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Newsline 22 July 2016

The aftermath of the failed coup in Turkey has seen a terrible assault on Turkish society and the suspension of the European Convention on Human Rights. Turkish MP Safak Pavey will be speaking about the importance of Human Rights at our conference this September. We urge you to come along and hear her important message.

If you would like to join the National Secular Society or if you need to renew your membership you can do so here. There is a discounted conference ticket price available to our members.

The next edition of Newsline will be on Friday 5th August, in two weeks' time. There will be no issue of Newsline next week.

Church documents expose an even bigger cover-up than suspected in the Peter Ball case

Church documents expose an even bigger cover-up than suspected in the Peter Ball case

Opinion | Tue, 19 Jul 2016

The recent release of more internal Church of England documents relating to the Peter Ball case exposes an even bigger cover-up than previously suspected, writes specialist abuse lawyer Richard Scorer.

To recap: Peter Ball was a prominent Church of England Bishop who served from 1977 to 1991 as Bishop of Lewes (part of the now notorious Chichester diocese) and then, until his resignation in 1993, as Bishop of Gloucester. Ball was more than just another Bishop, however: exceptionally well connected in establishment circles, he was a personal friend of Prince Charles and dined regularly with Margaret Thatcher. In 1992 Ball was investigated by the police for sexual offences against a 15 year old boy, Neil Todd. There followed an extraordinary campaign in support of Ball: nearly 2000 letters of support including from many prominent establishment figures. In March 1993, on the basis that the Todd offence was a one-off lapse, Ball was let off with a caution. He resigned as Bishop of Gloucester, but continued to officiate at church services. The suspicion persisted, however, that Ball had committed many other offences. Eventually, in 2015, following a second police inquiry, he was convicted of multiple sexual crimes spanning several decades, and imprisoned.

Yet the question remains: what did the Church of England know about Ball's criminal behaviour, and when did it have that knowledge? In early 1993, when Ball was being investigated for the Todd offence, the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey wrote to the Chief Constable of Gloucester. The Todd allegation, Carey suggested, seemed "most improbable". Carey went on: "if he (Ball) is guilty of unprofessional behaviour it is quite unrepresentative of his style". Whilst noting that "special pleading" on Ball's behalf would be "entirely inappropriate", Carey went on to explain to the Chief Constable that he felt "justified in drawing to your attention the excruciating pain and torment " which these allegations have inevitably brought upon Ball, whom Carey described in the letter as an "honourable man, firmly concerned for the welfare of young people".

We have long suspected that at the time Carey's letter was written - in February 1993 - the Church of England had far more information about Ball's sexual offending than it had disclosed publicly, or indeed shared with police and prosecutors. Earlier this year, in oral submissions to the Goddard inquiry, I highlighted that another man - I called him AB - had written to Archbishop Carey in late 1992 to express concern about an incident 10 years earlier in which Ball had indecently assaulted him. We know from documents released in March that AB's allegation was considered in late 1992 by Carey's then chief of staff, the Right Rev Ronald Gordon. Gordon did not pursue it further; his notes of a meeting at which it was discussed indicate that he considered further investigation unnecessary because "there is already enough evidence to suggest a picture of what has been happening". By implication, the Church of England at that time already had extensive knowledge of allegations against Ball. AB's letter was never shared with the police- one reason, I explained, why Ball escaped justice for another 20 years.

But what the latest documents reveal is far more egregious: it seems that by early 1993, when George Carey was telling Gloucester police that the Todd allegation was "most unrepresentative" of Ball's style, the Church of England was aware of no fewer than six other allegations against Ball. And yet extraordinarily, none of these were shared with prosecuting authorities who were investigating the Todd offence. Indeed the Church of England kept that information under wraps until 2012, when a child protection investigator decided that it needed to be disclosed to the authorities. And despite the allegations against him, following his caution Ball was allowed to continue to officiate at Church of England services - putting other children and vulnerable adults at risk.

Because the documents released recently are partly redacted, we don't know precisely who in the Church of England knew about the other allegations. But earlier this year I posed some questions to George Carey:

· Why did you tell the Chief Constable in February 1993 that the allegation against Ball being investigated by the police was "improbable" and "unrepresentative" when you appear to have had an internal report suggesting otherwise?

· Why didn't you share the additional information in that report with the police, so they could follow up further lines of enquiry?

· Why did you procure for Ball a guarantee of no further prosecution, despite knowing of other allegations against him?

