Women Bishops Now Lawful in the Church of England

Legislation on Women Bishops Becomes Law at General Synod

Posted on: November 17, 2014 3:46 PM by A.C.N.S.

Related Categories: England, iawn, Synod, women bishops

[CofE] The General Synod has today enacted the measure enabling women to be ordained as Bishops in the Church of England.

The formal enactment of the legislation – Amending Canon 33 –  followed the vote on final approval by the Synod at its meeting in July of this year. Since that time the legislation has been approved in Parliament and received Royal Assent.

The final legislative requirements took place during a session chaired by the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, on the first day of the Synod’s meeting in London.

With the Instrument of Enactment having been read to Synod the motion was put without debate, with only a simple majority required for approval. Following the item being passed the legislation was signed into law by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York before the whole Synod.

Following the vote Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said:

“Today we can begin to embrace a new way of being the church and moving forward together.  We will also continue to seek the flourishing of the church of those who disagree.”

Notes to Editors:

The text of the amending canon and instrument of enactment can be seen here:

The following dioceses are currently vacant and are waiting to appoint a diocesan bishop:

  • Southwell & Nottingham
  • Gloucester
  • Oxford
  • Newcastle

The Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich were the last diocese to select a Bishop under the former rules.

The following suffragan (assistant) bishop posts are currently Vacant and are awaiting appointment:

  • Dunwich
  • Hertford
  • Hull
  • Plymouth
  • Stockport

Any of the above vacant posts may now be filled by a male or female priest.


“Today we can begin to embrace a new way of being the church and moving forward together.  We will also continue to seek the flourishing of the church of those who disagree.”

– Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby – 

All that remains now is for the Church of England to recommend the best persons for the task of the episcopate – whether female or male. The Church in England and Wales has waited long for this day. ‘Let us rejoice and be glad in it!’

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Church Severed from Baptist Convention over LGBT Inclusion



On November 11 Kentucky’s Southern Baptists voted overwhelmingly at their annual state meeting to sever ties with the historically important Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville citing the church’s unequivocal commitment to LGBT inclusion. They did so in spite of Crescent Hill’s plea that the church be allowed to remain a part of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

In 2013 Crescent Hill, after a process of congregational discernment, announced that sexual orientation would not be a factor in future considerations about who they will ordain, hire, or perform a wedding ceremony for. Crescent Hill Baptist Church also voted in 2013 to join AWAB, the national Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. The church is preparing to host their first same-sex marriage next month.

The 106-year-old Crescent Hill congregation is adjacent to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and before the fundamentalist takeover of the seminary in the early 1990s Crescent Hill was the spiritual home for many students, staff, and distinguished professors.

Today the 800-member church is a diverse community of faith including people of various races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation, and world-views. Refugees and immigrants compose roughly one-third of the congregation. The church is heavily invested in a wide array of social ministries in the Commonwealth, the U.S., and the world.

Below are excerpts from a conversation with the young, intelligent, and energetic pastor Jason Crosby.

What was the process like that led Crescent Hill to adopt an unequivocal commitment to LGBT inclusion?

I’ve been at Crescent Hill seven years. I came about the time that folks from Burma began arriving in large numbers and uniting in membership with Crescent Hill, and much of my time in those early years was spent trying to figure out how in the world we might be able to be a unified body that includes people who don’t speak English, who have a completely foreign background and cultural experience.

It took a lot of hard work but we reached a place a number of years ago where, while things are far from perfect, things work. We have learned how to be in community with others who are radically different from us. About three years ago we realized that in order to be authentic to gay and lesbian individuals in the pews and in our community we needed to clarify how we were going to be in relationship with these folks.

I found that because we had in the previous years learned how to be in relationship, one that is fully welcoming and affirming of folks who are so radically different from us, that really helped us have conversations about how we were going to be in conversation with people who were already long-standing members of our church and in leadership positions and loved and had modeled Christ for us and who happened to be gay and lesbian.

So the coming of folks from Burma and their incorporation, and our incorporation into them, their incorporation into us so that we might be one church, laid the groundwork for us and it paved the way.

When we began to have some conversations and began to discern how we were going to be in relationship with LGBT folks in spring of 2013 it became evident to me, and I think to others, that it was a pretty simple move to make. We studied the Bible, we prayed, and we heard testimonies from those who were gay and lesbian in our church and beyond our church about how church had helped or hurt them in their journey. All around that was the fact that if we can do what we had done with folks from Burma then this is not a difficult step for us to make.

