Religious Authority and the Arts

Conversations in Political Theology

by Liam Francis Gearon (Author)
Monographs X, 286 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 0.1 Religious Authority and the Arts: Aesthetics, Politics, Theology
  • 0.2 Political Theology: An Analytical Framework
  • 0.3 Political Theology and Elites’ Theory: A Methodological Synthesis
  • 0.4 Conversations in Political Theology: Critical Findings and a Typology
  • 0.5 Conclusions
  • Chapter One: Political-Theological Convergence: The Church of England
  • 1.1 ‘The Kissinger question’: The Archbishops’ Council
  • 1.2 ‘We are talking about the authority of God’: A Bishop of the Church of England
  • Chapter Two: Political-Theological Conservatism: Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Evangelical Protestantism
  • 2.1 ‘The life of the Church’: A Catholic Archbishop
  • 2.2 ‘Think of tradition as a wheel with scripture as the hub’: An Orthodox Christian View
  • 2.3 ‘The radical end of the Reformation’: A Baptist Perspective
  • 2.4 ‘Leadership by inspiration’: General Secretary of the Methodist Council
  • 2.5 ‘Bible-based, cross-centred, and activist’: The Evangelical Alliance
  • Chapter Three: Political-Theological Crisis: Judaism
  • 3.1 ‘What we are concerned about is hate speech’: Board of Deputies of British Jews
  • 3.2 ‘You don’t start talking Jewish without referring back to Biblical times’: An Orthodox Jewish Perspective
  • Chapter Four: Political-Theological Confrontation: Islam
  • 4.1 ‘My recollections are of these busloads’: The Muslim Council of Britain
  • 4.2 ‘We all know that you can’t abuse or insult God the Creator or one of his Prophets ’: A Senior Islamic Scholar Reflects
  • Chapter Five: Political-Theological (Re-) Construal (I): Hinduism
  • 5.1 ‘Authority based on insight’: International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON)
  • 5.2 ‘Spiritually enlightened personalities, ancient and modern’: The Hindu Council UK
  • Chapter Six: Political-Theological (Re-) Construal (II): Buddhism
  • 6.1 ‘So it’s all very strange’: The Buddhist Society
  • 6.2 ‘Somewhat sceptical of this whole notion of personal freedom’: Zen Buddhism
  • 6.3 ‘Test any statement from any authority figure’: A Tibetan lama reflects
  • Chapter Seven: Political-Theological Condemnation: What the Secular Humanists Say
  • 7.1 ‘The international big-time for atheism’: A Senior Member of the British Humanist Association
  • Chapter Eight: Political-Theological Critique: What the Writers Say
  • 8.1 ‘The No Offence campaign’: Former Director of English PEN
  • References
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Acknowledgments

I would like gratefully to acknowledge funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council for Political Theologies: Responses of Religious Leaders and Authority Figures in England to Contemporary Issues of Freedom of Expression. I also acknowledge with gratitude funding received for two closely related studies of the writers’ organisations, English and International PEN: from the British Academy (The Role of Religion as a Freedom of Expression Campaign Issue in English PEN) and the Leverhulme Trust (Writers and their Dictators: Authors, Citizens, Educators); and for access to the PEN archives to thank the Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

For guiding my thinking on political theology here, particular thanks are due to Professor David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge; Professor Julian Rivers, University of Bristol; Professor Alister McGrath, University of Oxford. Particular thanks are also due to Dr Alastair Niven OBE and former Principal of Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, and 2014 Booker Man Prize Judge—Alastair in 2006 wrote a foreword to one of my books on freedom of expression, and enabled access to many with in PEN, and to Alastair too for his generous hospitality at the intellectually enriching environment at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor Great Park.

The AHRC Political Theologies research would not of course have been possible without the generosity in time and openness of all interviewees who agreed to take part in the study. Interviewees involved in the study included:

← vii | viii → Buddhism

Buddhist Society (Theravada and Mahayana); Tibetan Buddhist (Dechen, an international association of Tibetan Buddhist traditions); Zen Buddhism (Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey)


Roman Catholicism: the Archbishop of Westminster, two Roman Catholic Bishops; two Benedictine abbots; the (Jesuit) Master of Campion Hall, Oxford; the Director of the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales

Church of England: Archbishops’ Council; Office of Archbishop of Canterbury; two Bishops of the Church of England, both holding seats in the House of Lords; the Director of the National Society;

Non-conformist: Baptist Alliance; Methodist Conference (General Secretary of the Methodist Conference); the Evangelical Alliance


Hindu Academy; Hindu Council UK (umbrella organisation); Hindu Forum of Britain (umbrella organisation); International Society for Krishna Consciousness; London Sevashram Sangha


Muslim Council of Britain (umbrella organisation); Islamic Sharia Council; Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies


Liberal; Reformed; Board of Deputies of British Jews (Reformed and Orthodox; umbrella organisation)


Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Southall


Interfaith perspectives

Interfaith Network; Methodist Conference; Churches Together in Britain and Ireland; the Religious Education Council of England and Wales; the Woolf Institute, Cambridge

Secular perspectives

British Humanist Association (Chief Executive); English PEN (former Director; and former President); Article 19; the Department of Local Government and Communities

Theological and related perspectives

Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies; Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies; Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies

It would not be possible to name all those others who have helped further guide my thinking by responding to presentations on the political theologies’ research ← viii | ix → but opportunities to present at the following are all appreciated: January 2015: Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Exeter; October 2014: Irish Centre for Catholic Studies, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, Ireland; June 2013: Oriel College, Oxford; May 2014 Evangelisch-Theologische Fakultät der Universität Wien, Institut für Religionspädagogik, Wien, Vienna University; November 2013: Broken Bay Institute, Sydney Australia; June 2013: Oriel College, Oxford; May 2013: Balliol College, Oxford; May 2012: Centre for International Studies, the Academic Council for the United Nations System and the Center for Sustainable Development & International Peace at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Oxford; February 2012: Annual Cardinal Winning Lecture, University of Glasgow; November 2011: Blackfriars Oxford; October 2011: Conference of European Churches, Strasbourg; June 2011: December 2010: ‘Religion, the State and State Education’ seminar, Dubai; August 2010: European Educational Research Association, Helsinki, Finland; July 2010: International Seminar in Religious Education and Values (ISREV), Ottawa, Canada.

The Centre for Religion in Public Life at the University of Exeter, were partners in the original grant application, critical were Dr Esther Reed and Professor Mike Highton (now of the University of Durham). It was to the University of Exeter’s Department of Theology and Religion where I undertook the final presentation of my findings before submission of the book. Dr David Tollerton, now also of the University of Exeter, was for a short period involved as a research assistant in the project and by way of some academic circularity kindly hosted the latter lecture at the University of Exeter, ‘Religious Authority and the Arts: Conversations in Political Theology’. Thanks to all those attended and provided such useful commentary.

I am grateful to the Faculty of Education, University of Plymouth—where I was a research professor—and from where the initial application was made and subsequent ethical approvals for conducting the research were gained; and the Department of Education, University of Oxford—where I moved in September 2010—for supporting my interdisciplinary work. The librarians at Harris Manchester College provided superb support—thanks to Sue Killoran and Katrina Malone. As ever, I am grateful to Dr Ralph Waller, Principal of Harris Manchester College and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, for providing such a rich research environment.

Last but not least I am grateful to Professor Joseph Prud’homme, of Washington College, Maryland, USA, editor of the Religion, Politics and Culture book series who agreed to accept Religious Authority and the Arts: Conversations in Political Theology for publication; and of course to all at Peter Lang in New York.

← ix | x → All errors of fact or interpretation are entirely my own.

Liam Francis Gearon

Harris Manchester College

University of Oxford

The transcripted conversations which represent the substance of this volume are the result of a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council: Political Theologies: Responses of Religious Leaders and Authority Figures in England to Contemporary Issues of Freedom of Expression. The project was framed by three research questions:

RQ1:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England understand their authority and leadership?
RQ 2: How do religious leaders and authority figures in England respond to contemporary issues of freedom of expression?
RQ 3: From these religious authority responses to contemporary issues of freedom of expression, what can be learnt about the wider relationship between religious and secular, legal-political authority in England today; and critically how can a political-theological analytical framework advance our understanding of religious authority and the arts—crucially in relation to contemporary issues of freedom of expression—in terms of respective political theologies?

Over the course of nearly three years (2010–12), I interviewed over 50 senior religious figures from a diversity of religious traditions represented in England, from which emerged nearly half a million words of transcripted interviews. What ← 1 | 2 → became a physical and political-theological journey around England—from metropolitan capital through provincial cities and rural hinterlands, from medieval episcopal palaces to industrial estates, from London mansion houses to remote mountain monastery—provided some in-depth insights into the positioning of religious authority and the arts (specifically through contemporary issues of freedom of expression), and glimpses of a complex contemporary-historical interface of theology, politics and aesthetics.

Conflicts between rights to freedom of expression and the offence taken by the exercise of such rights by Christian groups have been a relative commonplace over recent years. Christian objections, for example, might be noted against Jerry Springer The Opera; or the exposure of children to themes of witchcraft in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels; or the fictional attacks on a thinly disguised Catholic Church in Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. In at least English or British media terms, these instances represent a tradition of Christian objections to perceived blasphemy raised from the 1970s to films such as Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Webster, 1990), decades on still attracting debate (Marshall, 2013).

Such moral and or theological outrage was muted by comparison, however, with responses to the 2005 publication of the Danish Cartoons (Sniderman, Petersen, Slothuus and Stubager, 2014), or, the violence arising from 7th January 2015 in Paris, and the massacre at the magazine headquarters of Charlie Hebdo. In alignment with the French Muslim Council (CFCM), the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) reiterated its condemnation of the murder of journalists, as an ‘extremely grave barbaric action is also an attack against democracy and the freedom of the press’ (MCB, 2015). Yet a subsequent edition of the Charlie Hebdo magazine provoked not only debates in the international media but deadly protest in Muslim majority countries worldwide. The MCB made plain ‘its solidarity with the Jewish community following news that hostages were killed at a kosher supermarket in Paris’ (MCB, 2015).

Yet the Jewish community in Britain and worldwide have long expressed concerns over the rise of anti-Semitism (BOD, 2015). One of my interviewees, a senior Jewish scholar, drew tacit portrayals between the Danish cartoons insulting to Islam and the Nazi portrayal of Jews in the German press in the 1930s, notably in Der Stürmer.

The currently acute tensions raised particularly by Islamic reactions to blasphemy, on the one hand, responses provoked on the other concerning freedom of expression, have, however, in literary terms an unusually precise origin with claims of blasphemy against the Indian born English writer Salman Rushdie’s (1989) Satanic Verses (see for example, Cohn-Sherbok, 1990; Jones, 1993; 1994; 1994a; ← 2 | 3 → Suleri, 1989; also Rushdie, 1991). As a senior representative from the Muslim Council of Britain recalled:

Well, my own involvement is as a member of the marches, and my recollections are of these busloads, you know, lines of buses bringing people down, and a friend of mine actually was part of the march which did a sit-down, which sat on the road opposite New Scotland Yard. So again for the first time we had that sort of political participation and engagement and political voice being expressed in a dramatic way. It was also a very exciting time because, you know, there was the Iranian revolution happening … so the whole context at the time was a charged one.

Post-Iranian revolution, post-Rushdie, Islam thus seemed at the heart of the furore in these matters. Post-9/11 all the more so; it is a view seemingly now entrenched in the early twenty-first century. The debate is often contexualised as between rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, where freedom of religion includes the freedom not to be offended. This correlation between the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression is clearly evidenced in international context by a longstanding campaign by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a consortium of 57 Islamic states, to make blasphemy an offence in international law, an attempt which to date has been unsuccessful (Henegan, 2012). To counter the predominance of Islamic positionings on the issue, I resolved to investigate a wider, comparative span of religious views on freedom of expression.

My own Roman Catholic tradition placed me often in a curiously useful position to be able to speak authoritatively to religious leaders about one of the most systematic attempts to curtail theological, philosophical as well as literary works, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Index of Prohibited Books was part of the Catholic Church’s Counter Reformation, emerged out of the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and, in the early centuries of printing was an attempt to limit distribution of works likely to be injurious to faith or morals. There were over 20 editions of the Index, the last in 1948, the Index finally being abandoned with the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Given this historical background, the condemnation by Pope Francis of the attacks in Paris was combined with a defence of rights to freedom of expression, with limits, as the BBC reported:

Speaking to journalists flying with him to the Philippines, Pope Francis said last week’s attacks were an ‘aberration’, and such horrific violence in God’s name could not be justified. He staunchly defended freedom of expression, but then he said there were limits, especially when people mocked religion.

‘You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.’ (BBC, 2015)

← 3 | 4 → There are indeed limits, and the historical Index of Prohibited Books is an important reference point to see where and why those points might have and still do lie with Catholicism. There are theological reasons, beyond blasphemy, where a religious tradition might restrict or discourage freedom of expression, for reasons such as protection of the faithful.

However, books which appeared on the Index have also been prohibited for sale by secular political authorities even in western democracies, and in the British Isles notable cases in their time were selected works of D.H. Lawrence—notably Lady Chatterley’s Lover—and James Joyce—notably Ulysses—for obscenity. In The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham (2014) outlines how literary modernism, subject to so much secular censorship ultimately effected a liberalisation in censorship law. Karolides, Bald, and Sova’s (2004) broader history of banned books details specific religious, political and literary works to identify shifting justifications for censorship.

More comprehensively—and dedicated to the Library of Alexandria—Beacon for Freedom of Expression, hosted by the National Library of Norway, is an international bibliographic database which—with nearly 50,000 titles—details the long history and contemporary context of censored works. Criteria for inclusion in the database are that listed books, newspapers, radio/television broadcasts and (increasingly) websites have been censored: (I) on moral, religious or political grounds and (2) by a state, governing authority or state-related body (Beacon 2015). Internationally there are a plethora of non-government organisations working in the field. IFEX, a global hub of organisations committed to protecting freedom of expression—in literature, journalism, electronic forms of publication—lists: ARTICLE 19; Cartoonists Rights Network International; Committee to Protect Journalists; Electronic Frontier Foundation; Freedom House; Human Rights Watch; Index on Censorship; International Federation of Journalists; International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions; International Press Institute; International Publishers Association; PEN International; Privacy International; Reporters Without Borders; World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters; World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers; World Press Freedom Committee (IFEX, 2015).

There is worldwide awareness too beyond campaigning groups that freedom of expression is an international issue of diplomatic significance. Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for example, recently offered a framing of the issues: Hate speech, freedom of expression and freedom of religion: a dialogue (FCO, 2014). Seeking a conciliatory framework through human rights legislation, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office think-piece defines a ‘human rights perspective’, ← 4 | 5 → highlighting three articles from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):

Article 18

1.Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

2.No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

3.Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others ….

Article 19

1.Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2.Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3.The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a)For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b)For the protection of national security or of public order … or of public health or morals.

Article 20

2.Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office notes that while the ‘European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), in its Articles 9 and 10 respectively, contains similar provisions to those in ICCPR Articles 18 and 19’ it ‘has no explicit equivalent to ICCPR Article 20’. Noting the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights series of expert workshops on the ‘Prohibition of Incitement to national, racial or religious hatred’, it concludes that ‘inter-governmental agreement ← 5 | 6 → on the way forward appears unlikely, given the political divisions on the subject’ (FCO, 2014).

In England I had been long interested in issues of freedom of expression from the perspective of the writer. A monograph examining freedom of expression from political, literary and historical perspectives was published (Gearon, 2006) at which time I was introduced to the writers’ organisation English Pen by the then President Alistair Niven, who highlighted the work English PEN had historically undertaken to defend Salman Rushdie.

This interest led to two funded research projects. The first was funded by the British Academy (2008–09) and examined the role of religion as a freedom of expression campaign issue in the history of English PEN (Gearon, 2012). Given the prominence of religious objections to certain forms of literature from Islamic communities in Britain and worldwide, and PEN’s defence of the writer, I examined whether religion had previously been a campaigning feature of English PEN. The conclusions were rather negative, in the sense that I found that religion had not featured as a freedom of expression campaign issue in the history of English PEN until the Rushdie case. (In examining the archives at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where the PEN archives are held, there was some however rather explicitly anti-Semitic correspondence between the first president of the organisation, John Galsworthy, the woman whose provided the founding conception of PEN itself, Mrs Dawson-Scott; see Gearon, 2012). Further (ongoing) research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust to examine the wider history of the organisation, which had flourished and rapidly expanded from its origins as a London-based writers’ group to worldwide association; a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (2010–2012) allowing me to write a history of the first 90 years of International PEN, 1921–2011.

These British Academy and Leverhulme Trust funded projects provided important grounding for the AHRC research. Given the predominance then, and now, of Islamic responses to freedom of expression issues, the project was particularly concerned with a wider, comparative examination of how other religious traditions responded—through religious leaders and authorities—to contemporary issues of freedom of expression.

