2 December 2009

Bishop John Arnold and Evan Harris MP debate Christianity and the constitution

The third in the Newman Society’s current series of Thomas More Lectures on ‘religion in the public square’ took place on Monday. Bishop John Arnold and Evan Harris MP debated ‘the role of religion in the British constitution’.

Dr. Evan Harris MP is an Oxford graduate and practices as a Medical Doctor.  He also sits as Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon. He was recently given the ‘Secularist of the Year’ award in recognition of his role in the abolition of the common law offence of Blasphemous Libel.

Bishop John Arnold, another Oxford graduate, practiced as a barrister before training for the Catholic priesthood. He now serves as an Auxiliary Bishop in the Diocese of Westminster.

A train power failure at Didcot meant that Dr. Harris was delayed by over an hour. Substantial quantities of tea and coffee mollified the more than patient crowd until he arrived in a taxi.

Each speaker began with a ten minute presentation. In his opening remarks Bishop Arnold noted that The Tablet had billed the event as a bust up between the Church and secularism. He told the audience that he did not think that such an approach would be useful and said that he preferred to see the debate as an opportunity to have a constructive conversation: ‘There is always something to be learned by both sides. Dr. Harris and I are both here to try to evaluate an enormous subject and, hopefully, to discover some common ground.’ The Bishop continued his opening remarks by making the case for Christianity’s positive contribution to society.

Dr. Harris responded by saying he broadly agreed with the Bishop Arnold that the Christian churches made a valuable contribution to society; however, he believed that a constitutional bias towards Christianity was discriminatory and counterproductive to achieving social cohesion.

Following the opening submissions a civilized exchange took place addressing four key questions: Is Christian Britain dead? Is there a place for Bishops in the House of Lords? Can Christianity hold a privileged place in a pluralistic society? and Is Britain doing better with secularism?

After questions from the floor each speaker concluded with a short summation of what had been said. The speakers were thanked by Francis Davies, Director of the Las Casas Institute, who had moderated the discussion with great poise.

The occasion built on the two previous Thomas More Lectures examining the role of religion in the public forum, which were given by Cardinal George Pell and Francis Campbell earlier in the year. Next year the Thomas More Lectures will focus on the theme of ‘religion and science’.

The Tablet will be carrying a report of the lecture in its forthcoming edition. It is hoped that we will be able to post some more photographs shortly.

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