Tag Archives: Law

The Church, the State, and the Special Place of Religion

Over the last six weeks on Wednesday lunchtimes in Sheffield Cathedral, a range of speakers have taken us from Old Testament Israel to discussions taking place right now about the place of Sharia Courts in British society. In this sixth and final talk in the Religion and Law series, ‘Church Establishment in a Global Context’ by Prof. David McClean, many themes raised before emerged once again.

The established nature of the Church of England is often seen as an anomaly – something out of step with the rest of the world, and thus dated and in need of change. This criticism declares that the links between the Church and the crown are ill-suited to the diversity of religions which now form a part of the United Kingdom.

In England, these links between the Church and the crown go back to the Act of Supremacy in 1538. The Act made King Henry VIII the Head of the Church, so it was his right to elect bishops, deans and some vicars, and to ratify any decisions made at a general synod. Today, royal assent for Church appointments and new pieces of law is still needed. The ‘masterly inactivity’ of the Tudor monarchs in retaining the original settlement of the 1530s still has echoes in how the Church of England is run in the present.

But this relationship between church and crown is not entirely unique, nor only associated with England. David McClean highlighted a number of examples where the church and the state work together. The Danish Church, for instance, is so  entwined with the crown that it is effectively an arm of the state, run by a “Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs”.

In Greece, although the Greek Orthodox Church is technically the ‘dominant’ and not the ‘established’ Church, it’s still heavily state funded. Even in France, where the relationship between the Church and the State is probably the most hostile, in some areas, such as Alsace-Lorraine, the Church still receives favourable tax benefits and direct financial support.

The nature of the established church, or rather the place of the church and religion across Europe, highlights a key theme across this series of talks: that of the often special relationship of religion in law.  The interlocking of the Church of England and the crown as described by David McClean recalls the close connection of Christianity with the Roman Empire and how their development became closely entwined; but also the special position of clerics within the law of England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and how this ‘benefit of clergy’ continued to have resonance throughout Europe into the modern era. Another example is the intrinsic nature of Islamic law to the life of Muslims and how it guides their lives and their communities, and thus becomes a part of secular laws and systems.

The relationship between religion and law, between religion and the state is thus an old one that echoes down the centuries, and remains an area of debate today over the place not only of the Church of England but of all religions and laws in the UK.

And that’s not surprising: because religion isn’t a static entity. Throughout history, it has worked alongside secular laws, as well as created its own rules. Different communities create their own laws to define them. It’s the interaction of individual religious groups and their laws with that of secular law which shapes the societies we have today: and the societies we’ll have in the future.

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Image: Sheffield Cathedral

Sharia Law and Contemporary British Society

How do Sharia councils in the UK operate now – and how should they operate in the future? In the week the long-awaited UK parliamentary inquiry into Sharia Councils began,  the fifth speaker in the Religion & Law series, Imam Sheikh Mohammed Ismail, provided an introduction to Sharia Law and its implementation in Britain today. His talk showed how the question of the right relation between religion and law is still, in this respect, very much alive and kicking in the UK.

Sharia is the body of Islamic law that works within the public and private aspects of Muslims’ lives, or those who live in a legal system based on Islam. The implementation of Sharia Law varies from place to place, and is not always fully applied even in those countries where it operates as the main legal system.

Sharia is based upon five sources in the Islamic tradition.

  • The Quran is the core text for moral and judicial laws within Islam, and is understood as being the word of Allah. It is split into two sections: the first, from when the Prophet Muhammad was in Mecca, is mainly about beliefs; the second is from when the Prophet was in Medina and is about laws and the organisation of a society of believers.
  • The Sunnah, also known as the Hadith, details the sayings, deeds and silent approval of the Prophet. Where the Quran lays out beliefs and morals, the Hadith explains how they can be put into practice.
  • The three remaining sources that come together to create Sharia Law are the Ijma, which means the collective consensus of scholars or the community on a point of law that is not clarified or explained in the Quran or the Hadith; the Qiyas or analogical judgement,  when a case emerges that is not in the Quran or the Hadith but a judgement is made based on an understanding of these two sources (an example is the prohibition of alcohol in general on the basis of the Quran’s prohibition on drinking wine); and finally the ljtihad, analogical judgement used when the Quran, Hadith and Qiyas have not already provided an answer to a case.

So Sharia Law derives from key holy texts and traditions within Islam and is then translated into four main areas: beliefs and rituals, business and finance law, social and marital law, and penal law.

In the UK, there are currently around 30 Sharia Councils, which mainly deal with marital and financial disputes. Those who sit on them are predominantly male scholars who are experts in Islamic law. These councils have no clear standing in UK law, but in practice their decisions are viewed as binding by many within the Muslim communities they serve.

