Gerald Howarth MP: ‘This is a Christian country and that we owe everything to our Christian tradition.’
It was heartening to hear such a grasp of history and an appreciation of Anglican theology on the Conservative benches, and Cranmer would like to share Gerald Howarth’s speech (minus interventions):
Mr. Gerald Howarth: “I am a simple sort of chap, and a member of the Church of England. I think I am the first member of the Church of England to speak in support of the maintenance of this law—a view I have come to on balance, not slavishly.
“I start from the premise of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) that this is a Christian country and that we owe everything to our Christian tradition. This nation has been forged and fashioned down the centuries by its Christian tradition. Every Act of Parliament is prefaced by reference to the support of the Lords temporal and spiritual and the Commons assembled. That indicates that our Christian faith has played a hugely important part. Therefore, while I have enjoyed the frivolities of this evening’s proceedings, we should be under no illusions that a serious issue is at stake. I am afraid that I am not interested in the Joint Committee on Human Rights or the European Court of Human Rights; I am interested in my views and beliefs, which are profoundly held and shared by a lot of people in this country.
“There is a message coming through here, particularly from the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who treated us to something that was more in the way of a Cambridge union debate than dealing with the practicalities of the concerns of the people of this country. Those of other religions who have come here down the centuries have done so in the full knowledge that this is a Christian country. One of the reasons why they come here is that our Christian faith is a tolerant faith—one that allows mosques to be built and that allows people to observe their traditions, to bring those traditions with them and to practise them. It is a mistake that some of them should now assert that, because they have come here in rather large numbers, they should be entitled to overturn centuries of tradition in this country. That is a mistake that we should resist…
“The hon. Member for Cambridge suggested that people less exalted than us are in fear that their Christianity is under threat. He is absolutely right - they do think that, and they are alarmed that the Government of the day appear to be completely preoccupied with minorities and take no account of their genuinely felt concerns. What they are looking for is somebody who is going to stand up for their concerns and articulate them in simple language, saying, “This is a Christian country—this is the way we do it here. My friend, if you don’t like it, go and do it somewhere else.” It is all perfectly straightforward.
“The Minister relied, as Ministers of course do, on the assertion of the Government’s new religion, which is discrimination: anything that is discriminatory is to be resisted, if not completely rejected. Her case is completely destroyed. Of course the law of blasphemy is discriminatory—but then, as was pointed out to her, so is the fact that the Church of England is the established Church. That discriminates against everybody else. It is a discrimination that unless one is a member of the House of Hanover, now the House of Windsor, one cannot ascend to the throne. That discriminates against every Eagle, every Smith, every Howarth in the land. Discrimination is there; it is in our midst. We are discriminating every day of our lives; we discriminate when we go to the shops. The idea that the Government should somehow rest their case on discrimination is a mistake and indicates that they are going down the wrong track.
“Furthermore and as has also been pointed out, we have Christian prayers in this place, which you, Mr. Speaker, of course preside over. I have been waiting for the day when there are calls to end this practice. I shall resist that for all the reasons I have just given; we should maintain these traditional prayers…
“Clearly, this is an undisguised attempt at promoting the case for the disestablishment of the Church of England. One of the reasons why this is a serious issue is, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) expressed it—he did so articulately, as ever— because some Christians feel under threat. However, the promotion of the Church of England as the established Church in this country is important for other reasons. I can tell him that a Jewish headmistress, whom I was sitting next to at a lunch—I believe that it was for the Conservative Friends of Israel, so a huge number of people attended—said, “It is very important to our school that there continues to be an established Church, because it provides some protection to us in the practising of our religion.” That message must not be forgotten.
“Talking of messages, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) rightly pointed out that we are dealing not simply with a law that is perhaps anachronistic and perhaps has had difficulty being interpreted in the courts—I am at one with the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that a lack of will was the reason why “Jerry Springer: The Opera” escaped what should have been a proper prosecution that led to conviction—but with a law that is symbolic.
“The act of abolition in which the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon wishes to rejoice will send out a signal to the entire nation. It is a dreadful time for this House to indicate that it no longer feels that religion is important and that the Church of England has a central role to play in our life in this country. It is a time when we desperately need to reassert moral values in this country. The fact that the archbishops have deserted the field is unfortunate, because that again sends out the wrong message, but my simple role in the Church is as a mere church warden. The Minister is wrong to suggest that no drift to secularisation is likely to flow from this proposal, because that is what will happen—indeed, it is happening—and it is an important time to reassert moral values.
“Furthermore, this act of abolishing the law of blasphemy also carries with it a risk that nothing is sacred in our country and that nothing ought to be given some sort of special protection. Our children will not understand if this House says that it is not important, because why then should anything be sacred? That would send a dreadful message to the young people of our country…
“I think that this is no time to be abolishing the law of blasphemy. I say that not necessarily because prosecutions of tomorrow will be denied, but because abolition would send a dangerous signal to this nation at a very difficult time for it.”
It is people like Gerald Howarth, and indeed all those who spoke eloquently in defence of the nation's Christian heritage, who deserve our prayers. They are manifestly the 'salt of the earth', which may irritate, but it also cleanses and heals. They know to do good, and so they do it, irrespective of the humiliating taunts and ridicule they receive at the hands of the likes of Mssrs Bercow and Evans.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake.