Blasphemy

This week the the British government has tentatively moved towards abolishing blasphemy laws within England and Wales. Now speaking as a Methodist in Northern Ireland, there is a huge part of me that doesn't give a monkey's, since those laws haven't applied here for nearly 150 years and only covered the Anglican tradition anyway... But it isn't the fact of the abolition that makes me write, it is the rationale behind it.

It started as an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill by Lib Dem MP Dr. Evan Harris, who called the law "ancient, discriminatory and illiberal". Originally the government had instructed Labout MPs to vote against it but they feared yet another back-bench revolt. Then their rescuers came in the unlikely form of leading church figures, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, a noted evangelical, who wrote to the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, arguing the legislation was discriminatory as it only covers attacks on Christianity and Church of England beliefs, and that it served "no useful purpose" whilst offering some reactionary Christian activists a means to intimidate broadcasters, publishers and performers. Clearly they had in mind the recent misconceived attempt by ultra-conservative evangelical group "Christian Voice" to prosecute the director general of the BBC for blasphemy over the screening of the musical Jerry Springer - The Opera. If ever there was a mis-named group it is that...

So... the government are now scurrying off to "consult" with the Church of England about erasing this medieval legislation.

The Lord God Almighty does not need the protection of these or any other laws. Don Horrocks, of the Evangelical Alliance, agreed that there was "no real argument" for retaining such laws, saying: "Everybody knows it's not really going to be used again." He however, was anxious that changing the legislation could "send out a signal" that "gratuitous abuse and offence" is acceptable.

I think that well be the case... Some of those arguing for abolition and for a secular state talk about "mutual respect", but sadly that respect is not always played out as people exercise that other great core belief of secularism: "free speech."

And within the Christian church, we have not always led by example in that. People from all denominational and theological wings of the church (not just groups like Christian Voice, but liberal activists too) have behaved in ways that are massively disrespectful of the beliefs and behaviour of others, both within and outside the church. We now may well reap what we have sown... and need to start sowing a different seed.

But my great fear is that the repeal if this legislation may well be interpretted as reinforcing the secularist idea that religion, if it is to be practiced at all, is only to be practiced in the private sphere... Nicholas Hytner, ther director of "Jerry Springer - The Opera" apparently said this week: "I don't believe that the law should address what people believe. The blasphemy laws protect belief; they don't protect people."

A great sound-bite, but it suggests that belief is something that does not then work itself out in behaviour. Again, to a large extend, we have only ourselves to blame in this... Particularly within certain elements of the evangelical wing of the church we have privatised our faith... Pietistically reducing the rule of the Lord God Almighty to our own internal world, instead of living out our faith and allowing it to shape our engagement with the wider world.

Trying to protect the Lord God Almighty with balsphemy laws is pointless... but restricting his rule to your own private world... That is blasphemy.

(ps. as an amusing aside, while the Commons were merrily debating abolishing blasphemy legislation, a motion was lodged caling for the Disestablishment of the Church of England... the number allocated to the motion being 666... the number of the Beast!)

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