· Why did you allow Ball to continue to officiate at services after being cautioned, despite having a "picture of what has been happening"?

Following the latest revelations, these questions are even more serious and more urgent. The Church of England is our state church; its leaders hold public office and are accountable to the public for their actions, or should be. They must explain why serious allegations of sexual abuse were apparently withheld from the authorities with the result that a senior cleric was able to escape justice.

As of today these questions remain unanswered. George Carey has indicated that he does not intend to comment publicly about the Ball case, although he has been happy to speak publicly about the case of another Chichester Bishop, George Bell, who he believes has been wrongly accused of child abuse. But the truth matters a great deal: with the 1993 caution, Ball effectively escaped justice for 22 years. One of his victims, Neil Todd, no doubt bitterly frustrated by the failure of the authorities to accord his allegations the seriousness they deserved, later took his own life. And Ball's other victims were left to nurse their pain, not knowing that many others shared their trauma.

So we need answers to these questions, and if George Carey won't answer them willingly then the Goddard inquiry must compel him and other church officials to do so on oath. Indeed if information indicating that Ball was a serial abuser was indeed supressed, this begs the question of whether church officials might be guilty of criminal offences – for example misconduct in public office. That will need to be considered. In the meantime, although George Carey is no longer Archbishop of Canterbury, he remains a senior figure in the Church of England. His successor, Justin Welby, claims that the church now puts victims first. Whether the church is willing to be honest about the Ball case is a good test of the truth of that claim.

Richard Scorer is a specialist abuse lawyer at Slater and Gordon Lawyers (UK). The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

Press regulator rules ‘honour’ killings are not Islamic

Press regulator rules ‘honour’ killings are not Islamic

Opinion | Thu, 21 Jul 2016

The press regulator has issued a troubling ruling that the Mail Online must state that Islam "does not support" 'honour killings'. Why is IPSO giving religious rulings to protect the reputation of Islam?

What business is it of the press regulator what interpretation of Islam is 'true'?

IPSO has unwisely embroiled itself in exactly such a debate, after it sided with a personal complaint from Miqdaad Versi, who is the assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, who believes that 'honour killings' have "no basis in Islam."

Versi's complaint came after the Mail Online published an article with the headline "Mother of four stabbed to death while her family were at a funeral 'may have been murdered in Islamic honour killing'".

Versi claimed that 'honour killings' are "rooted in culture, not religion."

IPSO agreed with Versi that despite it being uncontentious that the woman in the case might have been murdered in an 'honour killing' (subsequent investigation in fact points to a burglary), the Mail Online's phrase "Islamic honour killing" wrongly linked Islam with 'honour killings'.

"The publication did not accept that the phrase 'Islamic honour killing' would have suggested to readers that 'honour killings' are approved of by Islam," IPSO notes disapprovingly.

The Mail Online offered to publish an amendment which read, "We are happy to make clear Islam as a religion does not support so-called 'honour killings'." But Versi didn't accept their offer and asked the Committee to issue a formal ruling enshrining his objection.

Though the Mail Online offered to print this amendment themselves, that the regulator has now required a newspaper to print the phrase "Islam as a religion does not support so-called 'honour killings'" is very troubling.

"Islam as a religion" is a meaningless phrase, which implies one homogenous bloc with one central authority and one 'true' interpretation where no such thing exists; an interpretation which IPSO has now required a news outlet to present as the religion of Islam.

It is true that this particularly hideous form of domestic abuse occurs in non-Islamic societies – and there is also no question that linking so called 'honour killings' to a particular faith can be damaging for communities.

But should IPSO really be issuing rulings categorically stating that Islam "does not support" 'honour killings'?

Islam has scripture, it has accumulated and transmits cultural attitudes about women, it has numerous interpretations which are disputed and literally fought over.

Despite Versi's personal interpretation of his faith, and his attempt to protect its reputation, religion and culture are not distinct. Religion accrues cultural practices, and cultures adapt religious values; like their attitude to women, for instance.

And in one practical sense 'Islam' in the real world is simply what Muslims do with it. If that is your definition of "Islam as a religion", then Versi's case falls down. Because literally tens, if not hundreds, of millions of Muslims around the world do think 'honour killings' can be justified.

