Baroness Kathleen Richardson
How would you describe your identity in terms of religion and belief?
I am a member of the Methodist Church. I subscribe to most of their theological understanding and I withhold the right to oppose everything they say… I suppose my theology has been homed by my teaching, but also by the things which I have experienced, and I suppose particularly having children and the questions which they asked have helped me to understand my theology better’
I didn’t grow up within Methodist, but I moved when I was 18 to live in a different place. I went, first of all, to a congregational chapel. There wasn’t one where I went, so I tried the Methodist one. I also had a boyfriend at the time who was a Methodist, and the thing that got hold of me by the throat was going to a communion service, and the difference between being brought to me in my pew as a Congregational and walking forward and kneeling as a Methodist seemed to me far more publicly committed. Also I hadn’t been there very long before people asked me into leadership. I was a teacher of Religious Education and then the step into local preaching was the next logical place to be. Into ministry that happened very gradually, but also very precisely.
Would you describe GB as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
Great Britain, in terms of religion and belief, varies as far as tolerance and equality are concerned. It is not as open to religion and belief, as it once was, but I think it is because of the variety. At one time, you either believed or not, but your God was the same God for other people. I think it is different now
Do you face any challenges in living in accordance with your beliefs?
I don’t think I face any challenges in Great Britain as a Methodist. It is perfectly possible to live how I want to live
How does your faith regard human rights?
I think my understanding of Creation is that everybody is born with the right to life and well-being, but my Methodist upbringing will tell me that has to be limited if my freedom infringes on somebody else’s freedoms or rights
Are legally enforceable human rights which apply to all people a good thing for society in GB?
HR which apply to all citizens in Great Britain are a good thing
Are there any ways in which the Methodist Church has a practical influence on human rights in our society?
I think as Methodists we have an impact on HR in Great Britain, partially because of our Methodist understanding of an world Church and so, the human rights which exist in Britain, may be different from the human rights in other parts of the world and yet there are some things which don’t depend on where you are, there are some absolutes.
I can’t think of any single leading Methodist campaigner on human rights, but the Church as a whole is playing a role in debt reduction, poverty alleviation, against gambling which targets vulnerable people… that is the kind of freedom, you know
Do you think that public authorities in GB respect human rights?
Some public bodies uphold human rights in Great Britain, but others don’t. For instance, the right to adequate housing, the right to education… sometimes they are muted because the kind of society where we are now.
Do you think that public authorities get the balance right in intervening in the lives of citizens?
I think public authorities take the right stance to human rights generally speaking. I don’t think they intervene too heavily
When should public authorities definitely intervene in the expression of faith/ideological convictions?
I think anything somebody says which limits choices of others is wrong, and if the public authorities prevent people from speaking, it is wrong… but I also believe those who incite hatred of another faith, that is also wrong… I have put this very badly… some intervention is necessary for us, in society, to live together. I think it is right that some things are prohibited in our society because they infringe on the rights of others
Does Methodism have a practical influence on human rights?
I think the emphasis from quite early on, in terms of the support which Methodists gave in relation to anti-slavery laws is an obvious one, but the perils in terms of drink and gambling, which were not about how they are bad in themselves, but in terms of… if you allow something which damages one of your brothers, which they usually say, it is as bad as if you damaged yourself… So, for other people’s sake, you put sanctions on your own behaviour…that was a good balance which was made. In terms of public life, the way that every Methodist Church had educational possibilities both for children and adults, in seeing that education is a way out of poverty were important.
Is living in a democracy a good thing? Does it make it easier to live in accordance with your faith?
There is no form of Government preferable to a democracy
Do you believe that citizens with a right to vote have a moral duty to use this?
I cannot vote, but that doesn’t mean I am not personally responsible… I take that responsibility very seriously to uphold the right of everyone to be involved in decisions which are made…
Does the understanding of democracy as the will of the majority create problems for minorities? Are there barriers to participation?
There is apathy in this society because people feel they are a long way from it. What disturbs me as much is that even people don’t get involved in decisions which affect themselves. So, I try to persuade everybody to take an interest. As I said earlier, I think part of the problem is that we have developed a culture of personalities, rather than a collegiate way of working in Politics.
