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Archbishop Welby defends right to free speech in Batley school row

31 March 2021


Protesters outside Batley Grammar School, in West Yorkshire, last Friday

Protesters outside Batley Grammar School, in West Yorkshire, last Friday

THE teacher at Batley Grammar School, in West Yorkshire, who showed pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad should not be threatened for exercising his right to free speech, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

Archbishop Welby was speaking with the Italian newspaper la Repubblica about his book Reimagining Britain (Bloomsbury) (Books, 16 March 2018), a second edition of which is due to be published on 15 April.

In the course of the interview, which was published on Tuesday, he was asked to comment on the situation at Batley Grammar School. He said that he did not know the details of the story, but said: “In this country, I think, we have to hold on to freedom of speech. We have very good relationships with Muslim leaders across the country.

“Many of them are very upset by the cartoons that were shown, but also many of them have said ‘no violence, no threats; make it clear that you disagree strongly, but no violence, no threats’. In other words, ‘exercise your freedom of speech, but don’t prevent other people exercising their freedom of speech.’”

The Archbishop also expressed concern about the “shutting down of freedom of expression of religion” in various parts of Europe. “We have to speak freely,” he said. “I’m much more towards the US end of the spectrum on freedom of speech than I am elsewhere towards the other end. I think we have to be open to hearing things we really dislike.”

Later in the interview, Archbishop Welby said that “vaccine nationalism” was “the most enormous danger. . If we don’t stick together, we will suffer separately.

“That’s particularly true for the global South. . . But if they suffer, it will come back to us. So vaccine nationalism is a disaster. Solidarity is essential. Mediation of differences is unavoidable. It must happen, and we need a mature, reflective, and compassionate international order.”

He commended the VaccinAid campaign — “Give the world a shot” — which urges people who have had the vaccine to make a voluntary donation to the global COVAX programme (News, 26 March).

Archbishop Welby was also asked for his views on the debate about removing statues and memorials of historical figures who were now deemed to be morally dubious, for example because of links to the slave trade.

“We can’t erase the past. It’s impossible,” he said. “We have to learn from it sometimes, often, always. We have to repent of it quite often; but we cannot erase it. The past is a reality. I think ‘cancel culture’ is a huge threat to the life of the Church. We need to be able to express truths or to express our views, whether they’re good or bad.

“On the statues, what we were looking at was whether we had memorials and statues where the language on them was so abusive that there was no way of putting it in context.”

The statues in Canterbury had been reviewed, he said, and it was concluded “that there was nothing that needed changing”, although “one or two” statues “around the Church of England” would be placed in a museum, “and there’ll be an explanation on why we now disagree with this person who 200 years ago had a statue put up there”.

He continued: “But we cannot cancel history. We cannot cancel differences of opinion. Particularly in universities, it seems to me very, very dangerous, because you start with cancelling some views that you dislike, and very quickly, you are cancelling everyone who disagrees. It’s a very dangerous process.”

Archbishop Welby also spoke in support of Scotland’s remaining part of the United Kingdom. “I believe in the Union, but not in the union in order to trade: that’s a good benefit, but it’s a collateral benefit. I believe in the Union because, on this island, it enables us to care for each other, to show compassion to one another, to love one another, to do great things in the world for the blessing of the world in a way that we couldn’t.”

The Archbishop was also asked to comment on the claim by the Duchess of Sussex that she and the Duke were married “in secret” by him three days before their wedding in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, in May 2018 (News, 12 March).

Archbishop Welby said that he held “a number of private and pastoral meetings with the Duke and Duchess before the wedding”, but refused to comment on the details. He said, however: “The legal wedding was on the Saturday. I signed the wedding certificate, which is a legal document, and I would have committed a serious criminal offence if I signed it knowing it was false. So you can make what you like about it. But the legal wedding was on the Saturday. But I won’t say what happened at any other meetings.”

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