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Hallo again to all.

In 2002 the UK House of Lords appointed a 'Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales' whose report 'was ordered by the House of Lords to be printed 10 April 2003'. We don't necessarily recommend that you read this document unless you have a major sleep disorder, but we think it might be worth everyone's while to reflect on it a bit, especially considering that it is entirely an artifact of the 21st century and not a quaint relic from the distant past.A man being burned at the stake The writers note that 'Blasphemy ... is a common law offence with an unlimited penalty. The content of the current law is obscure and, from the evidence that the Committee has received, is widely misunderstood.'*

Another excerpt:

'The legal notion of blasphemy dates back many centuries. Faith was seen to be the root of society's political and moral behaviour. Therefore, to challenge that faith or to offend against it was to seriously threaten the very fabric of political and moral society and had to be punished severely. Clearly, that is no longer the case. Some might regret that, but it does not alter the fact that the law is now concerned with the preservation of the peace of the realm, and the concern is not so much with views of the deity as with the satisfactory state of society.'*

While modern principles and legislation concerning human rights have made obsolete the legal concept of blasphemy as a criminal act, and in fact blasphemy was only a crime if one blasphemed against the Church of England, the concept and the word live on in our vocabulary and language. Attempts to prosecute Salman Rushdie for blaspheming Islam were unsuccessful because blaspheming Islam or the Methodists or the Quakers was not a crime.

The statute and concept have fallen into quaintness and disuse, but fear by an establishment of being blasphemed seems to be universal. No one in a position of authority likes to have that authority challenged. In the secular world, most countries have laws against sedition, and if you look deeply into the history of any country, you can find prosecution of people whose crime was nothing more than speaking out against the government. Be it Australia's 1891 prosecution of the Shearer's Union leaders, the USA's 2005 prosecution of a woman for writing a letter to the editor of her local newspaper that was critical of the government†, or Canada's 1940 prosecution of the Mayor of Montréal for urging men not to register for the draft, even modern governments have relied on forcible restraint instead of reason to prevent their citizens from hearing inappropriate speech.

John Shelby SpongLooking back over the centuries, it seems to us that prosecuting and executing people for blasphemy and sedition hasn't actually worked. Yes, the authorities demonstrated their power over a notorious blasphemer by impaling his head on a pike in the town square. But it stopped just the person, and not the message.

Censorship and banishment, also favorite tools of skittish governments, haven't worked either. We remember when a producer could double the ticket sales to a mediocre musical revue by boasting that it had been 'Banned in Boston'.

It is with these thoughts swirling around that we read that the Diocese of Sydney has forbidden retired US bishop John Shelby Spong (a notorious troublemaker indeed) from entering any Anglican churches in the Diocese of Sydney, lest he be blasphemous or even seditious. We can't wait to see how this plays out, and wouldn't be at all surprised to learn next month that Bishop Spong's hosts sent a warm thank you (blue or black ink on off-white paper) to Sydney's bishop for providing all of that free publicity. We do know that Sydney's Anglicans are sufficiently evolved that there is no danger of Bishop Spong's head ending up on a pike in the town square; whatever happens will certainly not be violent, and probably will not even be rude.

We remember the words of the famous theologian Rocket J Squirrel: 'That trick NEVER works.'§

See you next week.

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Last updated: 19 August 2007

*Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales First Report, Appendix 3.
ACLU of New Mexico defends VA employee accused of sedition over criticism of Bush administration.
§Rocky and his friends, Bullwinkle studios, 1959.

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