Lord Richard Harries of Pentregarth

by | Jul 17, 2017 | Faith / belief based groups, Interview | 0 comments

Richard HarriesHow would you describe your personal religious identity?

I am a bishop in the Church of England.

Was Anglicanism the tradition you were born into?

I was born into a family which at that stage were nominally Christian, they weren’t churchgoers.  I was baptised as a child but I didn’t go to church or Sunday school as a child.

What make you decide to stay within the Anglican tradition?

First of all, when I was  in my late teens I started to think about the Christian faith.  A question appeared in my mind: if it’s true it should be at the centre of my life, if it’s untrue give it up altogether.  I had been Confirmed at school as part of what we call a conveyer belt system.  When you were 15 or 16 everybody went forward for Confirmation.  I didn’t mean nothing to me, but it wasn’t a life changing experience or anything like that.  But when I was in my late teens, that question came into my mind.  So I started to read about the Christian faith, gravitate towards Christian friends.  All I can say is that gradually it took hold of me.  There are some lines of the 14th century mystical writer ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ quoted by T S Elliot in the ‘Four Quartets’ ‘The drawing of this love and the voice of this calling’ that sums up my experience over a period of 3 or 4 years.  So it came to mean more and more to me.  And eventually the calling came in a more specific way to offer myself for ordination.  I was in the army then I was going to go to Cambridge to read science at the army’s expense.  Suddenly I had a very strong call, I won’t go into it all now, but I had a very strong call to leave the army and to go up to Cambridge as a civilian to read theology.  It was a very dramatic sense of calling.  That all happened when I was within the ambit of the Church of England.  It was my cultural heritage, that was the obvious place to be, there wasn’t any alternative.  I’ve thought seriously over the years, should I be Roman Catholic or should I be an Orthodox?  But however attractive I find those two options, both the internationalism of the Roman Catholic Church and the mysticism and the art of the Orthodox, I find them hugely attractive, and they have influenced me a lot.  Nevertheless the Church of England is open to the future in a way that these two churches are not.  I do believe that the Church has to be open to change its mind on various issues like the Ordination of women, gay and lesbian relationships.  I don’t think that the Church of England is God’s final answer as to what the church should be, but it’s where I am, where I am comfortable, and however attractive the other options are, they don’t tip the balance.

Would you say that generally speaking Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, especially where religion and belief are concerned?

Yes, I would say that in terms of the law, our laws are admirable, there is freedom of belief, assembly, no legal barriers at all to people believing what they want and worshipping in their own way.  There are other pressures in society.  Originally there was Anti-Semitism, there’s now as well Islamophobia, there are cultural pressures, but as far as the law is concerned I am satisfied with the law as it is.  It is very different from the situation abroad.

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

There are no legal or political challenges.  There are social challenges.  The number of people who are serious and thoughtful Anglicans is now a very small part of the population.  One can assume that most of one’s intelligent friends are not believers, or if they are believers they will be either Roman Catholics or Evangelical Christians of one kind or another, they may or may not be Anglican.  But the kind of Anglicanism which I came into in the late 1950s, which was a thoughtful, liberal Catholic Anglicanism, that is not so much a part of the culture milieu as it was.  So I would say there are very strong cultural and social pressures, not in terms of practising one’s religion, but to get people to take it seriously. 

How would say that Anglicanism regards HR?

I would say that Anglicanism is totally committed to Human Rights.  Well, here I think that we have to draw a distinction between the Church of England and worldwide Anglicanism.  The Church of England is totally committed to Human Rights and has worked for the establishment of human rights in this country and overseas.  When it comes to the Anglican Communion as a whole, I am afraid to say that certain Anglican Communion churches although they may in theory affirm Human Rights, in practice they fail to uphold the Human Rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual people.  In particular Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and one or two others.  As we know, there are discriminatory laws in those countries against gay and lesbian people, and the Anglican churches in those countries have not been as robust as they ought in protecting gay and lesbian people from criminal law against them.

Do you regard the Human Rights Act as a positive development in UK Law?

We’re talking about the present HRA?  I fully support that and I don’t want it replaced.  I feel that we should be part of the European legal system as far as human rights are concerned. It can only be to our benefit to have a wider consensus and wisdom and I will certainly reject any attempt to replace it with a British view of rights.

