Law and religion round-up – 11th February

A week in which General Synod welcomed plans for mutual recognition of ministries with the Methodist Church – and the Masons got their aprons in a twist…

Anglicans and Methodists

The Church of England General Synod has voted in favour of a motion welcoming the joint report, Mission and Ministry in Covenant, co-written by the two Churches’ faith and order bodies and published last year, which sets out proposals for intercommunion and the interchange of presbyteral ministries. The motion acknowledges that there is further work needed in a number of areas, including on how the proposals would be worked out in practice, and calls on the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission to update Synod on this work at its next group of sessions in July. An amendment to the motion speaks of “confident hope” that outstanding issues can be resolved quickly. On the Methodist side, it is thought unlikely that proposals will be brought to the Methodist Conference for discussion before 2019.

More on church bells and planning

In reply to a further written question from Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet, Con) on church bells, Dominic “standing up for England’s churches” Raab said:

“The revised National Planning Policy Framework will clearly set out that the developer or ‘agent of change’ should be responsible for mitigating noise impacts and other potential nuisances arising from existing businesses and other organisations, such as churches when locating new development or changing uses nearby. However, noise nuisance complaints in existing developments are not handled through the planning system. They are subject to the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and other relevant law. We are committed to working across government to further strengthen the ‘agent of change’ principle in policy and guidance.”

Whilst the point regarding EPA 1990 and common law provisions may be news to the headline writers, it should be no surprise to our readers following our comments in an earlier round-up. Continued governmental interest is perhaps no coincidence since, in January, Dover District Council announced it would write to the Government to seek further guidance in dealing with statutory noise nuisance from church bells and chimes; Dover DC  has itself been the subject of a complaint from the Sandwich Town Council relating to its handling of the matter. We will return to the issue in a later post. 

Offensive communications online

The Government has asked the Law Commission to review the laws on offensive communications to see whether they provide the right protection to victims of online harassment. Perhaps surprisingly, research indicates that nearly a third of UK internet users have been on the receiving end of trolling, harassment or cyberbullying in 2017.

The Commission is to undertake “a robust review of the current laws” and how they apply to online communications. The review is expected to be published within six months and if deficiencies in the current law are identified, the Commission has agreed to further work looking at potential options for reform. As Law Commissioner Professor David Ormerod QC rightly observed: “There are laws in place to stop abuse but we’ve moved on from the age of green ink and poison pens”.  The Commission will analyse:

  • how the Malicious Communications Act 1988 deals with offensive online communications;
  • how the Communications Act 2003 deals with online communications;
  • what “grossly offensive” means and whether that poses difficulties in legal certainty;
  • whether the law means you need to prove fault or prove intention to prosecute offensive online communications;
  • the need to update definitions in the law which technology has rendered obsolete or confused, such as the meaning of “sender”; and
  • how other parts of the criminal law overlap with online communications laws.

From the United Grand Lodge

The following letter appeared in national newspapers last week:

“At the United Grand Lodge of England, we value honesty, integrity and service to the community above all else. Last year we raised over £33 million for good causes. As an organisation we welcome individuals from all walks of life, of any race, faith, age, class or political persuasion.

Throughout our 300 year history, when people have suffered discrimination Freemasonry has embraced them into our lodges as equals. The United Grand Lodge of England believes that the ongoing gross misrepresentation of its 200,000 plus members is discrimination. Pure and simple. Our members shouldn’t have to feel undeservedly stigmatised. No other organisation would stand for this and nor shall we. I have written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to make this case.

I appreciate that you may have questions about who we are and what we do, so why not ask those who know? Over the next six months our members will be running a series of open evenings and Q&A events up and down the country. These will be promoted in the local media and on our website. I am also happy to answer any queries directly. Please feel free to write to me here at Freemasons’ Hall, 60 Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5AZ and I will come back to you. We’re open.

Dr David Staples, Chief Executive, The United Grand Lodge of England.”

Obviously, if an individual Freemason is discriminated against on grounds of his masonry, he might conceivably be able to claim the protections afforded by “religion or belief” in s.10 Equality Act 2010 (which is defined as “any religious or philosophical belief”) and “thought, conscience and religion” under Article 9 ECHR. But could the same conceivably apply to general media criticism of Freemasonry, always provided that the criticism is temperate and doesn’t degenerate into hate-speech? It will be interesting to see the EHRC’s response. [And neither of us is a Mason, by the way.]

General Synod, 8-10 February

We tend to restrict our coverage of General Synod to issues of legislative business, since other aspects are comprehensively covered by Thinking Anglican here, here and here, and by others including Stephen Lynas (a.k.a. bathwellschap),  here, with his “(fairly) personal view of General Synod by one who is there”. Proceedings are covered in detail on the Church of England web pages, and Press Release during this period included the motion on food waste, Synod’s welcome of the move towards communion with the Methodist Church, and its affirmation of the dignity and humanity of people with Down’s Syndrome.

