Archbishop speaks on freedom of expression, religious intolerance and prejudice in the UK

On 17th October 2018 the House of Lords debated a motion from Communities Minister Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, “That this House takes note of the challenges posed by religious intolerance and prejudice in the United Kingdom.” The Archbishop of Canerbury, Most Revd Justin Welby, spoke in the debate. A transcript is below, with excerpts from the speeches of others in the debate:
The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and others who have made this useful and important debate possible. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hain, I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said. I agree also with the passionate and clear setting out by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, of the threats and incidents that have occurred in recent years. However, I want to focus more on religious intolerance and prejudice. If I have one concern, it is how we bring together religious tolerance, and stand against the kind of things the noble Lord, Lord Hain, spoke about, while maintaining freedom of speech.
In his book, The Home We Build Together, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, wrote:
“Society is not a house or a hotel. It should be a home”.
The rising tide of anti-Semitism, with which I am deeply familiar through work with the Chief Rabbi, and Islamophobia, which we in the Church are deeply familiar with through working with Muslim leaders across the country, are just two illustrations of the narrowing of those who feel truly at home in the UK today. This terrible, storm-ridden climate is affecting people across a whole range of religious traditions.

We have just heard the noble Lord, Lord Hain, set out many of the incidents at temples and gurdwaras, the abuse of people in the street and so on.
Freedom of belief and freedom of speech are fragile plants that need to be intertwined if they are to flourish. They are both menaced by the chill that comes from constraining their expression, except when freedom of speech is promoting hatred. They easily wither, as I have found in many of our churches across the 165 countries of the Anglican communion. We stand against that, through the Commonwealth and the United Nations, but it is the call of religious leaders to bring them together and stand up for them.

Free speech may well be robust, even humorous, as I discovered recently, when a friend of Mr Blobby described me in terms that I cannot use in this House. More politely, I and those on these Benches are often described as those who believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden. That kind of bluntness is good and proper. However, for it to work, there must be a context of what the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, describes in his books as a “culture of civility”. Today’s multifaith society means that we live in a context of diverse religious practice. For some, this is welcome and enriching—I put myself among them—while others find it strange and threatening. Whatever your views on that, it is clear that debate in Britain across a range of issues risks losing the gains we have made in the post-war period: gains of civility and respect. If you watch the news, read a newspaper or go on social media—let alone stand up against right-wing, fascist and other extremist activity, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has done throughout his life—you will know that there is a notable absence of genuine dialogue and listening to different views.

I also wonder that, for all our rich Christian heritage in this country, as seen in our laws, practices and many of our values, the breadth of view which we tolerate has become less and less wide. There are many Christians with whom I disagree on the expression of their views in particular areas. There is a long history of Christians disagreeing with each other: Lambeth Palace has a prison for this. It has not been in recent use, although I am from time to time tempted. However, even where I disagree, I want to uphold the right of these people to say things that are neither fashionable nor conventional today. That has certainly been examined in the Supreme Court recently, through the Ashers case. Again, although there might be things in that case that I would question, it is a thoughtful, erudite and profound examination of the intertwining of freedom of belief and freedom of expression.

There is an attitude—I think this is the underlying issue we face—that there are no absolutes, except the statement that there are no absolutes. That is an absolute. We are told that to criticise that statement that there are no absolutes is, in fact, to be an extremist. ​Certainly, as a Christian who believes in the love of God found in Jesus Christ, I have what some people would call absolute views. But almost every day I meet people who do not share those views. I thank God for those encounters, and for the people themselves, who deepen and enrich my understanding.

Jesus criticised directly, bluntly and forcefully, and was criticised himself. He answered his critics, yet he loved them. It is the last bit that we are missing. Love in that context is not a warm and cuddly feeling. What it means in practice is accepting that the other has as valuable a place as me and is fully part of the national fabric. This may be what is behind the trouble that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, explained so carefully: the sense that the people who are attacked, diminished and marginalised are, in some way, not considered to be fully British. Anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, anti-Hindu, anti-Sikh or other attacks have as a presupposition that only “my sort of person” is welcome here. Those who attack them require not just integration but assimilation, so that no difference is seen, but clearly that is impossible and the prospect of it is diminishing. Most religious belief demands a loyalty beyond country or group—a loyalty to ultimate truth. It says there are absolutes, and we should rejoice at them and listen to the narrative. Competitive narratives encourage developing traditions, secular or sacred.