Just 22% of Iraqis say that 'honour killings' are never justified. An overwhelming proportion of Muslims in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories think murdering women can be justified often or in some circumstances. This is deeply rooted in their understanding of their faith, which is a product of the culture in which the Koran was written. 'Honour killing' is the apotheosis of a vile misogyny that Whigs might have thought confined to the distant past, but it is not. It is very much a part of the 21st century.

Some of the highest rates of disapproval among societies with large Muslim populations for 'honour killings' come in central Asian countries. But even there, just less than 1-in-5 Muslims still think 'honour killings' can sometimes be permitted.

Where does culture end and religion begin? Do IPSO and the trite Mail Online 'correction' understand their religion better than these Muslims do?

Regardless of what the scripture says and regardless of theology or what school of thought is 'true', Islam, as practised, cannot be completely disentangled from 'honour killings'. No theological debate is necessary to establish this: Islamic 'honour killings' are a fact of our world and of this century.

It is impossible to disassociate this ruling from the ongoing (and renewed) push to sterilise our discourse about terrorism of all references to Islam, and purge the phrase 'Islamic State' from the vocabulary of the BBC, who have already partially capitulated with their aggravating insistence on inserting the prefix 'so-called', even in character-limited tweets.

All of this contributes to a chilling of discussion about Islam. Self-censorship is already endemic.

In their summary of the complaint, IPSO write that Versi "noted the difference" between "Islamic", relating to the faith, and "Muslim", relating to Muslim individuals.

I hardly think he would have preferred the headline "Muslim honour killing" instead of "Islamic".

If we are to debate about the language, we could start by recognising that there is no 'honour' in these brutal killings, as Nusrat Ghani MP argued at Theresa May's first Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.

Book review: 'Christian Nation' by Frederic C. Rich

Book review: 'Christian Nation' by Frederic C. Rich

Opinion | Thu, 21 Jul 2016

Alastair Lichten explores the themes of identity, resilience and redemption in Frederic C. Rich's counterfactual dystopian novel and its defence of secular democracy.

Rich's debut novel depicts America's evolution into a theocratic state following the political and economic turmoil of a McCain-Palin administration. In a counterfactual 2009 Sarah Palin ascends to the presidency following the unexpected heart attack of the United States' 44th president. Rich plots an all too believable16 year alternative history from bitter division to Dominionist insurgency, from succession to civil war, and from theocratic victory to an uncertain future. The main characters are Greg, a corporate lawyer, his banking partner Emilie, and their friend new age businessman turned activist and founder of Theocracy Watch, Sanjay.

They did what they said they would

"Where did this come from? I've never heard of such a thing. I mean, why didn't someone do something?"
- Emilie

"This very same law was introduced into Congress in both 2004 and 2005. The 2004 national platform of the Republican Party pledged support for it. It is nothing new."

The book's premise immediately draws comparison to the persecution fantasy genre of contemporary American evangelical fiction, and in particular the dystopian subgenre that imagines the United States falling victim to totalitarian forces (gays, liberals, feminists or atheists take your pick, as long as you are a straight, white, Christian male the bookstores of America's mega churches can provide the persecution porn).

However, those looking for such simple sectarian/partisan politics in Christian Nation will be disappointed. Rich does not depict Republicans/Christians as evil or Democrats/atheists as the white knights of secular democracy.

The book's opening section "they did what they said they would" (perhaps mindful of the potential for such a charge) puts great effort into documenting real-life theocratic aspirations of different fringe (and not so fringe) groups on the American Christian right and weaving them into the story, such that we can imagine how such religio-politics might prosper given the correct circumstances. It explores the role of Dominionist theology and how the iron fist of theocracy might don or discard the velvet glove of ecumenicalism. As a lawyer, Rich considers the legal strategies that have and might be deployed to such ends.


Christian Nation's strength lies not in conjuring nefarious alternative structures but in exploring weaknesses in the structure of politics, economics and society, and how these might be exploited. Christian Nation depicts a world devoid of resilience, a materialistic, individualistic secularised world which is ill-suited to confronting natural crises such as global warming or man-made crises with explicitly religious motivations

However in making his protagonist a Wall Street lawyer from a traditional Christian background, and allowing a diverse range of religious figures to carry the banner for pluralistic secularism, Rich is perhaps telling us that traditional institutions can be redeemed from their failures and reconnected with morality if embedded in a resilient society.

Part of Rich's (rather idealised) view appears to be that a traditional religious culture (with its focus on pastoral needs first, spiritual needs second and temporal politics a distant third) buttresses American secularism. As Turkey and Iran (to pick just two examples) have discovered, when the secularised urbanised elite become out of touch and ignore or mock religious revivalism they create anger and resentment, but when the elites try to appease such concerns they also risk undermining shared values and institutions.