I don’t know if it has been made difficult, but the truth is that some people don’t participate in the way they should and whether this is because they feel disempowered when their voices are not heard and policies go ahead despite the will of the people… because it hasn’t been able to bring it forward enough… I can’t think of examples of this…
I think an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority is fine, as long as you have education to support it
Is it appropriate that Parliament has the final say in making and changing law? Would you like to see a greater empowerment of the judiciary?
I think [the continental European model of judiciary] is developing to a certain extent, where Parliament asks for a judgment to be made in the courts before or after they pass a law, but I think the balance between the executive, the judiciary and Parliament, that balance is essential to keep, so that no one aspect of it becomes superior. The checks and balances are key. I wouldn’t have thought that an empowerment of the judiciary to strike down primary legislation is helpful.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords is not democratically elected?
I think the House of Lords is a different way to represent society and it works, partially because people are not having to satisfy a constituency, and therefore are able to take difficult choices, that they might not get the whole of society behind them… In the sense because I am one of the cross-bench independent peers, we are there because we represent other than politics. We haven’t come through the political system. We represent the professions which are not necessarily represented through the elected members of the House of Commons
How do you feel about the presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords?
Bishops don’t represent the faith make-up of the country and they only represent the Church of England. I know they say they represent their dioceses, but the history where the first Parliament was between the barons and the bishops, because they were the landowners, means they feel they have a protected place in Parliament… I actually think that is no longer tenable… If we are going to have spiritual Lords, I think we need to reflect more openly the nature of the spirituality of the faiths which are in the land
I think [if we are going to have religious voices] we should have other religious bodies in Parliament. I personally don’t see the need to bring faith into it on a constitutional basis. I think faith is only part of what leads our ethical or moral judgments and leads people into different judgments anyway. So, I can’t see why it should be protected
Do public bodies respect the will of Parliament, as expressed through legislation?
I think if public bodies include all the Government departments, I would think it would be difficult for them to ignore legislation… part of the problem is the changing of the policies which Parliament has, where the public bodies stay largely as they are and they can’t ignore…
I don’t think Parliament always takes sufficiently seriously its advisers, but not their personal advisers, but the people who are doing the job on the ground. I think one of the examples is what happened with the changes in benefit laws… I think the Executive had an idea in their heads, which was not followed through by people working on the ground, on the issues which present themselves in society.
Generally speaking public authorities respect the will of Parliament… It is the other way around… I don’t think Parliament always respects the will of public authorities!
What responsibilities come with power? How should those who exercise it be held accountable?
I think everybody who makes decision on behalf of others, is accountable to those on behalf of whom they make decisions.
Do you think that the Methodist church is proportionately represented in public life?
The Methodist Church is not a huge player, but we have probably influenced beyond our membership, because we have traditionally been seen as a principled Church, that doesn’t just deal with worship, but also with the ways people live together, and the way we work through charitable things, and the way we deal with it, work with elderly people through Methodist Homes, children, etc, is the extension of the way the Methodist Church thinks social life should be.
We have mechanisms in place to encourage people to participate in public life. It is part of how we understand our responsibility towards society as a whole, that we take leadership roles and so, Methodists are encouraged to be School Governors, through the Methodist schools which we have, people are encouraged to volunteer and this kind of things… There has always been a tradition of education within the Church, as to enable people to take their place in universities and professions and there are grants there to enable them to get there.
Do you think that there is enough distance between the executive/legislature and the judiciary?
I don’t think I have an opinion about the independence of the judiciary.
Are you satisfied with the current system of checks and balances between Parliament and the executive? Is there anything more which you would like to see?
It is tempting to say that the checks and balances between Parliament and the Executive are not working well enough, as so many people feel that the Government doesn’t understand them. So, therefore they haven’t been able to persuade people that they are acting in their best interest. So, perhaps there is something missing.
I have been involved in things like the Jubilee stuff, debts of foreign countries, getting involved in seeing that we are not an isolated nation, I have had some responsibility. Other than that… The campaign tried to persuade the Government that there are other considerations rather than British interests. The Christian understanding of Jubilee about the relief of debt that could never be paid is actually good for society as a whole, even if it costs more for one country to get involved… That sounds a bit convoluted… I also took part in the stop the war campaign…the understanding that you are part of a multi-faith campaign was important and that you could stand in solidarity with other faith traditions, not just Christian, was good.