How would you characterize your conversation with Kentucky Baptist Convention leaders leading up to Crescent Hill’s expulsion from the KBC?

Although not extensive, we did have a fair amount of communication with Kentucky Baptist Convention leaders in the month that led up to the vote to dismiss us. Those conversations were cordial. They were not heated. They were pragmatic in nature and I appreciate that there was a clear channel of communication between those leaders and us.

How has your church family taken this ending of a 100+ year relationship?

With mixed emotions, as you can imagine. So many folks at Crescent Hill are like me. They grew up in Southern Baptist churches and it was in those places we were first taught the Bible. Those teachings have brought many of us at Crescent Hill to where we are regarding this matter today. There’s genuine sadness, for me and many others, but at same time we are delighted and greatly encouraged by the fact that so many people are reaching out to us and want to learn more about this matter and about how we got to the place where we are. There also is gladness for the opportunity to forge new relationships and to do new ministry that articulates the love of God.

Listening to you it seems fair to say that Crescent Hill does not see itself as an activist church on this issue.

I think Crescent Hill sees itself as Crescent Hill and this is wholly consistent with the DNA of Crescent Hill that’s been in place since at least 1926 when Southern Baptist Seminary moved from Broadway downtown to the hill on which it is currently situated. Crescent Hill was formed in 1908. I feel confident in saying that this is who we are and this is pretty much who we always have been. It doesn’t feel very activist to us. It really just feels like being honest.


This report from Religion Dispatches notes a trend away from conservative Christians making a schismatic breakaway from a liberal parent body (such as, say, ACNA from The Episcopal Church in the U.S).

Here we have a Kentucky Baptist congregation being severed from the Kentucky Baptist Convention – because of its liberal openness to the LGBT community among its local membership! Here is the defining paragraph in this report:

“The 106-year-old Crescent Hill congregation is adjacent to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and before the fundamentalist takeover of the seminary in the early 1990s Crescent Hill was the spiritual home for many students, staff, and distinguished professors.”

The movement towards the inclusion of LGBT people has come out of this congregation’s inclusion of other ethnic, cultural and sociological minorities that have become part of the local Baptist congregation. As Pastor Jason Crosby remarks:

I think Crescent Hill sees itself as Crescent Hill and this is wholly consistent with the DNA of Crescent Hill that’s been in place since at least 1926 when Southern Baptist Seminary moved from Broadway downtown to the hill on which it is currently situated. Crescent Hill was formed in 1908. I feel confident in saying that this is who we are and this is pretty much who we always have been. It doesn’t feel very activist to us. It really just feels like being honest. -

That sounds just about right – and consonant with Gospel Inclusivity – and certainly in line with the new outlook of the Southern Baptist Convention!

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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ex-Anglicans now 10% of the R C. Parish Clergy in England & Wales

England can break new ground
13 November 2014

It is estimated that one in 10 priests in diocesan ministry in the Catholic Church in England and Wales began his priestly vocation in the Church of England. Many of them are married. This is very relevant to the question increasingly being raised about the compulsory celibacy of the Catholic priesthood – compulsory except for former Anglican clergy, who are given a dispensation. And what makes it urgent is the growing realisation at all levels of the Church that the shortage of priests is gradually having a profound effect on Catholic parishes, who are finding themselves – often with little consultation – being closed, merged, or told to share a priest.

Some of the movement is due to population shifts, but the stark truth is that the rate of recruitment to the priesthood is far below the level required to replace men now in post. Many of these are elderly. The latest figures from seminaries in England and Wales show a slight upturn in the total of new entrants, but it would be foolish to regard that as proof that the crisis has passed. Maybe 2009 was a low point, but in that year the Catholic Church in England and Wales ordained just 13 new priests for diocesan ministry. The equivalent figure for the Church of England in that period was nearly 600. The principal differences between the two forms of ministry concern celibacy on the Catholic side and the ordination of women in the Anglican Church.

Maybe a Church with fewer priests is what God wants, forcing the laity to take their Catholicism seriously, including their responsibility for keeping the institutional Church in being. But it seems like an experiment to be avoided, certainly while there is an available alternative such as the ordination of suitably qualified married men. No new issue of principle would be involved, because of the existing presence of married formerly Anglican priests. Nor would the merits of celibacy have to be downgraded.

Pope Francis has indicated that he is prepared to lift the obligation of celibacy for candidates for the priesthood in response to a plea from an individual diocesan bishop or from a bishops’ conference. As far as is known, no such dispensations have been applied for or granted, but is it not difficult to imagine an existing seminarian finding himself having to choose between marrying and ordination. He may in all respects be suitable except for the barrier of celibacy. He will know of former Anglican clergy who are married, and eligible for Roman Catholic ordination despite it. He will also know of married Catholic deacons who can do almost everything a priest can do except say Mass and hear confessions.

