David Harte

by | Jul 17, 2017 | Education / Academia, Interview | 0 comments

Have would you describe your beliefs and identity in terms of religion?


What made you adopt/retain this position?

I have always been positively disposed to it.  I have three siblings, the one next to me in age has always been positive.  My younger siblings have generally seemed indifferent.  To me it always just seemed the obvious, attractive, identity, giving meaning to life.

Is there any identity within Christianity that you would choose?

In many ways I am a mongrel, both where my antecedents come from geographically, but also in terms of church tradition.  I had one great-grandfather who was a Methodist minister, and on that side of the family his brother was an Anglican minister.  My grandfather who was the son of a Methodist minister was a church warden and an organist and very much an Anglican.  His wife, my maternal grandmother was very much an Anglican.  On my father’s side there were a very different sort of Methodism  so far as my grandmother was concerned. She was the one who came from Newcastle, so I have some Geordie Primitive Methodism.  Whereas my grandfather who came from New Zealand was very much an Anglican. My father was born in Glasgow and they worshipped at an Episcopal church there.  My father was really of an Evangelical disposition, so the parish church that we went to when I was growing up was an Evangelical Anglican church, but I preferred to go to the school chapel, which I loved.  I did a deal with my father, with the assistance of my brother.  He discovered an organisation called Crusaders; it has a different name now for obvious reasons, and we were allowed to go to the Crusaders which was an Evangelical organisation; we were encouraged to go there in the afternoons and, because I went there ,I was allowed to go to the school chapel in the mornings. My brother by the way went through a Quaker phase before being received with his wife as Roman Catholics. My father in law was a Scottish Presbyterian minister and the first Sunday school I enjoyed attending  was at what was then  a Presbyterian church.  Generally, I am most comfortable within 17th century Anglicanism. 

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

Comparatively yes.  There obviously are exceptions, which get more attention as extremes always do.  It is probably less tolerant than it was, as far as religion is concerned.

Do you face any challenges to living in accordance with your faith?  And if so, have they been legal, political or social in nature?

I don’t think that I personally have had any legal restrictions on what I do, or requirements to do anything that I felt unhappy with.  I am aware of examples where I have been concerned.  Particularly with regard to Sunday and the treatment of it as an ordinary day.  That doesn’t mean that I hanker after the pre 1960s Sunday which many saw as a day of misery, but the idea that it should be set aside as a family day and a day on which those who wish to worship are able to; that has been lost through commercial pressures.

Has Christianity influenced the world’s understanding of HRs?

My perception is that we wouldn’t have HRs if it hadn’t been for Christianity, but the various strands of Christianity have responded very differently.  The Roman Catholic Church from the late 19th century became very supportive of HR, whereas previously it wouldn’t really have recognised the concept meaningfully. From an Anglican and Free Church perspective in the west, HR developed as a later aspect of the Enlightenment, associated with the conscience of the 19th century reformers like Shaftsbury and Wilberforce.  They set the line for modern liberalism, in terms of treating people equally and providing welfare.

Do you think that the HRA has been a positive development for our society?

I think so.

There is always a dialectic, especially when there are rights which have to be balanced because they are in conflict.  Judges have to produce a reasonable solution, and use the term proportionality – and Lady Hale has also helpfully emphasised accommodation.

Do public bodies generally respect HRs?

They vary a lot; take the NHS, it can be very good, but there are examples which can be appalling.  There are examples of people with very antagonistic views towards religion, or who are just not very sympathetic and don’t recognise how important religion is to some of the people who are their employees.

Do you think that the State gets the balance right between protection and freedom when it comes to intervening in the lives of citizens, especially in relation to religion?

The secular state is not prepared to distinguish between religious viewpoints.  That is unrealistic, because some of them are supporting the liberal traditions which are supportive of social order and cooperation, whereas others are not.  And treating them all the same actually puts the beneficial religious traditions at a disadvantage and is harmful for society. 