During the proceedings, a diocesan registrar tweeted “I totally sympathise with those following #synod complaining about legislative business being difficult to follow. No sympathy at all for those members of Synod who make this complaint. You stood for a election to a legislative chamber!” Readers will also be pleased to see that Trim Valley Notices for the week reflect the week’s debates, and for today, 11 February:

“Please note that our friend from the Methodists, Revd Matthias Marwood, will be leading the communion service at Woodby Chapel. In keeping with our interpretation of the Synod vote, he will be wearing a special stole bearing the words “’I am a temporary anomaly’”.

Church of England websites

On 5 February, Lambeth Palace tweeted “We’re delighted to launch a new website for the Archbishop of Canterbury! Take a look around and watch our new film about @JustinWelby’s life, faith and work:” Likewise, the Archbishop of York’s web pages have had a makeover. Both sites follow the same format as the recently-updated main site. Although the revised “A Church Near You” with its links to the main site also follows the same corporate style, with its narrower range of subject material, it is far more compact, enabling “simple navigation”; it also has an efficient search engine.

Same-sex marriage in Bermuda

On 8 February, in a response to an urgent question by Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab), the UK government said it would not be “appropriate” to block Bermuda’s decision to repeal same-sex marriage. Harriett Baldwin, Minister of State, Department for International Development stated:

“in terms of UK Government policy, we are explicitly committed to rights for equal marriage. We have to emphasise that, in this particular case, there are not grounds for intervention in the first instance”.

Following a Supreme Court ruling, Bermuda legalised marriage between same-sex couples in May 2017; however, the new Domestic Partnership Act which was approved by Bermuda Governor John Rankin on Wednesday, reverses this legalisation. The Minister commented:

“…progress being made around the world on this issue, and our overseas territories observe different states of that legislative progress. Five Caribbean territories—Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands—currently have no recognition at all of same-sex unions … having carefully considered those issues, the Secretary of State decided that in this case it would not be appropriate to use his powers to block the legislation. Such powers can be used only where there is a legal or constitutional basis for doing so, and even then only in exceptional circumstances. His judgment was that when engaging with the British overseas territories we must respect the fact that they are separate, self-governing jurisdictions with their own democratically elected representatives that have the right to self-government”.

The decision in Bermuda is likely to have an impact on those in the UK, and elsewhere. The BBC notes that the cruise companies Cunard and P&O Cruises, both of which register their ships in Bermuda, had said they were “very unhappy” about the change in legislation, which will outlaw same-sex marriage ceremonies on their liners. “We do not underestimate the disappointment this will cause those guests who have planned their weddings,” the companies said in an identically-worded statement.

No change in ONS marriage statistics

The Christian Institute reports that following a consultation, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has decided not to combine marriage statistics with those for same-sex marriage; Of more than 350 submissions to the ONS, 99.4 per cent of respondents called for the statistics to be presented separately. The Institute further notes that “had the change gone through, it would have become impossible to measure the differences in duration between marriage types, or calculate the divorce rate”.

“Stand Up for Jesus” but also sit down in comfort…

…at St Luke Middlestown, at least, where a faculty was granted for the removal of 18 pews and their replacement with 100 wooden chairs upholstered in red. The proposal was not recommended by the Leeds DAC, who opined that the chairs were heavy and would be difficult to move, and the dark red upholstered chairs would be detrimental to the light levels and appearance of the church interior. After visiting the church, Chancellor Mark Hill QC pondered “whether perhaps the DAC’s ultimate conclusion might have been different had its membership visited the church”. A fuller summary will be included in February’s round-up but, for the impatient, the full judgment is here.

Quick links

And finally…I

An earlier post considered the installation of plaques &c in a church without permission. In view of Tuesday’s events marking the Representation of the People Act 1918, readers may be interested in Jeremy Corbyn’s account of how he and Tony Benn placed the plaque to Emily Wilding Davison in the broom cupboard of the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster. (Presumably, it being a Royal Palace and probably a Peculiar, they didn’t need a faculty.)

And finally…II



2 thoughts on “Law and religion round-up – 11th February

  1. Church Bells and alleged ‘public noise nuisance’: Readers may be interested to know that the Revd Prebendary Simon Cawdell, a member of General Synod from Hereford Diocese, has just tabled the following Private Member’s Motion:

    “That this Synod requests the Archbishops’ Council to consult with HM Government and others with a view to protecting the ringing of church bells throughout the country from unreasonable restriction and, if appropriate in the light of the outcome of such consultation, to bring forward legislation to that end.”

    The PMM should be available on the CofE website from Monday for Synod members to sign (by sending an e-mail) to show their support. It will require 100 signatures for the Synod’s Business Committee to consider adding it for debate to the agenda of a future group of sessions.

    • Thanks for the information, David. I will include the link to the PMM in the piece I am writing on church bells which should be posted in the coming week. The list of PMMs is one part of the revised CofE web site which is easy to find!

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