Can you think of any practical ways in which the Church in the United Kingdom is supporting or defending human rights?

In this country I think that the Church of England is standing up very strongly in favour of, for instance, the Muslim community at the moment.  Although the law is fine, they are subject to social and culture pressures at the moment and the Church of England through its interfaith and relationships at local level has been very supportive for the practical outworking of human rights, as far as freedom to worship and pray is concerned and against hostile attitudes.  I think that clearly the Church of England has been more ambivalent about gay and lesbian relationships and has not been as progressive about that as I want, they have been very slow.  But of course you have to draw a distinction between the official level and what is happening on the ground.  In so many parishes there are gay and lesbian parishioners and gay and lesbian priests in permanent partnerships.  It’s there on the ground, so whatever the leadership says change has taken place. 

You must have been quite disappointed by the Church’s response to same sex marriage?

Yes, exactly, though what makes me more annoyed is the fact that the Church of England was very reluctant to welcome civil partnerships.  They now claim that they did welcome civil partnerships, they didn’t they were very reluctant to do so, they did so through gritted teeth.  They should have welcomed civil partnerships and should have offered then and should offer now blessings for same sex couples in civil partnerships that to me would be the first priority.  I can see the difficulty people have about using the word ‘marriage’ about the relationship, I support it but I can see people’s difficulty.  There was no need to go straight to that straight away.  What we should have done was to say we welcome civil partnerships we will bless these in a formal service of church. 

When do you think public authorities should intervene to limit practical expressions of religious belief by citizens?

Only when they incite violence or hatred, as the law says.  Providing its law abiding, even quite critical remarks of other religions, alright provided it can be judged not to incite hatred or violence.  I think that sometimes there is a case for public money being made available if it serves the social good of the country as a whole.  Public money has been made available at a local level to support interfaith work because it is felt that that builds up community cohesion and that’s absolutely right.  And I would also support public money for training imams to make them conversant with English culture and way of life.  What’s interesting is that there is good historical precedent for this.  The government in the early nineteenth century gave government money to support the Roman Catholic seminary at Maynooth because they realised that Roman Catholic clergy then needed a rather better education than they were getting with their own authorities. So in those kind of positive ways, when it serves the common good, not to promote any one faith or denomination, but when it serves the common good there is a case for the State…in exactly the same way it supports faith based social organisations, provided that they are not partisan or only serving members of their own faith or anything like that.  But they should not limit what anybody does unless there is a clear infringement of the law.

Is it a good thing that we live in a Parliamentary democracy?

Yes, I think that representative democracy, as Reinholt Niebuhr put it, quoted by Winston Churchill, is the worst possible system in the world, except for all of the others.  That is my view and I support Parliamentary democracy because it allows for people to express their preferences and views, but also because it acts as check on balance of power.  Not just the Rule of Law but through Parliamentary Democracy we can change our government by no violent means.  That is clearly as essential as the positive aspect, which is to get one’s own views represented at government level.

Do you feel that you have a duty to vote in the elections which you are permitted to vote in?  Why or why not?

Yes, I would have a duty to do it because I would regard it as an important aspect of being a citizen.  A slightly fascist side of me thinks that voting should be compulsory and people should be fined if they don’t vote.

Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law?  Should the judiciary have greater powers?

No, I don’t think that I would like to see the judiciary develop like that.  I think that Parliament should reign supreme.  Parliament operates within a country which has an independent judiciary and therefore have a judiciary which can say that certain government legislation can infringe human rights.  It is right that we should have an independent judiciary.  I don’t think that the judiciary should be able to change the laws, but should be able to say whether the movement conforms to the law.

Do you think that some groups in society find it harder to participate in the democratic system, if so, what are the barriers?

Well I think one obvious group of people are those who are opposed to Parliamentary democracy as such.  There are certain extremist Muslims who don’t believe in it because they believe that society should be governed by Sharia law rather than people’s preferences.  Leaving that aside I think the most worrying section of society in terms of non-participation are white working class, particularly the age group 20-35, they are totally alienated from the whole political process and not willing to vote or take part so that is real worry. 