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

There’s a gradation. The separate rights under the HRA, freedom of expression and family rights and rights to freedom of assembly I think are ones which should and do apply irrespective of whether the matters expressed are religious.  Arguably you could get rid of the specific right to manifest religion if you relied simply on those rights.   But religion does have a deeper value for society than other matters of conscience or choice. Now the state does have to intervene to some extent where people do things.  For example with holding demonstrations, because public order is involved; religious beliefs are no different from other beliefs, for example animal rights.  But when it is in terms of expressing your views verbally the state has to be more restrained in interfering unless people are actually attacked by words.  I used to think that censorship and blasphemy laws had a place, but my views have changed.  I think that freedom of expression is so important, because if you don’t have it then the beneficial views don’t get expressed when the state doesn’t agree with them.  So unless violence is being advocated there should be freedom of expression.  At present there is a risk of a spin-off on freedom of speech if things are damped down because of a minority of Muslims producing hate speech. – There is a difference between someone saying that same sex relationships are wrong and someone saying that western society is corrupt and as many people as possible should be killed.

Do you believe that living in a democracy is a positive thing in terms of your faith?  Would you prefer another form of government?

Yes and no.

Do you feel that you have a duty to vote?

Yes.  As a Christian one has a responsibility to contribute to society in every way which is open, and democratic participation is one way.  It is a right which has been hard won and if you fail to exercise it, it is likely to atrophy.

Should Parliament have the final say in making or changing law?  Should the judiciary be empowered to strike down laws?

The nearest we have to a written constitution is the HRA, but nothing is entrenched and Parliamentary Sovereignty remains intact in theory at least.  We could withdraw from Europe in theory; the political realities are such that I don’t think that’s likely……..maybe I shouldn’t say that just at the moment!   My reservations about the EU are the move towards a more federal structure where values could be imposed which are inferior to those which British democracy has developed..  The rule of law is distinct from the democratic system and the two need to go hand and hand.  Having said all that, the HRA is vulnerable at the moment, and it would be a tragedy to lose it.  I don’t see the Strasburg court as one of the threats to our values.

Is a majoritarian understanding of democracy problematic for minorities? Do some groups face barriers to participation?

I think that democracy is essential for the preservation of liberal society, but it is an extremely blunt tool and I think efforts to use it in a detailed decision making way are dangerous.  If you look at the way that government is elected, you vote for a party and for the leader of that party and for an individual constituency MP  You are voting for a manifesto, bits of which you like and bits of which you don’t.  You are choosing  the least bad of two or more alternatives.

How do you feel about the unelected nature of the House of Lords?

I don’t see that as a problem. I am in favour of bishops.  I would prefer to see bishops balanced by representatives of other belief systems and faiths, but that is awkward because they are not organised in the same way, except for the RC church and they don’t want to play ball.  In the absence of wider representation I think that the Anglican bishops do a good job, representing faiths generally and also providing an independent voice for their regions.- and they don’t all agree, except on matters on which people of faith generally agree.  I think that is healthy.

How do you feel about life peers and hereditary peers?

Again, hereditary peers reflect a certain group of landowners.  I don’t have any great objection to a small number, but I think that is really an anachronism.  Life peers are what I think the House should consist of, and possibly others appointed for a longish period of time, as holders of public office like the bishops.  So for example if you were to give the BMA a representative, presumably he or she would be there for as long as they held the particular role in the BMA.  But actually, I would prefer to see people appointed by an independent body as indeed they are now by the House of Lords Appointment Commission .

Do public authorities respect the will of Parliament as expressed through legislation?

I think they will try to apply the law to suit their purposes. What is more pertinent is the attitude of the judges to Parliament. The government is often unhappy about the way in which judges interpret legislation but ultimately the government through Parliament can always change the law.

How do you feel about devolution in Wales and Scotland?

As far as devolution is concerned, I think that is necessary because that is what people want and it enables the UK to remain as a single political entity.  There is a merit in having a Common Law; the law of Scotland has always been different, but I am unhappy about the general law of Wales and England being fragmented.

What does your faith teach you about people with power and how should they be held accountable?

