Law and Religion – the Temple debate

Last night I was able to attend this debate, part of the 2008 Temple Festival, at LSO St Luke’s in London. The panel consisted of Professor A.C. Grayling, Professor Mona Siddiqui, Lord Justice Rix, and Robin, Lord Eames. I was slightly surprised that, given the background of the debate provoked by Rowan Williams, the event didn’t attract greater attention, and it was conducted in a remarkably calm and collegial manner.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the open debate was taken up with specific manifestations of the relationship between law and religion, and particularly concerning faith schools, which was perhaps the issue least germane to the more abstract question of their relation.

The clearest statement of principle came from A.C. Grayling, who argued that the churches ought to be treated in the same way as any other organisation in civil society, and thus called into doubt the position of the bishops in the House of Lords. The debate spent most time on the issue in relation to existing law: exemptions for faith organisations from employment law and the like.

What was missing was a consideration of the higher relationship: by what means are the values which determine law as it is made themselves derived ? All the religions, and also perhaps the British Humanist Association or the National Secular Society, are in the business of saying something about the meta-issues concerning the nature of the person and the order of society, which need to be established before laws can be made. Historically, in Michael Ramsey’s time, there was little agitation from the other Christian denominations for parity in the Lords, but rather a sense that the established church was ‘delegated’ to put a general religious view (I can happily point readers towards specific examples of cooperation between the denominations if desired).

Since then, other faiths have of course grown in prominence, but I’m not aware of much pressure from that direction either for a change in the establishment. Part of Rowan Williams’ purpose was, I think, to argue for some recognition within the secular state that a religious viewpoint is not purely that of one interest group among many, but that there are questions of overarching principle that a technocratic state is not able to resolve. Perhaps we might frame it this way: would a reformed House of Lords properly have fewer bishops, but additional representation from the Muslim Council of Great Britain, and the National Secular Society, in a way significantly different from the Football Association or the RAC ? The faiths are not simply civil society bodies in the same way.

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