In addition to (British Academy and Leverhulme trust funded) research previously undertaken, changes in current UK legislation also provided part motivation for the AHRC project. The interviews thus took place when freedom of expression-freedom of religion clashes were intense, but also at a significant juncture in UK legislation, notably two landmarks for entangled relations of freedom of expression and freedom of religion in English law: the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 and Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.

← 6 | 7 → The response of English PEN to one of these Acts was notable, a particularly critical role in shaping the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, just as critical as English PEN’s involvement had been pivotal in the defence of Salman Rushdie a quarter of a century earlier. The former English PEN President Lisa Appignanesi (2012) recalls the Rushdie affair:

The world The Satanic Verses fell into in 1988 is strangely difficult to recapture. The Soviet Union was still intact, the Berlin Wall erect, the Tiananmen Square massacre had not yet happened. There was no Google or World Wide Web. Yet the book’s fraught reception on landing was in many ways a rehearsal for the post 9/11 present … Religion was largely a matter of private conscience, not that blunt and noisy instrument in the public sphere it subsequently (once more) became. Blasphemy was a banner only the Whitehouse anti-BBC vice-squaddies waved, not a call to arms that provoked riots in rapid succession around the globe.


What finally gave it all a visceral reality was that British intelligence confirmed the severity of the long-distance threat to Salman. We had entered a new era of global cultural politics (Appignanesi, 2012).

She recalls, that for ‘those of us who believe in many books and not just one, the book burning in Britain had conjured images of Nazi tactics of cultural purification’. Religion now clearly features in her sights: ‘I learned that intransigence is never so great as when it feels it has a god (sic) on its side.’ She recalls how: ‘The fear grew. Penguin who, shared in the fatwa, lived behind vast barricades. London bookshops were firebombed. In March two moderate imams were shot by Islamists in Belgium.’ She recalls too the difficulty of publishing The Rushdie File, an account of the events which surrounded the affair: ‘Harper Collins had been set to publish, then withdrew. Rushdie in any form was too dangerous a commodity. A tiny, new firm, Fourth Estate, was the only one that would step into the breach’ (Appignanesi, 2012).

She discusses the Rushdie Defence Committee—‘an umbrella group in which English PEN and other organisations hoped to use their combined weight to make sure Salman was protected and the excesses of the fatwa revoked’—led by Frances D’Souza, head of Article 19, who was ‘alert to the world and he lent his fame to less famous writers under threat: the category of blasphemy, used politically, had become ever more pernicious …’ For Appignanesi ‘novels are where we try out ideas, question absolutes, use or doubt myths, have characters speak what we may hardly agree with …’ She charts Rushdie’s own reciprocal gesture to those in PEN, Article 19 and other freedom of expression campaigning organizations by himself becoming a campaigner on the behalf of beleaguered writers, eventually, after the threat of fatwa being lifted, becoming President of American PEN.

← 7 | 8 → It was thus to Rushdie PEN turned for supported in 2005 for their ‘No Offence’ campaign’. The latter had been in response to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill in the UK Parliament. The Bill had been designed to take through Parliament legislation which PEN feared would make it a criminal offence to offend against religious sensibilities. The campaign was led by the famous English actor Rowan Atkinson. PEN’s efforts resulted in a substantive ‘freedom of expression’ provision written into what became the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. Clause 29, referred to by the organization as the ‘PEN Amendment’:

29J Protection of freedom of expression
Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system (National Archives, 2014).

Free Expression is No Offence, essays edited in the campaign’s aftermath by Lisa Appignanesi (2005), was published jointly by PEN and Penguin.

Legislation used to prosecute racially or religiously aggravated offences are further detailed in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, amended post-9/11 by the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, and liberty-protecting safeguards in Schedule 9 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service defines religious hatred:

The offence is committed if a person uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material, which is threatening, if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred. Threatening is the operative word, not abusive or insulting. Possession, publication or distribution of inflammatory material is also an offence. The offence can be committed in a public or private place, but not within a dwelling, unless the offending words and behaviour were heard outside the dwelling, and were intended to be heard. The defendant must intend to stir up religious hatred; recklessness is not enough (CPS, 2014).

The guidance makes explicit reference to clause 29J:

There is a freedom of expression defence contained in Section 29J, which confirms that nothing in the Act ‘ … prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult, or abuse of particular religions, or the beliefs or practices of its adherents’ (National Archives, 2014)

With Section 79 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 came abolition of common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel:

← 8 | 9 → 1)The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel under the common law of England and Wales are abolished.

(2)In section 1 of the Criminal Libel Act 1819 (60 Geo. 3 & 1 Geo. 4 c. 8) (orders for seizure of copies of blasphemous or seditious libel) the words ‘any blasphemous libel, or’ are omitted.

(3)In sections 3 and 4 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888 (c. 64) (privileged matters) the words ‘blasphemous or’ are omitted (National Archives, 2014).

In 2008, inserted into a larger Bill on crime and immigration, the common law offence of blasphemy had quietly died a death.

From both the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 we see a legislative context in England which increasingly takes account of offences related to religion, but with a distinct shift from offences against God to offences against religious persons and their feelings, beliefs:

Blasphemy was an indictable offence at common law. It was an attack on the Christian religion, either orally or in writing, made in terms that were likely to shock or outrage the feelings of most Christian believers. There were very few prosecutions for this offence in recent times, and the offence was abolished with effect from 8 July 2008 by section 79 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (CPS, 2014).

Nevertheless still retained are references in the CPS guidance to residual Nineteenth century legislation, then protecting ministers of the Christian religion:

Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 creates an offence of violent or indecent behaviour in any place of worship that has been certified under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 and the Act also affords protection to a person preaching or carrying out other religious duties. Mosques and synagogues are certified and are therefore covered by this legislation (CPS, 2014).


Section 36 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 creates an offence of assaulting a clergyman or other minister or preventing them from officiating at religious services. This is an either way offence which carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment on indictment.

And, relating to offences of desecration:

There are also specific offences under the Cemeteries Clauses Act 1847 and the Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880 of causing disturbances in cemeteries and disrupting or obstructing burials respectively (CPS, 2014).

← 9 | 10 → The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) outlines procedures for identifying ‘all those cases that might properly be prosecuted as specific racist or religious crimes’. The CPS uses ‘this common definition to identify these cases and to monitor the decisions and outcomes’:

‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’
We define a religious incident as:
‘Any incident which is believed to be motivated because of a person’s religion or perceived religion, by the victim or any other person’ (CPS, 2014)

Both definitions ‘help in raising awareness of the racist or religious element in any offence right from the point of reporting, through investigation, up to and including any prosecution’.

It is into this multi-layered contemporary complex of recent legislation on racial and religious hatred where the arts—literature, theatre, or the featuring in the press of a cartoon—most often push the boundaries of and between offence and freedom, where secular legal-political power confronts religious authority, where freedom of expression confronts blasphemy, where the law allows the ‘right’ to offend but not to provoke hatred.

0.1Religious Authority and the Arts: Aesthetics, Politics, Theology

A cursory, Hollywood spectacular knowledge of the Bible would show however that this history of religious offence is as old as antiquity, and what archaeologists now call the Ancient Near East has as much relevance to current debate as ever.

Just therefore as Vos and Zijlstra’s (2014) The Law of God presents an ancient perspective to contemporary moral crises of civilisation, a specific moment in biblical history, even a particular biblical geography, Mount Sinai, still overshadows contemporary debate around what in recent centuries has come to be termed ‘freedom of expression’.

Thus we read in Exodus how from the desert wilderness, Moses ascends the mountain, thick smoke and cloud, fire and earthquake instil fear in the Israelites camped below:

And God spoke all these words, saying,

‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

← 10 | 11 → ‘You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.’ (Exodus 20: 1–7).

Moses descends the mountain with two tablets of stone inscribed with the ‘Ten Commandments’. Yet in Moses’ forty day absence on the mountain in the wilderness camp the Israelites have craved new gods. Aaron acceded and facilitated Israelite demands, arranged the construction of a ‘golden calf’, worship of which was accompanied by festivity. Joshua, Moses’ companion, on approach to the camp thinks he hears the sound of warfare. Moses corrects him. It is not the sound of sword but song. Thus:

When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, ‘There is a noise of war in the camp.’ But he said, ‘It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.’ And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing … (Exodus 32: 17–19)

Heard at a distance, singing is the first sign of the Israelites’ transgression, the dancing before a blasphemous idol confirmation. The ‘arts’ here of singing and dancing integrally connect to the blasphemy of the people, not only that, but the fall of an entire moral order founded on a covenant with God, for ‘Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tables out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain’ (Exodus 32: 19). The worship of the idol is a sign of wider transgression, for ‘Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to their shame among their enemies)’ (Exodus 32: 25).

The history of western moral order in the centuries that follow is marked by a contested interpretation of these texts. What, then, in biblical times was a transgression of the commandments against graven images was an expression of a moral order founded on the primacy of God, the illicit worship of the idol a transgression of that foundational commandment to have no other gods; the singing and dancing in the Israelites’ wilderness camp is a coda for what later centuries would come to describe, to enshrine as a new moral foundation, the basis of national governance and international legislation. And prior to the politically and philosophically revolutionary eighteenth century, sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformation and post-Reformation fractures of Christian tradition heightened differences of interpretation over idolatry and artistic expression (MacCulloch, ← 11 | 12 → 2010). The defining role of blasphemy in theological division would have profound political (and indeed aesthetic) consequences.

As restated in Deuteronomy chapter 5, then, the ‘Ten Commandments’ in Catholic teaching identify the first four commandments as having regard to God and God’s representatives on earth and the remaining to six to humanity. Divisions exist between Catholic and some Protestant Churches as to the ordering. Catholics, the Church of England and Lutherans have traditionally adopted the Deuteronomy based on the Greek or Septuagint translation of the scriptures used by the early Church; other Protestant Churches adopt Exodus and the common Jewish ordering of commandments (Vatican, 2015):

The Bible gives two versions of the Ten Commandments, in essential content identical, one in Exodus and another in Deuteronomy. The enumeration of the commandants (which is number one, which is two etc.) are traditional and neither contained in the texts nor obvious. The Catholic Church has traditionally used the Deuteronomy account and followed the division of the text given in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Scriptures made by second century BC Jews in Egypt and used by the early Church as its Old Testament. The Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church also use this account. The other Reformation Churches use the Exodus listing, and adopted the Jewish enumeration of the Hebrew text (EWTN, 2015)

The Catholic version tends, then, if we were to take a Protestant reading, to downplay the use of images. This was an important aspect of the Reformation story, though Duffy’s (2005) The Stripping of the Altars does counter the Protestant view that iconoclasm was a necessary part of theological reform in English religious life. Undoubted however is the extent of cultural destruction of medieval arts, including books, painting, sculpture, as in the Tate Gallery’s 2013–14 exhibition, ‘Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm’ (Tate, 2015). Even with radical differences in interpretation—whether such iconoclasm was embraced or imposed—a theological and devotional difference had severe implications for the arts.

The Church of England specifically here presents a particularly interesting case. From the earliest years of the sixteenth century Reformation, the Anglican tradition sought between the (Catholic) toleration of images and the (Reformed Protestant) fear of idolatry (Walker, 2012). In the seventeenth century this was politically and theologically fought out in the military campaigns of the English Civil Wars. It was not an easy parallel between the supporters of the Crown as a ‘Catholic’ wing and the supporters of Parliament as Reformed (or as they came to be known then as Puritan) but it is a fair one. It is through the Reformed and Puritan aspect of the conflict that we may see the path through which emerges ← 12 | 13 → the modern discourse of freedom of expression, the milieu of seventeenth century English history impacting on what would become known as the eighteenth century Enlightenment (Himmelfarb, 2008). In this intellectual foment political freedoms intertwined with intellectual and artistic ones, a pattern mirroring political and political revolutions, notably in America and France.

It is an irony of this history that the modern discourse of freedom of expression arose from a Puritan, that is a Reformed Protestant tradition which was censorious not only of images but more generally of the arts. In periods of Puritan influence, even in the age of Shakespeare, literature, music and the visual arts were suppressed, though in a pre-novel age the art form most affected was the theatre (Heinemann, 1982; Rice, 1997; cf. Daniels, 2005).

Writing against the Licensing Order of 1643, Milton’s Areopagitica of 1644 was a plea, originally made to the English parliament, for freedom of licensing, in its day a call to remove restrictions, which were imminent, on licensing (after pre-publication censor) of a wide range of literature. In ‘How to Read Milton’s Areopagitica’ Kendall argues:

Freedom, we have lately been reminded, is a ‘problem’. It is, moreover, a difficult problem, and one that is no less difficult to ‘solve’ when, turning our attention away from what we may call freedom in general, we state it in terms of particular freedoms (e.g., freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.). Each of these turns out to be a problem, too, bearing no simple relation to the others, and likely to require special handling—different symbolization, vocabulary and theoretic procedures. We may, for that reason, speak properly of a literature of the problem of freedom of thought and speech, one easy to identify in the sense that most scholars in the field of political theory (Kendall, 1960: 439).

Aware of his own present-day theological context, Milton’s, then, is a political call, just as it is a pronouncement on press and aesthetic freedom acutely aware of the theological. Thus Milton frames the Areopagitica in Christian theological and classical Graeco-Roman political terms, seeing in his time (as we might in ours) a replaying of a perennial debate. Milton’s Areopagitica itself holds therefore a twofold reference to Areopagiticus of Isocrates (a classical call for political and legislative reform) and Paul’s philosophical-political address at Athens’ Areopagus (Acts 17: 18–34). In his own time, Milton perceived the worst excesses of repression in Catholicism, from Dominican inquisition to tyrannical Catholic governments. His parliamentary address was to promote the enlightened virtues of freedom by wariness of the taint of Catholic repression. Milton allowed nevertheless that publications offending against the law (for treason or blasphemy) should see authors punished.

Milton’s notion of freedom of publication remained integrally theological:

← 13 | 14 → Many there be that complain of divine Providence for suffering Adam to transgress. Foolish tongues! When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force: God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object ever almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence.

Milton rehearses arguments later used by Mill (1989), that the advancement of knowledge requiring the airing and testing of error: ‘Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.’ Thus,

What some lament of, we rather should rejoice at, should rather praise this pious forwardness among men, to reassume the ill-deputed care of their religion into their own hands again. A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and some grain of charity might win all these diligences to join and unite in one general and brotherly search after truth, could we but forego this prelatical tradition of crowding free consciences and Christian liberties into canons and precepts of men.

And ‘if the men be erroneous who appear to be the leading schismatics, what withholds us but our sloth, our self-will, and distrust in the right cause, that we do not give them gentle meetings and gentle dismissions, that we debate not and examine the matter thoroughly with liberal and frequent audience’.

For Milton, the context was political, theological and aesthetic but also personal:

Although the English had had some form of censorship since about 1530, Milton tried to shame Parliament into adopting his views by claiming it a recent Catholic import, a product of the King’s Star Chamber, which so recently had been abolished (1641), and which had been the principal opponent of the Protestant Parliament. While the Licensing Order had as its official intent the restoration of the legal protection of the Stationer’s Company monopoly on printing, Milton saw as its by-product the return of state control over publishing in general. His own experience in having to get his writings on divorce published without license, reinforced his views that a new dogmatic authority was replacing the old (Parkinson, 2013).

The 400th Anniversary of the Areopagitica reminded of its continuing political importance:

Milton gives us a closely argued and inspiriting defence of freedom from censorship in Areopagitica. Milton enables England to imagine itself, if only for a few, experimental years, as a republic, ruled by the righteous and not by those who inherit their power … The revolutionaries of America and France turned to Milton for inspiration one century on. Perhaps we in Britain have much to learn from him still (Alexander, 2014).

← 14 | 15 → The author of Paradise Lost would, however, have been a less than obvious ally in the modern-day debate with those literary campaigning voices who suggest that freedom of expression means the freedom to offend. We might thus doubt if Milton would countenance blasphemy as a freedom worth protecting.

Milton’s near contemporary John Locke was also concerned with freedom—of faith and expression—in the light of those conflicts engendered by the wars of religion. Europe in the seventeenth century was thus divided by religion in unprecedented ways. What in the sixteenth century Reformation and Counter Reformation were theological conflicts which became all the more not less bloody in the seventeenth, a source of all out war between not only religions but nations; and the ‘wars of religion’ were the cause of what many scholars agree is the turning point of religious authority in Europe—that is, its decline—culminating with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia (MacCulloch, 2010; Macklem, 2009; for the full text of the Treaty, see Avalon, 2015).

Post-Westphalia, as John Locke’s (1988) Two Treatises of Government became a foundation for eighteenth century democratic polity, Locke’s Letter on Toleration were an important ground for what—from the eighteenth century to the era of United Nations—would become framed as freedom of religion and inextricably linked to freedom of expression. Locke saw an ideal future for freedom of religion and theological difference in peaceful political co-existence in states neutral to theological influence.

