News | Fri, 17 May 2013
According to census data analysis published yesterday, the number of British-born Christians is falling significantly, whilst the number of young Muslims is on the rise.
News | Tue, 14 May 2013
The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is to meet bishops from every Church of England diocese to discuss the "special relationship" the Government has with the Church over its participation in education.
Opinion | Thu, 16 May 2013
When the issue of same-sex marriage began to arise around the world, the Catholic Church foolishly decided that it would make opposition to it a main plank in its attempts to revive itself. Allied with the Religious Right in America it thought it had a real winner in trying to use it against Barack Obama in the last presidential election.
It didn't work. Obama is still in the White House – with a firm and clearly-stated commitment to gay marriage - and the protestant Religious Right is licking its wounds and wondering how to change its disastrous approach.
The Vatican is engaged in no such navel gazing, though. The new pope has not yet spoken out quite so aggressively on the topic as his predecessor (who is now ensconced in his brand new Vatican apartment with his faithful "secretary", Georg), but his previous writings make clear that he supports the party line.
But then, so did Scotland's homophobic foghorn Cardinal Keith O'Brien – and look what happened to him.
The Church – at least under Ratzinger – had entirely misjudged the international mood. Instead of it leading what he hoped would be a populist and revivalist worldwide crusade against gay marriage, Ratzinger saw some of the greatest Catholic strongholds enshrine it in law.
In trying to flex its muscles against the will of independent states, the Church has lost over and over again. Instead of enhancing its reputation as a beacon of morality in a world gone bad (long ago smashed by the child abuse scandals) it appeared narrow-minded and persecutory.
In Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Uruguay and many other countries that have been claimed as "Catholic", gay marriage is now legal. And this week in Brazil, where the new pope will shortly attend "World Youth Day", the Justice's National Council legalised same-sex marriage in the entire country in a 14-1 vote by issuing a ruling that ordered all civil registers of the country to perform same-sex marriages and convert any existing civil unions into marriages if such a couple desires.
In the US, 13 states have now legislated in favour of same-sex marriage, with several others on the point of following suit.
Only in France did the Church manage to garner any significant opposition that manifested itself in large-scale demonstrations in the streets. Even so, the majority of the population were in favour and the will of the state prevailed. Same-sex marriage is now legal in France.
In Northern Ireland, of course, the matter didn't even get off the starting blocks – such is the power of extremely conservative religious bodies in its assembly.
In Scotland the issue is crawling through parliament with a strong possibility that it will pass.
In England the issue is returning to parliament in the coming weeks. The churches have been strongly opposed to the proposals. The Government has gone out of its way to reassure them that it will be a purely secular matter, in which they will in no way be involved – unless they want to be. But that has not placated them.
Now that it is to be debated in the House of Lords, the chorus of prelates starts up again, issuing dire warnings of the end of civilisation, the termination of religious freedom, the wholesale destruction of everything we hold dear - and probably even a rise in the price of beer.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury met NSS honorary associate Peter Tatchell recently to talk about the issue. Again, like his predecessor, Rowan Williams, he is treading on eggshells, but his Church continues its hysterical opposition.
It seemed until quite recently that the Government was resolved to see the matter through. Then came the local elections and the triumph of UKIP.
The opponents of gay marriage immediately claimed that it was this issue that had caused the rise of Nigel Farage's anti-European group. People were voting against the Coalition because gay people were to be given equal rights!
According to them, it had nothing to do with the economy, the loss of jobs, the destruction of the health service, the dismantling of the welfare state, the brutal Victorian-style demand that disabled people should be forced to find jobs that aren't there or risk losing their benefits. Nothing to do with the widespread alarm about immigration that UKIP so skilfully played into.
It will be interesting to see whether David Cameron's previous firm support for this legislation holds in the face of all this. Or whether, at last, the Church is going to be able to chalk up a victory in its opposition to gay marriage.
