Newsline – 29th April 2011

Newsline is the weekly newsletter from the National Secular Society.  Every week we collate the stories and issues or most importance to our members and offer reportage and insight.  Our audio edition takes the main stories and offers them in an easy-to-listen podcast, available online and via iTunes subscription (for free).

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In this week’s Newsline

  • Christian Tory “think-tank” proposes a “multi-faith House of Lords”
  • Cameron tells us that religion is going to play a big part in all our lives – like it or not
  • Catholic adoption service refused permission to discriminate against gays
  • The Catholic Church is right to be afraid of secularism – it will stop the Vatican’s power-seeking in its tracks
  • Isle of Wight to end transport subsidies to religious schools
  • Church attendances plunge

Christian Tory “think-tank” proposes a “multi-faith House of Lords”

An influential Tory think-tank, The Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF), was reported this week to be recommending that a reformed House of Lords should become “multi-faith”.

The CCF — which has previously been regarded extreme and fundamentalist — is now a major advisor to the Tory Party. It suggests that “faith leaders” from all religions and different denominations of Christianity be brought in to the Lords.

The CCF report says: “Christians need to enter the debate and make it clear that we value the presence of the Lords Spiritual, but this doesn’t have to mean unquestioning support for the status quo. There is a strong argument that our legislature would also benefit from the wisdom of leaders of Baptist, Catholic, Methodist and black-led congregations. A broad bench of Lords Spiritual drawn from a range of churches in Britain could provide a powerful vision of unity.”

The Prime Minister is said to favour the idea because he does not want the House of Lords to become a secular institution.

The issue is on the table because of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s proposals to reform the Upper Chamber. Mr Clegg’s bill is being negotiated with senior Conservative ministers and the Labour frontbench. It had been due to be unveiled last month, but has now been postponed for a few months.

The prospect of imams sitting alongside bishops is bound to provoke mixed reactions among Tories – and will expose the glaring flaws in this plan.

The Royal Commission which looked into reforming the House of Lords ten years ago proposed that the number of Anglican bishops be reduced from 26 to 16. In response, Iain McLean, Professor of Politics, Oxford University said:

“If the Church of England is assigned 16 representatives (whether by ex officio bishops or otherwise), then a total of 77 senators will be needed to represent all faith communities. Many of them will have to be female, whatever the wishes of the faith community in question, to satisfy the gender requirement.”

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, said:

“As I told the Commission then, Mr Clegg in recent months, and at every appropriate opportunity in the intervening years, a multi-faith House of Lords is the worst possible solution. The Upper House is already packed with religious people and the prospect of bringing in hundreds more is a recipe for conflict and endless religious wrangling. I thought the idea was to reduce the numbers, not increase them.”

Mr Wood said that it would not be possible to have representatives from every religion, sect and denomination in the Lords without making the numbers of so-called “Lords Spiritual” unwieldy.

“Who is to decide which religions have a legitimate entitlement in the House of Lords? Why would a Moonie or a Scientology leader be less worthy of a seat than a Muslim or Jewish one? And if the Sunnis have a representative, the Shias would want one and if the Orthodox Jews have a representative, then so should the liberal Jews.”

Religious interests are already well represented in the House of Lords, partly because of the high average age of peers. As well as Protestants, there are Catholic, Muslim and Jewish peers, including the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Warsi, who is Muslim. There are also ex-bishops who are peers.

One senior Tory was quoted in the press this week as saying:

“It is inconceivable that we continue with a faith element to the Lords without Catholic bishops being represented. It is also high time black Pentecostal leaders were better represented. As such we are going to have to consider whether other faiths are represented as well.”

One possible obstacle to this plan is the fact that Canon law 285.3 forbids Catholic clerics from assuming “public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power”.

Cameron tells us that religion is going to play a big part in all our lives – like it or not

The Government has reinforced its links with religious groups by organising a jamboree for Christian leaders at 10 Downing Street, which took place yesterday.

David Cameron hosted the reception that included religious leaders and prominent Christians in an effort to reassure them that his Government will do all it can to include them in the running of the country.

Mr Cameron said in his “Easter message” over the weekend that Christian values made an “enormous contribution” to Britain. “Easter is a time when Christians are reminded of God’s mercy and celebrate the life of Christ. Jesus taught us to love God and love our neighbour,” he said.

