X Close

In Britain, there are still limits to religious freedom

Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA Archive/PA Images

Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA Archive/PA Images

May 11, 2018   6 mins

scIt has been suggested that by 2021, the centenary of the founding of the (southern) Irish State, there could be more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland. The last census, in 2011, put the Protestant population at 48%, and Catholics at 45%, but figures from 2016 show that among those of working age 44% are Catholic and 40% Protestant.

Could a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland trigger a referendum on Irish unification? Perhaps. But whatever the fears, legislation banning religious conversions would inconceivable. Besides the march of secular liberalism, the history of both Ireland and mainland Britain provides no happy precedent for the regulation of religious belief.

Yet similar demographic fears in south and south-east Asia have fuelled exactly this legislative response. In 2015, Tarun Vijay, a respected author, social worker and journalist, and a member the Upper House of India’s parliament, argued that, “It is very important to keep the Hindus in majority in the country”, for Hindus had fallen to less than 80 per cent of the population for the first time in history, and, he argued, “We have to take measures to arrest the decline.”

His argument was, however, paradoxical, for he went on to assert:

“[R]eligion must remain a matter of personal choice. But in India, it has become a political tool in the hands of foreign powers, who are targeting Hindus to fragment our nation again on communal lines. This has to be resisted in national interest and in the interest of all minorities in India.”

In other words, minorities must be kept small, lest the majority which has hitherto held sway fears their increase and therefore takes violent measures against them. There is of course a pragmatic logic to this counsel of despair, as anyone who knows the history of intercommunal violence in that country – in 1947 especially – would acknowledge.

Unfortunately, this increasingly nationalist line of thinking is becoming more prevalent in Asia, as a paper just published by ADF International makes clear. Conversions away from the majority religion, whether Hinduism in India and Nepal or Buddhism in Burma (“Myanmar”) and Bhutan, are deemed to be threats to the country. And to counter the perceived threat, laws have been passed banning conversion in vague circumstances such as under “inducement” and in “fraudulent circumstances”. According to the paper, “The mere existence of an anti-conversion law in a state or country usually gives license to nationalist religious extremists to persecute members of minority religions.”

Cuius regioeius religio1

In our own British Isles, after emerging as the victor of the Civil War(s) and sweeping away the old (episcopal) Church of England, Oliver Cromwell struggled with the same problem that “Religion must remain a matter of personal choice, but…”

If Anglicanism revived, so too would the Royalist cause

Having executed the King in 1649, five years later, amid continuing religious fissiparation, he told Parliament:

“Is not Liberty of Conscience in religion a fundamental? So long as there is liberty of conscience for the supreme magistrate to exercise his conscience in erecting what form of church-government he is satisfied he should set up, why should not he give it to others? Liberty of conscience is a natural right…”

The following year, indeed, he declared he “had rather that Mahometanism were permitted amongst us than that one of God’s children should be persecuted”.2

But Cromwell drew the line where liberty threatened the maintenance of public law and order. Although, in 1654, he rebuked Parliament for not doing more to propose an acceptable settlement that embraced “godly men of different judgements in lesser matters”, he excluded Quakers (and others) from such a settlement because of their practice of “disturbing meetings” on the pretext of being moved by the Holy Spirit.

Not surprisingly, Lord Protector Cromwell was also opposed to the inclusion of Anglicans and Roman Catholics – not for their doctrines as such, but for political reasons. If Anglicanism revived, so too would the Royalist cause; for if James I had been correct when he said “No bishop, no King” – meaning that the enforcement of the bishops’ authority in religion was essential to the maintenance of royal power – so too might it be true that there could be no bishop without a king.

In Restoration England, the Anglicans, like the Hindus of Tarun Vijay’s vision of modern India, were now firmly back in majority control

As for Catholicism, did not the papacy remain as much a threat to the peace in England as it had in Elizabeth’s day?

Ultimately, Cromwell found no solution to his “problem”. His death brought the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 – and with it the old Church of England – and in the general exhaustion with war and religious strife came a certain practical toleration, not least for Catholics (Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza, being devoutly Roman). However, non-members of the state church were excluded from public office by the Test and Corporation Acts3 – in effect, anti-conversion laws.4

In Restoration England, the Anglicans, like the Hindus of Tarun Vijay’s vision of modern India, were now firmly back in majority control.