"Blue state people of ordinary intelligence were not inclined to accept the really big lie – that the growth of a secular and tolerant society constituted the tyrannical suppression of Christianity. But they were inclined to accept that those folks out in Oklahoma could live how they wished, including teaching their children whatever crazy nonsense they wanted. After all – this strain of thinking went – no one has to live in Oklahoma, and if they don't like it they can leave. Not my problem."

The book explores, through the idea of New York both as a physical and conceptual location of resistance, how we can find alternative sources of resilience and how practical (rather than elitist, theoretic or dogmatic) experiences of living with diversity can strengthen the shared values of tolerance and human rights. It explores how extremes whether of materialism or identity politics can fetishize, otherize or erase diversity.

Christian Nation also depicts how different people respond to a breakdown in norms of liberal secular democracy. Parallels are drawn between Sanjay's devotion to his ideals over money or love and monastic celibacy. Emilie uses money to insulate herself. Greg assembles a coalition of the establishment's greatest legal and religious experts to fight a rear guard action to defend the constitution. While the Governor of New York knowingly walks the path to unconstitutional nullification and succession. Greg hopes the secular legal system can secure the rights of minorities, but when push comes to shove the Governor sends armed guards to secure the freedom of his gay nephew.

A product of its time?

In winning two presidential elections Barack Obama built an electoral coalition of ascendant demographic groups that many academics consider to be unassailable. Any theocratic minded presidential candidate would have to rely on a far narrower (and declining) electoral coalition. These victories allowed two youngish, secular-ish judges to enter the Supreme Court leading to the most important pro-gay rights decision since Lawrence v. Texas and the most important reproductive rights decision since Roe vs. Wade (helped by the death in office of the Court's most theocratic judge). The fear of a theocratic takeover of all three branches of government a la Christian Nation seems sooo 2006.

However how resilient will these victories prove to be? Unless Obama or his successor can nominate another secular-ish judge then the Supreme Court will remain a Sword of Damocles ready to drop on 50 years of civil rights. America's 45th president may appoint an unprecedented 5 Supreme Court judges. Many heterosexuals may be celebrating gay marriage equality and gentrifying pride parades, but in the wake of marriage equality many gay rights organisations in many countries are facing a sharp drop off in donations. Perversely in many states a gay America can get married on a Sunday and be fired for being gay on a Monday. The middle classes may spend £40 on a t-shirt that proclaims them as a feminist, but are less likely to find the £10 to spare for a feminist organisation. The sexist remarks of a minor celebrity are likely to receive more news time than a sustained legislative attack on women's reproductive rights across the United States.

Most people are secular-ish to some extent, but Rich shows us and others have said, "the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

In Christian Nation it is the theocratic right's ability to capitalise on a major terrorist incident almost as much as their ability to capitalise on economic disaster or their occupation of the White House that truly sets events into motion.

Imagine if on the eve of the 2016 election Islamist terrorists in the United States launched a major attack. Who would be more likely to benefit electorally? Clinton who can talk for 20 minutes while avoiding mentioning the word Islamist, or Trump with his clear and simplistic message of demonising all Muslims?

Like McCain, Trump has a history of being lukewarm on evangelical politics. Like McCain he used the primaries to reinvent himself as a social conservative. Like McCain he felt compelled to add a populist governor with evangelical credentials to bolster his own. And like McCain, Trump's previous flirtations with moderation and liberalism will be forgiven (by the Christian right) if he can get an anti-abortion or anti-gay rights majority onto the Supreme Court.

Gender and sexuality

As ISIS has shown, part of the appeal of theocracy and extremism for disenfranchised young men is the opportunity to reassert masculinity and this is one of the themes that emerges in Christian Nation.

Part of Greg's journey is to come to terms with his (platonic) love for Sanjay. When first rooming with him in college, Greg feels the need to reassert his heterosexuality with a high profile fling, something he grows out of. However when narrating the novel decades later Greg frequently follows up any scenes of intimacy with Sanjay with a reminder to the reader that Emilie exists. By symbolically entering a relationship with Sanjay (joining Theocracy Watch) Greg literally ends his relationship with Ellie. He decides to abandon the traditional American dream of material and matrimonial comfort to defend what he considers to be a deeper American ideal.

