Burning heretics

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“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”

We live in very strange times indeed. The United Kingdom applies some of the most draconian libel laws in the Western world, while at the same time, turns a blind eye – if not actively encourages – some of the most libertine and excessive behaviours of any known civilisation. This, while the twin crushing pincers of “Hate speech” and “Political correctness”, eviscerate any rational debate and mature, measured discussion about controversial topics. It would appear that the moral puritanism of Mary Whitehouse et al inadvertently scored a massive “Own goal”, either deliberately or as a matter of unintended consequence. I suspect the latter, rather than the former, although I seriously have my doubts.

I must admit, as a child watching Whitehouse on the television scared me. There is something very intimidating to a young child about vociferous harridans, and everything about her demeanour, right down to her dress code and spectacles, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Maybe it was the prototype 1960’s version of “Grl Pwr”, maybe it was the fact that intuitively, I recognised that the primary role of the fairer, gentler sex is meant to be procreation, nurture and healing, rather than conquest and division. Maybe I was just an easily influenced child, an unsophisticated moron, who was unable to grasp the dangers and horrors of the waves of humanism and permissiveness that Whitehouse was railing against. More than 50 years later, I realise how astute my observations were at the time, and the even greater horrors that accompany censorship, propaganda and media manipulation.

The door finally slammed shut for me when it came to giving the Whitehouse approach succour many years ago. Up to that point, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, admitting that just because she wasn’t my cup of tea didn’t necessarily annul the valid points that she made. This “Road to Damascus” moment occurred when street evangelists in the UK were starting to be arrested for preaching the Gospel, something that absolutely horrified me. The little remaining light that the UK church had was being quenched, and with the full weight of the establishment behind it, boots and all. What had gone wrong in this “Christian” country, was it the onward march of humanism and secularism that had led to this? Or was something more sinister at play?

The root of all of this, I believe, goes back to implementation, execution and repeal of the laws of blasphemy. According to jurist and judge Sir William Blackstone, blasphemy is defined as “Denying the being of God, contumelious reproaches of our Saviour Christ, profane scoffing at the Holy scripture, or exposing it to contempt or ridicule”. Such a definition is both balanced and accurate, as would be expected of the wisdom of the man, whose legal treatise are an essential foundation to those wishing to understand the law. Blasphemy was originally a foundational part of canon law; the law of the church. To even the dimmest intellect this is clearly the entrance to an immense ethical minefield, while Old Testament law clearly supports the execution of those that curse God (“Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death”), what better raison d’être could be construed to protect your own interests?

This became abundantly clear with the transition of blasphemy between canonical and parliamentary law. Enraged by the actions of the reformer John Wycliffe and the Lollards, a forged Act of parliament was enacted without the assent of the Lords or Commons, enabling the arrest and imprisonment of heretics. If one reads the “Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards”, one can find little has changed over the centuries. The established church even then, had a penchant for sodomy and corruption. The trend continued, in 1400 AD further powers were granted under the act to give bishops the power of arrest and to imprison owners and writers of heretical books. Sound familiar? This was followed by the Witchcraft Act of 1542. The rest, as they say, is history.

All of this might seem to be a matter of dry historical fact, but hear me out. Nicola Sturgeon recently offered a formal apology to people accused of witchcraft between the 16th and 18th centuries, despite being in charge of a government that values free speech less than a used syringe abandoned in an Easterhouse housing scheme. At the same time, a trial is currently underway in Scotland of 11 defendants for Satanic Ritual Abuse of children. I would love to add much more, but I really don’t want to get SB (or indeed myself) into serious trouble. What I will say though, is SRA is not some deluded fantasy, it is something that the media love to trivialise and mock, when they ever actually get around to covering it that is. Bring the subject up, and and even the most respectable go running for the hills. The topic, even amongst professionals, has been shut down. On the “Don’t touch this subject” scale, it trumps grooming gangs by a wide margin, along with female genital mutilation and some of the common practices indulged by the American elite as exposed by Alex Jones many years ago. SRA, to all intents and purposes, is the new blasphemy, and the only segment of society well qualified to comment – the Christian church – effectively now ostracised and discredited.

Back to Mary Whitehouse though. Her major triumph, if you could call it that, was her successful private prosecution in 1977 of Denis Lemon and Gay News Ltd for the publication of James Kirkup’s poem “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name”. With homosexuality being decriminalised ten years earlier, the LGBT lobby had the wind of political support in their sails. A clearly offensive piece, it depicts a homosexual Christ vilifying his life and his crucifixion. A just legal outcome you might think, but this is where the law of unintended consequences rears an ugly claw. On appeal to the House of Lords by Gay News, the case was thrown out by a majority of 3 to 2. While Whitehouse et al were no doubt rejoicing on their double victory, the sombre and disturbing comments of Lord Scarman went quietly unheeded. “Blasphemy laws should cover all religions and not just Christianity and [he sought] strict liability for those who ‘Cause grave offence to the religious feelings of some of their fellow citizens or are such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely to read them’”.

