Whenever I see a story about the National Secular Society, my usual response is irritation. In order to justify its action, it needs to manufacture some kind of suffering where none exists. What I see is a petty vindictiveness masquerading as injury, together with a zeal reminiscent of Cromwell’s miserable Christmas goose-confiscators. The latest example is its plans to challenge the Christian element of the coronation ceremony.
I do agree with the NSS that the Church of England should be disestablished, which is its underlying aim, but if the notion of an established church is ludicrous in the 21st century, so is the notion, central to the NSS campaign, that secularists are being oppressed in any way by the 21st century Church of England. It seems more likely that these people are being oppressed by their own fevered imaginations.
“Lawyers at Leigh Day, a firm of solicitors specialising in human rights, and Matrix chambers, have been instructed, [Keith Porteous Wood, the NSS executive director] said. The NSS expects the challenge to focus on article 9 of the European convention on human rights, on the grounds that allowing the Church of England to perform such a ceremony limits the rights of conscience of the many people who do not subscribe to its beliefs, and article 14, which prohibits discrimination of any kind.”
These two articles are as follows:
Article 9: Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Article 14: Prohibition on Discrimination
The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.
How on earth do either of these articles have any bearing on the coronation ceremony? I would think there is only one way in which they could; if Prince Charles (presuming it is he) objected to the Church of England ceremony and claimed his rights under the above articles were being infringed.
If that were the case, then this would force a constitutional crisis, the resolution of which would perhaps be Charles becomes King, but not head of the Church of England. In any case, the views of the miniscule fraction of the population represented by the NSS are not involved unless we are to accept some kind of ethereal collective will as the basis of our political system. Personally such a Rouseauesque phantom bothers me far more than the Archbishop of Canterbury in his mitre and robes, and however the ceremony is conducted, my own views on the legitimacy of kings and parliaments to rule over me will remain sceptical, to say the least.
Returning to the question of disestablishing the Church of England, as above, I agree with this. It should be noted however, and this is a point which seems to evade the NSS, that the Church of England was taken over by the English state, not the other way around. Prior to Henry VIII’s difficulties in dissolving his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the Church owed its ultimate allegiance to Rome, although it was hardly a law unto itself, as Thomas Beckett learned the hard way.
The breaking of the independence of the Roman Church did not, I suggest, usher in a new age of liberty but rather the rise of absolutist monarchies, more dangerous than the previous, somewhat polycentric state of affairs, due to the power being gathered into one place. However flawed the Roman Church, it upheld the principle that the king was equally bound to obey the law. In contrast, James I, a great believer in the divine right of kings, claimed that we the people should look upon the king as a god amongst us, and to dispute his authority was a form of blasphemy – hardly a progressive view.
Therefore, much as I would personally welcome the disestablishment of the Church, the arguments invoked by the National Secular Society stretch credulity as well as the meaning of the laws its lawyers invoke. The theocratic dragon it wishes to slay died a long time ago without feeling the prick of its puny lance.