Have public authorities demonstrated an understanding of your beliefs? Have any needs which you may have had arising from them been met?
On the whole, the relationships which I have had as a Methodist minister have been respected… On those occasions in which I have got involved in immigration issues, I think I have been listened to… whether or not that is because I am a member of the House of Lords, I don’t really know…
Is it important to you always to act within secular law?
If the law tells me to do one thing and I feel it is not right in what is telling me to do… the one I think, not that I would have come nearer to… the law that says don’t get involved in the debate about assisted dying… There could be an occasion in which I would feel it is right to help somebody to die, even though the law tells me that I should be deeply in fault in doing so. My faith doesn’t tell me that I would be deeply in fault in doing so. Maybe I would be inclined to go against the law…
When I was speaking in the debate on immigration, I was saying that the Government was completely wrong in the way they were dealing with asylum seekers… a woman in the gallery came to see me afterwards and said that ‘I never believed that Christians in Germany didn’t know what was happening until I listened to you, because I didn’t know that was happening in my country…
Do your beliefs require you to speak up for third parties, especially the weak and vulnerable?
I think it is crucial to speak on behalf of those people who cannot or are not permitted to speak for themselves.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally? Do some groups experience prejudicial or preferential treatment?
I think we do a pretty good job in terms of the Rule of Law. Where I would complain bitterly is in terms of the way we treat offenders by bringing everybody together and not seeing that part of the offence is they haven’t been given the opportunity others have, particularly in mental health and that sort of thing.
How do you feel about the generally strengthening of police powers and surveillance by the State over the past 15 years?
I think recent developments to strength the police, I support them, I think they have been necessary. What I don’t support is the way they select those they target and I think it has been an offence to many British citizens to be accused because of their ethnicity or skin colour… they are more likely to inflict pain on the rest of us… I think sometimes they choose the wrong target.
Are there any legal rules which you currently find restrictive?
I feel strongly about assisted dying. I think my Church is wrong in forbidding me to conduct same-sex marriages… I am not sure there are any other restrictions.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
I think one of the select committees I served on was the one on religious offences, that dealt with whether we should repeal blasphemy laws, because they could never be used, and interestingly we couldn’t agree… because it was a committee of the House that was made of all faiths and the strongest advocate for keeping the blasphemy law which only protected the Church of England, was a Muslim, because he said it actually reflected the fact that religion was taken seriously. So, that was an interesting experience and I think the way religious offences have now been dealt is much better than it was, under the Racial Law, etc.
I thought it was foolish to keep blasphemy laws because after all I don’t think God objected to be condemned, and persecuted and crucified… or ridiculed…. Why would followers be any different and if we cannot stand up to that kind of name calling and persecution, then there is something wrong with our faiths. Equally you talked about Northern Ireland, I am not sure I might think differently there…
I think in the past because there was such a large majority of Christians, the minority didn’t really count, and I think because there is now such a variety, and because [something which I really hate] Islam is seeing as a religion of terror, I think there is a lot more work to be done to bring faiths back to be in a position of respectability.
I don’t think Christians are being persecuted in British society. They are persecuted in other parts of the world, but not here. We are all to expect ridicule, and for Goodness sake, so many people of faith have silly ideas! The one other thing that has been really good, I was one of the trustees of the growth of the Citizens Movement. They gather people of all faiths and no faiths and they wonder what is their common agenda for that neighbourhood and they how they can persuade their elected representatives about concerns which are much wider than their own interests. They have been campaigning for things like a living wage in London. There are very interesting things, such as getting people with a bank account with HSBC to go to a particular branch and take all the loose change in their pockets and pay into their account that absolutely interrupted the daily business of that local branch and certainly persuaded them to pay their cleaners the living wage. It is that sort of thing. It is the power of faith that can change the world.
Kathleen Richardson was a teacher before serving the Methodist Church as a Deaconess, a Lay Worker and a Presbyter, being ordained for ministry in 1980. She became Chair of the West Yorkshire District of the Methodist Church, was elected President of the Conference, Moderator of the Free Churches Council and President of Churches Together in England. She was Moderator of the Churches Commission on Inter Faith Relationships. She has Honorary Degrees from Bradford, Liverpool and Birmingham Universities and was created a Life Peer in 1998, sitting on the Crossbenches.