Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:35 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of The Archbishop of Canterbury The Archbishop of Canterbury Bishop 6:35 pm, 17th October 2018

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and others who have made this useful and important debate possible. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hain, I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said. I agree also with the passionate and clear setting out by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, of the threats and incidents that have occurred in recent years. However, I want to focus more on religious intolerance and prejudice. If I have one concern, it is how we bring together religious tolerance, and stand against the kind of things the noble Lord, Lord Hain, spoke about, while maintaining freedom of speech.

In his book, The Home We Build Together, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, wrote:

“Society is not a house or a hotel. It should be a home”.

The rising tide of anti-Semitism, with which I am deeply familiar through work with the Chief Rabbi, and Islamophobia, which we in the Church are deeply familiar with through working with Muslim leaders across the country, are just two illustrations of the narrowing of those who feel truly at home in the UK today. This terrible, storm-ridden climate is affecting people across a whole range of religious traditions. We have just heard the noble Lord, Lord Hain, set out many of the incidents at temples and gurdwaras, the abuse of people in the street and so on.

Freedom of belief and freedom of speech are fragile plants that need to be intertwined if they are to flourish. They are both menaced by the chill that comes from constraining their expression, except when freedom of speech is promoting hatred. They easily wither, as I have found in many of our churches across the 165 countries of the Anglican communion. We stand against that, through the Commonwealth and the United Nations, but it is the call of religious leaders to bring them together and stand up for them.

Free speech may well be robust, even humorous, as I discovered recently, when a friend of Mr Blobby described me in terms that I cannot use in this House. More politely, I and those on these Benches are often described as those who believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden. That kind of bluntness is good and proper. However, for it to work, there must be a context of what the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, describes in his books as a “culture of civility”. Today’s multifaith society means that we live in a context of diverse religious practice. For some, this is welcome and enriching—I put myself among them—while others find it strange and threatening. Whatever your views on that, it is clear that debate in Britain across a range of issues risks losing the gains we have made in the post-war period: gains of civility and respect. If you watch the news, read a newspaper or go on social media—let alone stand up against right-wing, fascist and other extremist activity, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has done throughout his life—you will know that there is a notable absence of genuine dialogue and listening to different views.

I also wonder that, for all our rich Christian heritage in this country, as seen in our laws, practices and many of our values, the breadth of view which we tolerate has become less and less wide. There are many Christians with whom I disagree on the expression of their views in particular areas. There is a long history of Christians disagreeing with each other: Lambeth Palace has a prison for this. It has not been in recent use, although I am from time to time tempted. However, even where I disagree, I want to uphold the right of these people to say things that are neither fashionable nor conventional today. That has certainly been examined in the Supreme Court recently, through the Ashers case. Again, although there might be things in that case that I would question, it is a thoughtful, erudite and profound examination of the intertwining of freedom of belief and freedom of expression.

There is an attitude—I think this is the underlying issue we face—that there are no absolutes, except the statement that there are no absolutes. That is an absolute. We are told that to criticise that statement that there are no absolutes is, in fact, to be an extremist. Certainly, as a Christian who believes in the love of God found in Jesus Christ, I have what some people would call absolute views. But almost every day I meet people who do not share those views. I thank God for those encounters, and for the people themselves, who deepen and enrich my understanding.

Jesus criticised directly, bluntly and forcefully, and was criticised himself. He answered his critics, yet he loved them. It is the last bit that we are missing. Love in that context is not a warm and cuddly feeling. What it means in practice is accepting that the other has as valuable a place as me and is fully part of the national fabric. This may be what is behind the trouble that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, explained so carefully: the sense that the people who are attacked, diminished and marginalised are, in some way, not considered to be fully British. Anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, anti-Hindu, anti-Sikh or other attacks have as a presupposition that only “my sort of person” is welcome here. Those who attack them require not just integration but assimilation, so that no difference is seen, but clearly that is impossible and the prospect of it is diminishing. Most religious belief demands a loyalty beyond country or group—a loyalty to ultimate truth. It says there are absolutes, and we should rejoice at them and listen to the narrative. Competitive narratives encourage developing traditions, secular or sacred.

As a Christian, I am encouraged by the Bible to think of myself as a pilgrim and a stranger. That status calls me to the good of the place in which I live, of the nation where I am, determined to contribute to the common good and inspired by the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. The same can be found in most of our major religious traditions in this country. That means that, for the Church of England, we will work for and on behalf of Christians, but equally, and without distinction, for those of other faiths or no faith, and especially for those who feel marginalised and under attack.

Many of the campaigns that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, listed have had strong participation by Christian leaders over the years. Religiously motivated hate crime, intolerance and prejudice have, as we know, been reported to have increased dramatically yet again. Of course there is a need for better security, and I welcome the announcement of more funding to this end from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. In the longer term, however, hate crime and extremism in religious affairs have to be resisted by religious leaders, and challenged within their own communities before their roots deepen. We cannot palm it off on others to deal with.

The Church of England seeks to act on this principle in church schools, some in areas with more than 90% intake each year from other faiths; in welcome through the Near Neighbours programme; and in interfaith gatherings at all levels, from local to national. My predecessor, Archbishop William Temple, and the then Chief Rabbi Hertz, founded the Council of Christians and Jews in 1942. It met last week; it continues and is more and more active. This support of other faiths is a part of our recent heritage in which we rejoice.

We must seek a society that is able to voice disagreement freely and to disagree well; where rich and deeply held beliefs and traditions can exist in mutual challenge and respect. Challenge may be tough, but limit it too much and freedom of expression suffers, and so, in the end, will freedom of belief. This is perhaps one of the most important and urgent challenges of our times. Competing narratives, whether religious or secular, test truth and action. Monopoly views, secular or religious, merely enable people to live in bubbles of mutual incomprehension, and even ignorance. Christian faith and values, or those of other faiths, are not threatened by diversity of faith, but by a failure of freedom of expression, provided it does not include incitement to hatred, however robustly used. It is in confidence in our civil discourse and in our free expression that we gain confidence in our faith, and in that mutual confidence among ourselves, confidence in this nation’s vocation in the world. This allows us to spread what we say and to exhibit what we proclaim, and, in so doing, to offer a framework within which all cultures and faiths can flourish for the common good.