Religious Authority and the Arts

Conversations in Political Theology

by Liam Francis Gearon (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 286 Pages


The transcripted conversations that represent the substance of this volume are the result of a research project funded by the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. The product of nearly three years of interviews conducted with senior religious figures from a diversity of religious traditions, this book represents a physical and political-theological journey around England – from metropolitan capital through provincial cities and rural hinterlands, from rural episcopal palaces to industrial estates, from London mansion houses to remote mountain monastery – and provides a snapshot of how religious leaders and authority figures respond to contemporary issues of freedom of expression. Religious Authority and the Arts has a substantial introduction that situates the conversations within a theological, political, and cultural framework.

Table Of Contents

  • 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).


X, 286
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
Church of England Religions in UK UK
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
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