Religion and Law roundup: 23rd December

In between writing Christmas cards, doing last-minute shopping, [many hours of choir rehearsal – dp] and surviving the end of the world, we noticed the following

Abortion in Ireland: progress on the ECtHR judgment

We have reported previously on the Irish Government’s response to the judgment in A, B and C v Ireland 25579/05 [2010] ECHR 2032 (16 December 2010). On 18 December the Department of Health announced that the implementation of the judgment by way of legislation with regulations – the fourth option put forward by the Expert Group – offers the most appropriate method for dealing with the issue. The Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children will hold hearings  in January and the Heads of a General Scheme of a Bill will be drafted after those hearings. Following that, “there will be comprehensive debate in the Oireachtas “.

The reaction of the Roman Catholic hierarchy as reported in the Irish Times was predictably negative. The Archbishops went so far as to accuse the Supreme Court of having got the law wrong in its judgment in Attorney General v X [1992] IESC 1; [1992] 1 IR 1, which “unilaterally overturned the clear pro-life intention of the people of Ireland as expressed in Article 40.3.3 of our Constitution“.

Charitable status, public benefit and “closed” congregations

There were further developments in the controversy over the Charity Commission’s decision to withdraw recognition from the Preston Down and Horsforth Gospel Hall Trusts of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (otherwise known as the “Exclusive Brethren”), culminating in a meeting on 11 December at which various assurances were given by the Commission about its attitude to public benefit in relation to individual congregations: principally that the provision of services of public worship which are genuinely open to anyone to attend is in itself sufficient to satisfy the public benefit requirement even and that Churches may restrict access to the sacrament of Holy Communion in accordance with denominational requirements. Where problems arise is when a denomination restricts access to the worship services of which the sacrament forms a part.

Towards women in the episcopate and other Church of England business

During the past week, the media centre of the Church of England has been in overdrive in its publication a number of potentially newsworthy press releases.  Whilst that relating to Bishops’ office and working costs published, here, and the associated report may not appear to be of direct relevance to the “law and religion” agenda, the Church Times notes

“[a] more than doubling of legal costs [from £533,600 to £1,315,816], generated by clergy discipline cases, was the main cause of an increase of more than £1 million in the working costs of bishops in 2011”.

Papers for the meeting of the House of Laity to debate Canon Stephen Barney’s motion of no confidence in its Chair, Dr Philip Giddings, published here, here, and here, left a number pondering what positive impact this could have in relation to women in the episcopate and, more broadly, on the external perception of the Church, here, here and elsewhere. Inevitably, links were also made to the withdrawal of Fr Philip North from the bishopric of Whitby and the in-fighting within the Church following the women bishops debate.

To date no other diocese has followed the lead of Bristol Diocesan Synod in its vote of no confidence in the present General Synod, and the only viable show in town is that proposed by the House of Bishops on 10-11 December. On 20 December, the House of Bishops published a summary of these and other decisions taken at this meeting in Lambeth Palace, which has been followed with an announcement of the membership of the group that will work on and facilitate the new legislative proposals on women bishops. In addition, an explanatory memorandum Women in the Episcopate – Synodical Process: A summary of the legislative steps has been prepared by Secretary General to the General Synod for parliamentarians of both Houses. This was copied to General Synod and is now generally available.

At its meeting on 10 December the House of Bishops also considered an interim report from the group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling to advise on the Church of England’s approach to human sexuality. Pending the conclusion of the group’s work in 2013,  the House announced its intention not to issue a further pastoral statement on civil partnerships. However, it confirmed that the requirements in its 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate.

Finally, along with other religious groups, the Church of England issued a statement welcoming the Government’s Energy Bill (which had its Second Reading in the Commons on 19 December) and the opportunities it offers to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions. A joint briefing for MPs, Decarbonising our power sector by 2030: delivering a just Energy Bill, from the Church of England, the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches and the Quakers in Britain called on the Government to make amendments both to protect the fuel-poor and to work towards the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy network.

Church and State

We posted the second instalment of our well-received mini-series on Church and State. Our intention is to produce Church and State III in the New Year, looking at the basics of European law and institutions so far as they affect religion and belief.

Commission on a Bill of Rights

The Commission on a Bill of Rights published its report to a chorus of badly-stifled yawns. We did our best, here; but even Adam Wagner and his colleagues at UKHRB found it difficult to sound very interested – though Amy Williams made a valiant attempt to breath a little life into the corpse.

Same-sex marriage

The contention over the Government’s proposals for same-sex marriage in England  and Wales continued, not least because it appeared that the Church in Wales had not been consulted about the terms of the “quadruple lock” in advance of the Government’s announcement. Scot Peterson, of Balliol College, provided us with an interesting guest post on the politics of the issue

The Scottish Government published its own considered proposals on reforming marriage law, together with a draft Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. and announced a consultation on the detailed provisions. The Scottish proposals go rather wider than same-sex marriage and take a rather different approach from that adopted for England and Wales. One of the more radical departures is to provide for a third category of marriage ceremony in addition to civil and religious celebrations, to be known as “belief”: “belief” celebrants will be authorised along the same lines as religious celebrants.

Scientology, worship and non-recognition

The Administrative Court handed down judgment in R (Hodkin) & Anor v Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages [2012] EWHC 3635 (Admin) and decided that it could not overturn the Registrar General’s refusal to register a chapel of the Church of Scientology as a place of meeting for religious worship under under s 2 of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 – on the grounds that the chapel was not, in fact, a place of “religious” worship. Ouseley J regarded himself as bound by the previous decision of the Court of Appeal about the nature of Scientology in R v Registrar General ex parte Segerdal [1970] 2 QB 697. But he made a pretty strong suggestion (or so it appeared to us) that the unsuccessful applicant – who wished to be married in a religious ceremony in the Scientologists’ chapel in central London – should appeal.

And finally…

Martin Webber, Reader in Social Work at the University of York, has written a very interesting piece on his blog: Blogging: An essential research engagement and dissemination tool? His views chime very much with our own: blogging is no substitute for properly-researched and peer-reviewed journal articles but it is a useful way of engaging with an audience (especially a non-specialist audience) that wouldn’t go trawling through the journals. “Blogging your research,” he suggests, “creates the opportunity for flexible engagement with networks of interested people from practice, research, education and users of services.”

It’s also several orders of magnitude quicker than the l-o-n-g, s-l-o-w process of academic publishing.

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And a very happy Christmas to all our readers