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Speaking truth to tyrants — that includes ‘our people’

29 November 2019

Rowan Williams celebrates 50 years of the Keston Institute and its defence of religious liberty for all


A picture taken through a window as the body of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko, a polish Roman Catholic priest, is transferred from the mortuary to a coffin. He was murdered in 1984 by three agents of the Security Service, who were later tried for and convicted of the murder. He was beatified in 2010

A picture taken through a window as the body of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko, a polish Roman Catholic priest, is transferred from the mortuary to a coffin. He...

THINKING back to my teenage years, when I came across a book by a promising young chap, Michael Bourdeaux, introducing a Western readership to religion in the Soviet Union, it was part of that wide variety and spread of influences which led me — in my teenage years, and as an undergraduate — slowly to focus on the Russian religious world as the centre of my own researches, and a lifetime of work and engagement with that, off and on, in varying degrees of professionalism.

As a student, I was very much impressed by, and engaged by, the writing of that little group of Cambridge academics the Epiphany Philosophers, central to whom was the formidable personality of Margaret Masterman, a computer scientist, a pioneering theorist of artificial intelligence and artificial language, and a metaphysician of rather unusual capacity.

One of Margaret’s favourite categories in explaining how faith might come alive in the contemporary world was to speak of what she called “death-cell philosophy”. A characteristic, she said, of the 20th century’s experience was the witness of death-cell philosophers: people who had written about God and humanity, either literally in the death cell, or in the face of that threat; people, in other words, whose moral and spiritual seriousness was shaped by that extremity — an extremity generated by resistance to various kinds of tyranny.

The death cell is the context where things become serious, where priorities are established. And the witness of those who face that ultimate extremity in faith is something that continues to nourish, to challenge, to enlarge the perspectives of all of us who try to share the life of faith, in whatever form.

I’ve seen the work of Keston over the years as not simply a matter of the pragmatic defence of liberties, crucial and central though that is; but also as a way of hearing and responding to death-cell philosophies — celebrating, if the word isn’t too bizarre in this context, the endurance of those who show us what faith might actually mean when things get serious.


WHAT has always been impressive about the life and work of Keston has been the consistency of its witness in respect of religious liberty. It has done so by resisting two great temptations that come into our minds when we think about religious liberty.

When some of us were younger, it was sometimes quite difficult to be even-handed in challenging tyrannies and injustices. Whether one belonged to the right or left, there would always be excuses to be made for people who were, at the end of the day, “our tyrants” rather than “the others”, whether it was right-wing Christians in the United States directly and indirectly apologising for — or not apologising for — the repressions and tyrannies of dictatorships in Latin America, or whether it was progressive and right-minded — or, rather, Left-minded — Westerners slightly embarrassedly saying that the Soviet Union had its flaws, but it was, so to speak, “our tyranny”.

Keston has cut a swath through that sort of nonsense throughout its existence, and has, in a most remarkable way, retained its integrity and credibility in a world where that kind of partisanship, that kind of political polarisation, is all too common and by no means a thing of the past now. We still hear defences of “our people”; we still face a lack of honesty about the repressions, the errors, and the sins — I use the word advisedly — of people we would like to think were on our side.

Keston’s courage has been exemplary throughout these decades in saying, quite simply, that fundamental liberties are fundamental liberties, truth is truth, and the consequences are what we have to deal with.

THE KESTON CENTRE FOR RELIGION, POLITICS, & SOCIETY, BAYLOR UNIVERSITY, WACO, TXIrina Ratushinskaya, a dissident Russian poet, with her husband, Igor Gerashchenko, a human-rights activist. On the eve of her 29th birthday, she was sentenced to seven years’ hard labour and five years’ internal exile for “the dissemination of slanderous documentation in poetic form”. In prison, she continued to write about her faith (Faith, 29 January 2010). Keston College campaigned for her release. One of her poems was read before the lecture

So this temptation of weaponising tyranny and injustice to serve a particular cause is one that has been resisted with great consistency. But, equally, Keston has resisted another just as seductive temptation: religious liberty as something which is desirable for people who share my views.

What has been impressive from the beginning at Keston has been the clear-eyed acknowledgement that the repression of religious faith is the repression of religious faith, and it does not particularly matter if the religious faith being repressed is a religious faith that a little bit of me would quite like to see repressed. Tyranny is tyranny, and truth is truth, and repression is repression.

And so I would want to put on record a deep appreciation for that costly and sometimes unwelcome honesty. The word “prophetic” is thrown around all too freely these days. But, if being prophetic is being quietly and persistently a nuisance in the cause of truth, Keston has, indeed, a right to that title.


