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Legislating For Conscience - interview with BBC News

Wednesday 24th January 2007

An interview between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the BBC's Robert Pigott, for BBC News at Ten. The Archbishop set out his reasoning for writing to the Prime Minister, with the Archbishop of York, to express concern over the implications of the government's proposed Equality Act legislation.

ROBERT PIGOTT: Dr Williams, why did you decide to write in support of the Catholic adoption agencies?

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY: I think it was the climate of discussion at the weekend which persuaded the Archbishop of York and myself that this was a moment to say something; because the gist of a lot of the conversation over the weekend seemed to be directed at the conscientious rights of the Roman Catholic community, and by extension therefore of a great many other communities. So we wanted just to put the principle on the table about State control of voluntary religious agencies.

RP: This is, not legislating for issues of conscience?

ABC: Exactly; and I think it's important to say that neither the Cardinal nor the Anglican contributors to this debate are talking about the right of gay couples to adopt or wanting to block the legislation or maintain discrimination, let alone- as someone said last weekend- to encourage harassment of gay people. That would be completely wrong and it's not what we're doing.

RP: But the subtext of your letter is that politicians are, to a greater extent than ever before, legislating not just for our laws but for our morals, and you have a query with that?

ABC: I think the concern is not just about people's individual morality, it's rather about a religious community's independence, its own integrity if you like. Voluntary bodies in any state - and religious bodies particularly - have their own principles, their own convictions, whose source is not the law of the State. Now the question is, does the law respect those convictions when they don't conflict with basic principles of social order, or not? And I think at the moment there is an ambition to flatten out the surface.

RP: And legislate for our morals?

ABC: To flatten out the surface; to legislate so that convictions, religious convictions, personal convictions, don't have priority in the way that, actually quite a lot of the legislation suggests they ought to.

RP: Have we reached an important moment in our social and political history in respect of this happening, this Church and State relationship?

ABC: I think we've reached a point where certain things need to be clarified about the rights, liberties and dignities of independent bodies with the State, where certain questions need to be asked about whether the State is becoming too ambitious in its legislative programme and, given that section 13 of the 1998 Human Rights Act seems to say that the right of religious association and belief has priority over certain other rights. It would be a pity to see a very worthwhile issue about removing discrimination against gay people being mired in a clash between Church and State over this more basic question.

RP: On a practical level, that means exemptions for the Catholic Church?

ABC: Yes, and it means, I think, working out what exceptions are fair and just, what processes would be reasonable here. And already, of course, Catholic adoption agencies have means of referral for gay applicants to other agencies, so it's not as if something is being flatly denied.

RP: What's at stake here in this relationship between Church and State at this particular moment?

ABC: I think what's at stake ultimately is whether the Church is answerable finally to the State as the only court of appeal or whether the Church can rightly appeal to other sources for its moral compass. And whatever one's views on this particular issue, I think that remains a question of basic political and philosophical importance.

RP: Dr Williams, thank you very much.

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