News | Thu, 16 May 2013
Catholic parish churches will be able to claim from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) an extra 20% for each donation of up to £20 without requiring the giver to complete a form.
Opinion | Fri, 10 May 2013
By Terry Sanderson
The Labour MP Frank Field (right) has called on the Archbishop of Canterbury to hand over some of the seats that the Church of England bishops occupy in the House of Lords to representatives who would take a more active part in policy making.
This call has added significance because Frank Field is a prominent Christian and a former member of the General Synod.
But before we run away with the idea that Mr Field thinks the bishops have no business making law, we should look at what he actually said.
Writing in The Independent, he called on Justin Welby, to revive Lords reform by handing most of the "25 seats" (actually 26 seats) to people from employers, trade unions, universities, the arts, armed forces, the law, the media and women's and children's groups.
Mr Field, a former Welfare Reform minister, said that 43 bishops issued a statement criticising the Government's welfare cuts in March. But only six of the 16 who sit in the Lords turned up when the House debated them and only one took part in all four votes.
"This turnout of bishops is the worst kind of gesture politics," he said. The voting record of bishops suggests their places in the second chamber are being "wasted", he added.
Mr Field said: "It may be that the Church of England now appoints bishops who feel they have nothing to say to the nation on the great ethical issues of the day. Some could quite legitimately believe that their time would be better spent in their dioceses. But it surely cannot be impossible for bishops, who sign protest letters, to so organise their diaries that they can turn up and put their votes where their mouths are."
The MP for Birkenhead said his proposal would enable the Lords to represent the "moral aspirations" of the nation, kickstart Lords reform after it was killed off by the Conservatives last year and strengthen the groups that make up David Cameron's Big Society.
So, rather than wanting the bishops to return to their cathedrals and get on with their job of saving the nation's souls rather than interfering in politics, Mr Field wants them to get more involved. He wants them to butt into policy-making at every opportunity.
But what qualifications do they have for such interference? We are told that because the new Archbishop of Canterbury once worked in the City, it is OK for him to pontificate about banking reform and how it should be achieved. But is it?
What has that to do with the Archbishop of Canterbury's primary purpose? If he wants to be a banking regulator, let him go and be one. Otherwise he should stick to more generalised comments about the need for moral behaviour from bankers and others engaged in the business of greed. Proposing detailed solutions to the problem really is not his purpose.
Strangely, it is someone with whom I often disagree who best summed up this "mission creep" by the bishops. Writing in the Church of England Newspaper, Andrew Carey (son of the increasingly silly former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey) said:
"I've noticed an increasing mission creep in the Bishops' contributions to Parliamentary business in recent years.
Rightly, the Peers Spiritual are committed as never before to the House of Lords. The continual focus on constitutional reform has focussed their minds and seen them committing more and more of their time to Parliament.
Any assessment of their role in the House of Lords will find that for the most part the Bishops contribute positively and painstakingly to debates in the Second Chamber. But I've noticed more and more speeches and, indeed questions, where there is no reference to their day job, nor any acknowledgement of the limitations to their knowledge and authority.
Take one example, in a short debate on 22 April on nuclear energy, the Bishop of Hereford made a number of extremely good and relevant points that were not made by other well-informed members of the House of Lords. He put his supportive weight behind the nuclear path, in meeting emissions targets.
He commended Thorium and molten salt reactors in the medium and long-term; called for fission research; argued for a new fit-for-purpose remit for the national decommissioning authority and called for greater government involvement and support for those building a future generation of reactors.
The last thing I want is for every single speech in the House of Lords to turn into a theological treatise or a whimsical 'Thought for the Day', but I'm equally uneasy with the thought that the bishops are turning into politicians.
In my view they are in danger of making the mistake that being busy in the House of Lords is enough. My view is that any contribution to political business from ecclesiastical office needs a clear and spelt-out rationale. Of course, the churches should be outlining the implications of the gospel for everyday life and social and political issues. But there is a limit to the church's expertise. And it is at these limits that the policy-makers, civil servants and think tanks take over.