WHAT I have just said implies two things about religious liberty which I want to spend a bit of time exploring in slightly more detail. Religious liberty is not something whose denial can be sidelined as a minor feature of any regime or any state of affairs. It is a necessary aspect of healthy, functioning society. And religious liberty is indivisible. Inconvenient as it is, religious liberty means the possibility, in a healthy society, of diverse convictions’ being permitted to flourish and argue, to disagree, to negotiate, without interference from the State.

So those two dimensions of religious liberty both make us think about the very nature of society and about the very nature of faith. The great Catholic historian and political philosopher of the 19th century, Lord Acton, Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge, stated memorably in one of his many essays on the subject of liberty that religious liberty was the cornerstone of all political liberty.

The claim of religious liberty is an affirmation that the State’s claim on an individual, and indeed on human communities, is strictly limited. The State is not omnipotent. And where the State makes a claim to homogenise the population, in terms of belief, culture, conviction, or whatever, the State exceeds its legitimacy.

The great tyrannies of the 20th century in Eastern Europe and in Germany were both, in their different ways, regimes which claimed the absolute right to determine lawfulness. Lawfulness was loyalty to the regime, and no more than that. The claim of religious liberty is the affirmation that there is always something other than the State to which human beings are answerable.

And you could put that a bit more vividly by saying: there is always something more than sheer, naked power to which human beings are answerable. Because, if the State decides what is lawful, then it is simply power that decides what is lawful. In other words, it is a human society based upon a fundamentally violent principle.

The defender of religious liberty, you could say, says to the State, in any given situation, “Show me your credentials, because power will not settle this. You have the capacity to imprison, to torture, to kill, but you don’t have the capacity to make right.” The existence, therefore, of principled religious dissent, in any society, is a marker of that limitation, the State’s authority, and therefore the ground of resistance to violent power.

Religious liberty is the foundation of all political liberty. That fundamental challenge to the all-powerfulness of the State unleashes the possibility in so many settings of asking the question “Why is this legitimate? Why is this not just compulsory but lawful?”


TO DRAW that line which says that there are areas where the State has no right to prescribe, that is rightly and properly to put the State on trial — not in a spirit of anarchy: it is not to say that there is no such thing as a legitimate state, it is to say there is always a question to be asked about the right of the State to be obeyed. Sometimes, the answers to that are morally satisfying; sometimes, they’re morally slightly inconclusive but pragmatically sensible; sometimes, there isn’t an answer forthcoming, and the result is death-cell philosophies of one sort or another.

THE KESTON CENTRE FOR RELIGION, POLITICS, & SOCIETY, BAYLOR UNIVERSITY, WACO, TXAlexander Ogorodnikov, holding his underground, or samizdat, publication, Weekly Chronicle. The founder of a network of study groups for people searching for Christian faith, he was jailed, aged 25, in 1976, and again from 1978 until 1987, near the Siberian border (Books, 31 May 2013)

But I suspect that, when we discuss the issue of religious liberty these days, especially as it’s frequently talked about in the modern setting of human-rights discourse and legislation, we somewhat lose focus on that fundamental aspect of religious liberty.

This is not just about a certain number of eccentrics’ being tolerated. This is something about what the State itself accepts as its limits. So, when we speak of religious liberty — and the debates surrounding it these days are as vigorous as ever — what we need to be bearing in mind is that this is an issue about the health of a human society, not just the well-being of minorities.

Or, to put it differently: the well-being of minorities is a key test of the health of a society; and the well-being of religious minorities a key test of the well-being of minorities. For precisely the reasons I’ve just laid out, when we’re talking about religious minorities, we are talking about communities who believe that they are answerable to something other than the police.

It is, of course, expressed most wonderfully and vividly in the anecdote of Edith Stein’s arrest in the Netherlands. The SS officers who were arresting her greeted her, as usual, with “Heil Hitler,” and she replied “Laudetur Jesus Christus” — “Jesus Christ be praised.” That’s a little parable of the contest of legitimacy, the claims of the State meeting their limit.


THERE will always be forms of human connection and human responsibility to one another that lie beyond what the law and convention of any state — or even any family or any working organisation — can muster. We are answerable to something more.

You can see, perhaps, how this already mandates an approach to the indivisibility of religious liberty: it’s not something which can be defended or promoted selectively. Because, if religious liberty is defended selectively, as the liberty of this group rather than that group, we’re already on the way back to the all-powerful State, the ultimacy of force. The religious group which looks to liberty so that it can then impose its own orthodoxy is failing to understand that first point, that intimate connection between social health and religious freedom.

