Father William Pearsall

by | Jul 14, 2017 | Faith / belief based groups, Interview | 0 comments

Fr William PearsallHow would you describe your personal religious beliefs and identity?

I am a Roman Catholic priest, a Jesuit, which means I belong to a religious order within the Catholic Church with its own style of work and training.  I am working here in Manchester at the university as a chaplain.  I was brought up in the Catholic faith and lost my faith as a teenager, in fact even before, and then I studied Philosophy at Innsbruck in Austria, and my philosophy studies in the late 60s, early 70s, I rediscovered my Christianity, decided to become a priest and joined the Jesuits in England.

Would you describe Great Britain as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to belief?

I think it is the most tolerant society I have known.  I have lived in different countries, the USA, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, I have worked in Norway and Poland but I never worked outside of a European or North American context, so I cannot speak for elsewhere.  But I would say England together with the USA represents a social model which is the most accepting of minority groups, and rights of citizens and reinforces that acceptance legally and constitutionally.

How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your faith?  Are there any challenges, and if so, are they legal, social or political in nature?

We were illegal after the Reformation from the time of Elizabeth, she made a decision for the country to go with the Protestant movement and unfortunately that meant uniformity of religious practice.  The h2 Catholic pressures against her form outside, Spain, meant that the country had to become a place where religious beliefs were persecuted.  From that time until 1829, we had no civil rights here as Catholics.  It was a long struggle to recover what we took for granted, and it gives us I hope a certain sympathy for persecuted religious minorities.  From that time, and the restoration of Catholic bishops in 1850, we have felt equal citizens and have enjoyed the rights of citizenship.  Universities, public office and other things.

How does Catholicism regard HR?  Has it contributed to the world’s understanding of them?

All Christians originate in a situation of persecution from the 1st century of Christianity, and then at the time of the division of Protestant and Catholic, both sides have experienced what it beings to be both belligerent and victims.  Not until modern times has human rights in the secular sense come into our thinking, but we would claim that our heritage would be the same, that human rights as understood constitutionally in modern nation states, owes a lot to the Christian idea of the family of human beings as brothers and sisters and children of God.  That religious background of HR is fundamental, but was denied for a long time by our internal divisions.  We have learned lessons historically, but could also claim to have been teachers of us lessons from the religious idea of a common humanity.

Are HR which apply to everyone a good thing for our society?


Are there any ways in which the RC Church has a practical influence on HR in Britain?

Well, yes, usually the church does not campaign alone, we tend to join with others, for example in relation to the rights of immigrants.  But there is one area where we are very notably isolated, abortion would be that area, although we do share that concern with many religious groups and many people in secular society.  That’s become a single issue of the Catholic Church, our tradition would emphasis social justice though as one of the h2est areas since the 19th century, Catholicism has been associated from some of the lowest paid groups in society since industrialisation.  That was true here in Manchester with the Irish community and just over a hundred years ago we were fighting for Dockers’ rights in London.   In some areas h2, in other areas not quite so notable, gender issues for instance.  Fighters for HR in the public arena, definitely and from a h2 position.  In terms of continental history, during the period of fascism, we think looking back that the church was always in collusion with the power, but there were accommodations which had to be made.  There were tremendous voices against the power.

Do you think that HR are generally respected by public bodies?

Particularly so, almost obsessively and since the legislation has come in.  There is a huge press reaction against HR as a concept because it has been hijacked by the tabloid present to represent the denial of native rights.  Some of the legal issues have been silly, the HR of a burglar who is injured in the course of his crime.  That is going to appeal to a certain mentality when it is brought to light.  But generally speaking we understand what HR mean, it is just that sometimes there are problems in litigation when lawyers become involved-no disrespect of course.

Do you think that public bodies get the level of intervention right when it comes to the expression of religious beliefs?

The State in England is a difficult concept.  More and more I am impressed with the nature of our democracy, because it is so highly criticised, I am coming to the conclusion that we don’t have a State.  The debates are very public, there are elites, and I belong to one in a way, just by being educated and a member of the hierarchy of the church.   But thanks to our media and the way in which we make fun of ourselves, we even go too far, we mock religion, we commit…we make jokes that our blasphemous in religious terms, that has been permissible since the 18th century.  I don’t see us as having a state.

When should the state intervene to limit the expression of religious beliefs?

Well, I will go along with this, I would back off from the term state, government we have.  So how far does the government interfere in our lives?  It is a small country….I know MPs and local councillors, when I was in London they were essential to the way in which we could make a good country work.  We all agree that the most powerful interests were outside of the state, money decides everything.  In terms of the state, I don’t feel that we have been forced into our position but we have been in our position many times.  Legislation that has to do with equality, employment legislation since the 1990s has effected the way in which we work. There are no longer any Catholic adoption agencies, because we can’t really, maybe we missed an opportunity, but at the time we didn’t see that gender equality could extend to gay couples adopting children in a way that could fit into the ethos of Catholic ideas of parents.  The abortion issue has a knock on effect, in the medical world for Catholic nurses and doctors.  Legislation in these areas is bound to effect Catholic life, it is hard to know who stand up for these beliefs and be a good citizen.  We like to think that these are universal principles, the right to life.  But nobody wants to go back to a world of backroom, illegal abortions.  Public display of religious symbols in the works place was a minor issue, but it was resolved by good British common sense.  I was involved in one personal fight in London in keeping Sunday special, so if you Google 2010/11, Westminster Council decided to impose parking charges on Sunday.  We thought it was being done almost behind our backs, it was enormously elaborate process of meeting with the council.  Finally, you can find it all on file, but we won, but not without help from commercial interests, the churches alone wouldn’t have won, but we did start the whole thing off.

Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society is a positive thing?

Absolutely yes, we have seen the other forms, we have had theocracies, and I know what the Church was in the Middle Ages.  We don’t want a society in which religion determines…..in which the human conscience is enslaved by a system from outside, even though the reasons were good.  I think that Christianity is true, fundamentally, but it is a truth to be discovered not imposed.

Does your Catholicism mean that you feel that you have a duty to vote?

Yes, I do.  I am careful not to use my position in the church to influence the vote.  But if you don’t vote in a democracy then you are voting for some other form government.

Is it a good or a bad thing that Parliament has the final say in making and changing law?  Would you like to see the judiciary having power to strike down legislation?

Not necessary really, the balance of powers works in the US just about, but not really.  Those 9 Supreme justices are political appointments, appointed by the executive.  You can never really have separation of power.  Here in Britain, it is collusive but the worst aspect is that Westminster is quite a club, everyone knows each other.  But the best of it is that you can get to know the members of that club, because they come from the people, they have their constituents, generally speaking. Although we know have a Supreme Court, it is a spin off from the Lord Laws, and the Lords has always been under the thumb, whether you think of Charles II or Lloyd George.  You have the power of packing that branch of the legislature so it goes your way, so even the Lords is a democratic institution now.  Parliamentary Sovereignty, to me the conflicts are not so much against what the people would like, because who knows?  We don’t have the horrible lobbying system of the US, just h2 voices.  We do have this anomaly with religion.  The most recent revision of the Book of Common Prayer in the 1980s, the Alternative Service Book, had to go through Parliament.  And before that the 1928 Prayer Book.  There is a strange connection there, what does Parliamentary Sovereignty mean in relation to the Church of England.  The appointment of bishops is not democratic, but it does go through the Prime Minister to the sovereign.  I wouldn’t want the separation of church and state to be honest.  I want to make a distinction, eventually we have to look at the secular state and religious freedom within it, but the curious position of the Church of England.

Is an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority a problem for minority groups like Roman Catholics?  Is it inclusive?

I don’t know, I think you would have to ask some people who feel excluded from the process, usually it would be people who are knew.  We have some strange situations, we were at war with the IRA, and a bombing campaign from a terrorist group took place on the mainland here.  People who felt disaffected in Northern Ireland, they compared themselves to black Americans in the 1960s, and they resorted to violence.  Everyone agreed that without a political solution there is no solution.  I wonder who feels outside of the system now.  You could say that the profile of parliamentarians does not really represent the electorate.

Do you think that it is problematic that members of the House of Lords are not elected?

What should the Upper House be composed of, should be have a bicameral system?  These are constant questions.  It can be manipulated by creating Lords out of thin air.  Then I had some real some friends who were real lords who lost their seats when that change was being made, and they felt that they were not be treated fairly.  They hardly showed up very much.  But the role of the Church of England having those bishops…..

Do you feel represented by the Anglican bishops?

Well there was a great Anglican who became a convert and she was a Member of Parliament, and she said at a meeting of Churches’ Together in Westminster in Methodist Central Hall.  She was talking about the dilemma of being an MP and a principled Christian, the point about democracy is that it is compromise.  You cannot compromise about your religious beliefs, but in Parliament you have to compromise.  And she said that she would fight to the last ditch for the Church of England and its place in the legislature, because it is the voice of Christianity, reason, conscience, and it is not elected.  But then how do you defend the lords democratically? You can only say that we need an alternative to politicians.

If the House of Lords remains unelected, should the bishops stay?

If there is a major change constitutionally, it is because we one day move to a written constitution.  We will one day, because it is too flexible to understand.  If it ever comes to a written constituent the whole question of the relationship between church and state, and indeed the monarch will be brought into question.  It is a house of cards, or dominoes, if you say, we don’t need the monarchy, then you don’t have the head of the Church and you have disestablishment.

What does your faith teach about people with power?

We have an ambiguity here, because we have a teaching which is very clear from Jesus Christ, the founder of our way of life, that we do not exercise power ourselves in any way that be coercive, we don’t lord it over others.  We do not let our authority be felt he says to his disciples.  In fact there has to be power, power isn’t negative, it is natural.  The church became an institution, which inevitably has power, so how does that square with the founder’s statement?  I don’t know.  We have to have an institutional form of Christianity, I regret and am ashamed of abuses of power.  The way we exercise power should be exemplary and consensual.

Do you feel that RC people are appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?