As a Christian, I am encouraged by the Bible to think of myself as a pilgrim and a stranger. That status calls me to the good of the place in which I live, of the nation where I am, determined to contribute to the common good and inspired by the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. The same can be found in most of our major religious traditions in this country. That means that, for the Church of England, we will work for and on behalf of Christians, but equally, and without distinction, for those of other faiths or no faith, and especially for those who feel marginalised and under attack.

Many of the campaigns that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, listed have had strong participation by Christian leaders over the years. Religiously motivated hate crime, intolerance and prejudice have, as we know, been reported to have increased dramatically yet again. Of course there is a need for better security, and I welcome the announcement of more funding to this end from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. In the longer term, however, hate crime and extremism in religious affairs have to be resisted by religious leaders, and challenged within their own communities before their roots deepen. We cannot palm it off on others to deal with.

The Church of England seeks to act on this principle in church schools, some in areas with more than 90% intake each year from other faiths; in welcome through the Near Neighbours programme; and in interfaith gatherings at all levels, from local to national. My predecessor, Archbishop William Temple, and the then Chief Rabbi Hertz, founded the Council of Christians and Jews in 1942. It met last week; it continues and is more and more active. This support of other faiths is a part of our recent heritage in which we rejoice.

We must seek a society that is able to voice disagreement freely and to disagree well; where rich and deeply held beliefs and traditions can exist in mutual challenge ​and respect. Challenge may be tough, but limit it too much and freedom of expression suffers, and so, in the end, will freedom of belief. This is perhaps one of the most important and urgent challenges of our times. Competing narratives, whether religious or secular, test truth and action. Monopoly views, secular or religious, merely enable people to live in bubbles of mutual incomprehension, and even ignorance. Christian faith and values, or those of other faiths, are not threatened by diversity of faith. They are threatened by a failure of freedom of expression, provided it does not include incitement to hatred, however robustly used. It is in confidence in our civil discourse and in our free expression that we gain confidence in our faith, and in that mutual confidence among ourselves, confidence in this nation’s vocation in the world. This allows us to spread what we say and to exhibit what we proclaim, and, in so doing, to offer a framework within which all cultures and faiths can flourish for the common good.


Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Minister, Con):… I recall the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is a pleasure to see him in his place and we eagerly await his contribution. In the debate on shared values and public policy priorities, he said,

“we need a more beautiful and better common narrative that shapes and inspires us with a common purpose”,

He warned that we must resist,

“the turn inward that will leave us alone in the darkness, despairing and vulnerable”.—[Official Report, 2/12/16; col.418.]

I could not agree more, and I begin to see this better common narrative realised in Near Neighbours projects up and down the country, led by people of all faiths and none.

… In his contribution in response to my noble friend Lord Popat’s question on anti-Semitism, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham made the distinction between talking about people and talking with them. He said that this was the only way properly to challenge prejudice and intolerance. He is right. I once again call on everyone, whether they are a member of a faith community or not, to visit their local synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, church and temple. Let them know that you stand with them in good times and difficult times. When people from different backgrounds have the opportunity to mix socially and get to know one another, it breaks down the walls on which intolerance creeps and grows. Enter with an open mind and an open heart to hear about their traditions, and their hopes, and share yours with them.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con):… As the most reverend Primate has mentioned, love your neighbour as yourself is a fundamental law of Christian living and of many other faiths as well.

Lord Kestenbaum (Lab)… if Jews have a heightened attention to the alarm bells of prejudice then there is good reason for that, so symbols, allegiances, empathy and actions matter. When the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury goes out of his way to meet Chief Rabbi Mirvis at his home on the eve of Jewish new year to express his concerns personally and sincerely, that matters. It felt as if the Archbishop had visited every Jewish home in the country, and that mattered. Simple acts of compassion and kindness can rebuild trust and mend bridges.

