How would describe your beliefs and identity in relation to religion?
I am a Christian, but I am multi-faith… I don’t think one religion has all the answers. I have a very deep conviction that there is a strong value in religion in general and Christianity in particular. I was brought up in a very religious family, my father was a clergyman and I was brought up in a chapel community and it was very sociable and a very kind and caring community. So, in a way those values were transmitted to me and my background has convinced me that you don’t get those values randomly. You have to work on them. As everybody else, I have doubts about things, but I am convinced about the fact that the world was not created by accident. I am very happy to take on board every scientific explanation, but at the end of the day it does not explain to me the beauty of the universe.
I was brought up as a Methodist, a Wesleyan Methodist. There is a big distinction between Calvinistic Methodism, which is based on predestination, and Wesleyan Methodism, which believes that everybody, all mankind can be saved. That idea always appealed to me because I am very convinced that none of us is perfect and there is good in everyone. That is the faith which I now profess. I am Methodist, but we have become very ecumenical. I belong to a non-conformist church now which includes everybody. It is a very village and community church. It is very lively, not a happy clappy church… we are traditional. We had a Wesleyan Chapel, but it declined in numbers and five years ago we were only fifteen left and we decided to join others before we died on our feet. We took the little resources we had and we put them into the community chapel. Now we have a congregation of about 50 on a Sunday and it is a very communal thing. I value that space. If I didn’t go to the chapel on a Sunday morning, I would really miss it.
Would you say that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief? Are there any challenges, and if there are, are they legal, social or political in nature?
I would say that Wales is an equal and tolerant society in particular in terms of religion and belief. If you look at the history of Wales, there have been commendable moments, like pacifism, and the belief that nobody is perfect, which made us more understanding and respectful for each other. However, there were also moments of friction and there has been tribalism within some Welsh communities. Currently there is very little of that. I think our society is tolerant and non-conformist groups are tolerant towards other forms of Christianity and other religious bodies, although it is fair to say that because Wales is on the periphery of Great Britain, we haven’t had to confront the same issues racial issues as in other parts of the UK. By a large, our community is a Welsh speaking community and our concerns have been the preservation of the language and the culture in an increasingly Anglicised context. That can create problems, but I am a great believer that I am a Welsh first, then a European and then a world citizen. I have very different views about Britishness than most English people. I don’t think I am British. I tend to dislike the kind of British promotion of values. I am not a Monarchist, I am a Republican… and I have very little tolerance of militarism, which I find distasteful.
There are no legal challenges for me as a non conformist, and in fairness there are no social challenges. Politically, it is now very difficult to acknowledge to be a Christian. I don’t mean in a constitutional or legal sense, but increasingly we have become shy about our beliefs and even though, as I indicated early, my religious beliefs have become stronger with time, I tend to be quieter about them as the years pass by. Aggressive atheism is tolerated and promoted on the media but any public declarations of Christian faith are regarded as regarded as statements from either the inane or unlearned.
How does your religious faith regard human rights?
I am convinced about the importance of dignity and the possibility for people to live together and for people to be given opportunities. Respect for people and respect for life are crucial to me. My wife and I have very different views about whether the right to die has to be recognised. Joanna, my wife, and I have very different views about it. I respect hers. I would feel that if we ever have to face such a sad situation, I would have a duty to respect her will in terms of end of life. My views are different. I believe in the sanctity of life, regardless of the pain I have to go through… I wouldn’t want to be kept alive unnecessarily, but Christians have a duty to uphold the sanctity of life.
Human rights are not just a piece of paper, they are essential for our society.
Our Chapel is traditional but equality issues and human rights issues are taken seriously. For example, within our congregation we had very lively discussions about whether or not we would accept gay marriage. We are about 100 members and 60 or 70 come regularly, and we had an open discussion. For Christians it is very difficult to actually come to terms with potentially conflicting pressures… I have very good and close friends who are gay… and what you find in the New Testament and the Scriptures is at best ambiguous or negative. We had an honest discussion and the vote was lost by 2 votes… for such a conservative community this is remarkable. Had you asked that question fifteen years ago, the result would have been very different, and the only reason why the vote was lost was that our much respe3cted and loved Minister ( priest) may have difficulties of conscience. People voted in quite a strange way, but I am convinced that every individual finds his own answers. That is a human rights issue and I would not impose my views on anybody, and in that sense I think, in the context of modern religion, that should be a fundamental principle.
I think there is better understanding of human rights in Wales than in England. Our tradition is socialist and community based and traditionally there was a remarkable emphasis on the right to education. I was brought up in a community… I would go to chapel on Sundays and we would have Sunday schools. People read a lot and people were committed to a form of thinking which was inclusive. What I am worried about is that I have not been able to convince my children of the fundamental importance of the Welsh Christian Non Conformist tradition… my children were brought up in that tradition and they have clear sympathy for my views, but neither of them attend church regularly nowadays, and that worries me. There is this belief that these values will be transmitted from one generation to the next even when all the Chapels become second homes but and I am more convinced than ever that these things don’t happen by accident.
Public authorities have traditionally had a commitment to those values (community, sharing…). I must say that I mistrust privatisation. I find some trends in current thinking alien to the community experience that exists in Wales and they do not reflect our religious background.
Do you think that public bodies intervene too much or not enough in the lives of citizens, especially in relation to religion and belief?
I think the intervention of public authorities is very limited (in religion and belief). I am surprised in a way as to how shy we have become about religion. I think in a sense we don’t promote our Welsh religious traditions, because they are regarded as old fashioned. I remember 15 years ago and I was asked to take part in a BBC programme in Wales as an academic and I remember saying to those people who set up that think tank that nobody point out the very positive dimension of religion. People just talk about the negative things, but we forget that churches are raising money for others. We don’t keep money for ourselves, but that is not news, that is not a good story for the media… We have been victims of our silence.
When do public authorities have a positive duty to intervene?
Public authorities should only intervene when our religious views inflict damage on others. I believe very strongly in freedom of speech. I believe people should be allowed to say what they want. Although I am concerned about and I have little tolerance towards the increased xenophobia of UKIP. I believe that they should be allowed to say what they want, in the hope that those who disagree are confident enough to make them look silly.
How do you regard faith schools?
I am not a particular fan of faith schools. Having said that, my upbringing was in non faith schools but it had a Christian orientation. What it has happened in Wales, it is that there is very little religious education in Welsh schools and I find that strange for two reasons: 1. I don’t think that values which I hold dear emerge unless they are taught; 2. The only reason we have our language in Wales is that it was preserved by the chapels, and religion will still play an important role in this. Most Welsh people my generation were happy to talk about religion in Welsh, because that was our upbringing. I think theologically in Welsh, and I would find it difficult in English, but I would talk about Mathematics in English. The Welsh language is a crucial part of our culture.
How far should religious groups be allowed exemptions from discrimination law and other aspects of human rights protection?
Is there a hierarchy of rights? I don’t have a right or wrong answer. There will always be hard cases, but I have sympathy with both positions. In a way, I would never want to stay somewhere where I wasn’t welcomed and caused people embarrassment. I find very difficult when people impose their position as a deliberate act on other people. The bed and breakfast had a limited choice because they were in the public sphere. However, we didn’t impose that sort of values on clubs and societies. The owners of that bed and breakfast were a very easy target. I have sympathy for the owners of the bed and breakfast though… I think that if we really understand the Christian values, one would not have problems to put up gay people. But as I said, I feel sympathy for the Christian couple.
Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democracy is a good thing? Does it make it easier or hard to live in accordance with your faith? Is there any system of government which you would prefer?
Living in a Parliamentary democracy makes it easier for me to live in accordance with my faith.
There is no better alternative to democracy.
Do you believe that you have a moral obligation to vote? Does this come from your faith?
I feel I have a personal responsibility to vote. As a Christian I have responsibilities and I think in a way the New Testament is a clear challenge and unless you engage in civic activity you are not fulfilling your responsibilities to others and yourself.
Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law? Would you like to see greater judicial powers?
