Bishop Donald’s week-long residency in the House of Lords

Bishop Donald in House of Lords
Bishop Donald addresses the chamber.

Bishop Donald was in attendance in the House of Lords last week (Monday 22nd to Friday 26th January). As the designated ‘Duty Bishop’ he opened proceedings each day by leading the House in prayer. He also made two speeches during the week. On Monday, he took part in a debate on the anonymity of dead individuals against whom criminal allegations have been made. In reference to allegations made against the former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, Bishop Donald said:

“My Lords, this has been a very difficult case, but Bishop Bell is not the only person whose reputation has been severely damaged by such accusations – some are dead and some still alive. I urge the Minister and the Government to take very seriously the call for a major review of anonymity. In all cases where the complainant has a right to be anonymous, there seems to be a case for the respondent also to be anonymous – and in cases until there is overwhelming evidence to suggest guilt, it seems reasonable for people’s reputations not to be damaged in this public way.”

On Friday, the Bishop spoke regarding the ‘Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill’. This was the second reading of the Bill in the House of Lords, and was raised by Baroness O’Loan, who stated that the Bill was designed to “afford protection to those in healthcare who object on grounds of conscience to being asked to participate in end-of-life treatment” – particularly in relation to abortion.

This is what Bishop Donald contributed to the debate:

“My Lords: yesterday, the River Restaurant downstairs helped us to celebrate Burns Night all day. I thoroughly enjoyed the Scotch broth at lunchtime, but I resisted the main course as I was eating out in the evening. I even resisted the whisky bread-and-butter pudding. The main course which I resisted was vegetarian haggis – celebrating Robert Burns in a way that respected the consciences of those who do not want to eat meat. That is a very proper and good thing to do. There is no legal requirement to provide vegetarian haggis, but it was welcome to many and I think that I would have enjoyed it.

(To which Lord Cormack replied, “It was indeed very good”.)

“Clearly the noble Lord particularly enjoyed it. Yesterday was not only Burns Night; it was also for church people the festival of the Conversion of St Paul. In his teaching, St Paul is very strong in asserting that although Christians are free to make many decisions morally, they must always respect the conscience of those who are weaker—those who have a tender conscience. That is an absolute requirement of the Christian faith. Those whose consciences are more tender or weak than our own must be respected and not be forced to go against those consciences. We have the same teaching in other areas of religion as well. The Old Testament makes it very clear that the vulnerable and the weak are to be supported and helped. In the teaching of Jesus, he criticises those leaders who lay burdens on ordinary folk that are too heavy for them to bear.

“In the history of the world since the time of Christ, in particular in our own country, we can see a great deal of influence by the Judeo-Christian tradition, including the development of free societies – of what we now tend to call liberal democracies. In those societies, a great deal of attention has always been paid to the rights of consciences even when, because they are more tender and sensitive, they go beyond the views of many other people. Every free society respects the rights of conscience to a great extent, and we have some of that in this debate. Societies that restrict the rights of conscience tend to be those which are tyrannical, and on the extreme left or extreme right of politics. In free societies, a great deal of tolerance is shown to those who have conscientious objections to all sorts of things.

“This is not just a matter of religion. Conscience is a very deep part of what it means to be human. It is not only religious rights we are talking about; it is very deep human rights. People should not be forced to go against what they believe to be right or wrong. This Bill, which I support strongly and look forward to seeing further debated and possibly amended, recognises some changes since the Abortion Act. Today, most abortions entail far more involvement by nurses and pharmacists than they did in the early days. Methods of carrying out abortions have changed. I believe that it is right to extend the conscience clause, for example, to pharmacists, since their involvement is greater than it used to be. As a society, we need to find ways to modify the law as it was set out in 1967, not just to affirm the conscience clause there. I believe that this is a matter of public concern, of public policy and for public debate. If the 1967 Act needs to be clarified, that should be done not just in the courts, but in Parliament on behalf of the people of this country. If the 1967 Act is proving to be in some way unsatisfactory – in that some people’s consciences are not being allowed for – we need to do something to modify it. That means not reducing the possibility of abortion or people’s freedom to seek medical treatment, which I want to underscore, but allowing those who have a tender conscience to exercise it. I support the Bill.”

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