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

I’m in favour of a totally appointed second house, though we are badly in need of reform.  We are far too large, we need to be half the number we are, we should be down to 450, we’re sort of 800, 900 now.  But on that basis I would like to see a continuation of a reformed appointed house.  I was on the Royal Commission, the Wakeham Commission.  We recommend long terms, 15 years, but not life.  We recommend separation of the title from membership of the second chamber.  So with those qualifications I am in favour of a reformed appointed house.

What is your opinion of the Lords Spiritual?

Well, speaking in terms of bishops, I don’t think that the Church of England should initiate getting rid of bishops in the House of Lords, but if in a settlement the State decided that it no longer wanted them, I don’t think that the Church of England should shed too many tears over it.  It’s not something one should go to the stake for.  So long as we are here, they do perform a symbolic function in a number of ways.  They are not there as moral experts, everybody in the House of Lords has a moral stance on life.  Bishops certainly shouldn’t claim any superior rectitude.  They are there though in a symbolic way to make people realise that Parliament is ultimately accountable to a power beyond itself and ultimately beyond the electorate.  There are prayers every day in the House of Lords taken by bishops.   So, as far as they bishops are concerned and what they represent.  They are not here to represent the interests of the Church of England.  They are here in some sense to represent the concerns of the diocese where they are, not just church going members, but the diocese as a whole.  Sometimes the bishop might have been the only person from a particular part of the country in the House of Lords and he will bring into the debates concerns which might arise over agriculture, or might take some concerns from some of the Muslims in the diocese.  The bishop can be the eyes and ears of the diocese and convey what is happening, so in that wider sense they represent an area in the Church of England.  But they are here in their own capacity in the sense that they are not whipped, there is no party line and they use their own judgment about what they bring into it.  Of course I’m not here now as a bishop, I’m an independent crossbench peer, which is slightly different.

What does your faith have to say about the exercise of power and the duties it brings?

My faith says that he to whom much is given, much shall be expected.  In other words if you’ve been given a position a power and responsibility you are accountable for how you use it.  You are accountable to the people who have elected you, and from a faith point of view you are accountable to God as well.

Do you think that practising Anglicans are appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?

I think the short answer is yes.  Although the percentage of members of the Church of England in the population as a whole is not very high, if you look at the major professions including Parliament and the judiciary, you’ll find a higher proportion of practising Anglicans there than the country as a whole. I haven’t got any figures to back that up, but that’s my guess.

How does the Church of England seek to challenge policy decisions which it regards as problematic?

It can do so in a number of ways.  In terms of the Parliamentary process, there is a Parliamentary Unit in Church House which serves the bishops in the House of Lords and they do a good job.  They provide briefing papers for bishops on all sorts of issues as they come up here.  There is also what used to be the Board for Social Responsibility of the Church of England, which I used to chair and has been incorporated now in the Board of Mission and Evangelism, but there is social responsibility within that.  It is not as strong as it was or as clearly as defined but when I was bishop and chaired that we used to produce serious papers which we tried to use to influence people and fed into the Parliamentary process.  There are also the wider organs of communications which the archbishop of Canterbury might use.  The archbishop of Canterbury is in a very good position. He’s been very influential in the banking crisis, he was a member of the banking standards committee in here but more widely than that his statements on the radio and in print, is a way in which a Church of England view which would very much reflect the Church of England as a whole can get into the public sphere.

Would you say that that can work at a local level as well?

Yes, it works at a local and a diocesan level as well as a national one, exactly.

Would you say that in general public bodies have a good understanding of the needs of practising Christians?

If you take hospitals, they are very good. It’s not just Anglicans, they are very good with multi-faith chaplaincy.  I have been very impressed by what they offer in terms of facilities and people, teams of people.  Often the Anglican chaplain is the coordinator, but he doesn’t have to be.  In some universities too there has been a good attempt to bring this whole dimension to bear, and in the Armed Forces too and in the prisons.  I would say, historically there has always been a good position for Anglicans.  I would say that what has happened recently is, quite rightly, the chaplaincy now reflects that we live in a pluralist society.

What mechanisms are important for society to monitor and respond to use of Parliamentary and government authority?

I’m a great believer in citizenship studies in schools, which I’m afraid don’t get the importance attached to them which they ought to have.  There should be proper courses in schools where people learn what democracy is about, how to participate, why it is important.

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

I do believe there is a moral obligation to keep secular law.  In terms of disobeying it should only be in extreme circumstances where there is very good reason for it.  I am happy to go along with St Thomas Aquinas where he said if a person is starving they might be justified in stealing food.

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

Yes, exactly they do.  It is absolutely fundamental to my role as a person of faith, and even more so as a person of faith with a public voice, to voice the concerns of vulnerable people and vulnerable groups in our society and the world as a whole.  It is part of what I understand being a Christian is all about.

Would you say that the Rule of Law is applied equally?

Certainly in theory, everybody ought to be treated as equal before the law.  Unfortunately, as with so much in life, it often comes down to the money which people have available.  If a multi-millionaire feels that they are libelled they have the resources to bring an action, if it happens to an ordinary citizen they don’t.  It is very bad now with the cutting of legal aid.  The law should be applied equally but in practice money makes a big difference in terms of the lawyers you can hire to get you acquitted or to get your case looked at differently.

What do you think about the general trend towards an increase in police powers and State surveillance?

It is necessary. I am not an obsessive civil libertarian.  I think that we need to watch that area, but we live in a highly dangerous world.  The threat of terrorism is very real, what happened in Paris could happen any day now in London.  I think that our surveillance services and the police should have the powers they need to keep us as safe as possible.  It does need to be watched, there is always the threat of the State taking to itself more powers than it really needs, and it needs to be watched in Parliament and the House of Law.  But I take seriously the need for these powers to exist.

Are there any laws which you currently obey but find restrictive?

I think that the short answer is no!

Is there anything else which you would like to tell us on this topic?

Not so much in the UK, I think that there is clearly a very worrying situation in terms of the world that now Christians are a heavily persecuted minority in some many countries in the world.  They don’t get the kind of publicity that so many other persecuted groups do.  That is a human rights concern.  I do think that we live in a very corrupt and grotesquely unequal world, the evidence of this is daily before us, the growing and grotesque inequality between countries, all the figures which we see every day.  This is a fundamental malaise of our world now.  So those are perhaps two of my concerns.  The world is now in the grip of a financial elite who can move their capital around from one country to another, individual states find it difficult to control them, and there can be tax havens for individuals and companies.  That is one reason why we must have strong international organisations including the EU, in order to try and control some of this elitist money going around the world.  Anchor it in particular in states and make it work for the common good.

One last question if I may.  You were explaining that you were here as a cross-bencher, could you tell me a little about this and the appointment procedure?  Are there other bishops in this position?

No, it is rare.  As you know about 20% of the House of Lords are crossbenchers from a variety of professions.  It has become customary for retired archbishops to receive life peerages.  It is very unusual for diocesan bishops to be made cross-benchers, there was only one other, David Shepherd the bishop of Liverpool who had a very good claim to it because he captained England at cricket.  He did a very good job at bringing Protestants and Catholics together in Liverpool.  How this happened is a mystery. It partly went through the appointments commissions, but also there are some directly in the gift of the Prime Minister.  I think that when I retired as bishop of Oxford a lot of people were pushing for me to be made a life peer and that is how it happened.  I’m only the second one and I doubt whether there will be any more, it sets a dangerous precedent, otherwise you’ll get the place swamped.

Richard Harries was Bishop of Oxford from 1987-2006. On his retirement he was made a Life Peer (Lord Harries of Pentregarth) and he remains active in the Lords on human rights issues. His main focus is the interface between Christian faith and wider culture including the visual arts, literature, ethics and politics. He is the author of a number of acclaimed books including The Beauty and the Horror: searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, Oct 2016); The Image of Christ in Modern Art (Ashgate) and Faith in Politics? rediscovering the Christian roots of our political values,(DLT). 

He is both a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. His biography has been written by John S.Peart-Binns, A Heart in My Head: A biography of Richard Harries (Continuum) and his contribution to public life assessed in Public Life and the Place of the Church: reflections to honour the Bishop of Oxford ed. Michael Brierley,(Ashgate). He has been a regular contributor to the religious slot on the Today programme since 1972. He is an Emeritus Gresham Professor and an Honorary Professor at King’s College, London.


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