I am happy to see the judiciary more involved, but traditionally we didn’t want this to happen because we could not trust them. I think that is a very silly argument nowadays. The judiciary needs to open to people from different backgrounds and it will be important for the judiciary to be more reflective of the mainstream society. I don’t think, however, that they need powers to strike down primary legislation, because the ability to interpret statutes already gives them an important power and they are able to achieve what they need without having to strike down legislation.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords has a role in making and changing law, but is not elected?
I think it is problematic for us not to have an elected second chamber. I think there are problems to change the composition, but I am very unhappy with the current model. We need to have more transparency and the only answer to all the problems is a wholly elected Upper House.
How do you feel about the presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords?
I wouldn’t necessarily want to see the bishops of the CofE leave the House of Lords, but if we had a better way to have efficient voices representing the religious diversity of the UK, I would certainly favour that model. I was very impressed recently by the quality of the interventions of bishops. As you know, I am not a Monarchist, but there are merits to have decent thinkers in Parliament and sometimes they are the only people who can say what needs to be said. You need people who represent different religious views, also about economics and global concerns… It is very easy for Parliament to become very parochial. I wouldn’t want to see a second Chamber with no religious voices, but how we manage… I accept it is a very difficult question.
I am sure bishops attempt to be inclusive and representative, but I don’t know enough about the topic. In fairness to them, however, I don’t think they misrepresent us. They are well grounded and in recent years they have been promoting social changes. Think of the 1980s and Faith in the City, for instance. I think they actually have led British society in a way I never thought it would happen. In some ways they are very tolerant people. They have been able to shake the Government and remind them of important things. The present Archbishop, for example, who has a business background, has challenged money laundering… that has been crucial, and his predecessor and the one before, played a key social role. They have challenged poverty…. They cut across political divides because they are in Parliament.
Do you think that public bodies respect the will of Parliament, as expressed through legislation?
I think generally speaking public authorities uphold the law. I cannot think of public bodies ignoring legislation, but it is the implementation that is the real issue… a big example and very important to us is access of justice. I find access of justice a very important principle in Wales and other parts of the UK. Our sense of access of justice is disappearing. Wales is becoming a legal desert in terms of representation and I can’t understand how a civilised society could limit access just to privileged people. That is where we are going. The gulf between those who have and those who don’t is growing. I am fully aware of the fact that I am fairly wealthy, not wealthy in London terms, but I live a very comfortable life in general.
How do you feel about devolution in Wales and Scotland?
I am very pro devolution. It has brought enormous benefits for Wales. We are learning. It is a process, not an event, but incrementally it is showing that we are taking some responsibility for our decisions. It may help us engage in the life of our communities. I am excited by it and I find it very interesting what is happening in the UK… I think increasingly you find calls for devolution in England. Some people tell me that I am anti-English. I am not anti-English at all, some of my best friends are English… but I am just very Welsh! I would like an independent Wales. Well, that term is a nuisance. We are not independent, we are inter-dependent of each other, but I want us to make choices about justice… we have health and social care, but there are big chunks we don’t have. It would be a big challenge for us in Wales and Scotland, if the UK decided to leave the EU just because of the majority support in England. I must say that I would find that absolutely unbearable. Of course, we are very vulnerable to that, but I am optimistic that people will see that there is much more to be gained remaining part of a civilised European society, which has brought cultural diversity and progress. I think devolution is brilliant, but it is not now protecting us from the dangers of leaving the European Union.
What responsibilities come with power? What does your faith teach you about the way in which people with power should be held accountable?
Leaders must be held accountable by human beings. I cannot really comment on accountability by God, but as a Christian, I have a moral responsibility to engage in politics. I think the disillusion about Politics in the UK is extremely worrying. I worry that people have lost interest in politics.
Are Methodists appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?
It is impossible to say whether non conformists and Methodists are proportionately and appropriately represented in public authorities in Wales. However, we are a small nation and it is possible for everybody to have access to our representatives. There are, however, increasing challenges for people who are disenfranchised. This is a sad reality. It is difficult to say whether we are over-represented or under-represented, as we are very small.
Is there sufficient distance between the executive/legislature and the judiciary?