So there you have it. Two Church of England enthusiasts, one who thinks the bishops aren't political enough and the other who thinks they're too political.
The appropriate answer to this conundrum is to get them out of parliament altogether and let them use their pulpits to spread their message.
But they know that if they did that, no-one would be listening.
News | Wed, 15 May 2013
Controversial plans to open a Sikh free school in the Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Poges have been recommended for refusal by South Bucks District Council planning officers.
Opinion | Fri, 10 May 2013
We have the privilege of living in a free society, in which the rights of the individual are not determined by their gender.
We live in an open, tolerant country, which rightly welcomes people's different faiths and religious beliefs and is diverse and benefits socially, economically and culturally from that diversity.
Many individuals have campaigned, fought and given their lives for the freedom and values that make up the United Kingdom.
This is a special place, embracing democracy, free speech and, just as important, a justice system that has evolved over a millennium.
One of the cornerstones of our justice system is that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. Embodied in the law of our country are the demands for equality, the challenge to the wrongs that appear in prejudice and discrimination in our lives.
We can be proud – but we should not be complacent – that the vast majority of our judges, magistrates and clerks come from all backgrounds and are of both genders.
When I read that my local council of mosques had issued a press release calling for the Government to recognise sharia councils – they are courts in any other country – and ensure that they are better resourced, I was greatly concerned.
Exploring this issue, I find that most of the debate that reaches the public comes from far Right blogs and racist rhetoric. Little thoughtful contribution to understanding or exploring these issues comes to the fore.
There are a couple of notable exceptions: the work of Baroness Cox and the work of the BBC's Panorama programme, led by the journalist Jane Corbin.
Baroness Cox's exceptional work in the House of Lords seeks to ensure that sharia tribunals and councils operate within the law and should not form a concurrent legal system in the UK. With that aim in mind, I have four questions for the Government.
First, I should like to hear from the Government that we have only one law in this country.
Secondly, I want to hear that sharia councils must comply with UK law. That includes compliance with all equality and anti-discrimination laws and family law.
Thirdly, I should like to understand how the Government will ensure compliance and what penalties will be applied to a council or court if it breaks the law.
Fourthly, I should like to know what consideration the Government has given to ensuring that all sharia marriages are legally underpinned by a compulsory civil marriage.
In the recent Panorama programme, it was evident that women were not being treated equally.
In the so-called arbitration process, even a simple issue of cost was clearly discriminatory. Women pay £400 to get a divorce; men pay nothing. Women are encouraged not to report to the police. A woman was given a divorce only after she agreed to hand over her children to the husband. The council or court was only ever made up of men or a man.
I understand that the act of determining child access or contact cannot be undertaken in law by a sharia council or court.
I hope that, if evidence of wrongdoing can be established, those who have broken the law, as shown in the programme, will be pursued.
On seeing the programme's evidence, the chief crown prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service in the North West said that he was disappointed, but not surprised. If the CPS is not surprised about such findings, why are we, as a Government, allowing such things to happen?
The director of Inspire, an organisation with an impeccable reputation, issued a statement: "Panorama's programme on the unregulated and discriminatory practice of some of Britain's sharia councils has been of long concern to Inspire.
"Secrets of Britain's Sharia Councils highlighted how some of the services provided by sharia councils, in particular arbitration and mediation services, operate in a way that is at times discriminatory towards women, undermining their human rights which should be protected by British law, especially with regards to child custody and domestic violence cases."
That is part of a long, detailed release that is a thoughtful contribution to the debate. That paragraph in particular highlights problems that I am concerned about as well.
I want to discuss underpinning religious marriage with civil law marriage. Some men are choosing not to marry through the civil law process, because it makes divorce simpler and does not enable a woman rightly to claim her share of the assets at the time of divorce.
There is also an opportunity for men to marry a second wife, because the first sharia marriage is not recognised in law.