Subsequent to and in large measure through Milton and Locke, Enlightenment reason became the foundation for personal autonomy of thought, (religious) conscience and freedom of expression through political revolution. Kant’s Enlightenment defining dictum—‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’—of 1784 was written in between the revolutions of 1776 in America and 1789 in France. Simultaneously, these politically revolutionary settings provided an interface of religion and politics which manifest in complex ways an aesthetic dimension. Intellectual and political freedoms would take artistic forms, and often conflict then as now with the political and the religious.

Enlightenment thinkers were themselves divided however on the political significance of the arts. The young Rousseau’s winning essay—Discourse on the Sciences and Arts—submitted to the Academy of Dijon conceived artistic expression, with its excess of narcissistic self interest even detrimental to societal or political good. Here the young Rousseau is aligned with the politically injurious view of poets in Plato’s Republic but he would later adopt a novelistic form to express political and theological ideas in Emile.

Enlightenment notions of intellectual and political freedoms, resistant to religious authority, came then to be correlated an aesthetic conception of freedom of expression. In this story, Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762) played a marginal ← 15 | 16 → but important role. Thus Baumgarten’s search for an aestheticae, a ‘science’ of the arts, had considerable influence on the aesthetic theories of Hume (2012) and Kant (Guyer 1992; 2003; 2005).

Other Enlightenment philosophers had also discounted aesthetics as at all philosophical. They followed the line of their seventeenth century counterparts, Descartes and Leibniz: from the former’s scepticism of the senses as a means to knowledge followed doubts as to the worth of aesthetics; whereas Leibniz deemed sensory data and thus (related aesthetic) theory as a weak form of cognition in comparison to logic and reason (Kukla 2011).

Baumgarten’s reflections on taste and beauty would promote a subsequent re-evaluation of aesthetic judgement, providing in so doing a foundation for modern aesthetics. Here, idea of beauty and the sublime would came to be conceived as respectable if not equal partner to reason in the human being’s quest to understand and to appreciate the world (Cooper, 1997; McMahon, 2005; Mothersill, 2004; Ross, Pappas and Aertsen 1998; Zangwill, 2003).

In Les Beaux Arts Reduits à un Même Principe (1746) Charles Batteux (1713–1780) played here a role in defining the content of this aesthetics. Batteux sought laws of taste in artistic judgement in the mode of the scientist. Les Beaux Arts Reduits à un Même Principe attempted then to distinguish between mere craft or artisanship and high or fine art. The distinction was recognised, perhaps naturally, by artists themselves, seeing in the definition some high calling, such as notably in Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses on Art. In 1747, Batteux’s Principes de la Littérature applied fine art and craft distinction to literature Principes de la Littérature (Guyer, 2014; also Hofstadter and Kuhns, 1976).

Philosophers initially sceptical that aesthetic judgement was akin to critical reasoning—as in Hume’s ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ (1757; 2012) and Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764; 1981)—saw in the arts if no logic then some sense that artistic expression could give glimmer of insight into the human condition (Hume, 2012). For Hume and Kant, their shared enlightenment vision of the autonomous, free-thinking individual, gave in these writings a special priority to those individual artists who provided for others of less artistic ability and insight a sense of the world’s beauty and natural order, the sublime; and this shared emphasis upon the individual gave recognition to the emergent popularity of the term genius (Kant, 1981). The artistic genius does not simply replicate or imitate nature or describe human relations but transforms our understanding of them. Today, when the idea that freedom of expression in the arts is a commonplace, we need to remind ourselves how profound a change in thinking this represented. In a medieval Christian Europe for example art was simply an expression of the narrative of salvation, integral to expressing it, and for this reason the individual artist is often unknown, only from the Renaissance do we see the emerging importance of ← 16 | 17 → the individual artist and, with this, a proliferation of art forms; only in the eighteenth century do we see this expressed so fully as an integral aspect of what it means to be an individual. Now art was becoming separate too from its religious subject matter, now art was being called to or recognised as providing an opportunity for something different, art itself was not an expression of another (salvific) story but art itself was there to provide meaning, the artist would here take on a special role.

We can see this most finely expressed in the post-critical Kant. In a famous footnote of Critique of Pure Reason, Kant credits Baumgarten and forewarns of the futility of his enterprise: ‘the eminent analyst, Baumgarten, conceived, of subjecting the criticism of the beautiful to principles of reason, and so of elevating its rules into a science’, yet, Kant remarks, Baumgarten’s ‘endeavours were vain’. Thus aesthetic judgement as much as the transcendent are removed from the sphere of rationality in Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, and only in Critique of Practical Reason does Kant find some sense of God through a moral reasoning based on human conscience: ‘Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me’ (Kant: 1909: 111).

In his third Critique of Judgement, however Kant revisits aesthetics. Reading the Critique of Judgement is itself revelatory. In its pages we find another Kant, an almost elegiac yearning sense of loss for the sacred, the void filled now as much by with the wonders of art as of nature, a sublime space uncertainly hinting at a space beyond which critical judgement:

Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature. (Kant 2007: 75)

If the search for the sublime has replaced the search for the transcendent and the sacred, Kant with this aesthetic logic sees true art as expressive of some difficult to define contemplative truth, ‘a judgment of taste and not of the understanding of reason’ (Kant 2007: 94). More fundamentally however, if the space vacated by the sacred is taken by the sublime was also to be removed, this would remove an important freedom, but it would be also to take from human experience the last vestiges of the transcendent.

← 17 | 18 → To re-read the third Critique is to revisit an often made and false distinction between Enlightenment reason and the emotion derived from artistic expression we see in the Romanticism contemporaneous with it (see for example, Holmes, 2009). For in the third Critique we might in some passages be reading Keats or Wordsworth or Coleridge, but it is Kant. For Enlightenment thinkers and Romantic poets collectively shared allegiance to an emergent emphasis upon freedom of expression which political circumstances of that time enabled.

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill thus makes freedom of expression a cornerstone of political liberty and recognises in the history of thought the role religion has had in repressing both political and aesthetic freedoms (Mill, 1989). Matthew Arnold saw in the arts, too, a much wider and more important role, no less than the protection of society and civilization from decay and dissolution, famously explored in Culture and Anarchy (Arnold, 2015). And supporting this position—on the importance of the arts to socio-political structure—are a range of theoretical positions, from Bourdieu’s (1993; 2010) cultural capital to Said’s (1994) analysis of culture and imperialism.

The ideal of freedom of expression as a foundation for other political and indeed religious freedoms thus became a cornerstone of modern liberal societies, if a contested one. Today in politically open societies where controversies around art have surfaced, they have emerged in large measure not simply from judgements about artistic taste or aesthetics but about a wider moral concern about a world in which religion, especially a respect for God and the divine, is no longer vouchsafed. Something important morally happened as a result of such aesthetic thinking. The arts and freedom of expression have become in political and aesthetic terms a high watermark of human being itself.

For this reason literary and other freedom of expression campaigning organisations apply great efforts to protecting the artist or the writer and what these arts represent beyond page or canvass. Though itself frequently a source of controversy, what is defined as art is often therefore less in contention that what art can protect against: those in favour of an untrammelled freedom of expression often see in religious authority an historical source of repression seeking to re-assert its head into modernity; those in favour of tighter restriction see in the same untrammelled freedom of expression a moral dissolution and decline, just as Moses recognised in returning from Mount Sinai to heard singing in the wilderness camp and then took sight of the golden calf.

While the current research examined contemporary political-theological responses, them, present-day religious traditions’ reactions to the aesthetic, often in response to offence of theological sensibilities, have been shaped by, and always therefore need to be considered in the light of, historical interactions of political conditions and theological thinking. Thus, extant historical studies present a ← 18 | 19 → narration of blasphemy as old as the history of religion (Grenda, Beneke, and Nash, 2014; Nash 1999; 2010; Sherwood, 2012). It is a conflictual history where belief and unbelief meet, a defining force in the history of ideas (Horton and Mendus, 2012), accentuated from the Enlightenment onwards (Peters, 2005; Perry, 2011).

Thus, post-eighteenth century political reforms, as noted, included emphases on freedom of expression as well as political and religious freedoms (Cohen, 2013; Jones, 2001; Karolides, Bald, and Sova, 2004). That is, constitutional and legal reforms which allowed greater freedoms in political terms always framed these in terms of wider freedoms, such as freedom of conscience and religion or belief, or freedom of expression (for a range of constitutional resource documents from the American and French Revolutions to the era of the United Nations, see Avalon, 2015a). It is why the First Amendment of the American Constitution went so far as to integrate freedom of speech, press, religion and ‘petition’: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances’ (Avalon 2015b).

0.2Political Theology: An Analytical Framework

The project needed to be underpinned by a sufficiently robust analytical and theoretical framework which would not oversimplify but at the time make manageable this range of factors which come into play in looking at religious authority responses to contemporary freedom of expression. The most obvious framework was political theology.

Political theology is a form of intellectual discourse which provides a theological interpretation of the political or a political interpretation of the theological. It is common in Christian theological debate but diverse and plural in application (see Vries and Sullivan, 2006) with (as Scott and Cavanaugh, 2004, demonstrate) global geo-political reach. While debates (in the West) about Church-State relations are as ancient as Christianity, framed by classic works such as Augustine’s City of God—defining the distinction between the earthly city of secular-political concern, and the heavenly city, of ecclesiastical authority—in modern times, Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), and Political Theology (Schmitt, 2005), are foundational.

Political Theology reframed a problem of the relationship of religious and political authority from antiquity into the context of modernity. Schmitt argued that ‘All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts’. That is, the theological has been transposed into the political. As Schmitt argues: ‘ … not only because of their historic development—in which ← 19 | 20 → they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure’: ‘The idea of the modern constitutional state triumphed with deism [over] a theology and metaphysics …’ (Schmitt, 2005: 32). Schmitt above all theorists demonstrates the way the political becomes theological (also Schmitt, 2007; 2007a).

Schmitt’s analysis was evidenced by the totalitarianism of his time. The theme of absolute secular power as totalitarian power was a theme taken up by mid-twentieth century political theorists such Arendt (1951), Aron (1957), Friedrich and Brzezinski (1967), Hobsbawm (1995), Popper (2011), Talmon (1961), Eric Voegelin (1999). The literature is concisely reviewed by Isaac (2003), and as with Burleigh (2006; 2007) exemplified as the rise of ‘political religions’ (Voegelin, 1999), each theorist suggestive of how autocratic, dictatorial and totalitarian systems replaced theology with all-encompassing secular ideologies.

The potential application of political theology to an analysis of religious authority seems clear, because the ‘political’ and the ‘theological’ often frame the terms of public debate. It is because the interplay of religious and political authority is so important that we need to take as seriously both sides, doing so will help us understand in more nuanced ways the interplay between and stave off simplistic oppositions of either. The contemporary justification is evident. Yet, the case is made all the more strong by instances from the modern rise of historical of political theology itself. So, as Schmidt and others identify political usurpation of the theological, in this supplanting of ideology for theology, the arts played a major role, for example, in the upholding of, being critical to, the maintenance of totalitarian systems.

Thus the burning of books in Nazi Germany to 1933 became a preface to the Holocaust:

On May 10, 1933 student groups at universities across Germany carried out a series of book burnings of works that the students and leading Nazi party members associated with an ‘un-German spirit’. Enthusiastic crowds witnessed the burning of books by Brecht, Einstein, Freud, Mann and Remarque, among many other well-known intellectuals, scientists and cultural figures, many of whom were Jewish. The largest of these book bonfires occurred in Berlin, where an estimated 40,000 people gathered to hear a speech by the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, in which he pronounced that ‘Jewish intellectualism is dead’ and endorsed the students’ ‘right to clean up the debris of the past’ (USHMM, 2015)

The prophetic words of Heinrich Heine’s (1797–1856) play Almansor (1821) ring true: ‘Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings’. So the life of Joseph Goebbels (1893–1945) Reich Minister of Propaganda in ← 20 | 21 → Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 was dedicated to the cultural-political cleansing of those arts deemed antipathetic to Nazism.

In the early years of the USSR, Trotsky’s (1925) Literature and Revolution had helped define the role of the writer and artist in the new Soviet Union. In Stalin’s Russia, the Union of Soviet Writers was formed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party on 23rd April, 1932. All other literary organizations such as the All-Russian Association of Proletarian Writers were dissolved. Writers outside the Union would find making a living from authorship difficult. With the approval of Stalin, the 1934 Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers adopted Socialist Realism, demanding that art be in the service of socialist revolution. Art became state sanctioned and ideologically ingrained. An heroic optimistic realism captured a sense of the aesthetic; identified in aesthetic opposition were the experimental and pessimistic, considered as not only degenerate but as counter-revolutionary. Life for artists outside the diktats of Socialist Realism was severe:

Experimental and non-conformist writers such as Yevgeni Zamyatin, Isaac Babel, Boris Pilnyak, Nickolai Tikhonov, Mikhail Slonimski, Vsevolod Ivanov, Victor Serge, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Yesenin, Konstantin Fedin, Victor Shklovsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko and Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered under the policy of Socialist Realism. Zamyatin and Serge managed to leave the country, whereas Mayakovsky and Yesenin committed suicide. Writers who refused to change, such as Babel and Pilnyak, were executed or died in labour camps (Geldern, 2015)

If some shared the optimism—one told literary colleagues they lived in ‘the most heroic period of world history’—other were less sanguine. Viktor Shklovskii asked if Dostoevsky would have met the ideological criteria (Geldern, 2015). In words reminiscent of self-censorship and press freedom (Leveson 2012; Sturges, 2013; Wintour, 2013) Isaac Babel claimed there had been ‘invented a new genre, the genre of silence’ (Geldern, 2015). The most defining voice of the 1934 Congress was that of Andrei Zhdanov, the mouthpiece of Stalin stating that socialist realism was the aesthetic of Soviet culture. But Zhdanov is most remembered for a phrase which shows the depth of an ideology and aesthetic metaphysically usurping the theological. All artists, Zhdanov decreed, were to be ‘engineers of the human soul’ (Garrard and Garrard, 1990, Scott, 1935; Geldern, 2015). Garrard and Garrard’s (1990) Inside the Soviet Writers’ Union provides an account of the organisation’s subsequent history.

In ‘Why I Write’ In ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell (1946) identified four motives generally held by the writer of prose:

1.Sheer egotism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc.

← 21 | 22 → 2.Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

3.Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

4.Political purpose—using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. (Orwell, 1946)

Due undoubtedly to the dominant totalitarianism of his time, the political was Orwell’s self-declared motivation for writing (from the same era, see Sartre, 1949). If then the ideological was the defining feature of restrictions on artistic endeavour, today the headline conflict is invariably between freedom of expression and opposition by religious traditions (Alexander, 2005; Gearon, 2002; 2006; 2014; Trigg, 2007), old tensions reminiscent of a theological past.

Philosophical positions are divided here in aesthetics: on the one hand some argue that questions of ethics and morality are not properly part of aesthetic criticism and judgement (the Enlightenment and Romantic view in part supported this notion that art in its focus on beauty was above the political-theological fray, often in marked ways with the supplanting of the sacred by artistic pursuit of the sublime, classically in Kant (1981; 2007; see also Guyer, 2003) or Hume (2012; see also Zangwill, 2003). On the other hand is the view that the arts cannot ever be truly separate from ethical judgements which follow from either their context or their intention (Hagberg, 2008; Hofstadter and Kuhns, 1976; or in the broader frame of the humanities, Nussbaum, 2012). In contemporary context, at least, and at least through the twentieth century, art was not simply representative of political positioning but formative of it (Adamson, 2003), and it is as equally difficult today, where the religious and theological seem to confront the aesthetic more powerfully than the political, and thus maintain (in contemporary terms) any fully ‘above the fray’ position. Even if theological or political intent is not in the intention of the artist’s ‘freedom of expression’ there are many instances in present times where the arts have significant, global theological and or political impact.

Aesthetic freedoms have thus become politically and theologically contested ground. The critical adjudication takes place in open, western liberal contexts through the secular legal-political process, as in England through the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act. Events in Paris 2015, a decade on from the Danish cartoons, are witness to how, in the extreme, an abstract debate can have far from abstract consequences. Studies of how religious traditions respond to artistic offence ← 22 | 23 → generally treat therefore of current-day political-theological preoccupations of hate speech—such as Hare and Weinstein’s (2010) Extreme Speech and Democracy—or as an aspect of religion and law (Dacey, 2012; Ferrari and Cristofori, 2010; Fox and Sandler 2006; Francioni and Scheinin, 2008; Ganiel and Jones, 2012; Lerner, 2002; Snyder, 2011). The Political Theologies project conceived the idea that a helpful addition to this literature would be to talk with to religious leaders and authority figures (in England) about the arts and through these discussions to identify any patterns of response to contemporary freedom of expression issues; and to do this I needed to identify a sample of those who have the power to influence attitudes and actions within and beyond religious communities.

0.3Political Theology and Elites’ Theory: A Methodological Synthesis

From this aesthetic-political-theological interface religious authority responses to the arts were seen to be conditioned precisely by a specific (and surprisingly tradition-specific) range of political-theological positionings. The methodological approach drew on the literature pertaining to researching elites and the powerful, thereby attaining some methodological-analytical synthesis between political theology and elites’ theory.