In masculine dystopian fiction (e.g. 1984) the protagonist is usually in an externalised struggle between the rational individual and a world gone mad. While feminine dystopian fiction (e.g. the Handmaid's Tale) more commonly explores the effects of the system on the protagonist's sense of self – an inner struggle. By showing Greg's involvement in both struggles, Rich is perhaps saying that such binaries can be rejected, or once again telling us that traditional ideas (in this case masculinity) can be abused by extremists but can ultimately be redeemed if re-embedded in pluralistic values.


The event which begins the historical divergence of Christian Nation's timeline is the 2008 presidential election. Greg's initial reaction to the election of John McCain is of slight disappointment, but that this won't really affect him in his secure Wall Street bubble. Greg and Emilie when out of their New York bubble are shocked to find there is a large part of the country with very different values and beliefs to them and so largely dismiss this.

Sanjay on the other hand serves as the canary to the audience. As a gay man of colour and a non-Christian he is particularly sensitive to the threat of theocracy and treats it seriously. There's a reason that the secular movements tend to have an over representation of homosexuals, atheists and religious minorities – knowing you'll be the first victim of a threat tends to make it loom larger.

If Sanjay is the canary, Emilie is relegated to the unfortunate role of the (mythical) lobster blissfully unaware that the water around her is slowly boiling. Because she doesn't treat religion (or social conservatism) seriously she is constitutionally incapable of imagining that others do. From her elitist bubble she dismisses the theocratic ambitions of Dominionists as just a bunch of idiots who don't know what's best for them.


A key test when reviewing such a message driven work is to judge whether its value as fiction stands alone separate from the message. Christian Nation passes this test (and overall I would highly recommend it) but not always with flying colours.

While the book's many strengths would lead me to recommend it, its weaknesses should be acknowledged. Primarily these lie with the character of the narrator, whose perspective is unfortunately just too limited.

I imagine that Christian Nation would make a great film, in which we could follow Greg as a traditional main character while a misbehaving camera lingers on the background details. Rich's interests cross a huge range of environmental, political, geo-political, and social issues. His narrator unfortunately doesn't seem to have the ability to naturally draw these into the narrative and attempts to do so are at times clunky. The use of contemporary and fictional quotations and sources helps and the addition of (at least) a second narrator may have as well, but we are often left feeling that a deep background is hinted at and left unexplored.

The unreliable narrator is a lot harder to write and perhaps Rich erred by making Greg too similar to himself. This limitation leaves important perspective out. The issue of race which is deeply bound up in the Christian identity politics of Dominionism is left almost completely unexplored. Dominionists along with theocrats of all stripes have always sought to control female sexuality and silence female voices which makes the complete lack of a meaningful female voice particularly problematic.

Rich appears to understand the strategies of Dominionism, but not the underlying role of identity politics. Consequently the actions of the Dominionist movement are cast in terms of theological beliefs and other motivating factors (whether ideological or politically expedient) are left unexplored. Christian Nation misses an opportunity to tell cautionary tale to those who think they use theocratic populism for short term goals without opening Pandora's Box.

After my first reading I remember thinking most about the theme of resilience and strongly identifying with Sanjay and his Theocracy Watch.

"What if I am wrong? Most people think I am missing or undervaluing the factors that doom the theocratic project to failure. What if they are correct? What if I have been deeply egotistical in becoming so invested in my own analysis? What if I am just another gay man afraid of a heterosexual world?"

The job of an activist or an organisation such as the National Secular Society is often that of lonely watchman. Failing to see the threats or raising false alarms both have perils. Secularism needs such organisations, if nothing else as a reserve there to mobilise if and when theocracy enters the ascendency. Secular democracy in both the American and European tradition sought to constrain theocratic majoritarianism, but if it is to survive it can't be embedded just in institutions or legal traditions.

To quote the author of the next book on my (re)reading list:

"People vote for members of Congress. People run for Congress. People sit on PTA boards. People raise money for social causes. People stand up to Revivalists. Secularism needs people."

Buy 'Christian Nation: A Novel' by Frederic C. Rich.

With Turkey in chaos, its secular citizens feel even more nervous

With Turkey in chaos, its secular citizens feel even more nervous

Turkey, which was founded on secularism, has become profoundly divided over the role of Islam in society. When the dust settles from the coup attempt it is unclear whether the nation's shaky democracy will be left standing, writes Hugh Naylor in the Washington Post.

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