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William Haines on Civil Law and Religious Law

William Haines on Shariah Law and UK Civil LawWilliam Haines - Civil Law and Religious Law
March 11th, 2008

William Haines said he was not surprised by the response to the Archbishop's comments on Sharia. The anti-Islamic comments were not unexpected. What was shocking was the vilification of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggesting that there was no place whatsoever for religion in English law and that the Archbishop had no business to be speaking on such matters.

This was shocking because it revealed an extraordinary ignorance about English history and political culture.  Since the days of Alfred the Great Christians have tried to make English law conform to Biblical standards. The cornerstone of English constitutional law, the Magna Carta, was drawn up by the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Since then English law has tried to reflect and protect the way of life of the people living in these islands who were Christians. Laws of marriage and family were informed by Canon law and the moral legislation of the nineteenth century sought to further embody such values by restricting homosexuality and gambling etc. This is because Christians, in common with all religious people, aspire to live in a society governed by God's laws.

Furthermore England could be described as a liberal theocracy. The Queen who is Head of State, is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the established church. This interpenetration of church and state occurs at every level of English society, all the way down to the level of the parish council. Although the royal prerogative to appoint bishops is exercised nowadays by the Prime Minister, in days gone by the monarch played a more active role. Furthermore the Queen took the coronation oath where she promised to 'maintain the laws of God.' She was then crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. So while who is the monarch has been determined by Parliament, the authority of the Queen also has a sacred origin. There are also Bishops in the House of Lords.

Of course much of this is an empty shell now and many people want to dismiss it as archaic and are in the process of dismantling it. Personally I think these aspects of our spiritual and political culture should be revived and renewed. For example as well as the Prince of Wales wishing to be 'defender of faiths' I think that alongside the Anglican bishops should sit the Archbishop of Westminster with a couple of his colleagues, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland,   President of the Methodist Conference, the Chief Rabbi, along with a suitably chosen Muslim, Hindu and Sikh. On many spiritual and moral issues religious leaders should be able to bring the wisdom of their tradition to bear on legislation and public discourse. The law after all is supposed to reflect and protect the way of life of a community. This is what the common law used to do having its source of authority in immemorial custom.

These laws created a space for people to live in freedom. Of course for a long time people who didn't conform to the established church were persecuted but as time went on a political settlement was reached which allowed a considerable degree of religious liberty. Different sects were allowed to organise themselves according to their own beliefs, traditions, laws and values.

Recently other Enlightenment secular values have been dominating the political discourse of our country. These values are an expression of what could be described as a secular religion with its own morality commonly called political correctness expressed in the language of human rights. It is these abstract rights that trump other moral traditions and cut a swathe through traditional forms of life. Thus appeals to abstract equality undercut the traditional morality which regards homosexuality as a sin for example so that it will soon be a criminal offense to preach such traditional doctrines. So religious communities are losing the right to constitute themselves in the way that they have always done and instead are having to conform to secular moral values.

The demand by secularists that everyone should conform to the ethics of political correctness and that there should be one law that applies to everyone is inherently totalitarian as the content of that law increasingly makes 'windows into people's souls'. The demand that there should be no exceptions betrays an ignorance of English law which has always been based on precedent and not abstract notions of justice. It is only a matter of time that circumcision is classified as a violation of human rights - after all, can an 8 day old boy given informed consent to his body being mutilated for no good medical reason? It is only a matter of time before the animal rights lobby ban traditional methods of killing animals for kosher and halal meat. It is only a matter of time before sex equality legislation rules that it is illegal for Catholics not to ordain female priests. Already there are moves to prevent RE teachers from presenting the traditional moral teaching of religions on certain subjects so as to avoid causing offense.

This increasingly intrusive secularisation of public life means that English Christians no longer find their way of life and values reflected and protected by the law of the land as they used to be. The Christian content of the law has been squeezed out. This is despite the fact that 75% of the population describe themselves as Christian. With the increasing secularisation and well publicised stories of the removal of Christian symbols from the public space I think Christians feel less at home than they used to. By contrast, if you go to Southhall during Diwali the street decorations clearly reflect Diwali. By contrast it has been decades since 'Christmas' lights had any Christian content. I think Peter Mullen's recent article in the Telegraph would illustrate my point very well.

In fact Christians appear to be disenfranchised compared to other religions. If you go to Southhall during Diwali the street decorations clearly reflect Diwali. By contrast it has been decades since 'Christmas' lights had any Christian content. English Christians don't have a body comparable to the Beth Din and Sharia courts where they can seek judgements based on Christian teaching. In the past there were Church courts that dealt with matters of marriage and the family but these were transferred to the civil courts in the 19th century. Since then Parliament has changed the laws on divorce, homosexuality, abortion etc. so that they no longer even pretend to reflect traditional Christian morality. In contrast ordinary Jews and Muslims can go to a religious court and have their affairs judged according to religious law. As far as I am aware there aren't any comparable Christian courts that are available for regular members of Christian churches.

So it is time to renew the religious basis of our society and stop the imposition of secular moral values on religious communities.