Preoccupation with the structures of power has been the bedrock of political theory since antiquity to the modern theories of polity and governance (from Plato through Rousseau to Paine) and the social sciences (from Comte through Marx to Foucault). Williams (2012) provides a comprehensive review of the literature from antiquity to the present.

Classically elaborating an elites’ research focus, Wright Mills’ (1956) The Power Elite (1956) is a contemporary landmark in political theory for arguing to the necessity of studying those with decision-making powers which potentially impact on the economic and social experience of individuals within a given society. The preeminence of political elites’ studies is evident from a scholarship and research literature across the political sciences (Aberbach, Putnam and Rockman, 1990; Aberbach and Rockman, 2002; Dexter, 1970; Gilens and Page, 2014; Peabody, 1964; Peabody, 1976; Peabody, Webb Hammond, Torcom, Brown, Thompson and Kolodny, 1990; Werning Rivera, Kozyreva and Sarovskii, 2002).

The approach has become popular however in the studying many societal contexts. Thus Aguiar and Schneider’s (2012) Researching Amongst Elites present extensive exemplars of elites’ theory applied to wide investigative purpose: from Wall Street to civil war, from media magnates to popular celebrities, union leaders ← 23 | 24 → to immigrant entrepreneurs. The more obvious omission is any reference to religious elites, leaders or authority figures; but then perhaps the latter are not today considered elite or powerful?

Researching elites and the powerful as a specific method in political and social science indeed takes a particular historical turn in a modernity witness to declining religious authority, or at least a loss of public and political significance. Thus early in the twentieth century elites’ theory emerged from both pre-Nazi Germany (Robert Michels, 1876–1936) and pre-Fascist Italy (Vilfredo Pareto, 1848–1923, and Gaetano Mosca, 1858–1941); notably Michels’ (1966) Political Parties; Vilfredo Pareto’s (1999) The Rise and Fall of Elites; Gaetano Mosca’s (1960) The Ruling Class. All found natural political allies with the Nazi and Fascist ascent to power (see for example, Albertoni and Goodrick, 1987; also Aron, 1950; 1950a; 1967; Hartmann, 2007; Parry, 1969; Zuckerman, 1977). Aron defines the position of the elite in the form of the seemingly self-evident, that ‘the exercise of power by a minority is a constant factor in any social order’ (Aron, 1950: 1). While in England obvious applications were to the British class structure (for example, and notably, Giddens, 1972), with the rise of Nazism and Fascism elites’ theory had more forceful actualisation.

Thus where Schmitt had found an ideological home in Nazism, Pareto and to a lesser extent Mosca found allies in Mussolini. While there are differences and nuances between the general theories of the elite in Pareto and Mosca both argued it was a natural (and acceptable) mark of social organisation (even of the human condition) for there to be a ruling class and a class of others (the ruled) to which the latter were subject. Pareto’s (1966) Treatise on General Sociology regarded religion in reductionist terms as a remnant of a spent hierarchical force progressively supplanted, religious elites by secular political elites.

A wider political literature testifies to extremes instances of this, notably the literature on, then new, political systems of ‘totalitarianism’ and attempted displacement of the theological by an all-embracing political (Friedrich and Brzezinski, 1967). Thus, as Gray comments on the totalitarianism that emerged from modernity: ‘Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religions’ (Gray, 2007: 1). Schmitt’s seminal Political Theology, published in 1922, was tacit witness to the processes then of the Russian Revolution, and predictive of, and therefore moulded so well with, the ideological terms of the Fascism and Nazism (see Hollerich, 2004; Odysseos and Petito; Vinx, 2014).

In differing ways, then, Pareto et al. provide a timely justification for Fascism as Schmitt provided one for Nazism. Schmitt in Germany and Pareto and Mosca in Italy found for themselves a theoretical respectability they would lose after the Second World War. Only later in the twentieth century has their thinking re-emerged with respectability renewed. It must be borne in mind however that the originating figures in both elite theory and political theology were far removed ← 24 | 25 → from the liberal democratic contexts and sympathies of present-day researchers: Schmitt provided enthusiastic legal support for Nazism, including the extra-judicial liquidation of political opposition and purging of German society of Jewish legal influence (Hollerich, 2004; again, the thorough literature review by Vinx, 2014). Unrepentant of his Nazi apologetics to the end—Schmitt’s (2008) Political Theology II, a retrospective apologia written in 1970—Schmitt has been identified as the ‘Crown Jurist’ of National Socialism (Rüthers 1990; Mehring 2009, 304–436). In curious parallel, Pareto has been called the ‘Karl Marx of Fascism’ (Alexander 1994).

In both cases we see contemporary rehabilitations: in elites’ theory a dissociation of the former past political transgressions by a growing body of liberal progressive literature (Williams, 2012); in political theology the once shunned Schmitt (Odysseos and Petito, 2007) has become a bedrock of mainstream socio-political investigation (Hollerich, 2004). Yet in researching elites’ literature a lacuna in theological perspectives remains; just as, in political theology, there has been less empirical literature (cf. Meyers, 2010). If a post-Cold War and post-9/11 resurgence of debate on religion in global governance (Haynes, 2008; 2009; Juergensmeyer, 2005; 2009) is often framed as ‘political theology’ (Cavanaugh, Bailey and Hovey, 2011; Davis, Milbank, and Zizek, 2005; Vries and Sullivan, 2006; Scott and Cavanaugh, 2004), interrogations of religious elites behind such resurgence have remained beyond scrutiny from two perspectives: social and political empirical analyses of elites have tended to ignore religious authority, while theoretical analyses of religious authority from the perspective of various political theologies have tended to ignore the empirical possibility of political theology.

Identifying Participants

Speaking with religious authority leaders made for a synthesis of theoretical frame and methodological approach: in seeking an analytical framework for a plurality of religious authority responses to questions of freedom of expression, political theology was thus linked if loosely to elites’ theory.

As noted, over the course of nearly three years (2010–12), I interviewed over 50 senior religious figures from a diversity of religious traditions represented in England, from which emerged nearly half a million words of transcripted interviews.

This approach had unexplored potential to do three things which the previous literature seemed to overlook: (a) to provide a comparative study of religious tradition beyond the Judaeo-Christian and western political systems; (b) to provide some (albeit limited and small scale) empirical investigation of political theology by interviewing religious leaders and authority figures, and, (c) given that elites’ ← 25 | 26 → theory had, in differing but historically and analytically parallel ways, been interested in theories of power and authority, to draw on the tradition of elites’ theory approaches by looking at the responses of religious authority figures (as ‘elites’) to contemporary issues of freedom of expression.

Participant Selection

So the research examined ongoing tensions—accommodations, conflicts and resolutions—of religious authority with secular political, especially legal frameworks, through a series of conversations with those religious leaders and authority figures. It was this criterion—the capacity in their religious authority in a leadership role to pronounce on such issues—which was the basis for their selection. This selection, the ‘sample’, did not of course preclude the fact that other voices would have been equally legitimate or that there would be other voices in the same traditions which might provide contrary views. Yet the seniority of the figures gives some validity to their authority and representative status; they are unlikely to hold view entirely contrary to the communities which they represent.

The focus on England I had hoped would make the project a manageable one. In the selection of religious authority I tried to ensure sufficient diversity, from not only Christian traditions but Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. The selection was made by examining their hierarchical structures each, seeking leadership figures and or heads of umbrella organisations that spoke for a wide range of communities (for example, the Hindu Council UK or the Muslim Council of Britain). I used in the process extensive contacts through two decades of experience of working directly and indirectly with religious communities, including contacts with the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC, 2015). It was not a large scale project and budgetary constraints had led me to suggest to the Research Council that I would undertake 24 interviews. In the end, 50 were completed, largely by the ‘snowballing’ of new contacts. What began as a small scale project managed within funding constraints produced nearly half a million words of transcripted interviews. This entailed some difficult decisions as regards the selection of material. Those included could not be systematic in coverage of all religious traditions in England or all the voices within any one of them, but they provide a scale of responses to freedom of expression in a religiously plural society (Alexander, 2005; Appignanesi, 2005).

Semi-Structured Interviews

In practical terms, the project adopted a qualitative research methodology using semi-structured interviews. These allowed participants to range beyond the format ← 26 | 27 → of the interview schedule, often in so doing providing a rich texture of their lived experiences as leaders within England. The research was focused on religious leaders and authority figures but also used alternative perspectives from leading figures from secular humanist or literary (campaigning) organisations. Participants were asked questions in three key areas but also invited to reference other issues of sensitivity in their tradition; short references to high profile case studies were therefore used as prompts to but not limitations on discussion.

The interview schedule was as follows:

I Religious Leadership and Authority

[Research question 1]

Q.How is leadership understood in your tradition?

Q.How is authority understood in your tradition?

Q.In what ways would you characterise yourself a religious leader?

Q.In what ways would you characterise yourself an authority figure?

Q.In what ways do you think you might be able to distinguish between authority and leadership?

Q.Would you say that your leadership or authority figure role extends to the local, national or international community?

Q.Are there are any key literary, political or theological sources within your tradition which pronounce or give helpful moral or other guidance on freedom of expression?

II Contemporary Issues of Freedom of Expression

[Research question 2]

Short, web-based prompt materials contextualised but did not limit discussion.

Q.In each instance, when would you consider dissent or protest appropriate?

Q.When here would you use human rights frameworks to respond?

Q.When here would you use guidelines from within your own tradition?

Q.Are there occasions of offence when you might make representation to: (i) local newspaper; (ii) national newspaper; (iii) internet; or (iv) other?

Q.Are there occasions of offence when you might make representation to: (i) your local council; (ii) MP; or (iii) other?

(1)‘Muslim world inflamed by Rushdie knighthood’ (Times, 2007)

(2)Danish library plans to house cartoons of prophet Muhammad’ (Guardian, 2008)

(3)‘Archbishop’s lecture—Religious Hatred and Religious Offence’ (Williams, 2008)

← 27 | 28 → (4)2004: ‘Theatre attacks Sikh play protest’ (BBC, 2004)

(5)Jerry Springer: The Opera is “Unfair & Unacceptable” says Archdeacon (Christianity Today, 2006)

(6)‘Harry Potter and Religion’ (New Yorker, 2010)

(7)‘Christian Groups Clam Pro-Atheist ‘Stealth Campaign’ in Nicole Kidman Fantasy Film The Golden Compass’ (Fox, 2008).

(8)Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture (Catholic News, 2006)

(9)2009: ‘Jacqui Smith’s ban on anti-Muslim Dutch MP triggers diplomatic row with Holland—A diplomatic row over a decision by British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to ban controversial Dutch film-maker Geert Wilders from broadcasting his anti-Muslim film in the House of Lords has escalated’ (Telegraph, 2009).

(10)2009: ‘The atheist bus journey: There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ (Guardian, 2009).

III Political Theologies

[Research question 3]

Q. What is your view of the UK Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, and do you think this is useful protection in law for freedom of religion or belief?

Q. Do you think the UK Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 infringes freedom of expression?

Q. What was your response to the abolition of the common law of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008?

Q. How would you characterise the role of your tradition to secular authority?

Q. How would you envisage the ideal role of your tradition in relation to secular authority?

The resultant rich source of empirical data formed the basis of an emergent political-theological analytical framework to form a typology of religious authority responses to contemporary issues of freedom of expression in terms of respective political theologies.


Research with, on or amongst human subjects, as here, presents of course ethical issues. Though having a multidisciplinary, humanities’ background (undergraduate studies in religion with English and a doctorate in contemporary literature) in terms of professional context my professional life has for two decades been within university faculties or departments of education. As such the professional ← 28 | 29 → parameters of the project were undertaken with a thorough ethical review and approval under through the University of Plymouth ethics procedures, before the project transferred to the University of Oxford. The overarching remit for the ethical aspects of the research was and remains under the remit of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and their guidance on ethics (BERA, 2004; 2011). Signed consent was sought and gained of all participants as manifest in the Participant Consent Form. Despite a difference in substantive subject matter—political theology rather than education—the principles adhered to in working with persons demanded of in educational research were useful in this humanities’ research context.

While professional guidance (BERA, 2011) and the wider literature on ethics in educational research was a guide to professional due diligence (for instance, Bridges, Gingell, Suissa, Watts and Winch 2007; Hammersley and Traianou, 2012; McNamee and Bridges, 2002), the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Framework for Research Ethics provided specific guidance on elite interviews, as:

… interviews with senior people who may be chosen for inclusion in a research study because of the public role they hold in their own right (e.g. Government Ministers), or because they represent views of their general position (e.g. judges, newspaper editors).

Religious leaders and authority figures certainly fall within the latter category, though empirical research involving religious elites is less common than the long tradition of studying involving political elites (for example, again, Aberbach, Putnam and Rockman, 1990; Aberbach and Rockman, 2002; Dexter, 1970; Gilens and Page, 2014; Peabody, 1964; Peabody, 1976; Peabody, Webb Hammond, Torcom, Brown, Thompson and Kolodny, 1990; Werning Rivera, Kozyreva and Sarovskii, 2002). In terms of consent, interview transcripts were shared with respondents to check for accuracy and that statements were still attributable, though in this study I have maintained the highest possibility of keeping potential identifiers to a minimum, removing names, generalising roles within organisations.

The avoiding of this risk of disclosing identities has been maintained in the dissemination of findings. These risks are accentuated most probably through issues of anonymity, in extreme instances, the risk to personal safety or perceived risks to reputation and so forth. In no case did I or the interviewees however see this was or was likely to be the case. In part this was because the respondents were speaking not in strictly official capacities, though views, opinions, beliefs and attitudes were however naturally coloured by the prism of the lived experiences of those leaders and or authority figures interviewed.

← 29 | 30 → The general safeguarding of interviewees in such circumstances is usually covered in ethics by adhering to agreed terms of anonymity and confidentiality. In elite interviews, however, maintaining anonymity and confidentiality presents particular difficulties since by their very nature the insights and perspectives of interview subjects by mere commentary present personal identifiers. In some other instances, the seniority of a particular religious figure may give special weight to the importance of the findings. Though fuller disclosure was granted, participants were anonymised as fully as possibly.

Conversation and or Analysis

My interest in the voices of participants and I hope a spirit of genuine dialogue prompted me to characterise the interviews as conversations. There needed still to be some frame of reference in order to characterise the key elements of these conversations into an ordered framework; and the form this took was a typology of responses of religious authority and secular humanist and literary (campaigning) voices. The transcripts were read iteratively over what come to be a period of years during, immediately as well as in the months following the conversations.

Patterns emerged from these conversations as time progressed and interviews accumulated in number. The lapse of time also allowed emergent themes more intuitively than systematically to present themselves. I made a conscious decision not to use the formal ‘coding’ approaches to this analysis. These have become prevalent in political and social science research (see for example Berg and Lune, 2013). Coding emerged with especial prevalence through the rise of ‘grounded theory’ (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Though the proponents of this approach have famously fallen out over their own respective interpretative methods, in grounded theory the approach is to allow patterns to emerge from the (social scientific) data—from the ground up, so to speak (for the best discussion of the byways of the dispute between Glaser and Strauss, see Walker and Myrick, 2006):

Grounded theory challenged the then-dominant logico-deductive way of theorizing, because rather than develop a theory and then systematically seek out evidence to verify it, researchers using grounded theory set out to gather data and then systematically develop the theory derived directly from the data. (Walker and Myrick, 2006: 548).

In such contexts what is called ‘open coding’ will assume ‘that each interview was recorded on tape and transcribed verbatim and is ready for a thorough reading and annotating of codable topics, themes, and issues’ (Berg and Lune, 2013: 155):

← 30 | 31 → To begin, you simply seek naturally occurring classes of things, persons and events, and important characteristics of these items. In other words, you look for similarities and dissimilarities—patterns—in the data. But you must look for these patterns systematically! (Berg and Lune, 2013: 155)

In pre-computer days, this was a matter of indexing and filing, and now often, invariably now, involving programmes such as NVivo or similar packages for data analysis. The ‘systematic’ and the (computer) systems all provide this approach to the interpretation of interview conversations a certain aura of the ‘scientific’. I am not so convinced an approach would have been appropriate in the case of the political theologies research, another researcher might have been more so inclined. Certainly I resisted use of any computerised programmes to track through the ‘data’ and find such patterns. The patterns uncovered in the wealth of conversation emerged nevertheless the way patterns emerge from less pre-arranged conversations of the everyday; from listening, and in the instance of these conversations from the process of repeated returning to the text. ‘Coding’ is for me, then, simply the mechanisation of a discovery of patterns and tracks of understanding which occur through close reading. What Strauss (1987) called ‘open coding’, then, I call ‘close reading’.

There needed of course to be a starting point for the uncovering of the patterns from such reading. These for me were the self identified religious traditions who leaders and authorities figures I spoke with. In refining the emergent patterns, the traditions were too a point for an inductive and deductive analysis: from the inductive, I drew the general political-theological framework of the traditions to a specific analysis of the particulars of freedom of expression; from the deductive, I drew from the particulars of freedom of expression responses to the general political-theological frame of the traditions. Necessarily then I was imposing, unlike any grounded theory approach, a political-theological framework on to the conversations around freedom of expression; and seeing the emergent conversational themes through a political-theological lens.

