Law and religion round-up – 10th June

Abortion in Northern Ireland, confessions, pews, cakes, safeguarding – and redundancies…

Abortion law in Northern Ireland

On 7 June, the Supreme Court handed down judgment in Human Rights Commission for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland: Abortion) [2018] UKSC 27: the majority ruled that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission lacked standing to bring the proceedings. We noted the judgment here, though without any attempt at analysis:  we also noted the subsequent exchange in the House of Commons.

Seal of the confessional?

On Tuesday, The Times (£) published a letter from HH Rupert Bursell QC, the nub of which was as follows:

“[T]he legal situation remains unclear as to whether there is a ‘seal of the confessional’ recognised by English law of which Anglican (as opposed to Roman Catholic) canon law is part. For the sake of all those who are, or may in the future be, abused this needs urgently to be clarified. In particular, if the law does indeed recognise such a privilege (akin to that of a lawyer and client) it should be made entirely clear that no such privilege arises if the abuser has not handed himself or herself in to the police or to social services and absolution has been given. If the church will not pass such legislation then parliament should, as I stated in my evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.”

In his presentation to the IICSA hearing on 13 March 2018, Dr Bursell gave evidence inter alia on the seal of the confessional: see pages 76 to 81 inclusive, Day 7 Transcript. He indicated that he had written a paper for the commission appointed by the House of Bishops to look into the doctrinal and legal aspects of the seal of the confessional. [Note: This is not to be confused with Dr Bursell’s paper “The Seal of the Confessional”, Ecclesiastical Law Journal [1990] 2, (7), 84-109].

He explained to the IICSA that the Legal Advisory Commission had been asked to advise the House of Bishops about the position and “it couldn’t actually come to a common mind”. Consequently, he forwarded his communication to that commission. At the time, he indicated that the House of Bishops’ report was “fairly imminent”; it now appears as though it will not be discussed until December.

Masterpiece Cakeshop

On 4 June, in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd et al v Colorado Civil Rights Commission et al 584 U. S. __ (2018) 3, the US Supreme Court ruled by 7-2 that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s assessment of the reasons why the proprietor of the plaintiff cakeshop had refused to make a cake for a same sex couple’s wedding had violated the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. We posted a long piece on the judgment, here, principally arguing that, however similar the facts, the judgment was unlikely to have any great relevance to the outcome of the appeal in the Ashers Baking case, Lee v McArthur & Ors [2016] NICA 29,

Written Question – Jeremy Pemberton

On 4 June 2018, Ben Bradshaw (Exeter, Lab) asked the Church Commissioners “how much the Church of England spent on the employment tribunal involving Jeremy Pemberton; and if she will make a statement” 149586. On 6 June, Dame Caroline Spelman, the Second Church Estates Commissioner replied: “It is not the practice of the Church Commissioners to disclose expenditure on the costs of legal proceedings of this kind (they are not required to do so under s.5 Episcopal Endowments and Stipends Measure 1943). The Church Commissioners have decided not to pursue the claimant for the costs they incurred as a result of his unsuccessful tribunal and subsequent appeals”.

Church Commissioner’s Questions

On 7 June, Caroline Spelman answered questions on modern slavery, Middle East peace, Church of England and Church of Scotland relations, the LGBTQ community, bellringing, Nigerian Christians, religious literacy, overseas orphanages, affordable housing and gay conversion therapy. The Church of England’s Parliamentary Affairs Unit has provided a transcript of the Q&As.


This week, the IICSA held preliminary hearings relating to abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, and to abuse within the Church of England. A preliminary hearing into the English Benedictine Congregation took place on the morning of Tuesday 5 June 2018; a copy of the agenda is here and transcript here. A report of the hearing was carried in The Tablet, entitled Urgent call for interim report on Catholic Church by national sex abuse inquiry

On 21 May, the Inquiry had clarified that, in relation to the English Benedictine Congregation case study, the Inquiry does not intend to hear evidence in relation to Worth Abbey and School. Further public hearings in this investigation will take place on 12 November 2018 (Archdiocese of Birmingham case study) and 4 February 2019 (Ealing Abbey case study).