We have to ensure that the rights of women are protected. I therefore concur with Inspire's call that all sharia marriages be simultaneously registered as civil marriages, thus offering much-needed protection to women.
I believe that, sadly, the word 'sharia' has more negative connotations than positive images in our country. Only by exploring why will we begin to address those concerns.
Unlike the far Right, I do not believe that Islam is evil. We should not underestimate the level of distrust and sometimes fear that exists.
It is our responsibility to challenge the wrongdoing and allay those fears.
Kris Hopkins is the Member of Parliament for Keighley & Ilkley in West Yorkshire. This article was originally published by the Yorkshire Post and is reproduced with the author's permission
Opinion | Mon, 13 May 2013
The Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, says that hospital chaplaincy services "ought never to be seen as a luxury to be discarded when budgets are tight; or chapels as spaces to be sacrificed to other purposes when needs arise."
Speaking at a service at St Bartholomew's hospital in London, the Archbishop made the case for retaining (at public expense) the religious input to hospitals because:
"God's presence as one who heals should be welcomed. So chaplaincy services ought never to be seen as a luxury to be discarded when budgets are tight; or chapels as spaces to be sacrificed to other purposes when needs arise. People need spaces where they can come to pray for their sick relatives and friends. Those who are sick need places to pray, to receive the consoling touch of the divine. Healthcare professionals need somewhere to pray as part of their care for their sick brothers and sisters, as well as to receive strength for their ministry."
The Archbishop made no mention of the financial collapse of several hospitals and the teetering state of many others, or the fact that lives are being lost because of lack of resources as he made the case for the NHS to pay the salaries of his priests.
Indeed, in the same edition of The Tablet magazine that reports his sermon, there is an advertisement from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals for a Catholic Chaplain on a salary of £25,783 to £34,530.
I cannot argue that removing the funding from chaplains would solve the gigantic problems of the NHS, but if the jobs of nurses are being sacrificed to keep priests and vicars and imams in hospitals, then serious questions need to be asked.
Wouldn't this money be better spent helping to solve some of the more fundamental and pressing problems of the NHS?
It is time for the churches, mosques and temples to fund their own input into hospitals.
In Wales, Alan Rogers is proposing that religious bodies set up charitable trusts for the very purpose of funding hospital chaplains. This sounds like an excellent idea. If they are so important and popular with patients as the churches claim, there should be no problem gaining donations to support these services (which could become voluntary if push comes to shove).
Also, as the funding crisis deepens, religious bodies might want to have a contingency plan in place because there are only so many nurses and doctors that can be made redundant before a hospital simply can't function. The axe must surely find its way to the chapel before much longer.
The establishment of these charitable trusts would also release millions of pounds for spending on the thing that people really go to hospital for – medical treatment. Surely it is the religious duty of churches to take the burden off the NHS and assume it themselves?
Let's ignore the flim-flam about "holistic" treatments that the advocates for chaplaincy use to justify dipping into health service funds. If you arrive at the A&E department with a broken leg, there are unlikely to be any miracle cures on offer from the chaplains. It's the tender loving care of the emergency medics that are going to make you better.
News | Fri, 10 May 2013
The Spanish Government is preparing a reform to the country's abortion law that, some have argued, will return Spain to a situation similar to the one that existed under General Franco's dictatorship.
NSS Speaks Out
Terry Sanderson was on Radio Merseyside talking about religious education in schools. He was also quoted in an article in The Times (subscription) about the rise in hate preachers in British universities. He also spoke on Voice of Russia radio on this topic
Scottish spokesperson Alistair McBay had this letter in the Independent
Quotes of the Week
"I do think that in many Muslim societies the politicisation of Islam is becoming toxic."
(Mona Siddiqi, writer and academic, Church Times)
"To find most vehement objections to the behavior of the church hierarchy over its handling of sexual abuse cases, go to your local church. Many Catholics feel betrayed, that something they treasure has been tarnished."
(Editorial, New Jersey Times)