Ironically, it was a Catholic, James II, who pioneered religious pluralism. James succeeded his brother Charles II in 1685 after the latter’s considerable but non-violent struggle with parliament (the “Exclusion Crisis”) to have him named heir, and then James’s own rather bloodier battle with the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion.

James, who had converted to Catholicism some time in the late 1660s, but who was not revealed as such publically until 1673 when the Test Act required him otherwise to surrender the appointment of Lord High Admiral, told Parliament he was determined to achieve religious liberty within his kingdoms. When they refused him, he suspended Parliament indefinitely. Instead, by royal prerogative he issued the “Declaration of Indulgence” (sometimes the “Declaration for Liberty of Conscience “), suspending the penal laws which enforced conformity to the Church of England, allowing worship in private homes or chapels as individuals saw fit, and ending the requirement of affirming (Anglican) oaths before gaining any government office, including commissions in the army.

In his short – c. four year – rule, he released over 1,300 prisoners of conscience, and his reign was the first in over 200 years in which no one in England was executed for their religious beliefs. James’s ultimate purpose was, however, to restore Catholicism; and for that he had to go. The 1688 equivalent of the Tory “men in grey suits” arranged for the Protestant William of Orange, and his Protestant queen, Mary, James’s daughter, to come to England and take the throne. William did so, with a Dutch army, and James fled. It was called the “Glorious Revolution”.

The only “citizens” of the United Kingdom who are no longer allowed to convert to a religion or denomination of their choice without penalty are thus the monarch and those in the line of Succession

Unfortunately, James thought to take the fight to Ireland, where he enjoyed strong support among the native Catholic population, and the blood-letting there has shaped Ireland’s response to political and religious matters ever since.

“One Church, one faith, one Lord”

Meanwhile, Parliament5 stamped its authority on the new Crown(s) and the country, reintroducing the Test Act, as well as, in the Act of Settlement (1701), restricting future heirs to the throne to descendants of the Protestant Electress Sophia of Hanover (James I’s granddaughter) who were in communion with the Church of England.

The provisions of the Test Act were progressively eased over the next century, however, in order principally to recruit for the army in Ireland, so prolific were the Hanoverian kings’ wars on the Continent and North America, but it was not until 1828 that the Test and Corporation Acts were finally repealed, with full “Catholic Emancipation” enacted the following year.

The only “citizens” of the United Kingdom who are no longer allowed to convert to a religion or denomination of their choice without penalty are thus the monarch and those in the line of Succession as determined by the “Succession to the Crown Act (2013)”. As in Cromwell’s day, therefore, in Britain there still are limits to religious freedom where it is deemed that liberty threatens the maintenance of public law and order.

Whether this erodes the moral high ground when it comes to arguing for liberty in India and other countries is a moot point; but a point nevertheless.

  1.  (Latin) Literally “Whose realm, his religion”: the religion of the ruler was to dictate the religion of those ruled – the principle established at the Peace of Augsburg (1555) after the internecine wars of the Reformation within the Holy Roman Empire.
  2.  There could be no place for unitarians, however, because of their denial of the divinity of Christ. Such were the limits even of conscience.
  3.  The Corporation Act of 1661 excluded membership of town councils (corporations) any who were not prepared to take the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England. The Test Act of 1673 imposed the same test for holders of civil or military office.
  4.  Before his restoration – as a condition, almost – Charles issued his “Declaration of Breda” (the place in the Netherlands where he awaited his return to England) calling for religious tolerance. The Test and Corporations Acts (et al) were Parliament’s initiatives, Charles generally doing what he could to ameliorate the conditions of those who fell foul of them.
  5.  “Parliament”, throughout refers to the English parliament; there were, until 1707 and 1800 respectively, separate parliaments in Scotland and Ireland, though these – if very broadly, and not without tribulation  – followed England’s lead.

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier, one-time Anglican seminarian, Catholic convert. Author of the Matthew Hervey novels and four works of history on the British Army, and the First World War (Penguin RandomHouse). Times and Spectator contributor.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments