Law and religion roundup – 3rd December

Labour’s new Shadow Minister for Faith

Keir Starmer has appointed Baroness (Maeve) Sherlock as Shadow Minister for Faith. As well as being a working Labour Peer, she is also an Anglican priest.

No” to solar panels on a listed church

The BBC reports that an application to install 28 solar panels on the Grade II-listed St Anne’s Church in the village of Ings, near Windermere, has been rejected by the Lake District National Park Authority. The church had wanted to install the panels in light of increased usage of the church and the high cost of energy, and to reduce the energy demands of the building. A heritage statement submitted by the church admitted that the proposed panels would have some impact on the view of the church from the south but argued that they would help the building meet the Church of England’s net zero targets and positively contribute to the financial security of the church.

Planning officials said the changes would “adversely impact on the character of the building and surrounding area” and would cover the church’s “existing weathered local slate”. “Its replacement with solar panels would represent a visual intrusion, disruption and contrast in the consistency of materials in the immediate area”, and the public benefits were insufficient to outweigh the harm. 

Cedar, hyssop, prayer – and COVID

In Wiseman v Rex [2023] EWCA Crim 1363, the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) upheld the fraud conviction of the head of the Kingdom Church for selling an oil mixture that he represented would protect against or cure COVID. In 2020, the appellant, Climate Wiseman, was successfully prosecuted for fraud following an investigation by Southwark Trading Standards into the marketing and sale of an oil mixture which, he claimed, could cure COVID victims or protect against infection. According to him, it contained “cedarwood, hyssop and prayer” and had “sat upon the altar for 7 days” [5]. There had been a previous Trading Standards investigation into the Kingdom Church and Mr Wiseman in 2016 in relation to the advertisement for sale of oils to cure cancer and other serious illnesses, but no prosecution had been brought after the products were withdrawn from sale [13].

The prosecution case was that the promotion and sale of the oil mixture was little more than exploitative commercial opportunism disguised as an article of faith [8]. His defence was that he had promoted and sold the oil mixture in good faith. It was aimed at people who believed in God and when the oil mixture was combined with prayer it would work to protect against and cure COVID – and he believed in the truth of claims he made for the mixture [9].

The Court held that there had been no procedural unfairness at his trial and that the costs order had not been “manifestly excessive” [60]. Further, Mr Wiseman had extensive business interests, he was or had been a director of 24 limited companies registered at Companies House, and he had an online “Mega Store” through which he sold various oils, books and other items. There was also evidence of significant monies being transferred directly by congregation members to his personal bank account and there were multiple non-disclosures of various business interests “and a boast by the applicant (in the course of a church service held during the trial itself) of the purchase of a Ferrari” [62]. Appeal dismissed [63]. [With thanks to Howard Friedman.]

Wearing religious symbols and the CJEU

To the surprise of some (though not to us because we’d read the earlier Opinion of Advocate General Collins) on Tuesday, in OP v Commune d’Ans [2023] EUECJ C‑148/22 the CJEU held that the ban on municipal employees wearing signs or dress indicating their religious or philosophical beliefs imposed by the Commune d’Ans, in Belgium, was not incompatible with their rights under the EU Charter: we noted the case here.

Having done so, however, it also rejected as inadmissible the complaint that the ban was indirectly discriminatory against women. At which one is tempted (or, at any rate, Frank is tempted) to point out that, in reality, about 90 per cent of those who will be affected by the ban will be female Muslim employees who want to wear the hijab. There will no doubt be Jewish men who will not be able to wear their skullcaps and a few Christians of both sexes who will not be able to wear a cross in their lapels, but they will be a small minority – the overwhelming number of those affected will be female Muslims.

Which witch?

SNP MSP Natalie Don introduced a proposal for a Member’s Bill to the Scottish Parliament in 2022: her proposed Witchcraft Convictions (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill would have pardoned those convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1563. Her Bill was withdrawn when she became a minister in the Scottish Government.

And that seems to be the end of it. According to Scottish Legal News, a Scottish government spokesman said: “Natalie Don’s Member’s Bill was withdrawn when she was appointed as a minister as it is a parliamentary rule that Scottish ministers do not promote Member’s Bills. Ministers have no plans to legislate in this area.”

All we like sheep”?

On 29 November 2023, the BBC broadcast Choral Evensong from Chichester Cathedral to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Thomas Weelkes, organist and informator choristarum (instructor of the choristers) at the Cathedral from 1602 until his death. The service was interrupted by a group, most of whom are members of Christian Climate Action; they joined the service in protest of fossil fuel investments by the Diocese of Chichester. The group sang, uninvited, a penitential plainsong chant; a statement was then read out, and the group prayed prior to departing.

Some social media commentators advocated various ecclesiastical sanctions against members of the group, whilst others considered the more general issue of climate protesting clergy. However, more consistent with the impracticality of such courses of action, the statement issued by the Cathedral focused on public affairs concerns; it clarified its independent charitable status and stated that it holds no investment in companies whose main business is the extraction of coal, gas, or oil; it further noted that one reason its fund manager was selected was for their positioning on climate change and social justice.  

Furthermore, the Cathedral also acknowledged the importance of the message behind the protest – safeguarding God’s creation – an ambition that it shares and is actively working towards. The statement concludes by encouraging a collaborative approach. Congratulating the choir and organists, the Precentor, Daniel Inman, said, “I feel Weelkes would have enjoyed every part of it…!” adding, “In honour of Weelkes, we went to the pub to recover”. Choristers will be aware that Weelkes’ behaviour was frequently a cause of concern; in 1619:

Dyvers tymes & very often come so disguised eyther from the Taverne or Ale house into the quire as is muche to be lamented, for in these humoures he will bothe curse & sweare most dreadfully, & so profane the service of God …

Quick links

And finally…I

The Telegraph reports that a Department for Education study examining the impact of systems such as ChatGPT on the jobs market has concluded that clergy are in the top 20 professions most likely to be affected by AI. Clergy members were ranked as the 13th most exposed to “large language model” systems out of the 365 categories of occupation studied – they were deemed slightly less likely to be affected than local government administrators, but slightly more vulnerable than university lecturers.

Hmm… Large language model systems might (or might not) improve the standard of sermons, but we can’t see an AI chatbot being much use to a grieving family that has just lost a child…

And finally…II

We were intrigued to read in the recently-reviewed judgment Re St John the Evangelist Crosby-on-Eden [2023] ECC Car 3 that Pevsner had described Robert Billings’ “playful and exuberant building design” as “rather naughty”. “The tower is an architectural tour-de-force which has impressed critics down the years with its interesting and idiosyncratic interpretation of the gothic style; the unusual tower with its tall lucarnes and oversized crockets is unique and eye-catching”. Indeed. 

One thought on “Law and religion roundup – 3rd December

  1. The idea that a church (design) might be “naughty” is delightful. However, I note that the Neutral Citation given for the case of St John the Evangelist has gone before him – to another case, In re All Saints’ Church, Scotby, a decision of Richard Lander, Dep Ch, on 5 July 2023. I don’t know who sorts out these clashes in the consistory court (they routinely occur in the civil courts as well) but perhaps they can be notified? Thanks!

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