Lord Acton springs to mind; power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, that is a primary observation which always needs to be borne in mind. It fits with my understanding of original sin. The problem on the other hand is that checks and balances may prevent anything being done, good or bad.  The question is how do you allow good to be done and prevent the bad?  We have a system which works reasonably well. From a faith point of view “rendering unto Caesar” is  relatively unproblematic in the UK.

I think it is a fundamental theological observation that human beings are subject to original sin, we are flawed but we tend to be selfish, even if we try not to be.  When religion or even humanism is working effectively, it mitigates our tendency to be selfish.  That is what Christianity pre-eminently does.

Do you think that Christians are appropriately and proportionately represented?

No, but I think that is their fault rather than that of society; more should feel a responsibility to play a part in parliament.  I don’t know; I would want to do a statistical study before reaching a conclusion, but I think that all Christians should seriously consider whether they have a calling to play a part in democratic government.  It is a calling.  As far as the law is concerned, I have a bit of a beef, because those who are most concerned with promoting Christian beliefs through the law, do it in a negative way.  You get groups who join battle and see the law as something oppressive which they have to fight, instead of something enabling in which they should participate for the good of society.

Do you think that the judiciary are sufficiently independent?

I think they are. Whether they are perceived to be is another matter.  Look at the difficulty there was  in finding someone for the child abuse investigation…..but that was exceptional and they found a good solution in getting a senior judge from another jurisdiction.  Other than that, moving from the House of Lords to the Supreme Court seems to have been a matter of window dressing, and perhaps getting better premises, than a matter of real substance. But that development does give a greater appearance of independence. What I do find regrettable is the way that the role of the Lord Chancellor has been demoted, it was valuable to have someone who represented the judiciary in Parliament.  I think that since Lord Mackay there has been a demotion of the office of Lord Chancellor and that has been unfortunate.  Having a senior judge, not sitting as a judge, but advising the government on the Rule of Law was valuable.

Do you think that our current system of checks and balances is effective?  Are there any changes which you would like to see?

The system we have whereby the executive is drawn from the legislature has a lot to be said for it. It reduces the risk of an impasse, but it has its risks as the government can become too powerful.  The House of Lords is protective to some degree.  The other aspect of the system which has improved, is the kind of dual path within Parliament; there are MPs who see themselves moving up the ministerial ladder but also others who see themselves as Parliamentarians, and have a parallel career structure, moving up as chairs of committees.

How do Christians help to challenge decisions which they perceive as problematic?

Again, it is a matter of Christians taking the initiative.  There is an issue about the extent to which it is legitimate for people to express their views as religious views in public debate.  I am working through this myself still.  I tend to take the view that if you have a Christian critique it should be possible to formulate it in general terms.  If you take something like abortion, on which people have very strong views which are not purely emotive, rationally you can say that protecting a woman’s integrity is a valid position, but equally the helpless embryo is a potential person, which once it’s born one would protect, and therefore it should be protected at some stage during gestation.  There is a specifically Catholic view that once the life comes into effect, at the earliest stage, that is a human life and should be protected and abortion is therefore wrong.  Now I don’t go along with that, but I think that is a specific Christian view which should be respected and taken into account; it needs to have a channel for it to be expressed and kept in the debate.  Again, it ties in with balancing rights.  There is a big difference between forcing someone to do something which is against their conscience, and not allowing them to prevent third parties from doing something which is consistent with their conscience.  So if you take the issue of abortion, we have rights of conscientious objection in that and other areas, but they have been restricted in the case of  nurses and receptionists, so that the further you get away from the action of abortion itself, the weaker the rights of conscientious objection.  I’m not saying that the current balance is wrong, but that the dialogue does need to be kept open and that religious views should be fed into the dialogue. 

Do you think that public authorities understand the needs of Christians?

I think it depends where you are. It varies.  Having moved from Newcastle to Winchester, from one of the least to one of the most church-going places in England, I have noticed the difference.  One thing which was very noticeable before Christmas in the local Hampshire Chronicle, is that several pages are given to school nativity plays. There is Christian news. There is a regular column given to a canon at the cathedral……….you wouldn’t get that in Newcastle. The media is very powerful in our society generally.  My main reservation about Christian religious voices in society is that they are not allowed sufficiently by the media.  We talk about freedom of the press, but the press itself is very good at censoring views which it doesn’t want to promote.