With regard to the Church of England, on 6 June the IICSA announced further details into the Peter Ball hearing, which is to be held from 23-27 July. A copy of the agenda of Wednesday’s meeting is here and a transcript here. During this preliminary hearing, counsel to the Inquiry, Fiona Scolding QC, outlined preparations for the July hearing including the current status of witness statements and the themes and issues that will be addressed. Ms Scolding also referred to the Church’s independent inquiry into the handling of the Ball case by Dame Moira Gibb, whose report was published last summer. The Inquiry has also requested a witness statement from both His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and his principal private secretary. The Prince’s solicitors have indicated their client’s willingness to assist us and have raised a number of important issues for the IICSA to consider.

Pews and perceptions

The Oxford consistory court judgment Re Our Lady of Bloxham [2018] ECC Oxf 2 was published recently but, from the various reports in the media, one could be forgiven for thinking they were describing different cases. For those seeking an authoritative review, the obvious starting point is the 7-page judgment itself, or the succinct summary on the Ecclesiastical Law Association website:

“The Deputy Chancellor granted a confirmatory faculty for the removal and disposal of seven pews, which were removed without faculty in 2011 in order to provide a children’s area, a display, a welcome area and the extension of the dais, but he required that the pew frontals removed at the same time were returned to the church”.

For those who require a degree of “corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude” to this basic (albeit convincing) narrative, the judgment will be reviewed in our June consistory court round-up. However, readers should not read too much into headlines that indicate:  “An Oxfordshire church ‘harmed’ its historical significance by ripping out its pews”, (Oxford Times & ors); the Chancellor actually found that “the level of harm, while not negligible, is minor [13]; and there was no evidence before the court on how the pews were removed, “ripped out” or otherwise. Also, the Chancellor did not rule that “four of the pews must be returned to the church” (Oxford Times), it was four pew frontals. The Chancellor’s comment that it was “highly unfortunate, to put it mildly” (various sources) appeared to be referring to the removal of the pews without faculty authorization of the previous incumbent and PCC, not the removal per se.

A report in the Banbury Guardian quoted the present incumbent as saying the diocese had “made quite a fuss” over the pews (surprise, surprise) but “apparently the archdeacon gave permission for them to be removed at the time, but it was never written down”! He also claimed that the date of the removal was 2006, “but the court document says it was in 2011”. Perhaps this is not surprising: the Chancellor noted that “[he attached] little weight to the parish’s statement of needs, given that it concerns the general re-ordering which the parish hopes for at some stage, devoting one paragraph to the removal of the seven pews currently being considered” [9].

Finally, on the subject of differences in perception, whilst Sir Nikolaus Pevsner considered Our Lady of Bloxham as “one of grandest churches in the country”, Betjeman commented that the spacious  aisled and clerestoried interior [i.e. not “closely-packed furniture” of the Statement of Significance] had been “harshly restored by G E Street”, who was most probably the designer of the pews in question.

Christian Today

We were saddened when, on 7 June, the Church Times reported that Christian Today, the US-run news website, had stripped its editorial office in London of reporters; at the end of last week, three journalists — James Macintyre, the managing editor, Harry Farley, the news editor, and the junior staff writer Joseph Hartropp — were informed that they were being made redundant. The only remaining journalist will be the Revd Mark Woods, a former editor of the Baptist Times and a consulting editor at the Methodist Recorder until he joined Christian Today. The reason given for the redundancies is a downturn in the advertising revenue upon which the site relies.

Quick Links

  • York Minster: Masterplanning: the Minster consulting on a master-plan to explore how the Precinct could evolve in the future to meet the changing needs of its community and visitors: it will run until midnight on Saturday 30 June.

And finally…

The British and Foreign Bible Society has been fined £100,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office after its computer network was hacked in 2016 and payment card and bank account details of some of its supporters put at risk. The ICO’s Head of Enforcement, Steve Eckersley, said that the Society

“failed to protect a significant amount of personal data and exposed its supporters to possible financial or identity fraud. Our investigation determined that it is likely that the religious belief of the 417,000 supporters could be inferred, and the distress this kind of breach can cause cannot be underestimated.”

We’d have thought that a hacker guessing their religious leanings was the least of their worries. But it does underline the need for the utmost care in handling personal information.


One thought on “Law and religion round-up – 10th June

  1. What’s also odd about the ICO press release on the religious belief thing, is that I don’t see it reflected in the actual civil monetary penalty notice. It may be there and I’ve missed it. But ICO’s press releases often appear to be sloppily written and to contain unsupportable assertions.

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