This seemed to pose no problems by way of my interpretative framework for interviews. For example, transcripts of interviews were shared with participants following the interviews but the framing of the analysis remained then as now, my own, respectful of the integrity of each tradition, mindful of diversity within each and across each tradition, and imposing only what holistic interpretation could be attributed to the participants from each tradition, religious or secular, at that place and time. The conversations in political theology which form the substantive heart of this volume are therefore presented to enable the critical findings and especially the typology of responses to be open to challenge as much as to affirmation.

← 31 | 32 → 0.4Conversations in Political Theology: Critical Findings and a Typology

Elsewhere (Gearon, 2013), I have suggested that one way to approach this complex of political and religious determinants is by a simple ‘double nexus’: on the one hand political authority (law, the state, structures of governance) interacting with, on the other, religious authority. Political authority is easier to identify, if not define, because though itself multiple, diverse and plural in the sources of its legitimacy (forms of secular law, variant structures of local/national/international governance) the state (in this case England) provides a single overarching point of reference. By contrast religious authority, in England certainly, is multiple, diverse and plural in the sources of its legitimacy in a qualitatively different way. In large measure this is because each is subject to the law of the land or, that is, secular, political authority. Each religious tradition too will have not only manifold sources of authority but different ways to relate to, access and influence political authority. In England, some traditions have an historically privileged access and influence, other traditions newer to the state will have less access and influence to the political; many religious traditions of course have little interest in accessing a political or public voice, and often forgotten in current-day debates where it is presumed that all religious groups want a political voice.

I came with no predetermined definitions as to determinants of what this religious authority was, and I have defined it here only through a typology of responses, as below; but from interviewee responses I have identified two key, critical sources of religious authority. These further illustrate a qualitative difference between religious and political authority: (1) scriptural authority (where texts within respective traditions to greater or lesser extents inform thinking and decision-making); (2) historical-hierarchical authority (internal sources of authority maintained by structures, diverse within and between traditions). There were other transcript-evidenced sources of authority such as intellectual authority, moral or spiritual status, even holiness; but these had less prominence in interaction with the political.

(1)Scriptural authority. Across all traditions religious texts reflect extraordinary complexity in the range and diversity, made more complex by the differing extents to which these texts guide and influence leaders and authority figures within respective religious systems. There are disputations of historical and contemporary interpretation within and across traditions. Yet in all instances scriptural authority is critical. There are no secular political textual equivalents—whether laws, legislative frameworks, policy ← 32 | 33 → guidance—of similar authority. (Only in totalitarian systems might there exist some pale reflection of these.) In one interview Professor David Ford, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, put it well in terms ‘scriptural reasoning’: ‘Scriptural reasoning has many different contexts. Obviously it’s got academic context but also a civic context … Scriptural reasoning is an instrument, that it’s a practice that can bring people together on texts of very different sorts.’ For those for whom scripture has authority, it draws ‘people from very diverse backgrounds and plural people within each of the traditions as well, in other words not just one sort of Christian and one sort of Muslim, because basically each of these traditions does have to relate to its scriptures’: ‘ … however complexly it does and however diversely it does, even within its own tradition and what it means is that people can come to the table with something that’s part of their core religious identity on the table and then engage with others out of that and because these texts are extraordinarily generative, not just in a narrow sense religiously, but ethically and politically and for the whole way of engaging with the world today’ (also Gearon 2013; see also Ford and Pecknold, 2006).

(2)Historical-hierarchical authority. In general never entirely unrelated to some form of scriptural authority, historical-hierarchical authority resides in persons and in the offices they inherit, integrally related to the historical structures of the respective traditions. In England, we see a considerable plurality of such historical-hierarchies. The historical dimension (the structures and rank say of an ecclesiastical office) is as important as the contemporary holder of a particular hierarchical position. It is this historical role which marks also a particular position for a religious tradition with or in relation to political context. For example, the Catholic Archbishop reflected on his predecessor, the late Cardinal Hume, and from some few comments we see a glimpse of a broader, once fraught historical relationship between Catholic and Anglican Churches: ‘ … one of Cardinal Hume’s great ambitions in the very best sense of the word was to try and ensure that the Catholic Church in England and in London in particular made progress in its positioning within the public sphere. So for him a very great moment was when the Queen came to Vespers here in Westminster Cathedral: the first time a reigning monarch had done so since the Reformation.’ Understanding the historical-hierarchical nature of religious authority is as critical as the scriptural in understanding how religious authority interacts with the political.

← 33 | 34 → The double nexus in simple terms is the interplay of political and religious authority. Further, again simplistically, religious and or political authority has inward-looking and external-facing aspects, an internal and external nexus. An internal nexus of religious authority is a key determinant for the coherence between scriptural authority (Ford’s ‘scriptural reasoning’) and historical-hierarchical authority; whether in variant interpretation or struggles for power and ascendancy, including the ascendancy therefore of one scriptural interpretation by one historical- hierarchy against another historical-hierarchy. The point of collapse in historical- hierarchy will lead to the new formations of historical-hierarchy, often based upon differing interpretation of scripture and its authority; so Reformation history testifies to this as a cause of fragmentation for sixteenth century Christianity in Europe (MacCulloch, 2010).

In the external nexus, a plurality of religious authorities vies, to varying degrees of success, with political power. At one level, this is simply a restatement of a secular-religious or political-theological divide, and seems too self-evident to be worthy of note. It was at the early stages of the project a useful means of structurally if simplistically representing a deep structure which conceals underlying complexities (again, Gearon, 2013). Here we can note that the success of theological interaction with the political (the external nexus) is dependent upon the coherence of the terms of internal nexus, not only the coherence of theological acuity (for example in the interpretation of scripture), but in the historical and contemporary conditions which define a tradition’s place through historical-hierarchy, in the case of this study in England.

The internal and external nexus of religious authority is replete with examples of each of these layers of authority, each tradition giving varying weight to one or other aspect of the sources of authority, internally and externally. Thus at a basic level then we can observe the internal nexus of religious authority within and between religious traditions; and the external nexus of (diverse and plural) religious authority with political power. As I have argued elsewhere (Gearon, 2013), the analytical framework used developed by building up a simple binary which portrayed a commonplace polarity but which had the capacity to contain, with data gathered, a great and considerable complexity, and to be able to recognise deep structures without getting lost in the detail of data gathered.

The research showed the operation of a double nexus political-theological relationship in which the arts were the variable. By this reasoning any other variable could have been entered into this political-theological equation.

We note throughout the interviews major differences in attitude and engagement between religious authority and political power, not only in the institutional relations with the state by faiths relatively new to Britain, but also in some of these (Buddhism in particular) a studied indifference to political power. Other religious ← 34 | 35 → traditions have established networks often staffed by lay people—the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Hindu Forum, the Hindu Council UK, and so forth—both to present a coherent voice to their own communities (the internal nexus) but also to engage with concerns with (local and national) political authorities (the external nexus).

The research showed religious communities newer to England felt their religious authority led less political weight. In times of challenge, for example when a community feel affronted by some offence, as art gives offence, established (largely Christian) traditions feel more at ease than communities newer to England in responding to effrontery. This, despite the fact the direct interface of religious authority and political power is framed in terms of law and this at least in formal legislative terms gives all traditions an equal footing even if not all feel their voice has equal weight.

It is here where tensions in the double nexus are most evident. The trend toward a secular legal framing of debate across political domains defined by one interviewee as an emergent

… sensitivity to the growing juridification of society … the way in which people will have recourse to law or at least claim or threaten to have the recourse to law, and so you know you only need to get a situation in which somebody feels threatened: ‘Have you disrespected me?’, you know, and then waving a piece of legislation around. ‘Juridification’ is a term that some sociologists of law use to talk about the way in which legal, and legalistic, modes of thought come to colonise certain areas of social life, where hitherto they might have been absent.

This historical context goes back to the traditions of English Protestant non-conformity, ‘the idea that religion is voluntary and that therefore the institutional form of organised religion is the association, is I think a particular legacy of that campaign’. Asked whether the law moving faster now, the interviewee responded:

Yes, absolutely, very much so. I was going to say, one of the things that we wanted to mention was perhaps the issue of legal structure and real religious structure, and the interplay between what the law says about the structure in organised religion and then what religions say … I think sociologically we’re very, very complex now, because on the one hand we have a residual cultural Christianity, a loose form, the sort of thing that produces your seventy percent response rate in a sense or something like that. You’ve got your new religious minorities, some of which are now substantial—Islam—but then also you’ve got the rise of professed non-belief. So in statistics people would say, ‘I do not believe in a God.’ Well, in that sense, ‘Are you an atheist?’ Well, maybe not using the label atheism, but certainly saying, ‘I do not believe.’ … there it is, it’s a powerful social force in legitimising a certain sort of hostility to religion.

← 35 | 36 → While religious leaders with liberal outlooks might be sanguine, the secular voice, perceived as an unrepresentative minority was spoken of by other religious leaders in acerbic terms. Statements from a senior figure within the Evangelical Alliance make this especially plain. As a representative from the (Church of England) Archbishops’ Council stated, this was the challenge of ‘liberal theologians’, the problem of ‘trying to say that “the world sets the agenda” which was always the slogan, but the world can be a fairly corrupt place … the idea that Christian doctrine is infinitely malleable doesn’t strike me as especially clever’. Similar tensions of religious-political interaction are evident across religious traditions.

Thus, what the Catholic Archbishop distinguished between a legally vouchsafed secular voice and perceived secularising influence of voices antagonistic to religious authority, even religion itself; as here commenting on (former) Pope Benedict XVI’s theology:

What he [Pope Benedict XVI] would not expect and what he would argue against is that a secular state or the institutions of a secular state would be secularist. In other words they would as it were be dogmatically driven by their secularism and therefore have a negative role and attitude and relationship with religious faith. He would say that what is perfectly clear is that the religious dimension of human experience and enterprise is a vitally important part of the richness of a society which quite properly sees its public space and its institutions in particular as not aligned to any of those religious faiths.

So, Pope Benedict XVI ‘would be against the negative secularism that sometimes permeates—maybe not so much the leadership of secular institutions, but often its administrative structures—and sometimes it’s kind of the public culture that we operate in’.

In the sphere of competing tensions between religious authority and political power, the research found Government Departments acting to mediate such complexity. Such moves were in large part directed towards—as interviewees perceived it—the instigation of conformity to legal, particularly human rights frameworks. This political mediation of religion is shown to create tensions. These are apparent when perceived as a manipulation of religious authority, not only by the direct exercise of political, especially legal power, but by more subtle and difficult to delineate influences, most commonly identified as ‘secular’. Again, the political-theological is a constant whatever the variable.

And, in terms of religious authorities confident or otherwise of their influence on political authority and to varying degrees comfortable in confronting and challenging such perceived secularity, responses to variables (here the arts) will reflect this sense of the worth or value or the force of religious authority influence. It was notable in fact that it was precisely those (largely Christian) religious authorities ← 36 | 37 → with established relations with political authority who mentioned secularity, secularism and related matters at all, or who questioned human rights and equalities legislation as impinging on their authority; minority traditions, if we can make this inference, may value such legislation as it provides them precisely with a legal guarantee of voice and influence in relation to political authority where they might have in actuality little or none.

The findings showed, then, put less contentiously, that political authority operates to mediate such religiously plural complexity across the range of religious authorities (cf. Gearon, 2013). Rawls defines this mediation as a premise of political liberalism (Rawls, 1998; 2005). Stepan’s (2000) ‘twin tolerations’ suggests a need for balancing the acceptable limit of political and or religious authority. Debates about religion in public life examine precisely the tensions that arise, where religious traditions sense more often than not less mediation of their views than their exclusion (Audi and Wolterstorff, 1997; Audi, 2005; Habermas, 2006; 2007; Habermas and Ratzinger, 2007; Trigg, 2007).

Here Habermas’ suggests, ‘Arguments for a more generously dimensioned political role for religion that are incompatible with the secular nature of the state should not be confused with justifiable objections to a secularist understanding of democracy and the rule of law’ (Habermas, 2006: 6). Here, the ‘principle of separation of Church and state demands that the institution of the state operate with strict impartiality vis-a-vis religious communities; parliaments, courts, and the administration must not violate the prescription not to privilege one side at the cost of another’. For Habermas: ‘Irrespective of how the interests are weighted in the relationship between the state and religious organizations, a state cannot encumber its citizens, whom it guarantees freedom of religious expression, with duties that are incompatible with pursuing a devout life—it cannot expect something impossible of them’ (Habermas, 2006: more widely, see Habermas, 2008; and Calhoun, Mendieta and Antwerpen, 2013). What might the impossible be in the instance of religious authority in the arts? Might it be that extreme cases thereby test the law and the relationship between the political and the theological? Indeed, I contend that it is; and here the arts, the right to offend, as events in Paris 2015 show, are far from a peripheral consideration; where secular, political and legal frameworks hold such sway, it is precisely through the arts and culture where the fractures in the wider political-theological relationship are revealed.

The path of international law around freedom of religion can here be determined in its preoccupation with freedom of religion or belief (Gearon, 2002; 2014; Ghanea, 2010; Lerner, 2002; Witte and Green, 2011) and operationalised in the United Nations’ system by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief (OHCR, 2015). Here religious or (non-religious) beliefs have equal ← 37 | 38 → legal legitimacy. This can be marked as a shift from respect for God to respect for persons, a protection not of beliefs but believers, the prevention of discrimination and the maintenance of equality (Weller, Purdam and by Ghanea, 2013). Wellman has called these rights of ‘human solidarity’ (Wellman 2003). In the UN system this has led to a collaborative approach between rapporteurs, such as at Rabat, in Morocco, and the subsequent Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (OHCHR, 2012). At Vienna, OHCHR expert workshops a joint submission by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (Bielefeldt, La Rue, and Muigai, 2011). This shift to an emphasis on persons, the believer rather than the belief, is reflected in the legal-political context of England: thus, as noted, the 2008 abolition of offence of blasphemy in English law followed the enactment of the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act (see also, Weller, Purdam, and Ghanea, 2013; Langer, 2014).

Here, in addition to the substantive insights of political theology, the methodological context of elites’ theory also provided the modus operandi of interviews. Religious elites’ theory provided further nuance to the substantive political- theological findings. Thus one of the successes of the project was in developing a political-theological analytical framework and typology which merged with a methodological framework of elites’ theory.

However, talking with religious leaders and authority figures engendered a noticeable sense of a world in which the religious voice struggles if not to be heard then to be listened to beyond their communities. It might therefore be argued the transcripts tell of a political-theological context in which religious authority figures are neither elite nor powerful.

Yet the voice is nowhere more vociferous than in matters of offence against God. Even here, however, the voice of religious vis-a-vis political authority has not the weight it once had. For many, this is a good, for others, for many—not only those of Christian faith—there is an almost melancholic sense of loss for an England which, in a hierarchy of value, seems now to place the political norms of freedom of expression over reverence for the divine.

Critical Findings

Beyond and contained within these important general considerations, there are 24 critical findings which relate to four categories: 1. Religious Authority and the Arts: Aesthetics, Politics, Theology; 2. Political Theology: An Analytical Framework; ← 38 | 39 → 3. Elites’ Theory: A Methodological Synthesis; a fourth—4. Conversations in Political Theology: A Typology—provides a political-theological ordering of religious authority responses in England to contemporary issues of freedom of expression.

Two general factors are important here. First, the critical findings covered by 1–3 are generalisable across all respondents and present insights into the commonalities of the current political-theological conditions in relation to religious authority and the arts, particularly to contemporary issues of freedom of expression, and notably how religious leaders and authority figures across all traditions—secular and religious—respond to such issues.

Second, in the typology of religious authority responses (the fourth category of critical finding) there was evident a significant distinctiveness between traditions and within them. Though these responses are not necessarily representative of an entire religious tradition, they are indicative of a representative view. The leader, that is, has some representative authority. Therefore, on the basis of a relatively small though rich sample it is possible (on evidence from England) to elaborate types of response from a given religious tradition in given political-theological context. Given the derivation of religious authority from transnational sources, indicative responses are, it should be noted, shaped but not entirely conditioned by the English setting.

(1)Religious Authority and the Arts: Aesthetics, Politics, Theology

1.The relationship between religious authority and the arts demonstrates a complex contemporary-historical interface of theology, politics and aesthetics.

2.Historically coloured (in England) by the Reformation-Counter-Reformation, political-theological difference had deep impact upon understandings of the aims and acceptable limits of the arts between Catholic and Protestant.

3.Catholic tradition had historically been more accepting of devotional images in religious art, Protestant traditions less so, and yet in the wider frame of the arts, the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books indicates an historically less than favourable response to notions of freedom of expression; however, it is an irony of this history that the modern discourse of freedom of expression (in England) arose from a Puritan—where Milton’s Areopagitica of 1644 is a defining text—that is, a Reformed Protestant tradition which was censorious not only of images but more generally of the arts.