Is it important to you to always act within secular law?

There are certainly hypothetical circumstances where I would break the law.  If the law required all Jews to be exterminated I obviously as a Christian couldn’t go along with that.  Nothing has happened to me to in actual fact which I think would have justified me taking that course though.  I have known people who wouldn’t be judges or who would only be civil judges, because they wouldn’t impose a death penalty.

I do think as well that there is a big difference between breaking the law to make a point and refusing to do something which you are legally required to do, because it is against your conscience.  I would be much more diffident about the former.

Are you aware of any Christian campaigns to change the law, which you support?

I am more aware of Christian groups fighting cases within the law, particularly on human rights issues.  I think that often the issues at stake could be resolved by negotiation, without the need for conflict.  Where that isn’t the case and the matters couldn’t be resolved out of court, I am not sure that I would necessarily agree with the Christians making the particular point.  Although that said, I do have sympathy for example with the bakers in the Asher bakery case, as they weren’t refusing to sell cakes to gay people, they were refusing to make a cake with a message with which they could not in conscience agree.  So, if the courts find against them, their choice is to break the law or to go out of business.  Similarly, I think that it is tragic that Catholic adoption agencies had to close.  Where you’ve got people working in a public office, like the Ladele case, there is a difference between somebody working in a public capacity and a private business.  But there are often circumstances behind the headlines. In the Ladele case I think that there were a lot of personality problems; It has been said that  she could have been accommodated, if she had been prepared to have been.

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

Yes, more so than for injustices against Christians really!

Is the Rule of Law applied equally?  Do some groups experience prejudicial or preferential treatment?

Inevitably there is inequality, although one should always strive to achieve equality.  Communication is one factor, some people are just better at making their case than others. 

How do you feel about the general trend towards an increase in police powers and state surveillance in recent years?

The trend is unavoidable, but to go back to the point of power corrupting, there is always a danger of going too far.  For instance, the idea of OFSTED intervening in activities outside of schools, to prevent radicalisation.  Would that kind of intervention then apply to all organisations, , — ones which are not socially harmful?  socially beneficially ones ? Would they then be over regulated as well?

Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive?

The Lord’s Prayer not being allowed as a trailer at cinemas, that is not the government, that is the media.  There may have been a reason for it not being allowed, and it not being allowed led to more publicity which may have been beneficial.  I think too restrictions on dress is an interesting area. We quite rightly bend over backwards not to impose unnecessary restrictions.  We have been more accommodating than France, which is good.  But I think that we get the balance fairly well there…….we don’t pussy-foot about when there is a non-negotiable reason, for example at passport control or giving evidence in court.  In those circumstances, women do have to be prepared to show their faces.  I think more worrying for religious freedom are the restrictions for Jews in some Scandinavian countries on kosher slaughter and circumcision.  Those things are fundamental to the identity of those religious groups.  And the idea of interfering in the family is where I would be most uncomfortable. 

Is there anything which you would like to add?

There is a question about whether society is secular or plural.  I’m not talking about secularism in the sense of separation of powers and rending unto Caesar, but of hard secularism in the sense of a doctrinal commitment to non-belief.  In preference to the latter, I think we need a polity where various positions are accommodated and included and we are all enabled to contribute to modern democratic values.

David Harte is a retired academic lawyer whose particular interest is the interface of law and religion. After some experience of full time practice at the Bar in the North East of England he taught law at Newcastle University, specialising in the development of environmental law courses before taking the innovative Canon Law LLM at Cardiff University and concentrating on law and religion as a developing area of legal study. He subsequently introduced Law and Religion as an undergraduate option at Newcastle.

David has been an active member of the Ecclesiastical Law Society since its foundation in 1987, is book review editor for the Ecclesiastical Law Journal and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Law and Religion in Cardiff.


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