Baroness Warsi, the Conservative party co-chairwoman and a Muslim, claimed the previous Labour government treated religion as “a rather quaint relic of our pre-industrial history”.

Keith Porteous Wood said:

“This is another clear indication that this Government intends to attempt to de-secularise Britain and force religion on to an unwilling population. Every survey shows that while Britons are not generally hostile to religion, they do not want it interfering in their lives. Despite what the Prime Minister says, the people of this country do not look to religious leaders for moral guidance, and the country is none the worse for it – despite the claims of priests with vested interests. It is up to all of us to resist this march of mainly reactionary religion into our lives.”

Catholic adoption service refused permission to discriminate against gays

Catholic Care, a Leeds-based charity that facilitates about five adoptions a year, has appealed to the charity tribunal for permission to exclude same-sex couples, arguing that it would otherwise have to close its adoption service because its supporters would stop donating money.

It argued that restricting its service to heterosexual couples did not contravene section 193 of the Equality Act 2010. The section allows discrimination on the grounds of sexuality if this is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. However, Alison McKenna, principal judge of the charity tribunal, sitting with two lay members, ruled that the discrimination would cause same-sex couples to suffer a “significant detriment”.

The tribunal found that there must be “particularly weighty” reasons to justify discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and said the charity had not demonstrated that its donors would stop supporting it if it allowed same-sex couples to use its adoption service.

The tribunal also said Catholic Care had not yet explored all the alternatives to closure, and that expert evidence contradicted the charity’s argument that if it were to close, fewer children would be adopted.

This is another wearisome chapter in seemingly endless litigation that has cost the charity tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds, that has not been spent on finding suitable adoptive parents. The Charity Commission ruled in November 2008 that the charity could not change its objects to exclude gay couples, a decision upheld by the charity tribunal in June 2009. The High Court judge Mr Justice Briggs ruled in March 2010 that the commission must reconsider its verdict, but in August the commission reaffirmed its original decision. The charity’s latest appeal was against the commission’s August ruling.

Benjamin James, a solicitor at the law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, acting on behalf of Catholic Care, told Third Sector it would be possible for the charity to appeal to the Upper Tribunal, but it had not yet decided whether it would do so.

He said the Upper Tribunal could ask the Charity Commission to reconsider its decision and give it a direction that would make clear the grounds on which it could do so. The charity has 28 days in which to notify the tribunal if it wishes to appeal against the decision.

The Catholic Church is right to be afraid of secularism – it will stop the Vatican’s power-seeking in its tracks
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

Secularism has been the subject of a ferocious attack from Catholic interests over Easter – and despite their own attack-dog tactics, they have the cheek to label secularism “aggressive.”

First off the mark was Lord Patten of Barnes – who describes himself as a ‘cradle Catholic’ and who was drafted in by the Government last year to rescue the pope’s visit to the UK. Patten gave a lecture in a Catholic Church in which he said:

“Some of the arguments put forward by secularists against the Pope’s visit were lacking in intellectualism and were extraordinarily mean-spirited. I’m surprised the atheists didn’t have better arguments [against the Pope’s visit].”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, who led the protest against the state-funding of the Pope’s visit responded:

“There is nothing mean-spirited about asking a man who has repeatedly covered up the child abuse committed by his employees to explain himself. There is nothing intellectually lacking for a secularist to ask a religious leader not to expect the state to pay for his proselytising – especially when that state is deep in debt and when services for the poor and vulnerable are being cut. In the circumstances, the amount of money spent by the Government and local authorities on that visit was obscene. And despite the flim-flam from the Church about it being a big success, it was, in fact, a disaster. The country was almost wholly indifferent to the pope’s presence here, despite the overkill on TV arranged by Mark Thompson, the Roman Catholic director general of the BBC.”

Lord Patten said that those who reject religious belief were hypocritical to portray religious people as being narrow-minded given the level of aggression they themselves have displayed to Christians:

“It is curious that atheists have proved to be so intolerant of those who have a faith,” he said. “Their books would be a lot shorter if they couldn’t refer to the Spanish Inquisition, but it is them who tend to have a level of Castillian intolerance about them.”

