. This is a fact that cannot be denied, and the question is, why? We are faced in the Islamic world and indeed beyond that, with something that is not just the faith of pious Muslims-Christians should respect the faith of other people even if they disagree with them, and they should certainly love the other person even if they disagree with that person — but this is not about personal faith or even the faith of a community; this is about a comprehensive political, social and economic ideology. That is what Islamism is. Now of course there are moderate Muslim voices. Many of them are my friends; I admire them. Sometimes they are very courageous, like the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, but in most places their voice is not prevailing, so we have situations of increasing hardship for Christians and others in the Muslim world. 

Some Muslim organisations now say that they have renounced violence. We welcome that. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt claims that it has renounced violence. That’s excellent. The Tablighi Jamaat say they have never been violent; I think that is true. The Jamaat has one of its headquarters in Raiwind, of which I was Bishop, so I do know a little about this, but the question is: if people belong to an ideological movement like the Tablighi Jamaat, or like the Ikhwan, can they then go on to something that is violent and extremist?

The Western press has had a love affair with the Arab Spring. The name itself was coined here, but the Arab Spring is not all that it seems. The real test of democracy is not taking power through the ballot box but the willingness to give up power through the ballot box, and there, as far as many Islamist movements are concerned, the jury is still out. Bishop Kenneth Cragg, who died very recently just short of 100 and writing up to the very end — a distinguished teacher of mine, a very, very sympathetic Christian student of Islam — was asked once, “Well, in the end, Bishop, what is the difference between Islam and Christianity?” He said something that is relevant today: “It’s the difference in the attitude to power.” Christianity teaches that it is by giving up power that you change the world. Islam teaches that it is by taking power that you change the world.

Democracy may be the darling of some in the media here, but it is not enough. In the Middle East certainly and in many other parts of the world, democracy is not enough because democracy can become a tyranny of the majority. It’s no less tyranny because it’s of the majority. In fact, in the recent referendum in Egypt it wasn’t the majority that voted for the referendum, it was actually a very small minority. Nevertheless, we cannot just say that because so many people have voted for something, it is legitimate now for a country like Egypt to have a constitution that finds its source only in Sharia. It’s not enough. We also need a Bill of Rights. Why was a Bill of Rights needed here in 1689? Or after Independence in the US? Why did we need at a global level the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and so on? I think in many countries in the world today we need a Bill of Rights, particularly where we are faced with a strong Islamist movement that demands the imposition or enforcement of Sharia in the way in which they interpret it. 

In Egypt, to take an example, we need a Bill of Rights, first of all to affirm the equality of all before the law. Because under Sharia it is not at all clear that the equality of all can be taken for granted, because Sharia is structured in such a way that, for example, Muslims and non-Muslims are not equal. By definition, women and men are not equal. So we need to ensure the equality of all before the law and one law for all. I was a great admirer of Pope Shenouda, Patriarch of the Coptic Church, who has recently died, for his courage in difficult circumstances throughout his period as Patriarch in Egypt. But towards the end, when it seemed that Islamists would actually come to power, he said something that made me quite anxious. He said, “Let them have their Sharia as long as we can have our own law.” That is exactly the definition of the dhimma, of Christians being relegated to a second-class status, with certain disabilities, by definition, and exclusion from participation in public life. In a way, you are asking for it. So, in a Bill of Rights one law for all is very important. We may take the idea of common citizenship for granted but those who have lived under the dhimma certainly do not. That also is important. For hundreds of years, Christian and Jewish subjects in the Islamic empires suffered from very serious disabilities. They included lack of freedom of worship, of building churches or synagogues, of having to pay special taxes, of systemic discrimination and sporadic violence. All of these became characteristic of the dhimma.

When I began my work some three and half years ago, I had imagined most of it would be overseas. It has not turned out exactly to be so. I have been drawn, more and more, into what is happening in Britain. In the House of Lords there is a room called the Hume Room, where you can go and get public school-type lunches quite cheaply. The only condition is that you sit at the very next vacant chair at the dining table, so you find yourself sitting next to all sorts of people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. I found myself sitting next to a gentleman who, after a while, said, “Bishop, I’ve a confession to make.” So I said, “Well, I’m always willing to hear confessions.” He then said that he had been part of the campaign for the Sunday Trading Bill in England. And he said, “I have to say now that that was the biggest mistake that I made in my political life.” It had, he now believed, destroyed a common day for the family, and it meant the poorer sections of society would be the ones who would be forced to work because the wealthier people could always take the day off, if they wished to do so. I found his outburst quite revealing and I wish there were more mea culpas of this kind. But in spite of an intervention by myself, a court has ruled recently that Christians have no right to ask for time off for worship and fellowship with other Christians on Sunday. And in fact my intervention was used in a sense that I had not intended at all — to establish this case that they were making. The result will be that poorer people will be forced to work on Sundays. Poorer Christians, younger Christians, will be forced to do this and not be able to go to church. We have actual cases that have already occurred. 

Then there is the legislation against hate speech. It is true that the legislation was at the last minute improved, in the House of Lords as it happens, to recognise to some extent legitimate activities of preaching, evangelism, criticism and so forth. Nevertheless, it has already been used to prevent people preaching, evangelising or simply exercising their right of free speech in public, such as policemen saying to a Christian evangelist in a large British city: “You can’t preach here. This is a Muslim area.” In several other cases, where people have simply been quoting the Bible or even where a quotation from the Bible has appeared on a screen, this has led to their arrest and the threat of prosecution. There are people who have had personal experience of having said something on the radio and then, by the time they got home, the police were waiting for them. 