The ongoing parliamentary inquiry is seeking to address the role of the councils, considering whether either to include Sharia advisors in British family courts, or to formally acknowledge the role that Sharia Councils play in Islamic British society. That would in effect make these courts legally recognised arbitration tribunals – in which case the government would regulate how they work, for instance by requiring at least one woman to be on each council, and setting minimum standards of training in UK law as well as Islamic law.

Over the course of previous talks, we’ve seen how accommodations between religion and law can work to increase separation (for instance, separating Jews from gentiles) or alternatively can enhance community cohesion (for example, inadvertently creating networks of exiled clerics in the Roman Empire) – and sometimes both at the same time, as when the separate legal treatment of clerics and laymen ultimately served to strengthen the overarching integration-through-difference worked by the medieval Church.

So when parliamentarians wonder over the coming weeks about how best to integrate religiously-based difference into legal frameworks in the UK in the case of Sharia law, they’re dealing with an issue that’s absolutely contemporary – yet one that also has a very long history behind it.

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The next and final talk in the series is on Wednesday 9th December at 1:15pm in Sheffield Cathedral, where Prof. David McClean will be discussing ‘Church Establishment in a Global Context’.

Image: Wikicommons – Central London Mosque.

Getting off the Hook

This month, debates over the UK government’s  plans to make troops exempt from human rights laws whilst on service have highlighted how not all groups are treated the same under the law in modern society.  But who has immunity from the law, and where does the concept come from?

In last week’s talk in the Religion and Law series, Dr Charles West discussed how clerics in the Middle Ages were exempted from the conventional laws which bound society.

The reign of King Henry II of England in the twelfth century led to the extension of royal power deep into the counties and shires. A key expression of this authority was the bringing of royal justice within reach of the English people. However, an impediment to this extension was the exemption, on paper anyway, of clerics from the king’s laws.  Rather than being treated by the kings’ judges for their crimes, they were to be tried by other clerics.

Henry II’s desire to remove clerical exemption led to arguments with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Becket argued for clerical exemption, stressing that it was the right of clerics, going back to the Roman Empire, to be tried by their own peers and not by the judges of the royal court.

The disagreement between the two contributed to Becket’s long exile. A tentative reconciliation was short-lived, for in 1170 Becket was assassinated by over-zealous royal followers. It was Becket’s death that forced Henry to make the compromise that allowed for clerical exemption from his laws.

The exemption of clerics from royal law had implications for the clerics who committed the crimes, but also for the system which ruled the land. The separation of the Church from the judicial system marked out the latter as secular, separate from ecclesiastical affairs – though twelfth-century government and kings could hardly be described as not being religious. The twelfth-century ‘benefit of the clergy’ then saw the institutionalisation of two separate systems – one for the laity and one for the clergy.

The ratifying of clerical exemption into English law was to remain influential until the nineteenth century, though by this point the ‘benefit of the clergy’ had come to be applied to many first time offenders rather than the clergy alone. Today the calls to prevent soldiers being accountable to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) would place them in a parallel system to that of conventional law. Exemption from the law still has implications in the present.

However,  ‘benefit of clergy’ shouldn’t just be thought of as a dry legal principle. It had real consequences for people in the Middle Ages,  as one woman in Lincoln in 1202 was to discover. Mabel was an ordinary woman who wanted justice for the murder of her husband, Godwin. However, with the disappearance of the murderer, Alred, Mabel was left to accuse Alred’s family (whom she was then forced to admit had nothing to do with her husband’s murder), and the cleric William, who had held her husband down as he was killed.

William did not deny having played a role in Godwin’s murder. But he did not have to, as because of Becket’s death some thirty years before, he was exempt from the laws of the secular royal court. The worst punishment he faced for his crime was being defrocked – that is, losing his clerical status. So, William was passed over to the bishop’s officials,  and that is the last we hear of him (the records for clerical trials have not survived).

Mabel’s situation was tragic, but not unusual. The summer of 1202 in Lincoln saw well over 500 cases brought before the king’s judicial envoys. Many of the cases brought before the court were violent in nature – 75 of them being murders. This violence was not simply carried out by the laity but by clerics as well – it was only the law that treated them as separate, not society.

So Mabel and William’s story reminds us of how the law and its relationship with religion can have an effect upon everyday people. The development of religion and law in the last three talks has shown us the pathways that religion and law have taken in different ways, but Mabel, the murder of her husband, and the favourable treatment of one of his murderers reminds us of the very human impact of law’s intersection with religion.

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The next talk in the series is on Wednesday 26th October at 1:15pm in Sheffield Cathedral, where Prof. Anthony Milton will discuss Religion and Law in Early Modern England. For the full programme of talks see here.