Terry Sanderson said:

“Lord Patten doesn’t seem to know the difference between atheism and secularism – but, hey, we’re the ones lacking intellectual rigour. Lord Patten seems to think that the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Spanish Inquisition can be forgotten because it doesn’t fit the church’s present-day propaganda about itself. The Vatican is a dab hand at re-writing history. But that is not the only argument we have with them – far from it. Our campaign asked questions about: the ban on condoms in the fight against AIDS; poverty and sustainable world population; the undermining of women’s rights; the oppression of homosexuals; the Church’s interference in democracy (by threatening Catholics in public service with excommunication if they do not back the Vatican’s hard line policies, even those not in the interests of the relevant public); and the manipulative way in which money is extracted from poverty-stricken nations through so-called concordats. Indeed, we could fill a book with questions that the Vatican would prefer were never asked.”

(In fact you can read this very book: (Double Cross: Code of the Catholic Church by David Ranan) by ordering it from the NSS website.)

Lord Patten also said in his speech that people looked down on him intellectually for having religious belief:

“It makes people think I’m peculiar and lack intellectual fibres because I don’t have any doubts about my faith, but I’d be terrified to have doubts,” he said.

Terrified to have doubts? Isn’t that nearer the territory of the fanatic than someone claiming the intellectual high ground? Or does it simply indicate that he daren’t question his faith in case he finds it wholly lacking? And besides, Mr Patten’s own life — married to a divorcee and therefore banned from taking communion — is hardly played by the rules of the Church he so vigorously (one might say aggressively) defends.

Lord Patten is about to become chairman of the BBC Trust, an organisation that is supposed to represent the licence-payer when they wish to question or challenge the Corporation. One wonders whether he will be able to be completely impartial when the subject of religion is raised.

What, for instance, would have been the outcome if he had been in charge during the Jerry Springer – the Opera controversy? And how will he react when the next push comes from the churches for ever-more airtime?

Next up is the highly aggressive leader of Scotland’s Catholics, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who went for secularism’s jugular in an Easter sermon in Edinburgh.

The Scottish Herald called it “one of the most vehement attacks” on the secularisation of society and those who, apparently, want to “take God from the public sphere.”

Again, the term “aggressive secularists” was wheeled out (an obvious attempt to hammer it into public consciousness following the pope’s use of the term as soon as he stepped off the plane in Scotland last September).

The Cardinal then launched into the formulaic attack on the equality legislation which prevents discrimination against homosexuals – something he argues he has a right to engage in.

He said:

“Recently, various Christians in our society were marginalised and prevented from acting in accordance with their beliefs because they were not willing to publicly endorse a particular lifestyle. You have only to ask a couple with regard to their bed and breakfast business; certain relationship counsellors; and people who had valiantly fostered children for many years of their particular experiences – and I am sure they are not exaggerating them.”

Well, if Cardinal O’Brien took five minutes to follow these cases up he would discover that yes, indeed, the complainants are exaggerating them and in some instances outright lying about them. But this was not about the truth, this was about reinforcing the idea that Christians are being “persecuted” or “marginalised” or “sidelined”. God’s voice is being silenced, apparently.

But if the church is so powerless, how come it just needed to snap its fingers (behind closed doors) to make the Government withdraw its proposal to amend the Act of Settlement to stop the discrimination against Catholics taking the throne?

Cardinal Winning said that “at this present time Christians must be united in their common awareness of the enemies of the Christian faith in our country”. But it was another Christian church — the Church of England — that reportedly scuppered the bid to give Catholics equality in Britain, not the aggressive secularists. (But a prominent blogger has speculated that the Church was taking the rap for the royal family – pointing out that neither Prince Charles nor his sons were involved in any of the papal visit. Obviously the Queen, as head of state, had no alternative. And the Church of England Newspaper is reporting that it was, in fact, the Prime Minister of Canada who put the tin hat on the idea, saying Canada didn’t want to have a debate about the monarchy.)

The Cardinal’s message was not received with overwhelming enthusiasm by the political establishment in Scotland. Labour leader Iain Gray described Cardinal O’Brien’s words as a “powerful Easter reminder of the role that faith has played in Scotland’s past and present” but called for an equal platform for all faiths and none.

An aide to First Minister Alex Salmond said:

“The Catholic Church and all of Scotland’s faith groups play a vital role in Scotland’s national life, and the Cardinal advocates Christian beliefs on that basis, as he is entitled.”

An aide to Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott said:

“All faiths and those who don’t follow a faith should be respected equally. Discrimination of any kind should not be tolerated in a modern Scotland.”

So the ranting and raving Cardinal has not made the impression he had hoped.

