Religion and law round up – 16th February

Retrospect on a fairly quiet week (unless you were at General Synod)

Church of England General Synod

The continued progress of the legislation for the admission of women to the episcopate was the main agenda item of the February Synod, and in our post we outlined where this corresponded to the various stages involved, often a mystery to some and not always obvious from a reading of the various report in the media. The one surprise was that in responding to Questions to the Church Commissioners on Thursday, [HC Hansard 13 Feb 2014, Vol. 575, Col. 1009], Sir Tony Baldry, (Banbury, Con), introduced an unsolicited update on the progress of the Church’s legislation: a significant change from the hostile questioning, Early Day Motions and Private Member’s Bills he was required to address just one year ago.

Our initial reading of the synod’s Agenda considered the importance and newsworthiness of the various motions but the outcome produced a number of surprises. The DSM on Magna Carta remained in the long grass and the PMM on vesture, which would require a two-thirds majority in each House on Final Approval, was adjourned. As expected, the important motions on Gender-Based Violence and Safeguarding received little external comment; but useful amendments were made to those on the Guide Promise and the Environment. The time and tone of the subsequent response from Girlguiding [for which see below] suggests that the Synod motion was not the only factor in the movement’s acceptance of the eppur si muove preface to “the single Promise”. As for the motion on the environment, although hyped by Operation Noah, Ekklesia and others, it is likely that the first two bullet points would have been addressed anyway by EIAG, and the third took on board its views as expressed in  GS 1942B. However, those with experience in meeting mandatory environmental targets will appreciate that the effectiveness of the reconstituted Shrinking the Footprint working group[1] will be limited unless supported at a senior level throughout the Church.

House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage

Following its meeting on 13 February, the House of Bishops issued a Statement of Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage as an appendix to a pastoral letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York addressed to the clergy and people of the Church of England. Although having no statutory force, statements of the House of Bishops are nevertheless significant in a quasi-legislative context[2]. The Statement has attracted a number of comments, here, here, and elsewhere, to which will be adding our own, although at first sight it appears little more than placing the HoB’s 2005 pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships in the context of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, with a slight nod towards the on-going Pilling deliberations. However, although it contains no new directions or conclusions that could not have been deduced from the earlier Statement, it now gives more certainty in relation to: access to the sacraments and pastoral care for people in same-sex marriages; acts of worship following civil same-sex weddings; and the implications for clergy and ordinands.

Girl Guide Promise

Readers may recall the dismay in some quarters when after a major consultation exercise with its members GirlguidingUK announced that it was dropping references to “God” from the Promise. The matter was debated at Synod, which agreed the following:

“That this Synod:

(a) congratulate Girlguiding on its recent Centenary and applaud the work in helping girls and young women to take their place as full and responsible members of their communities;

(b) believe that girls and women of all ages in the Girlguiding Movement should be able to continue to promise to love God when enrolled; and

(c) commend the suggestion that, when a member chooses so to do, the Promise may be prefaced with the phrase ‘In the presence of God I make my Guide Promise'”.

GirlguidingUK has decided to meet critics half-way, agreeing that so long as the new Promise is respected members may add their own preface to add “context”. However, the movement has issued its own statement setting out the official position very clearly:

“Girlguiding remains fully committed to having one Promise for all and to the words that came out of our extensive consultation. There has been no change in that position.

Whilst the majority of members are comfortable with the wording, we recognise that a small minority of people want a way to specifically acknowledge their commitment to God within their guiding life.

There is no set script for Leaders or girls for Promise celebrations and so IF a member chooses to do so it is permissible for her to provide the context of her own belief before making our Promise.

To be clear, this is not an alternative Promise or additional line within the Promise. Rather it is a distinct personal statement, separate to our Promise. This approach maintains one Promise for all within Girlguiding”.

Public bodies reform

Although the Government’s on-going programme of public bodies reform, (a.k.a. “the bonfire of the quangos”), might seem to have little to do with law and religion, non-governmental public bodies (NGPBs) are responsible for much of the quasi-law that is applicable to religious groups and individuals; and any changes in their structure or powers are therefore important.  The Government’s (failed) attempt to remove the general duty of the Equality and Human Rights Commission under section 3, Equality Act 2006, is one such example resulting from this initiative.

On 7 February, the National Audit Offices published a report Progress on Public Bodies Reform which indicated that by 31 December 2013, 93 per cent of the planned abolitions and mergers had been completed, reducing the number of public bodies in the Reform Programme by 283 to 621. Under the  Programme it is the intention of the Cabinet Office to reduce the number of bodies by 306, through abolition and merger. The report states that there have been reductions in spending by public bodies and that an estimated £723 million was saved in 2012-13 compared with 2010-11. However, it admits that

“even after all planned reforms have been completed, the public bodies landscape will still be complex. More needs to be done to increase the transparency of remaining public bodies. Furthermore, the Cabinet Office and departments have, so far, been unable to collect quantifiable evidence to measure the wider value of reforms for public services, citizen trust and participation.”

The Public Bodies Act 2011 gives ministers significant powers to institute these and future changes.

Stained glass repairs

One consequence of the current batch of stormy weather is the likelihood that a number churches will have suffered damage to their stained glass, and an item in Tuesday’s daily bulletin of the Health and Safety Executive alerted readers to the hazards associated with in the manufacture and repair of stained glass. The HSE reported that a stained glass artist has been fined £18,000 with a further £18,000 costs after one of his employees suffered severe lead poisoning with seven times the normal amount of lead in his blood after five years of restoring windows, using techniques such as soldering, wire brushing and wire woolling.

The offence related to a breach of 6(1) of the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002, and whilst the Regulations impose no associated liability relating to the parish churches, abbeys and ministers that had commissioned the work, this prosecution highlights the importance of the responsible sourcing of any materials or services. However, this may be difficult in practice. The response to the question “Where can I find a professional to undertake a repair project?” on the Q&A page of the National Churches Trust web site suggests “You could start your search through the Trust’s Professional Trades Directory” but adds the caveat “Please note that these organisations have paid to be listed and their listing does not imply endorsement or approval by the National Churches Trust – you should seek professional advice before engaging any contractors on a project”.

And finally . . . . . . . . .

Canon lawyers might wish to read Dr Ed Peters’ thorough fisking of the Daily Mail article “How a pope called Pius turned the confessional box into a paradise for paedophiles” in which he concludes that “except for … three things, Cornwall’s [the writer of the piece’s] assertion about Pius X’s unprecedented order in 1910 to seven-year-olds to confess their sins stands up as well as any assertion wrong in so many respects stands up—if it’s made in a fact-free zone”.


[1] With a remit of: reporting directly to the Archbishops’ Council, and monitoring, facilitating coordinating and promoting the responses of all parts of the Church of England to environmental challenges.

[2] Bland v Archdeacon of Cheltenham [1972] Fam 157, at 166; M Hill, Ecclesiastical Law. 3rd ed. (2007,  OUP), 21-22.

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