I think so.  There was a chance for one of our former cardinals to be a member of the House of Lords, and he took it to Rome and the Pope, St John Paul II opposed clergy being in any legislative bodies. I think it was under Benedict that this question arose, there was this moment where the prime minister offered this.  It was just too controversial in some ways. It does raise the question of whether all religious groups should be represented and they should.  Generally speaking we are equally represented, but we don’t impose our representation, we don’t deliberately promote one another.  We are not a self-promoting group.

Is there enough distance between politicians and the judiciary?

That is beyond what I know about how the judiciary function.  As I said, everyone knows each other…..I have not been impressed with some of the judges observations on cases which have come their way.  They seemed out of touch with reality and were caricatured, but not they are much more in touch and are not so removed from the processes of law or the electorate.  The Justices of the Peace are very important and impressive here.  It isn’t just High Court judges, it is also the local level.  The first level of adjudication can be someone you know from your community.

How do you think that the exercise of power by Parliament should be regulated?

It is still the same question about the balance of powers, in a country this size, we can afford to say we don’t need a heavy hand to impose legal definitions which would separate the powers, because they are bound to overlap.  Having said that, are there any examples where legislation has been in opposition to the judiciary.  The highest court in the US is there to determine what the constitution says, but we don’t have a constitution like that.

How does the RC Church seek to challenge issues which it perceives as problematic?

There is a wider issue that the RC church being universal is aware of the persecution of Christians in countries where there is no rule of law, or gender equality.  I can think of several couples I have prepared for marriage where I had to do some teach-in that male and female were equal in partnership, because their culture hadn’t reached that stage.  The RC church because it is universal can promote HR on a universal scale.

Do you think that public authorities have a good understanding of the needs of RC citizens?

Probably more than in the past, but we have been overtaken by another religion which needs to be understood in public life.  I think that we were very unassertive in our adoption policies for instance, we need Catholic adoption agencies.  If we had the assertiveness of another religious tradition at present, we might be able to fight our corner more effectively.  I am not saying that assertion is the same as coercion.

How important is it for you personally to act within secular law?

When I was much younger I taught classics, and one of the Greek plays was Antigone by Sophocles, and it has that wonderful chorus, it is the story of conflict between a young woman who wants to bury her brother and the State, represented by the ruler Creon.  The brother died fighting the state, represented by Creon, and feelings and conscience are represented by Antigone.  This conflict will always be there, it came to a head in Europe in the 1930s and 40s, and it was the worse experience in human history in my view.  The best we can do in a democracy is to protest when we feel that the law is wrong, this country welcomes and enables that more than anywhere else, except possibly France.  You have to oppose what you perceive to be unjust laws.

Do your beliefs require you to speak out for third parties, especially the vulnerable?

Absolutely, that is the essence of Christianity.  It is good news to the poor, it was originally called a religion of slaves, and it takes the voice of the voiceless.  The founder of our faith died a slave’s death, with criminals on either side of him.  It takes the part of those left out to die.  We must never be silent when a third party is in need.

Is the rule of law applied equally to all, or do some groups experience either prejudicial or prudential treatment?

There is a group who always get prudential treatment, the rich, you get your lawyers, go to another country.  Money will decide everything in the end.  Apart from that I think it is fair for all, and there are plenty of watch dogs to sound the alarm if it isn’t.

Should State authorities be allowed to suspend the Rule of Law in order to address security issues, or should the police be expected to follow the ordinary rules and processes?

What matters is if you are a celebrity now, you can get preferential treatment.  It used to be autocrats, now it is celebrities.  It is an improvement on getting it because of an inherited title.

Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive?

I can’t think of any, apart from the issue which I raised about Sundays in London.  Maybe because I am a Christian I already belong to the privileged element in society, perhaps other faith groups would feel differently.

Is there anything you would like to add?

No, basically, this is very comprehensive.  I would like to go on record as saying this, it has taken us a long time as Christians, I am very conscious of the movement, we have a treasure here in our democracy and it is fragile.  A super power like the US, I love the country, but I can see that power has become a problem with the way that democracy is exercised.  Here a country this size, just England, people want to be here, they see that they will be given the right to live unobstructed, if they cannot make a living they will not starve, they will supported.  Unless there is a secular state there can be no religious freedom that is the problem for the next two centuries.

What do you mean by a secular State?

The UK is a secular state, the Church of England has an established church will probably not survive the century.  I believe that Christianity is true, in that the kingdom of God is real and Christ is the light of the world.  But unless we have a government which is not religious we cannot guarantee the freedom of religion in that country.  I am not talking now of Europe or the US, but of countries which seek to have a religious state, and refuse to allow citizens whether or not they wish to believe in God.  That movement is not going to go away, and that is why I consider our democracy very fragile and worth defending.

Fr Pearsall studied Philosophy as an undergraduate at the Leopold-Franzens Universitaet in Innsbruck and then joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in England in 1971. He read for the MA in Classics (Greats) at Oxford and pursued his theological studies at Heythrop College, University of London. He was ordained in 1983 at Stamford Hill, London.  Subsequently, he served as a street priest in London and as a volunteer with l’Arche in France. He was Parish Priest of Farm Street Church before taking up his present work at the Catholic Chaplaincy in Manchester.


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