Then there are those Christians and Christian bodies who feel that equality legislation is such that they cannot in conscience agree with some of the things that those who have legislated for equality in this way are asking of them. The closure of the Catholic adoption agencies is an example. They had been doing valuable work for 150 years, placing difficult children in adoptive homes. They were not allowed even this exemption, which is all that they were asking for, that they be allowed to continue working as before, placing children with stable married couples. They weren’t asking for anything new, and they were not allowed to do that. 

There are now more than a hundred cases where, for reasons of conscience, people have lost their jobs or their place in public life, on panels of experts, on the magistrates’ bench, and their registration with professional bodies. It seems to me that this is a growing phenomenon. This is not going to decrease; it will increase in terms of people who will be affected. And what are we going to do about it? It is no use comparing it with the severe persecution which Christians and others experience in some countries. If you lose your job or your place in the community, that must feel like persecution to those who are affected. 

It seems to me that legislation and indeed policy or procedures have ignored certain things that we need to be reminded of. The first is conscience: that is why I mentioned conscience as something that had been rediscovered because of Christian teaching in the 13th century. But we are now in danger of forgetting its importance. Indeed, British lawmaking has often recognised the place of conscience: conscientious objection during times of war is recognised; people, even in the Second World War, were exempted from combat and given other jobs to do. Even the 1967 Abortion Act, which in many other respects I deplore, recognised conscience in exempting people because of their beliefs from taking part in procedures that may lead to the termination of a pregnancy. But now in this most recent spate of equality legislation, conscience has not been recognised. Why is that? Why have we reached a stage where conscience is no longer important? It’s not just that it’s been forgotten or neglected because when it has been pleaded; when people have said, “I can’t do this because of conscience,” the courts have not recognised it. In every instance, freedom of expression and of association has been trumped by certain notions of equality.

I realise that you can’t take conscience of every kind, in every way, in every case, into account. But we are talking about the consciences of those who stand in well-formed spiritual and moral traditions. I’m talking about the Christian churches. Jewish people may want to talk about their traditions and Muslims theirs, and so on, so we are not just talking about an eccentric exercise of conscience but a well-formed one.

Second, what has been ignored is the idea of reasonable accommodation. This is not particularly a British idea but an American one. It has come out of the First Amendment to the American Constitution on Freedom of Belief, and also the Civil Rights Act of the 20th century. There is a huge amount of case law in the United States which recognises religious belief, the expression of religious belief and the need for people to manifest their belief at their place of work. In some cases there has been accommodation of even unreasonable belief, or at least that’s how it seems to me. But in Britain we have a peculiarly Benthamite “the law is the law is the law” mentality. The difficulty with legal positivism is how to change bad law. In every age and every clime there have been laws that have been bad and people have struggled and campaigned to have them changed. What is wrong with that — even to recognise the possibility of mistakes? With this most recent legislation, however, I have been told at the highest levels that because the legislation has been passed, nothing further can be done about it.

Well, I think something can be done. Conscience can be recognised, reasonable accommodation at the workplace and in public life can be made, provided it does not jeopardise the business in which the employer is engaged or the business of public life. This can be applied to particular cases. Take the case of the registrar who asked to be excused from having to conduct civil partnership ceremonies: plenty of other registrars were willing to preside at such ceremonies. There was no threat of any jeopardy for what the law was now asking, and it may be that a registrar who was not willing to preside at such ceremonies could be given extra duties or other duties, but reasonable accommodation was not made. Similarly with the counsellor who, as I understand it, was willing to offer non-directive counselling to homosexual couples, but was not willing to offer them sex therapy. He was willing to go as far as it was possible for him to go with integrity. For those who wanted such sex therapy, there would be other counsellors in the organisation who could offer such therapy, and reasonable accommodation could therefore be made, but it wasn’t. 

So I think conscience and reasonable accommodation are the ways forward here. The European Court judgments that have come out recently in four cases that were before it point out that every government must balance competing rights. The question is, in this country, whether competing rights have properly been balanced. If the government wants to give the homosexual community certain rights and privileges, there is a democratic process to do it. The question now is whether the rights of believers, of those who for ethical, religious, spiritual and moral reasons want to exercise their right of conscience, have been recognised enough. And the European Court leaves that question open. I am sure it is a question that is not finally closed and will have to be reopened.

We find a situation where the Church is growing rapidly in many parts of the world and sometimes in places where there is great hardship. We praise God for that and we praise also those Christians, our brothers and sisters, who are living their faith in those difficult situations. But at the same time we need to think about ways in which their lives, sometimes, their way of life, can be safeguarded, and not just to endorse uncritically popular movements that appear to us to be attractive. 

Here in Britain the danger is of forgetting the Judaeo-Christian tradition which is the basis for this country’s common life and has been for more than a thousand years. I’ve just written a little article on the sacramentality of the Coronation service. Obviously I had to read the service to write the article, and it is shot through with Christian symbolism and Christian teaching. At the very beginning, the Sovereign to be crowned and enthroned says that he or she will uphold the laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel. And so it carries on throughout: the Anointing, the receiving of Holy Communion, the giving of the ring to uphold the Catholic faith in the form of the reformed religion established by law. This is the basis for national life. It seems to me anyway sometimes that the nation is saying: “We don’t really want to be reminded of this.” That may be so, but if they don’t really want to be reminded of it, what is the alternative? Secularity has undermined so much of what has been held in common by the people of this nation, but it has not provided an alternative world view. When we need to decide moral questions about the dignity of human life at its earliest or latest stages, when we want to talk about the family, when we want to talk about equal opportunities, we need some kind of moral and spiritual basis to do so. If it’s not going to be the Judaeo-Christian tradition, what will it be?

This is an edited version of a lecture given at Portcullis House, Westminster, last January, organised by Rehman Chishti MP