I think the judiciary are sufficiently independent in GB, although there have been recent examples… it has been suggested that the judiciary are too close to the executive. On the whole, I think they are independent though, and I am more worried about the strong relationship between bankers and politicians. I trust the judiciary and they try to be independent. Of course, there is some eccentricity, but on the whole they are trustworthy.
Have you ever felt so strongly about an issue that you have wanted to campaign to change it? If so, what did you do?
I have written to my MP, signed petitions, contacted my Assembly member, etc. I am very active politically.
In your dealings with public authorities, has your faith and the needs arising from it been appropriately respected?
Faith is still relevant in dealings with public authorities, because people who are currently involved in Welsh public affairs, in a way they are only one generation away from my own background. So, faith is still there. However, whether or not that will be the case in twenty years’ time, I don’t really know… As I said, one of the things that concerns me is… I am very worried about how the non-conformist tradition is disappearing… all the positive things, such as pacifisms, which were brought about by them…. What is going to happen? And there is an increase in support for militarism in Great Britain at the moment. Every day we are celebrating a war… the battle of Waterloo, the Second World War, the Great War… Every day in the last two years we are allowing our society to think only in terms of military solutions and I am finding that very uncomfortable and difficult to accept. When I was young that was completely different, but even my grandchildren now are being taught that it is normal to shoot people, it is normal to play games with guns… In a generation that has happened, and to me Christian pacifism is a deep conviction and I find that there should be no place for militarism in a civilised society. But it is happening even in Wales.
Is it important for you always to act within secular law?
I can envisage situations in which I would feel compelled to break the law on moral and religious grounds. I already gave you one example. Jo and I have different views about assisted dying, but if Jo were ill, I would have to help her. I know that is her very deep conviction and although I don’t share it, I have to respect her views on such an important matter. I cannot really think of a clearer example, particularly bearing in mind the current legal framework.
Do your beliefs require you to speak on behalf of third parties, especially the vulnerable?
My beliefs require for me to speak on behalf of the weak and the vulnerable of our society.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally in British society?
I don’t think the RL is applied equally to everyone in Welsh (and British) society. We still have views about the deserving and undeserving poor. If you are an alcoholic, you are undeserving … I was born in a teetotal family, but I could have easily become an alcoholic had I married the wrong woman. I don’t really agree with the way ‘undeserving’ people are treated. We all make mistakes, I have made mistakes. I also have problems with stop and search powers. I am not in principle opposed to these powers, because you could argue they are necessary. However, I am very unhappy with the way they are randomly exercised, and some people seem to be far more likely to be chosen by them.
Are there any legal rules which you currently find restrictive?
I can’t think of any piece of legislation which puts me in that position. I think the tolerance within British legislation is unquestionable. I don’t have problems with the legal framework and I have already provided you with some examples about the big things, such as assisted suicide. It takes time for legislation to accept the social changes. I am pleased we are moving in that direction and in due course legislation will catch up.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
In my life time I have seen the erosion of Christian testament within public bodies. Had you been in this university 30 years ago, Christianity was crucial. I am not saying we should go back to that position, but it has now changed remarkably. And yes, I am a world traveller and I go to other countries, and I respect their culture and their religious traditions and I embrace them. In the west, and particularly in the UK, we seem to be pushed to abandon our traditions. For instance, at Graduation I would be very happy to sign an ecumenical hymn, in which we celebrate what brings us together, whilst we respect those who don’t want to join it. In a sense, as I said, my belief system has been marginalised increasingly and there will be a price to pay for it. This sounds awful… I know… I have friends who are humanists and they are great people. I have been to several humanist funerals and undoubtedly humanists are lovely people and they are very communitarian in what they do, but in every service I have attended what you end up doing is a biography about the good these people made… and I thank God for having a faith in a God up there who looks after people even if they don’t have those biographies, and there is some sort of grace about human condition. There is good in everyone.
Aled Griffiths is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at a University in Wales, and was formerly Deputy Head of a recently established Law School. He is a Welsh Wesleyan by nurture and am currently a Deacon at a multi-denominational welsh medium village chapel. He is committed to some welsh cultural traditions but catholic and agnostic in his religious views.