And, sadly, 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 parts of the Muslim world, and in other contexts, the plea for religious liberty can turn out to be a covert plea for my liberty to coerce others; the complications over laws governing religious communities in the Russian Federation will not be foreign to this audience — just as some (not all) 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.

And “religious liberty” as the freedom to discriminate against or publicly abuse or persecute other minorities because of race, class, sexual orientation, or whatever, is exactly the same kind of distortion.

These are uncomfortable things to say, but I believe that 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.

There’s a fine sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, preached to King James I in the early 17th century, where he speaks of how there seem to be those who are disappointed with the Holy Spirit as a dove, and would prefer the Spirit as an eagle, clapping on a beak, Andrewes says, and sharpening its claws for repression and violence. That’s precisely the opposite of what I was speaking of here: a religious liberty accepted as, however awkwardly, however laboriously, a matter for all.


KESTON has always challenged the idea that you can turn a blind eye to the iniquities of people you think are basically on your side; and the implication of that, of course, is that liberty is uncomfortable. Religious liberty these days may mean acknowledging reservations and convictions on the part of communities which sit very uncomfortably with the orthodoxies of society, and even with the orthodoxies of well-meaning believers.

The law of the United Kingdom allows conscientious exemption in certain instances from the law of the land — notably, of course, in the capacity for particularly Catholic medical professionals to step back from direct involvement in performing abortions. Because the right of access to abortion is taken for granted as part of the liberal settlement of this country, this is a very uncomfortable liberty for many people to defend, particularly the right-thinking or Left-thinking, or, should I say, bien pensants, as the French would put it, across society. Likewise, issues that have arisen about limitations on the compulsion to fulfil the civic right to a same-sex marriage, exemptions granted to the Established Church in this country on that score are uncomfortable for a cultural majority.

I would want to argue quite strongly that the move to restrict religious liberties in these areas puts us on something of a slippery slope. This is not about denying anyone the liberties that the law guarantees them, but being realistic about the obligation of certain people to deliver those liberties. I am, myself, conservative but not absolutist on the ethics of abortion. I’m prepared to think about and negotiate my way around the complexities of theologising same-sex marriage. I’m Anglican! But my point is simply that, uncomfortable as it is for myself as a vaguely liberal Anglican, I believe that to allow the State further coercive power in areas like that is a very risky precedent.


And, while the issues on which the battle lines are now drawn up may not be the issues I would personally have chosen to fight on, who knows what issues will come up tomorrow, and the day after? The line needs drawing somewhere; and that’s why I think there is a perfectly coherent and properly liberal defence of religious liberty in contexts like that, which needs making, but is quite hard to make in our cultural and political environment.

We are in a situation in any democracy where a majority vote, in or out of Parliament, gives a presumption of lawfulness to certain kinds of activity. A presumption of lawfulness does not, of course, settle the detail; nor does it settle what happens to those who disagree. And the lawfulness that finally matters most is, I would argue, the lawfulness which seeks to find a public settlement that everyone can live with, because minorities don’t just disappear when we want them to. And if that means legal accommodation and tolerance of views that are uncomfortable to a majority, so be it, because something in this is about the marks of a viable, durable, and lawful society — indeed, as I said earlier, a healthy society.

I want, though, to be clear at this point that I am unhappy about the conscription of the language of “persecution” here. People who suffer legal disadvantage or social criticism for their views in areas like this are not, I believe, being persecuted. We ought to be rather cautious about over-dramatising this as a crisis. I notice that the rhetoric of a “war against Christian values”, the language of persecution of orthodox Christianity — small “o” — becomes more and more popular in certain quarters, year by year, at least in the United States.

I don’t in the least minimise the cost of conscientious objection in the lives of some people. I simply don’t want to assimilate it too quickly to persecution, partly because I, like others in this room, have some sense of what persecution actually looks like, in the context of a systematically ambitious state determined to rule out dissent at whatever human cost.

So it’s a complex area, and it’s not surprising that we approach it with quite a lot of cultural nervousness. We may find ourselves defending or standing alongside those whose convictions we’re not very sure about. But the necessity and indivisibility of religious freedom on the grounds that I’ve sketched should bring us back to a recognition that we have to be very careful about assuming that what currently prevails as a moral consensus is so automatically and self-evidently right that all other considerations fall in the face of it.