4.In contemporary context religious diversity has meant a more complex and religiously plural interface of theology, politics and aesthetics.

← 39 | 40 → 5.In response to the latter plurality, contemporary legislative changes in England—notably two landmarks for entangled relations of freedom of expression and freedom of religion in English law: the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 and Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008—show today the dominance of secular, political-legal authority over religious authority in defining the permissible limits of the arts and offence.

6.The singular focus on protecting Christianity through blasphemy in English society has shifted due to an increased attention to offence across a wide range of religious traditions; but also the rights of individuals to express views which might be considered offensive to religious authority.

7.A defining change has been away from a protection of offence against God (blasphemy) to a sensitivity of offence against peoples (as in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act); and in England political and legal authority is the means to mediate offence and responses to it.

8.Yet religious authority responses to the arts and freedom of expression remain conditioned across all traditions by two main sources of over-arching tradition-specific authority: scriptural and historical-hierarchical.

9.Religious authority—in relation to the arts—operates in and through local and national communities but this same religious authority will invariably derive its legitimacy, in all cases, from transnational/state-transcending (scriptural and historical-hierarchical) sources.

10.Religious communities through their religious leaders and authority figures increasingly feel confident in expressing their sense of offence.

11.There is diversity of response to offence within religious traditions, but many defining features characteristic of and specific to particular religious traditions which allow the latter to be characterised holistically; specific responses to issues of freedom of expression are identifiable a distinctive of particular traditions, despite nuances of difference.

12.Sensitivity to offence is greatly increased when minority traditions feel threat.

13.Some religious traditions radically re-interpret the overall framework and downplay the significance of freedom of expression; for example in those traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism where theological-philosophical positions emphasise a negation of the self, self-expression or freedom of expression, while valued, is not, in the arts at least a high priority.

14.There are pressure points across all religious traditions which prompt action—there are no hard and fast religious principles but the most common ‘trigger’ remains blasphemy.

← 40 | 41 → 15.Secular humanist and literary organisations defend the right to offend and are most likely to regard religious authority as a threat to freedom of expression.

(2)Political Theology: An Analytical Framework

16.Political theology is an appropriate framework for conceptualisation and theorising the relations between religious authority and political, legal systems. This political-theological relationship can simplistically framed as a double nexus, but it should not be used to over-simplify the internal and external complexities within and across traditions in interaction with secular, political-legal authority.

17.This political-theological framework adequately contains the diversity of responses of religious leaders and authority figures to contemporary issues of freedom of expression, providing a strong conceptual and theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between religious and secular, legal-political authority.

18.The overall conceptualisation of the project meant, then, that research questions were appropriately framed and conceptualised in terms of being able to gauge religious authority responses to the arts and particularly contemporary issues of freedom of expression.

19.The research focus was on responses of religious leaders and authority figures in England to contemporary issues of freedom of expression: however, for each religious tradition: (a) questions of freedom of expression can rarely if ever be restricted to national context, respondents’ answers show an ever-present, transnational focus; (b) although the questions focused on contemporary issues of freedom of expression, there was always an historical dimension to the framing of respondents.

(3)Political Theology and Elites’ Theory: A Methodological Synthesis

20.The link between political theology and elites’ theory allowed for a synthesis of theoretical perspective and methodological approach.

21.The question of anonymity remains a difficult issue when interviewing religious leaders and authority figures, since their responses may hold key identifiers, and every attempt should be made to minimise these given …

22.Freedom of expression remains fraught with potentially dangerous and injurious consequences for some respondents, and researchers must be especially sensitive to these issues.

← 41 | 42 → (4)Conversations in Political Theology: A Typology

23.A typology of political-theological responses showed the legitimacy of basing these upon boundaries set by the faith traditions, there being sufficient commonality and difference between religious traditions to identify their responses as generally distinct.

24.The typology arising from the political theologies research was sevenfold:

Political-Theological Convergence (The Church of England)

Political-Theological Conservatism

(Catholicism, Orthodox and ‘Non-Conformist’/Evangelical Protestantism)

Political-Theological Crisis (Judaism)

Political-Theological Confrontation (Islam)

Political-Theological (Re-) Construal (Hinduism and Buddhism)

Political-Theological Condemnation (Secular humanism)

Political-Theological Critique (Literary campaigning organisations)

A Typology

The research used an analytical framework combining political theology and elites’ theory. The elites’ theory literature was especially helpful in framing aspects of focus and method, in conversation with authority figures in literary, political and theological contexts to understand thinking around issues of freedom of expression.

In the typology, two guiding principles should be borne in mind: first, explicit religious authority responses (and supplementary secular humanist and literary perspectives) are framed in terms of political theology; second, each a position has been elaborated as a type, and not necessarily therefore representative of the entirety of that tradition. Yet the broad typological frame, I contend, is a valid assessment of a stated political-theological position on the basis of conversations held at those particular times and places. In each case an aesthetic variable in the political-theological conversation divulges a relational picture between religious authority and the arts.

Cognisant of diversity and plurality across these traditions, each position within the typology has the following distinctive features.

Chapter 1. Political-Theological Convergence (The Church of England)

1.1‘The Kissinger question’: The Archbishops’ Council

1.2‘We are talking about the authority of God’: A Bishop of the Church of England

← 42 | 43 → Three features of political-theological convergence in relation to the research questions:

[RQ1:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England understand their authority and leadership?]

Strong political-theological convergence with the state; authority and leadership are integrated and strongly identified with the legislature (as for example the role of Bishops in the House of Lords), notably as regards as regards developments related to religious hatred and blasphemy.

[RQ2:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England respond to contemporary issues of freedom of expression?]

Strong political-theological identity with liberal notions of freedom of expression, a relaxed and tolerant attitude even to instances on blasphemy, and an acceptance of the transition of the ‘protection of God’ to the protection of the rights of people.

[RQ3:From these religious authority responses to contemporary issues of freedom of expression, what can be learnt about the wider relationship between religious and secular, legal-political authority in England today; and critically how can a political-theological analytical framework advance our understanding of religious authority and the arts—crucially in relation to contemporary issues of freedom of expression—in terms of respective political theologies?]

The political-theological convergence typology—(1) strong political-theological convergence with the state and (2) strong political-theological identity with liberal notions of freedom of expression—indicates in large measure a conforming of the theological to the political.

Chapter 2. Political-Theological Conservatism: Catholicism, Orthodox
Christianity and Evangelical Protestantism

2.1‘The life of the Church’: A Catholic Archbishop

2.2‘Think of tradition as a wheel with scripture as the hub’: An Orthodox Christian View

2.3‘The radical end of the Reformation’: A Baptist Perspective

2.4‘Leadership by inspiration’: General Secretary of the Methodist Council

2.5‘Bible-based, cross-centred, and activist’: The Evangelical Alliance

← 43 | 44 → Three features of political-theological conservatism in relation to the research questions:

[RQ1:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England understand their authority and leadership?]

Though each of these traditions in themselves reflect different historical tensions, there is across them all a strong political-theological conservatism in relation to their own tradition; of particular note is the recognition of an Augustinian separation of the earthly kingdom and the kingdom of God; religious authority and leadership—based on scriptural and historical-hierarchical sources of authority—are respectful of the rights of but reject and contest intrusions the State, especially legislative incursions into the religious and the theological.

[RQ2:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England respond to contemporary issues of freedom of expression?]

Evident is a strong political-theological conservatism in relation to and in large measure a rejection of liberal notions of freedom of expression in the arts, a far from relaxed and tolerant attitude to blasphemy, and an almost melancholic ambivalence to the legislative shift in English society from acceptance a legal ‘protection of God’ to the protection of the rights of people; but, given the increased plurality of English society, evident also is some degree of acceptance of legal developments related to religious hatred and blasphemy; these Christian denominations however all share a collective sense of and call for individual Christians to a personal response in conscience in relation to matters injurious of faith and or morals, including perceived offences against God and against Christianity, by individual Christians and Church leaders, whether conceived as Bishops, priests, ministers, pastors and so forth.

[RQ3:From these religious authority responses to contemporary issues of freedom of expression, what can be learnt about the wider relationship between religious and secular, legal-political authority in England today; and critically how can a political-theological analytical framework advance our understanding of religious authority and the arts—crucially in relation to contemporary issues of freedom of expression—in terms of respective political theologies?]

The political-theological conservatism typology—(1) strong political-theological separation of religious tradition from the state and (2) limited political-theological identity with liberal notions of freedom of expression—indicates in relation ← 44 | 45 → to the arts—and notably where art offends—a space of conservative (religious authority protecting) contestation; accepting of legitimate freedom of expression in the arts, here religious authority presents no automatic conforming of the theological to the political in matters perceived as deeply injurious to faith and or morals.

Chapter 3. Political-Theological Crisis: Judaism

3.1‘What we are concerned about is hate speech’: Board of Deputies of British Jews

3.2‘You don’t start talking Jewish without referring back to Biblical times’: An Orthodox Jewish Perspective

Three features of political-theological crisis in relation to the research questions:

[RQ1:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England understand their authority and leadership?]

Political-theological sense of identity with the secular-political-legal norms of the state, and a strong sense of Judaism’s historical contribution to their formation, both in antiquity and through the rise of international human rights law, is set against a perpetual awareness of historical and to some degree contemporary crisis, resulting from a strong awareness of the Holocaust or Shoah and its origins in a long tradition of anti-Semitism through centuries of western history; evidenced in relation to relative historical powerlessness; authority and leadership in England, however, integrated within and strongly identified with secular legislature (including a notably distinguished Jewish contributions through memberships of the House of Commons and the House of Lords); wary of blasphemy, but respectful of the need for freedom of expression, while mindful of the need for laws which protect against religious hatred.

[RQ2:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England respond to contemporary issues of freedom of expression?]

Strong political-theological identity with liberal notions of freedom of expression, a relaxed and tolerant attitude to debate reflecting a long intellectual tradition of theological discussion and political controversy; these factors needing to be seen as combined with a sense of urgency in the acceptance of the transition of the ‘protection of God’ to the protection of the rights of people, the overriding concern of respondents being hate speech.

← 45 | 46 → [RQ3:From these religious authority responses to contemporary issues of freedom of expression, what can be learnt about the wider relationship between religious and secular, legal-political authority in England today; and critically how can a political-theological analytical framework advance our understanding of religious authority and the arts—crucially in relation to contemporary issues of freedom of expression—in terms of respective political theologies?]

Judaism is a minority religious tradition in England with a history of both persecution, prejudice and exile in previous centuries and a more modern history of strong assimilation with secular, political and legal norms; allowing that Jewish identity is ethnic as well as religious, and can be as easily defined in secular as theological terms, the political-theological crisis typology—(1) strong political-theological convergence with the state and (2) strong political-theological identity with liberal notions of freedom of expression—indicates a conforming of the theological to the political, but evidences too a wariness of the forces of political and theological disruption and even danger, coloured by historical realities and present-day consciousness.

Chapter 4. Political-Theological Confrontation: Islam

4.1‘My recollections are of these busloads’: The Muslim Council of Britain

4.2‘We all know that you can’t abuse or insult God the Creator or one of his Prophets’: A Senior Islamic Scholar Reflects

Three features of political-theological convergence in relation to the research questions:

[RQ1:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England understand their authority and leadership?]

Strong political-theological identity with the secular, political and legal norms of England, a position which belies some sense of conflict with un-Islamic foundations of the state; authority and leadership are integrated within and strongly identified with the legislature (some Islamic representation in the House of Commons and the House of Lords), notably supportive of legal developments related to religious hatred and blasphemy.

[RQ2:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England respond to contemporary issues of freedom of expression?]

← 46 | 47 → Strong political-theological conflict with liberal notions of freedom of expression, though an acceptance of the secular, political and legal norms of England up to the point of real and or perceived offence, especially around offences of blasphemy, which provokes fierce and at times violent opposition; but nevertheless there is a welcoming of some aspects of the transition of the ‘protection of God’ to the protection of the rights of people in legislation which protects against religious hatred.

[RQ3:From these religious authority responses to contemporary issues of freedom of expression, what can be learnt about the wider relationship between religious and secular, legal-political authority in England today; and critically how can a political-theological analytical framework advance our understanding of religious authority and the arts—crucially in relation to contemporary issues of freedom of expression—in terms of respective political theologies?]

The political-theological confrontation typology—(1) strong (inherent) political- theological conflict with the secular, political and legal norms of the state and (2) consequently strong political-theological potentiality for conflict with liberal notions of freedom of expression—indicates a strong rejection of any compromise of the theological to the political, to the point of direct political and in extreme instances violent action from the conforming of the theological to the political.

Chapters 5 and 6. Political-Theological (Re-) Construal: Hinduism and Buddhism


5.1‘Authority based on insight’: International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON)

5.2‘Spiritually enlightened personalities, ancient and modern’: The Hindu Council UK


6.1‘So it’s all very strange’: The Buddhist Society

6.2‘Somewhat sceptical of this whole notion of personal freedom’: Zen Buddhism

6.3‘Test any statement from any authority figure’: A Tibetan lama reflects

Three features of political-theological convergence in relation to the research questions:

← 47 | 48 → [RQ1:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England understand their authority and leadership?]

Strong indifference to political activity within the state; religious authority and leadership are integrated within and strongly identified with the legislature in England as a matter of pragmatic necessity, but leadership and authority vouchsafed by spiritual values not secular goals, all subsumed by the assault on spiritual enlightenment.

[RQ2:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England respond to contemporary issues of freedom of expression?]

Re-construal of entire notion of self-expression for ‘theological’ and or philosophical terms characterises both the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism; links to a divergent intellectual history from the western intellectual traditions in which aesthetic, political and theological notions of freedom of expression arose; nevertheless there is a prevalent political-theological identity with liberal notions of freedom of expression, a relaxed and tolerant attitude even to instances on blasphemy, and an acceptance of the transition of the ‘protection of God’ to the protection of the rights of people; notably supportive of legislative developments to religious hatred; indifferent for theological/philosophical reasons to blasphemy, though there are points at which even these traditions will respond and react in extreme circumstances of perceived deliberate offence.

[RQ3:From these religious authority responses to contemporary issues of freedom of expression, what can be learnt about the wider relationship between religious and secular, legal-political authority in England today; and critically how can a political-theological analytical framework advance our understanding of religious authority and the arts—crucially in relation to contemporary issues of freedom of expression—in terms of respective political theologies?]

The political-theological (re-)construal typology—(1) a political-theological re-working of western notions of religious and political authority, marked at times by indifference to political engagement and (2) despite prevailing liberal attitudes to freedom of expression, notable is a (re-)construal of freedom of expression itself, centred around a rejection of the importance around western, liberal ideas of the individual and self and therefore self-expression and or freedom of expression —indicates such terms cannot be applied easily to Hinduism and or Buddhism.

← 48 | 49 → The two secular responses overlapped in many regards but can be distinguished by an overt if at times nuanced distinction, often eliding critique into condemnation.

Chapter 7. Political-Theological Condemnation: Secular Humanism

7.1‘The international big-time for atheism’: A Senior Member of the British Humanist Association

Three features of political-theological convergence in relation to the research questions:

[RQ1:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England understand their authority and leadership?]

The secular humanist perspective often antagonistic and condemnatory of all forms of religious authority in public space and as a political or legislative influence in England; secular humanism characterised by a strong support of the political and a rejection of any political-theological convergence with the state, and a formal and absolute separation of religion and the state (for example, campaigning against Bishops in the House of Lords).

[RQ2:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England respond to contemporary issues of freedom of expression?]

Strong political identity with liberal notions of freedom of expression, from antiquity to the present, a relaxed and tolerant attitude to all instances of freedom of expression, including blasphemy; and yet a sceptical attitude towards the transition of the ‘protection of God’ to the protection of the rights of people, as another means of religious authority affecting secular freedoms.

[RQ3:From these religious authority responses to contemporary issues of freedom of expression, what can be learnt about the wider relationship between religious and secular, legal-political authority in England today; and critically how can a political-theological analytical framework advance our understanding of religious authority and the arts—crucially in relation to contemporary issues of freedom of expression—in terms of respective political theologies?]

The political-theological condemnation typology—(1) strong political condemnation of political or legislative influence for religious authority and (2) strong ← 49 | 50 → identity with liberal notions of freedom of expression—indicates a rejection of all historical or current-day conforming of the political to any religious authority.

Chapter 8. Political-Theological Critique: Literary campaigning organisations

8.1‘The No Offence campaign’: Former Director of English PEN

Three features of political-theological critique in relation to the research questions

[RQ1:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England understand their authority and leadership?]

These marked a conflict with the state attempting, as writers’ campaigning organisations perceived it, to usurp freedom of expression with freedom of religion or belief; legal and political authority are challenged in their own terms; authority and leadership are integrated within and strongly identified with the legislature and campaign directly to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, where they have exerted some notable influences, particularly as regards developments related to religious hatred and blasphemy.