Then, south of the border, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, leader of Catholics in England and Wales, suggested in his homily that those who don’t believe what he believes are more likely to kill their loved ones (presumably he is referring to assisted suicide). He said:

“Without that faith, life would be shaped only by the meaning I can give it. Without such faith we can become afraid of living. Indeed, in pain and loneliness, or in even the prospect of pain and loneliness, life, for some, loses its purpose and killing oneself or a loved one becomes a beguiling temptation.”

Once again we see the Catholic Church insulting those who refuse to be part of it, and arrogantly asserting its moral superiority when many would argue that it is one of the most immoral organisations in the world.

Taken together, we have an all-out assault on secularism by the Catholic Church. It is understandable. The Vatican is a totalitarian organisation and tolerates nothing that stands in the way of its power-seeking. Secularism certainly does that.

Isle of Wight to end transport subsidies to religious schools

The latest local authority to propose cuts to subsidised travel to religious schools is the Isle of White. In doing so, the cash-strapped council hopes to save £931,000.

A report, presented to members last week, stated:

“With the cost of transport increasing, the council is unable to sustain the current level of transport offered to pupils. Pupils who attend a faith school on religious grounds currently qualify for free transport if it is their nearest faith school, rather than their nearest school generally, and this discretionary support is not available to pupils attending non-faith schools. The withdrawal of free transport would mean all pupils are treated equally, regardless of religion or belief, and release significant savings.”

“Christian parents” who will be hit by the end of this discrimination are, of course, up in arms, outraged that they will have to pay the same as everyone else if they want their children to go to a particular school that is outside their catchment area.  One parent said it was “a smash and grab raid on low-income parents” who want their children to go to a religious school.” He made no mention of the legal requirement that remains for local authorities to provide free school transport for pupils from low income families. Nor did he concede that other parents who cannot get their children into these privileged schools have to pay the full amount to transport their kids and pay council tax on top.

Following a public consultation on the issue, to be launched next month, a decision will be made by the council cabinet in June. If you live in the area, you may wish to make your views known.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:

“It is a shame that it has taken a recession for the Isle of Wight Council to recognise the unfairness of this system. But at least it has had to face up to the reality now.”

Church attendances plunge

Christian statistician Dr Peter Brierley has produced new figures showing that attendance at Catholic mass is likely to fall by 24% in the next ten years, taking it down from the present 1.1 million to less than 830,000 (and a drop of 50% over 30 years).

Outside of London and the south-East the proportion of people attending church on an average Sunday in Britain will drop to below 5 per cent of the population. In 1998, the rate was 6% or more.

The drop is sharpest in Wales where, in just 20 years, numbers going to church have slumped from 300,000 to 176,000. Dr Brierley’s data is compiled from church censuses from across denominations going back to 1979. Similarly, the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Robert Patterson, said the 40% fall in Manx Anglicans since 1991 was faster than anywhere else in the Church of England. He warned paid clergy numbers may be reduced to cut costs.

Also notable is a reported drastic decline in the number of young people in British pews. In 1990, 57 per cent were under 45. In 2010, that had shrunk to 37 per cent and it is predicted to fall another 10 percentage points over the next decade. There are significant numbers of churches where no one between the ages of 15 and 19 is attending.

Dr Brierley’s research shows that the number of active Muslims is predicted to rise sharply over the next 10 years. Currently there are 2.2m Muslims in the UK, with half of them active members (defined loosely as attending a mosque at least once a year) and this is likely to grow by 30 per cent to 2.8m by 2020.

By contrast, in 2010, 37.8m people, 62 per cent of the UK’s 61m population, still regarded themselves as part of the Christian community even though the majority only ventured inside a church at weddings, funerals or at Christmas. By 2020, that 62 per cent is expected to have dropped to 50 per cent.

Meanwhile, the Catholic archdiocese of Lancaster is undecided whether to go ahead with the large-scale closure of churches which was proposed by the previous bishop, Patrick O’Donoghue. A 2008 document predicted that attendances, which stood at more than 17,000 in 1974, would fall to just 4,500 by 2020. Father Robert Billing, secretary to the present bishop, Michael Campbell, says:

“attendances were quite poor and there has not been any significant improvement except in areas where they have been boosted by Polish or Indian Catholics.”

PLEASE NOTE: Newsline is taking a break – the next edition will be on Friday 13 May 2011

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