What Price Freedom of Conscience?

Categories: Editorials,News,Stories


A lecture by a distinguished retired High Court judge in which he criticizes the present-day advance of secularism, and praises ‘Jesuits and puritans’ equally, has to be considered a truly extraordinary event. Just such a lecture was given by Sir Michael Tugendhat last May.

In recent years, the decisions of the courts have always favoured ‘equality’ at the expense of freedom of conscience to believe and practise the Christian—or indeed any—religion. One notorious judgment went so far as to describe legal protection for religious views as ‘irrational’.

Sir Michael pointed out that human rights laws do not guarantee protection for religion and the rights of believers. He compared the tyranny of the secular atheistic establishment to that of the Tudors. Now we need to see where Sir Michael is coming from. He is a Roman Catholic, and his historical interests are not focused where ours are, as Protestants. Catholic dissenters from the Tudor settlement of church and state were hunted down, and some of them paid for their faith with their lives. However, in many cases it is doubtful if they can be considered as martyrs for Catholicism. The reason for this lies in the actions of Pope Pius V (Michele Ghislieri, 1504–1572, pope from 1566).

By 1570, under the leadership Elizabeth I, the Church of England was well established. Elizabeth had been on the throne for twenty-two years, and her presence was a constant irritant to the papacy, which had lost any influence on England with the death of Queen Mary. Pius now took drastic action. He excommunicated Elizabeth, though she was not actually in communion with his church, and supposedly deposed her. This was both arrogant and stupid. As J. N. D. Kelly wrote in The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (1986),

His excommunication and purported deposition of Elizabeth I of England (25 Feb 1570), the last such sentence on a reigning monarch by a pope, was an ineffective anachronism, and made matters worse for her Catholic subjects.

Consequently, many of the Catholic ‘martyrs’ in fact suffered for treason, since, according to the pope, their true queen was Mary Queen of Scots, at that moment held in captivity by Elizabeth. Sir Michael’s lecture was being given in memory of Edmund Campion, a Jesuit missionary executed by the Elizabethan regime in 1581. Campion may have seen his mission in purely religious terms, that he had come to minister to his co-religionists in England. But what was the government to think of a man who had slipped into the country incognito, sent by a foreign ruler claiming to have deposed the queen, and supporting the rival claim of their most important state prisoner? Campion died not for his Catholicism, but as a traitor against his rightful queen.

However, even with that major qualification, the point Sir Michael was making is valid. The early Anglican establishment attempted to force everyone into its mould, leading to dissent on both right and left. As Sir Michael put it,

They [the atheists] seek to limit those freedoms to the private sphere, but that is a denial of the rights that these freedoms enshrine and that is what the Jesuits and puritans fought against … The terrible story of the Tudor-Stuart religious divisions should be a reminder that freedom which is confined entirely to the privacy of a person’s home is a form of oppression.

I think that as Protestants we can identify with much of this, even though it comes, so to speak, from the other side of the fence. What we ask for ourselves is not more than we are willing to grant to others—the right to hold and express our opinions freely, even when we find ourselves in a minority, even an unpopular minority.

But what should be our response if these freedoms are threatened? We have the right to protest, to campaign; each of us has the right to lobby our MP, whether or not we voted for their party. We shall not always be understood; we shall not always be liked; but we have the responsibility to stand for the truth, and for the freedom to proclaim the truth.

And what should be our response if these freedoms are taken away? We still have the responsibility to stand for the truth. God’s Word is sure, and it is our responsibility to make it known. Of course, this is not an excuse for aggressive or unreasonable behaviour. The apostle Paul warns us, ‘Let not then your good be evil spoken of’ (Romans 14:16). And Peter spells out the same point at greater length:

Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf… Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator. (1 Peter 4:12-16,19)

Tragically, some of our spiritual ancestors suffered at the hand of their fellow-Protestants for worshipping and living according to the dictates of their consciences. But these men and women, the ‘puritans’ of Sir Michael’s lecture, endured those sufferings for us: we are their heirs, and have inherited the freedoms they have obtained for us.

If an aggressive atheism is to be our ‘fiery trial’, may the Lord teach us how to walk through it faithful to his Word, obedient to our consciences, and without any unnecessary offence to our fellow men and women.

[Image: Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521: ‘My conscience is captive to the Word of God’]