Just let that sink in for a minute. Lord Scarman was advocating a blasphemy law for Buddhism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Judaism, Paganism, Mohammedanism, Satanism, Sikhism, Spaghetti monsterism and Wicca etc. All based on an archaic law with no mens rea (guilty mind) component, a fundamental concept of any fair and reasonable criminal justice system. In other words, the publishers of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo who depicted the prophet in a bad light would be instantly found guilty in a UK court if Scarman had his way. Or to put this even more bluntly, the Whitehouse prosecution galvanised the establishment to expand the scope of blasphemy to cover areas considerably more contentious than she could ever envisage.  Free speech was effectively brain dead and mortally wounded from this point forward. The genie of radical puritanism was out of the bottle, all thanks to the actions of a bunch of hard-line Christian activists who, rather than turn the other cheek, didn’t appreciate that what was sauce for the goose was an equally appropriate sauce for the gander, be they gay, straight or of whatever belief.

To those at least half awake, we have that and much more today. Hate speech is anything that causes offence to others, no matter how trivial or vacuous. The irony is of course, anything “Christian” that dares raise that particular flag above the parapet is studiously ignored and discredited, hence my angst at Whitehouse. I don’t for a second disagree with her opinion on many things, just her response to them. She should have had the wisdom to realise  that the blasphemy laws were withering on the vine by the sheer fact that she needed to bring a private prosecution to get her point across, especially as homosexuality was now decriminalised. More importantly, she should have looked back to Christian reformers post Wycliffe and appreciated the torment they went through, including being burned at the stake – all based on a law with a dubious origin, not the least having no mens rea component. Using an unjust law to successfully prosecute your idealogical opponents while claiming the moral high ground is distasteful to say the very least. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. If you were charged with the offence by the state, you were as good as guilty. Any victory would be pyrrhic in the longer term, as the words uttered by Lord Scarman now prove.

It is clear that the words of Scarman have penetrated deep into the psyche of the establishment. The Blasphemy Act was repealed in 2008 to be replaced by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. Guess what? This extended hate speech to cover “Hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to sexual orientation”. One needs to get inside the heads of the lawmakers to truly understand the logic here, and in 1949 Lord Denning tells us why; “”The reason for this law [The Blasphemy Act] was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded upon Christian religion. There is no such danger to society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter”.

I wonder what Lord Denning would think 73 years down the road?  The fabric of society is not just shaken, it is visibly torn, and we are rapidly heading towards a moral chaos that would only be eclipsed by Scarman having his desires granted at the time. Lord Sumner, commenting on Bowman v Secular Society, makes the most sense to me. “Blasphemy is an offence against the (Christian) state, and is prohibited because it tends to subvert (Christian) society; offence to God as such is outside the reach of the law”. Or to use the latin phrase “Deorum injuriae diis curae” – Offences to the gods are dealt with by the gods.

I am a firm believer that church and state should have no truck with one another, as they both end up corrupt. In an ideal world, I would prefer otherwise, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Both politician and bishop are equally compromised, at the very least by the fact that they both have feet of clay, by the very most by the vestiges of power. Freedom of speech, indeed freedom of religion, is a critical facet of any free and growing society. Even the Greeks worked this one out, with their pantheon to the unknown god(s). The difficulty is drawing the line between such disparate values and beliefs. How can you possibly police or enforce a singular blasphemy law in a secular society? You can’t. That is why we now have a plethora of “Hate laws” that try and identify vulnerable groups and protect them. The establishment can then crow they have done their bit, whilst allowing “Freedom of  religion” to burgeon.

The greatest irony that emerges from all of this are contained in the words of the LGBT campaigner, Peter Tatchell. The representatives of the LGBT community, determined to push home a point, recited Kirkup’s poem on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square in 2002. No arrests were made. After the event he stated “The blasphemy law gives the Christian religion privileged protection against criticism and dissent. No other institution enjoys such sweeping powers to suppress the expression of opinions and ideas”. Sorry Peter, but you are as misguided as Lords Scarman and Denning, deluded even. You clearly don’t understand the operation of government or the deep state very well. Just wait until your new lords and masters take control, be they driven by religious fanaticism or political totalitarianism. They will make the Christianity of the Whitehouse generation look positively amateur.

As far as blasphemy laws are concerned, I’m broadly of the opinion of Lord Sumner, God is big enough to look after his own reputation. Sadly, the Christian state has deteriorated to the point of being almost unrecognisable. Some might argue we need a blasphemy law today, I would argue this only opens a huge can of worms in our current multicultural society. The division and strife it would create if implemented, indeed if it actually got past the political gatekeepers in both houses, would be considerable. If we were more homogeneous, indeed Christian as a nation, I would potentially support a Christian blasphemy law provided the safeguards of  a mens rea test was included and it lawfully reached the statute books.  As it stands, both church and nation will need to undergo radical reformation before this is even conceivable. Sadly, the replacement for the blasphemy law we had is a chaos similar to that which was found at the foot of the Tower of Babel.

As for preaching the Christian gospel in this country, the season for that is well and truly over, despite the fact that it is probably more needed than ever. I hate to say it, but the evidence suggests that Mary Whitehouse, either intentionally or accidentally, played a significant role in accomplishing this.

© Rookwood 2022