If it is right to change the Church’s discipline on this or that question, what makes it right is not that lots of readers of The Guardian think so. What makes it right is a new understanding and a new penetration of the tradition we inherit and share. And to have the space and the liberty to undertake that penetration and reflection without threats hanging over us is part of what religious liberty means.


THAT leads me to a last reflection on this particular subject, which is that we are, in Western society generally, particularly in the UK, in an era where there’s a sort of downward spiral, a pressure from society in general, leading to a lack of confidence and vigour in religious language and religious exposition.

The challenge to religious liberty, in this country, is not, I would argue, that we have an ideologically driven, centrally organised, ruthless State. The problem is cultural rather than legal or political. A culture in which we have largely forgotten the processes by which we learn our moral orientations and our moral convictions, a culture which is largely impatient with discussions of ethical and social subtleties, and a culture which is, if not committedly secular, then certainly sceptical about traditional religious practices of all kinds — this has a depressing effect on people of religious conviction, and sometimes produces a reaction of inflexible suspicion and non-co-operation.

And the presence and clarity of the religious perspective in public life is affected by this. I’ve tried over the years to distinguish what I call two kinds of secularism: a secularism which simply seeks to homogenise society and keep all religious expression and behaviour at the margin or in private; and a secularism which says, “This is a society in which a variety of convictions are held, and the State as such has no position on that, except to broker and monitor discussion and disagreement between convictions, and to work on that basis” — what I’ve called a “procedural secularism”.

I think there’s something to be said for that distinction; if we live in a secular society, we’d better live in the right kind of one — that is, one where the State’s administration is, indeed, secular, detached from enforcing any particular religious viewpoint, but one where you would expect to hear confident and sophisticated religious argument as part of the wider argument of society.

I think we are getting a bit more nervous than we need be about that, and, perhaps, without arrogance or over-ambition or hard-edged dogmatism, we need something of a recovery of the confidence at least to put some of these fundamental points in public about the nature of a durable and healthy society.

To put it, I hope, a little more simply, I would say that we need, as believing communities in this country, to have the courage and the confidence to tell some of the stories that the history of Keston mediates and celebrates, not just as examples of religious heroism, but examples of constructive civic witness.

That’s to say, the sufferer, the confessor for the faith, is significant not just for the community of faith, but for the health of the society. It matters for our society that there are those who criticise it. It matters that there are those who hold back from assenting to prevailing norms. It matters that there are those who pay a certain price for that conscientious standing-back. It matters, so that the State is reminded of its limits. It matters, so that we are all of us reminded that we are accountable to more than power or force. So that the example of the confessor for the faith is, I think, properly related, properly conveyed as a genuine, constructive critique offered to the wider society, not just the celebration of what you might call an internal heroism.


FOR this last half-century, Keston has narrated, mediated, and conveyed the stories of confessors of various sorts. It has done it, initially, against the background of one of the most systematic and comprehensive tyrannies of modern civilisation, a genuinely ideologically driven and centralised system, making strong claims for its right to determine the ethical substance of a society.

This tyranny has largely faded in that form — but not entirely, as we all know: we still see in the People’s Republic of China a rigorous reaffirmation year upon year, despite concessions from time to time, of the basic principle that the State franchises every activity and every opinion.

But although, certainly in Eastern Europe, the days of an “Eastern bloc” and its practices have passed, the attitudes which sustained and supported illiberality about religion have not gone away, even when they are rerouted into the intolerance of one group for another. In our Western setting, as I said, we live in relative ideological chaos: in confused allegiance to democratic politics, often treated simply as a majoritarian tyranny, and a high level of scepticism about religious belief and institutions.

But the continuity that I’ve sought to draw out is that, from the beginning, what Keston has done has been not only about picking out examples of bad practice: it has been something to do with a witness to the nature of religious liberty itself, not in terms of partisan defence of any one group, and not in terms of weaponising one group’s injustices as against another’s. If it has, indeed, worked on the basis of the necessity and indivisibility of religious liberty, it has worked on the basis that is still an absolutely necessary contribution to the society we’re in, in West and East.

While it would be nice to think that the time would come when Keston’s work is no longer necessary, we can, as a very good second-best, celebrate the consistency, the insight, the professionalism of Keston over this half-century, in bringing to light something about the very nature of religious liberty, and so bringing to light something about the very nature of functioning, just, and legitimate human society.

This is an abridged version of the lecture given by Lord Williams at the annual meeting of the Keston Institute this month, marking the organisation’s 50th anniversary.

Forthcoming Events

20 September 2021
Online book launch: Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer
Author Jarel Robinson-Brown in conversation with Rev. Winnie Varghese.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

More events

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