[RQ2:How do religious leaders and authority figures in England respond to contemporary issues of freedom of expression?]

Strong political-theological identity with liberal notions of freedom of expression, a relaxed and tolerant attitude even to instances on blasphemy, a welcoming of the disappearance of blasphemy as an offence, the ‘protection of God’, but a wariness of the transition from this to the protection of the rights of people, cautious in other words that legislation against religious hatred may infringe freedom of expression.

[RQ3:From these religious authority responses to contemporary issues of freedom of expression, what can be learnt about the wider relationship between religious and secular, legal-political authority in England today; and critically how can a political-theological analytical framework advance our understanding of religious authority and the arts—crucially in relation to contemporary issues of freedom of expression—in terms of respective political theologies?]

The political-theological critique typology—(1) strong political-theological convergence with the state and (2) strong political-theological identity with liberal ← 50 | 51 → notions of freedom of expression—indicates in Schmitt’s terms a transition from the conforming of the theological to the political.


The summary of these respective positions can be stated in general terms as follows.

Where there was a high tolerance of freedom of expression there was also a low sensitivity to blasphemy. It can be concluded that there is a correlation between high tolerance of freedom of expression and low sensitivity to blasphemy; and a correlation between low tolerance of freedom of expression and high sensitivity to blasphemy.

There are important correlations too between historical and contemporary links to the state and a religious tradition’s confidence in making its voice heard. All Christian traditions within England, whatever their particular conflictual histories, share this confidence.

Those traditions that are within the contemporary remit of liberal democratic freedoms but outside this wider and long English history have as a result positions which reflect, in varying degrees, in either conflict or crisis; so in both the cases of Islam and Judaism, historical sensitivities provide a consciousness to a contemporary wariness and sensitivity to offence.

The re-construal positions of Buddhism and Hinduism, though also with limited historical relationship to the secular liberal state (in England) or secular liberal ideas of freedom of expression, nevertheless show strong adjustments to these contexts. Even from this latter re-construal perspective, it can be safely argued, however, that there are pressure points at which a tradition might respond, but it must be extreme or perceived as such. Yet even in extreme cases of calculated offence responses by comparison with other traditions are mild, while being strongly aware other traditions might act differently in similar circumstances:

Okay, well, then fine, if people are offended, well, grow up. I’m not offended if people criticise the Buddha or draw funny pictures of him. I was a little offended by a Playboy image of the Buddha masturbating, which I thought was a little over the top, but we didn’t feel compelled … I think some of us wrote to Playboy about that a long time ago now.

Witchcraft and Harry Potter, well I thoroughly enjoyed Harry Potter. The Rushdie knighthood, well, I read Satanic Verses and I thought it was a good book. I enjoyed it. Mind you, I’m not a Muslim, but I’m not personally offended when people write critical things about Buddhism.

← 51 | 52 → Here however it is arguably less a Buddhist accommodation to western liberal political context than a Buddhist philosophical-’theological’ tradition which allows a different response through a particular framework of thinking. The interviews show such a re-conceptualisation—a re-construal of western forms of thinking about freedom of expression –is a benchmark of both Buddhism and Hinduism.

The pressure point of reaction is likely always to depend upon the political-theological positioning of a tradition within a particular country setting. But it will also relate to the seriousness with which that tradition takes offence directed to the sacred, and relative importance given by that tradition to freedom of expression. Thus, for example, a religious tradition embedded, perhaps for centuries, within a nation state or its equivalent—that is where a close relationship exists between theological tradition and political context—theological response is likely to support dominant political parameters, not least because a theological tradition may have historically helped to create and form those same political conditions, and in very specific ways. Such as Milton’s, a seventeenth non-conformist Christian and parliamentarian, defending religious liberty and freedom of expression; or less clearly the case of Mill, a libertarian Member of Parliament campaigning for freedom of expression without notable opposition from a still conservative Christian culture. Here there is then close alignment of the political and the theological, for example, and hence, we can define today the Church of England ‘convergence’ response.

Historical Context Always Therefore Colours Contemporary Response

As the ‘double nexus’ shows however, religious authority shows an interface between the political and the theological (the external nexus) but it also invariably contains an intra-theological range within a broad tradition (the internal nexus). There are nuances of difference of religious leaders and authority figure responses to contemporary freedom of expression issues amongst various Christian denominations. Thus, where Christian traditions such as the Catholic and evangelical Protestant have had over recent centuries a more ambivalent and often conflictual relationship with the state but are in more contemporary alignment to contemporary liberal democratic political context, present-day theological responses to freedom of expression issues are more likely to be critical but not conflictual.

However, all respondents from Christian denominations shared a relaxed attitude to the abolition of the common law of offence of blasphemy—accepting of contemporary secular, legal-political realities—and were happy to accept new legal-political presented by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act to protect the sensibilities of all religious believers.

← 52 | 53 → Whereas where a religious tradition is less embedded within a nation state or its equivalent—where a less than close relationship exists between theological tradition and political context—theological response is likely to be more than simply critical of dominant political parameters but in conflict with them. Thus responses to freedom of expression issues across a range of Islamic traditions helped, consolidate theological identity in a new political context, as one conversation with a senior representative of the Muslim Council of Britain intimates:

So in the past, Muslim organisations tended to have … their public events very much of a ceremonial nature, so it was like a dinner or some sort of event on an Islamic festival. There wasn’t a platform for a robust exchange of views. So this sense of inadequacy led to those networks which emerged after the Rushdie affair, and also the Balkan crisis itself resulted in mass demonstrations and mobilisation. So that network across mosques across the country created personal relationships.

So, you know, it was not just London, it was London and Bradford, it was London and Burnley, it was London and Leicester, so these relationships emerged. And in 1994 or 1995 a National Interim Committee for Muslim Unity, NICMU, was established to look at the need for better coordination and unity, and that surveyed Muslim organisations and collected views on how they should be organised.

The Islamic responses here however, with English Muslim communities cohering into a collective Islamic identity, were part of an international reaction against Rushdie. And this transnational dimension of theological responses was one of the fascinating aspects of a national study. While England was the focus, political- theological responses were not limited to nor confined by either national borders or the restrictions of secular-state, legal-political consideration, the theological held primacy over the secular-state, the legal-political.

Where a religious tradition such as Judaism has suffered chronically over the past centuries, and with appalling acuteness through the twentieth century, through the Holocaust, an air of ‘crisis’ response can still be read in the interview transcripts. I was thus struck by one Jewish respondent who gave a fresh and insightful understanding as to how Jews might perceive historical parallels between the Danish cartoons, parodying the Prophet Muhammad, and Nazi cartoon caricatures of the Jews in Der Stürmer. The contemporary Jewish case in an important one, however, and a sense of crisis is tempered with a sense too of political achievement to English parliamentary life and the framing of international human rights legislation since the inception of the United Nations.

The typology of responses of religious, secular humanist and literary (campaigning) responses to contemporary freedom of expression issues, therefore, always needs to consider not only present-day context but historical perspective; and a national setting always needs to bear in mind international determinants, factors, influences.

← 53 | 54 → The typology is open, naturally, to challenge and critique. Yet I contend that the political-theological framework accurately reflects the English context.

While the voice of religious authority and the arts shows the theological as a current-day arena of particular political-theological contestation around contemporary freedom of expression, historically, political autocracy, dictatorship and totalitarianism provide templates where the political was, and in some geopolitical contexts the ideological remains, the dominant arena of contestation (see for example Cavanaugh, 2014).

Where religious authority and the arts today provoke contested questions over freedom of expression these are, then, most acutely apparent when art offends, most violently amidst claims of blasphemy. Against this interface of aesthetics, politics and theology presented here are a complex of conflicting yet carefully articulated voices, conversations in political theology.

← 54 | 55 → CHAPTER ONE

1.1‘The Kissinger question’: The Archbishops’ Council


… the Church of England has an extremely diffuse authority: some people imagine that the Archbishop of Canterbury sits at Lambeth with a big lever he can pull and make things happen, but there is almost no-one more unable to make things happen in some ways. We’ve actually had discussions with Government ministers sometimes who have said, ‘It’s the Kissinger question.’ When you want Europe, Kissinger said, ‘Who do I ring?’ When they want the Church of England, who do they ring? We don’t even have a Church of England bank account. If you want to leave all your estate to the Church of England, it causes us some problems if you put ‘The Church of England’ on it. And we here, at the Mission of Public Affairs Division, are servants of The Archbishops’ Council, which is sort of a kind of cabinet of elected and appointed people who advise the two … it’s the Archbishops plural because there are two Archbishops. We work extremely closely with our colleagues at Lambeth Palace who are there to support a man in his ministry, which is a slightly different remit, but we obviously have to make sure that we don’t trip each other up all the time. Then there is the House of Bishops who all have a claim on us, not least because it’s they in their dioceses who raise the money which pays our salaries … so we have quite a number of masters, and we have to make sure that we keep them on side in all sorts of interesting ways.

← 55 | 56 → Forty-two dioceses on the mainland … And they may each have several Bishops but there are forty-two doiceses of whom we see here twenty-six sitting in the Lords; and it’s the most senior five as of right, and the other twenty-one in rotation according to seniority. And we spend a fair amount of time supporting them in the Lords. And one of the things we’ve done in the last few years is to set up a parliamentary unit so that the Church of England is really engaging with parliamentary processes in both Houses, rather than simply relying on the Bishops, who are never there very much of the time. You know, you don’t have a voting block of twenty-six who sit there day after day, they’ve all got day jobs. But we are trying to use them more creatively by helping them to intervene, with well-informed briefings, and occasionally even sponsoring a debate, and so on. We were the first to debate ‘The Big Society’ in June last year, when one of the Bishops introduced the debate in the Lords: it was the first time it had been tackled in Parliament … it’s in Hansard: it was on the 15th June 2010.


On Bishops’ seniority, five did you say?


Yes, York and Canterbury are the two Archbishops, London, Durham, and Winchester are regarded as the senior dioceses, and then twenty-one others on the Buggin’s Turn principle: when one retires the next one in terms of length of time served as a Bishop comes up into the Lords. We’ve just had a spate of turnover with a whole load of new Bishops coming in who know nothing about the hiatus …


And some of course, bring quite an amount of political as well as theological background to the post?


Oh, in the sense of wide experience of public life, yes. And I think what all of them would say is that they have the privileged position in their dioceses of being able to talk to almost anybody. You know, as a diocesan Bishop, if you ask somebody around to dinner they are likely to come? So they have got good intelligence, and if they use it well they can get people to talk to them and brief them and give them the information from the ground level. I mean, right the way through the whole Church of England, our moral authority doesn’t particularly rest on the claims of scripture so much as the fact that as the Church of England we are present in every community, and our Bishops have access to almost anyone they might want to talk to.

And people may say that that is a privilege, but it’s part of the inheritance of the establishment, but it means that our priorities are very much to keep that grass-roots parish system working. So although we’ve had to merge parishes in very rural and some inner city areas, there is nobody in the country who doesn’t come under the ministry and pastoral care of a priest of the Church of England. Such as a conversation that I helped start between the Archbishop of Canterbury and [ …] in a meeting a few months ago, when as the Archbishop put it, ‘When your welfare reforms start to bite, or when any welfare reforms start to bite, the people who find themselves excluded end up on our vicarage doorsteps.’

← 56 | 57 → That’s the moral authority by which we say, ‘This isn’t always going to work.’ It’s not so much saying we’re arguing from philosophical first principles or theological first principles, it’s the fact that our clergy are in touch. And of course that has its own interesting connotations because of course we’re also in touch in the most wealthy congregations who see life rather differently. So part of the political challenge for us here … this is where the theological arguments do begin to bite, with articulated positions on issues of current interest in ways which are studiedly capable of being heard across the nation, because they are our people and will have voters of every political persuasion.

There have been all sorts of academic studies on the way the Synod tends to approach things. We generally conclude it is modestly ‘pink’. Most of those are written by people who are much ‘bluer’, or that it’s terribly ‘blue’, which is from people who are ‘pinker’.


What about the transition then, the Archbishops’ Council has a role then in the transition of Bishops, perhaps when they move into the job … you were talking about the turnover or in terms of support?


No, well in terms of support, we as staff support them. When they’re coming into the Lords … another bit of the Church of England, which isn’t actually part of our structure, is to do with Bishops’ ministry, it’s based in the grounds of Lambeth Palace but not in the palace itself. That’s the management of the appointment of Bishops, which is terribly secret, and nobody ever knows how that [is done]. And they’re increasingly doing induction training for Bishops, which didn’t use to happen much. And we’re trying to get that right. We contribute to it, but of course, when a Bishop is made a Bishop, going into the Lords is way-off—it’s several years down the line—and so they tend not to be terribly interested until it hits them. But part of the rationale for putting together the parliamentary unit was to do a better job of inducting them.

First of all we produced a parliamentary handbook for Bishops—where to find the toilet, what robes you wear on what occasions—as well as all the procedures and the arcana of the House of Lords, and when and where you can sit and It really is the palace of varieties. But it breaks them in, and the other thing, it’s a work in progress. It’s not yet done, and so not for particular public consumption yet, but we’re working to help the Bishops in the Lords to group themselves around certain key subject areas.

So the way they work is that there is a duty Bishop always on duty in the Lords. A debate might come up, say on health care reform, and the Bishop who is clued up on health care reform may not be on duty that week and in fact our lead Bishop on health is Carlisle, and he can’t just pop down to London. And so we’ve tried to get them into little clusters, so that they work on fairly broadly defined key issues and therefore it makes it easier for us to get a well-briefed Bishop on his feet when a particular piece of legislation is going through. I mean, we look at all the future parliamentary business and every week the Bishops get a list of the business in the Lords and against ← 57 | 58 → every item which might be of interest they have the name of one of my team who is the expert in that subject, or as near as we’ve got, who can do them a briefing if they want to speak. And for some of them it might be, ‘Can you write me a question?’ Or if they plan to speak, ‘Write me a speech that I can do something with.’ So we do that.

Sometimes you can hear your own words coming back to you in Hansard, but it’s when they deviate from your limpid prose that you know that they’ve got it right, you know? [Laughs] But what they often do is what we give them … and then they then add stories from their own experiences and their own dioceses, you know? ‘This is what it’s like in Birmingham … ’ Or, ‘I was talking to the leader of Birmingham City Council yesterday, and he said … ’ So they can do that, which we can’t give them.


They certainly have that knowledge base, though, to be able to inform those speeches right across the range …?


Yes, and that’s actually what my team’s about.


So what kind of range of expertise do you have?


Well, we are moving it slightly from very specific desks which meant that is was sometimes very hard to say where a particular issue landed to rather more generic, but we have one guy who is a specialist in medical ethics, health care policy and social care policy and he is very able, and very busy at the moment. We have got one who specialises in family policy and marriage policy, but that extends also into welfare, particularly into children’s welfare. We have one who specialises in home affairs, which embraces everything from prisons, mental health policy, and quite a lot of other bits of essentially Home Office business. And we’ve got people who focus on urban issues and rural issues—which includes farming, the environment, sustainability and all those things— and another chap working on international affairs, who is both doing stuff to do with the development role of the Church overseas but is also very closely in touch with the Foreign Office and DFID and bodies like that on policy. So between about six or seven people, plus we’ve got inter-faith work in this department as well, we can put them together in interesting combinations.

And my own area is one we didn’t have much expertise in for the last few years, but my field is ethics and economics. So I’m picking up quite a lot of stuff on the financial crisis, ‘The Big Society’, and stuff like that. So there is quite an amount of expertise. And where we haven’t got it, we tend to know somebody who has. So for instance, Nigel Biggar’s work on constitutional issues, he’s done far more than we have so we’ll say, ‘What can you help us with here?’ His predecessor actually, Oliver O’Donovan, who is I think now retired did some very helpful work for us on prenuptial agreements and the legal philosophy, the philosophy of law behind marriage agreements, which was far more specialised than we’d got in-house.


How long is the Archbishops’ Council …? You said it represented two Archbishops?


Well, it advises the two Archbishops.


How long has that been in place?

← 58 | 59 → RES

About 2002, I think it was created. It was all part of a major review of the structure of the Church of England, around the end of the twentieth century, I suppose as I see it. Partly prompted by … you probably remember the Church Commissioners managing to lose a rather large amount of money on speculative property deals, and the feeling that we can’t go on as we are. And it’s still a bit contentious really, because before then you had the Church Commissioners who were a totally independent body and had a separate building at the time, who handled all the money side.

And then you had the General Synod which was the elected body, elected from among the Bishops, the clergy and the laity of the Church of England, and my team would have been servants of the General Synod, and various other bits and pieces in a rather complex system, and under George Cary at Lambeth, who tried to put it all into a somewhat more corporate model.

To some extent that’s been quite successful and the Church Commissioners are no longer quite so free-floating, they’re much more integrated although they’re still legally separate. But it created the thing called the Archbishops’ Council which was I think intended as a kind of inner cabinet to advise the two Archbishops. The Synod didn’t much care for this because it by-passed the democratic structure, and so the Synod got the concession that it could elect some members onto the Archbishops’ Council.