Baroness Deech (CB)… I was glad to see the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking today and note that the Church of England has adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

Lord Beith (LD)… Some of the problems that Christians have faced arise from a clash of rights between people of fundamentally different views. As a society, we have to resolve such clashes in sensible and understanding ways. Some of it arises from overzealous and bureaucratic interpretation of things like equality legislation. The most reverend Primate referred to the Belfast bakery case. In that instance, I welcome the clarity of the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling, which draws a clear distinction between discrimination against an individual based on their opinions or sexuality, which is unlawful, and the protection of the right of an individual to refuse to express a message with which they disagreed—in this case on religious grounds. The court referred to the idea of compelled speech as not being consistent with the belief in free speech.

Lord Pickles (Con)… I join the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, in thanking the most reverend Primate for adopting the IHRA definition. I am a lead delegate on the IHRA delegation. It will make a change gradually over the years, not because it is legally binding—it is not—but because it has been adopted by police forces and education authorities, it is well established in training and used in questions of proof. Over time it will make a difference, and that is why the number of countries adopting it is growing.

Lord Bilimoria (CB):…The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he led a debate two years ago, said:

“At their heart they bring true integration based on the God-given dignity of all human beings whatever their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability or economic worth. A vision of this kind will promote cohesion around the common good, it will encourage courage and creativity, it will lead us to train young people in new skills, it will give us the strength to open new markets, to share our wealth and wisdom fairly and not only to our advantage, and to welcome the alien and the stranger. It will challenge us to be consistent and to have an eye to our relationship with future generations, notwithstanding the events that intervene”.—[Official Report, 2/12/2016; col. 418.]

From a Zoroastrian perspective, my community—one of the smallest communities in the world—has full freedom to practise our ancient religion over here in the UK. We have never been persecuted. Yet to see the persecution of the Zoroastrians in Iran is very sad.

Lord Suri (Con)… I urge Ministers to make it clear that all types of crime—hate crimes and others—against Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and other faiths must be stopped. Human beings are the image of our maker. They should be respected and not hated. As the most reverend Primate said, love thy neighbour.

Lord Cormack (Con):… The most reverend Primate touched on this when he talked about the importance of freedom of speech. One of the things that has made our country great over the centuries has been true freedom of speech. We cannot legislate against human feelings. Although it is right to punish hatred, we have to be careful how we define it. Something you deplore, which you yourself might hate, can be entirely legal. I was brought up always to think of the words of Voltaire:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

We have to be very careful when discussing these things not to get them out of perspective. Hatred is always to be deplored. To hate a man or woman for his or her religious belief is about as low as you can get. But we have to be careful. We have to recognise that a repudiation of a belief, even if it is a Christian belief that I, as a Christian, might deplore and deeply regret, is not in itself a gesture of hatred. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop touched on that.

If I were to give your Lordships an example of what I am talking about, I would say, “Go across to the Abbey, where Stephen Hawking was commemorated. Pick up your paper of this morning, if you have not yet read it, and see that in his last work, he emphatically stated: there is no God; there is no afterlife”. Yet, a truly tolerant society properly recognises that man’s genius and his contribution to the degree that he is memorialised in the Abbey along with so many of those who have made our country what it is.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Minister, Con):…My noble friend Lord Cormack spoke about the need for balance. I agree with that and about the importance of freedom of speech, and with much of what the most reverend Primate said about it, except that freedom of speech cannot exist in a vacuum. Nobody has the right to go into a crowded theatre and cry “Fire!” during a performance. That would be freedom of speech but there are laws to protect against it and I am sure that neither Voltaire nor Stephen Hawking would disagree with that. This has to be in the context that many people who fear greatly for the future of this country and their position in it are protected against some of the things happening in our country at the moment.

I too applaud the Church of England for adopting the definition of anti-Semitism, as many other institutions have done—our Government were the first in the world to do so.

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