RELIGIOUS liberty is not just about the well-being of minorities, but a “necessary aspect of healthy, functioning society”, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has said. He was paying tribute to the work of Keston College, now Institute, over the past 50 years since it was founded during the Cold War with the aim of supporting persecuted believers on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Speaking at St Katharine’s Royal Foundation, in London, on Saturday, at a lecture given after the Institute’s annual meeting, in the presence of Keston’s founder, Canon Michael Bourdeaux, Lord Williams said that what had always been impressive about Keston was the consistency of its witness in respect of religious liberty.
It had resisted two great temptations: that of being one-sided in challenging tyrannies and injustices — the temptation to make excuses for those who, at the end of the day, we regard as “our tyrants”; and the temptation of religious people to be “selective in the defence of religious liberty on the grounds that what we really want is religious liberty for ourselves so that we decrease the religious liberty of others. That, too, Keston has fought against in an exemplary way.”
In talk about religious liberty in the modern setting of human-rights discourse and legislation, focus was somewhat lost on the fact that religious liberty was “not just about a certain number of eccentrics’ being tolerated. This is something about what the state itself accepts as its limits,” Lord Williams said.
The well-being of religious minorities, he argued, was “a key test of the well-being of minorities. . . When we are talking about religious minorities, we are talking about communities who believe they are answerable to something other than the police.” The state did not determine the vales and convictions and priorities of citizens as of right. “When it intrudes in those areas, it begins to set itself up as an ultimate, unchallengeable form of human society and human solidarity.”
“Sadly,” he said, “it’s not uncommon for those who have experienced repression of religious liberty, in one form or another, at one stage or another, to become ardent apologists for religious coercion, when they are themselves released. We could talk quite a bit about examples of that.
“We could talk about the way in which in Eastern Europe, in the Muslim world, and in some other contexts, the plea for religious liberty can be a covert plea for my liberty to coerce others. And the complications over laws around religious communities in the Russian Federation will not be foreign to this audience — just as some of those Muslim apologists for religious freedom in the sub-continent of India would, given the opportunity, be as repressive towards the Hindu majority as the Hindu majority is towards them.
“These are uncomfortable things to say, but I believe they are uncomfortable in the spirit of Keston’s vision. Because, as soon as that pattern emerges, we are, as I say, back to the notion that coercion properly belongs with religion, ethics, and value. The essential distinction between religion and coercive power is blurred. The only alternative is to defend the indivisible right of religious liberty and to remember that what makes the gospel the gospel, for Christians, is not its coercive force, but its moral integrity and wholeness.”
The Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism, then at Keston College, in Kent, with its journal Religion in Communist Lands, was described by Canon Bourdeaux in an article in the Church Times, in 1975, as engaged in “honest study . . . entailing the reporting sometimes of unpleasant facts”.
Before Lord Williams’s address, the current chairman of Keston, Xenia Dennen, read out a poem by Irina Ratushinskaya, one of the imprisoned dissident Soviet Christians whose cause Keston championed in the 1970s and 1980s. The archives of that period are now kept at Baylor University and are the subject of a new book, Voice of the Voiceless (Baylor University Press).