So it is a complex mix of elected members and appointed members. We’re just going through the process at the moment, having advertised, to say … you know, it’s like advertising for a quango, ‘Would you like to sit on and be an appointed member of the Archbishops’ Council? What expertise would you bring? It’s not remunerated but you get all the glory, such as it is.’ But we’ve got people like a university vice-chancellor, the Chair of Ofwat, and people who have made a bit of a name for themselves in other fields. And it’s a rather interesting concept—but that’s a personal view. And of course, they may come with all that expertise and then in about one meeting in twenty it’s called on.

They are actually expected to be generalists, so I think there is a certain amount of frustration about people who think that they’ve got a particular gift to offer, and it’s not necessarily used. On the other hand the elected members feel that they’ve got a constituency behind them so they tend to be more partisan.

It’s a very complicated thing. But if you don’t mind me going slightly off-piste, I think people constantly misunderstand the Church of England if they think of it in corporate terms. It’s a coalition: it’s always been a coalition of interests. And just by-the-by I’ll be fascinated to see whether a few years of coalition government will make us more fluent in understanding notions—but my little beef on this is that we’ve got three parties. Each of them has a project and each of them thinks that their project is the only one in town. One party wants to complete the work of the Reformation, one party wants to complete the work of the Counter-Reformation, and one party wants to complete the work of the Enlightenment, and the problem is that if any of ← 59 | 60 → those three parties wins twenty-nil the Church of England as we know it has gone and it will become a sect of one sort of another. Our job in Church House is to find the maximum consensus possible within that coalition. And of course like all coalitions, the power within it is in flux. Now those three parties are not that stark in reality, there is an awful lot of middle ground, but actually that’s what people are motivated to do: three different projects. And we have to find ways of saying, ‘Actually this is something that we do together, how far can we get you together?’


That is a fascinating analogy. Can you unpack each of those terms, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and the Enlightenment?


Yes, it’s very interesting actually: the most conservative evangelical group is called ‘The Reform’, and it doesn’t mean the Blairite sense of ‘reform’, it means literally trying to complete the work of the Reformation, and getting rid of elements from the Church of England that they believe to be apostate essentially, either the lingering Catholicism or the dreaded liberalism which most of the twentieth century compromised with the failed project of modernity. Now they’re an extreme, and of course evangelicals come in many, many hues: they are a very disparate body, but that’s one thing. Then you’ve got the forward in faith Anglo-Catholics for whom ultimate authority always lies with Rome, and when Rome gets women priests they won’t know what to do, except actually they will just go with Rome. Women priests and Bishops will be acceptable if Rome does it but not before. Because in the end the Counter-Reformation, the idea that this Protestant experiment in England is a little bit suspect … and as the novelist A.N. Wilson once said in one of his novels, ‘Why are these people still here?’, the answer is that if they went over to Rome they’d be made to do what they were told. And then you’ve got the liberal wing, or the modernists, or whatever you want to call them, for whom the Enlightenment is actually very … I mean if you look at the Enlightenment, the powers of the Enlightenment like Locke were good Christian men working out there as they saw it, but I think … I was actually at a seminar last night with Alasdair MacIntyre, and MacIntyre’s work ever since the eighties has been in the end on the way that the Enlightenment project eats itself up. You know, a kind of relativism?

And I think that’s the plight of the liberal theologians, which is actually the school that I came out of but found rather inadequate, that is constantly trying to say that ‘the world sets the agenda’ which was always the slogan, but the world can be a fairly corrupt place … the idea that Christian doctrine is infinitely malleable doesn’t strike me as especially clever. And as one theologian said to me, ‘I really identify with this.’ He said, ‘After all those years in parishes saying that you don’t have to go to Church to be good, no-one was in Church and nobody knew how to be good … ’ And I thought, ‘Yes, that’s actually experience.’

But I think that the key point that I want to get across is that we’re not a corporation, we’re a coalition, and this is why people say that we were wishy-washy and why currently they say Rowan’s a ‘wet’, because he’s actually ← 60 | 61 → caught in the politics of a coalition and that’s how he sees his job. Not as a kind of entrepreneurial leader who simply tells everyone that this is where we’re going next.


And in terms of leadership, the Bishops might fit into any of those three categories?


We’ve got Bishops … as I say, they are in no sense in hermetically sealed categories, there is a massive amount of cross-over, but yes, you know where Bishops are coming from.


And they have a certain degree of autonomy in terms of within their dioceses?


Oh yes, the Bishop is the leader … and I think this is actually an interesting shift we’ve seen in the last twenty years or so. The Bishops I would say are somewhat less corporate in the way that they work; and I’ve tried this idea out and I’ve been told by the old-stagers that yes, they were corporate and almost like rats in a sack, but it’s more publicly like rats in a sack now, I think. The doctrine, the ecclesiology, the understanding of the Church that is dominant is that the diocesan Bishop is the focus, and the Church of England is most itself in the diocese because in a diocese you’ve got all those three parties of the coalition usually.

The Bishop is the guy who is trying to make sense of it and give leadership, the national Church—which I think under an earlier kind of corporate model was seen as being too powerful—has seen a lot of power wane.

Symbolically about three years ago the Church of England Yearbook started listing the dioceses before the national structures, whereas for decades it had been the other way around. And that was a conscious attempt, I think, to emphasise that the diocese, the Bishop in the diocese, is where the Church of England is most itself.

There is a little anecdote: when the Archbishops’ Council was formed, when everything was brought together in Church House, on the first day a Bishop rang the switchboard and got the answer, ‘Church of England?’ and he said, ‘I am the Church of England!’ There was quite a lot of resentment that this building should claim to be the embodiment of the Church of England. So we see ourselves much more now as the servants of the local … and on the subsidiarity principle we do nationally what can’t be done at any lower level; so obviously relating to Government and Parliament and so on, has to be done nationally, you can’t have forty-two different voices. But that doesn’t mean that we can constrain any one Bishop to do our will, we have to work with the group.


Unlike the Catholic model …


It’s a little bit more corporate I think. You see, in terms of public theology there is an interesting parallel there because people often look at Catholic social teaching, which is the body of teaching about study built up from encyclicals and interpretation of encyclicals, and it presents itself as a seamless whole. And that’s the art of being a Catholic, I think, to turn an encyclical from 19 over to 8 and say, ‘Well, of course, what this really means for today is … ’ and then you build it up, it accretes.

← 61 | 62 → People say that we don’t have an Anglican social theology, but I don’t think that’s true actually. Because when my team for instance want to respond to a Government consultation on whatever the subject may be, how do they know what the Church of England thinks? We can’t go out and ask them. We start with what we’ve done in the past, we start with reports to the Synod, and we’ve got a kind of Hansard of our own: the verbatim account of Synod debates. So you look at how that report was perceived, you look at what the critique of it was, you look at what the weight of opinion in the Synod was, then you off-set slightly for the fact that Synods change every five years … they have a slightly different complexion, so was that a particularly liberal Synod or a particularly reactionary Synod, and out of that you build the case.

So some of our work on complex questions of human genetics has drawn directly on earlier work we did on beginning and end of life issues, which led us to a position on the nature of being human. And so there is a sort of similar seamlessness to Anglican social teaching. It’s just not presented in the same way: it’s more of a process that goes on, on people’s desks, than a body of stuff.


Using the Reformation comparison, can we relate that to the issue of tradition?


Well, yes, there is a continuity and the continuity is perceived as a discontinuity. … as you know Henry VIII’s settlement was exacerbated by the fact that the Reformation was coming along at the time, but it was also about staving off excessive enthusiasm and Lutherans of England and people like that, and not going down the Geneva line.

So we’ve always been … our little conceit is that we’ve been Catholic and Reformed, and that of course doesn’t leave room in the narrative for the Enlightenment and liberalism, which is why I have a three-fold model. But of course all those groupings will have their own sense of what is the tradition, and which bits you appeal to.

And yes, Augustine is fairly safe stuff; and Aquinas on occasion. But with some you don’t go too far. Fascinating: in a lot of cases, William Temple, in the 1940s, because that was … although a lot of more conservative Anglicans find Temple a bit hard to stomach, that’s usually because they’ve only read his little wartime book Christianity and Social Order

And of course you’ve got to work in the Bible. I mean, this sounds cynical, but for some Anglicans it isn’t theological unless it’s got texts.

Well, some topics have been done to death in terms of scriptural analysis. We wouldn’t for instance venture into the territory of saying what does the Bible say about homosexuality, because scholars from both sides and from all sides have attacked that one and cannot come to a consensus. This is what I say—our job is to find a maximum consensus.

There was a period in the seventies and eighties when my predecessors did try and tackle that question and found that whatever they wrote, and however convincing it was on a case for the scripture it didn’t convince. It ← 62 | 63 → is actually to do with a much more complex and political question, and the Bible can’t be adduced to solve that one.

On very few things can the Bible be adduced to solve things, but you can nonetheless go with the grain. A previous piece of work I did—it was before I came here but it was for the Church of England—actually used the creed … you know, we are One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. It was a work of ecclesiology.

But then unpicking those four categories from the Bible, so there is a scripturally rooted … One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic is well-scripturally rooted and yet you talk about those four and they are always in tension with each other. Catholicity and holiness are always in tension. People interpret holiness increasingly narrowly, and catholicity pulls it the other way.

So in that sense we tend not to do simplistic stuff, or don’t do it: this Episcopal says therefore policy flows. The classic Anglican tradition has been called middle axiom, and it dates back before Temple, but Temple popularised it. The middle axiom isn’t a kind of Blairite third way: it’s middle between jumping too quickly from scripture to practice and saying, ‘The Bible says, therefore this …’ which just doesn’t work, and excessively detailed policy prescriptions. You know, ‘God wants 1p off income tax because the Bible says so …’ And so Temple’s view was to try and establish some broad principles, some broad objectives: and he started with every child should be brought up with sufficient to eat, clothed and sheltered, and that they have a chance of a decent life. How you get there isn’t for the Church to dictate, but it’s a good deal further on from just saying, ‘We should love each other lots …’ or whatever. So that’s the sense in which the middle axiom is middle.

My department over the decades has been the embodiment of that method, but there are all sorts of difficulties with it, as many people have said. It takes facts as if they were unambiguous and there are almost no unambiguous facts now, it’s all open to interpretation. And it doesn’t have any room for the people themselves who have experienced things to have their say, it’s a very elitist model of … quite literally experts from different disciplines sitting around a table. And because most disciplines have no space for God, the theologian has always found himself isolated.

Because, you know, it’s like in any university, the language of the secular university doesn’t easily accommodate the language of theology. So it’s been a more problematic method, but it still does inform what we do, it is part of our major inheritance: this idea that Christians can legitimately differ over means but they might agree over ends. So you don’t get too specific. At the same time, it’s our duty to move beyond the platitude.


There would be a varying degree in each of those categories—the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the Enlightenment—in respect of their emphases on the Bible?




Are there any defining emphases?

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Well, no there isn’t really, because the question is, ‘How do you interpret …?’ The great controversy in the early part of the twentieth century was on what was called the ‘higher criticism’, the Biblical criticism. If you reject that then you have a particular way of reading the Bible. It’s actually just as much informed by tradition. There is no such thing as the plain meaning of scripture, it’s the plain meaning of scripture as someone has interpreted it.

Or do you take the criticism seriously as a method of reading scripture? Does this inform your reading? Now people who do and don’t accept the different approaches of the critical method will find it very hard to come to an agreement, but it doesn’t mean that they’re taking scripture any less seriously. Before this job I was in theological education, and many of our best Biblical scholars have no point of contact really with people who use the Bible as if it were simply the inherent word of God, because people who use it like that will never accept that what they’re actually tapping into isn’t just what they read, it’s what they’ve been told is there: it is a tradition passed on, it’s no less so than any other.

I mean, this is actually the interesting position we find ourselves in, because there are increasing numbers of very strident, fairly fundamentalist, Christian groups working in the field of politics and policy.

Some of them are Anglican-affiliated, some of them aren’t. And they are a constant thorn in our flesh really because a secular world that doesn’t really understand religion tends to think that the more strident equals the more authentic, and so because they expect religion to be irrational, noisy and potentially violent, it’s only when it matches up to that that it’s authentic. And so nice, rational, critical Christians can’t be authentic Christians in the eyes of people who’ve never really met a Christian, and these pressure groups can be very difficult. And of course some of our Bishops sign up with them, mostly retired Bishops or Archbishops.


Something like The Evangelical Alliance?


Oh, well, The Evangelical Alliance is a different thing again, but it too is a coalition of different evangelical interests, although all evangelical, and they sign up … there are certain bottom lines they don’t go beyond, but they’ve come out with some very interesting stuff lately because you’ve probably followed this case of the couple who wanted to be on the adoption register and were refused?

And once the judgement was made public after the case, some of the very strident groups issued … who had actually prompted and provoked the case in the first place … issued the most tendentious press releases about, ‘This is the nail in the coffin of Christian England … ’

Interestingly, The Evangelical Alliance had actually read the judgement and said, ‘No, it isn’t’ and declined to get involved in strident confrontational politics. Sometimes they do.

You know, personal observation would be that the Evangelical Alliance is still quite determined to see a gay lobby behind everything that they don’t like, which I think is unhelpful in all sorts of ways. But it’s very difficult for ← 64 | 65 → us to say on many issues that the Church of England is divided, which is true. I mean the gay issue we steer clear of because we know that it’s a toxic division.


Regarding freedom of expression, which is in itself a product of that Enlightenment tradition … what kind of views would the Church within that range hold …?


… freedom of expression is a very interesting one because I think we’re in a complex position.

We are the established Church and that gives us certain privileges. Our voice is heard in places that other Churches and faiths can’t so easily get their voice.

Now I think on the whole we behave very generously about that, and many other faith leaders will say that we have very definitely got an established Church. But I know our Free Church colleagues and our Catholic colleagues, just occasionally, think we don’t.

We might think we’re being very generous but we don’t really see them, they’re always that ‘lower sixth’ in that respect. But I think we’re very conscious that this ground is shifting, and that from being one of the estates in the realm … I mean, we’re not keen to lose the Bishops, we’re not keen to lose the Queen as the head of the Church or anything like that, but establishment doesn’t mean quite the same thing in a predominantly secular society.

We would still claim that religious sentiment is not religious practice, but it’s still very prevalent. We’re waiting with slightly bated breath on the census returns to see whether the 72% who self-identified as Christians declines, but more recent surveys that have a very sound methodology have suggested 71.5%: so we don’t know, we’ll see. But there is still that sense of cultural Christianity.


The census will make a difference to you?


Well, it will make a difference in terms of the nature of the argument. Just as the secularists and the British Humanists have been saying, ‘For God’s sake, say you’re not religious’: their argument is that the census is used in the allocation of resources. Now I think this is bogus actually. Their express purpose is to push religion out of public life and to make is simply a private option. So I think that there is a lot of bad argument going on.

But if we do see a significant decline it will be leapt upon, by not only the strident new atheists, the BHA and the NSS and so on, but we’ll have a slightly harder time making the case for having a voice in anything. Just slightly harder: but I don’t think that it will go down that much. And just like the humanists and the secularists we all get ourselves into the same position, we all claim to represent a larger proportion of public opinion and they ask, ‘How many members have you got?’ Well, we can trump them on members but our membership is nothing like 72% of the population, so you know …?

[As for freedom of expression] we know that especially as the Western world becomes more secular we depend on freedom of expression. We need it.

← 65 | 66 → An interesting case was all the argument about blasphemy. Now I don’t think that we ever made any case that … I think the terms of the law as it stood was that it was only blasphemy against the Church of England’s version of God, and again the difficult argument you have getting across in a secular context is that we’re not trying to protect God, we’re trying to protect the sensibilities of believers.

But the debate quickly allied into we’re trying to protect God: he can’t be up to much. It’s very Old Testament. But we never took a strong line. We didn’t find much to commend the idea that blasphemy could be anything that caused offence to any religion, because there are other interesting boundaries between the nine great world faiths and all the others which we try to maintain very carefully.

So Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on … that are great world faiths with a rich tradition and the new religious movements such as the Pagans, the Wiccans, and all that … if you breach that line then the secularist assumption that you get comprehensive knowledge of religion by having one of everything around the table becomes completely unworkable.


X, 286
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2015 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 286 pp.

Biographical notes

Liam Francis Gearon (Author)

Liam Francis Gearon is Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College and Associate Professor in the Department of Education, University of Oxford. With a doctorate in English literature, Dr. Gearon has wide multi- and interdisciplinary interests. He has written or edited more than twenty books in religion, politics, education, and literature, and has undertaken consultancy work for UNESCO, Paris. His work has been translated into a range of languages, including Georgian, Japanese, and Russian. Previous positions include two full professorships at Roehampton University and Plymouth University and two honorary professorships in Australia at the Australian Catholic University and at Newcastle University. He has undertaken funded research for the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, and the Leverhulme Trust.


Title: Religious Authority and the Arts