Because of the successful arrangement regarding married former Anglicans, England is uniquely situated to pilot a modest experiment. It is not hard to imagine a bishop finding himself faced with having to close a parish church despite there being a married deacon in the parish. An application to Rome to ordain that deacon to the priesthood, if he is willing, would be by far the better outcome. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor indicated recently that there are circumstances where he would do precisely that.


This latest assessment of the situation of the clergy downturn in the Roman Catholic parishes of England and Wales – published in this week’s copy of ‘The Tablet’ – can be summarised in the following paragraph of the article:

“Maybe 2009 was a low point, but in that year the Catholic Church in England and Wales ordained just 13 new priests for diocesan ministry. The equivalent figure for the Church of England in that period was nearly 600. The principal differences between the two forms of ministry concern celibacy on the Catholic side and the ordination of women in the Anglican Church.” 

There can be little doubt that the vexed question of celibacy of the clergy will need to be addressed very soon if the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is to continue to operate under the present structure. 

It would seem that the raising up of the Roman Catholic Ordinariate has done little to ease the process of extending the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.K. Instituted by Pope Benedict XVI in an effort to accommodate catholic-minded Anglicans who refused to accept women clergy in the Church of England, the Ordinariate was set up as a separate institution, serving only ex-Anglicans, whose clergy are still not authorised to minister in the Roman Catholic parishes.

On the other hand, those ex-Anglican clergy who were accepted directly into the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales after the ordination of women in the Church of England, and who were newly ordained into their  status as R.C. priests, have undoubtedly boosted the number of clergy serving in R.C. parishes. The fact that the majority were already married has required them to be exempted from the normal vow of celibacy enjoined on Roman Catholic clergy. This fact – the inclusion of married priests ministering in their parishes – has already caused many of the faithful laity to question why mandated celibacy should continue to be the norm for their clergy.

This question, and questions regarding the R.C. Church’s treatment of re-married divorcees and same-sex partnerships, will no doubt be debated more fully by the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the run-up to the Vatican Synod in a year’s time.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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SEC. celebrates TEC’s Origins in Scotland 225 Years Ago

We love you, American Episcopalians!

by Kelvin 14 November, 2014 -


Two hundred and twenty five years ago today, something special happened in Aberdeen.

Two hundred and twenty five years ago today, Anglicanism in the USA was set ablaze with the consecration of the Rt Rev Samuel Seabury, their first bishop.

The fact that the consecration took place in Aberdeen is one of those quirks of church history which has shaped, and continues to shape the church of today.

The short version of the story is that the American church needed to have a bishop and elected one of their own and sent him across the Atlantic to be consecrated by the Church of England. The Church of England in its turn was having none of it, frightened off appearing to offer support to revolutionary tendencies in the United States. Frightened of promoting revolution.

Seabury had come a long way to be made a bishop and needed to look elsewhere. He had previously studied medicine in Edinburgh and perhaps we can presume that his thoughts turned back to Scotland because he had previously been north of the border. He made the the trip up to Aberdeen where he was consecrated by Robert Kilgour of Aberdeen (who was the Primus), along with two other Scottish bishops, Arthur Petrie (who had connections with my own congregation here in Glasgow) and John Skinner.

The deal was that they would consecrate Seabury so long as he took back the Scottish Liturgy to the American church and work for it to be adopted on the other side of the Atlantic. When you are in the know about matters liturgical, you can still see the similarities between the liturgies from our two churches.

The particular thing that the Scottish Rite had was the Epiclesis a prayer invoking the Holy Spirit over the communion elements. The Church of England didn’t have it though they’ve come close to adopting it since. Here in Scotland, that prayer is part of who we are and was part of our gift to America. Any true Episcopalian on either side of the Atlantic knows that the Scottish Episcopalians didn’t just hold up their hands to consecrate a bishop, but blessed the American church with something holy too.

And today, on that anniversary, I want to celebrate the US Based Episcopal Church. I wish they hadn’t tried to change their name to The Episcopal Church a few years ago, as it is downright confusing, but they’ve done so much good that I try to forget about that as much as I can.

In the various disputes within the Anglican Communion in modern times, we must never forget that the Scottish Episcopal Church was the Church that liked to say, “Yes”.

May it ever be so.

The US church received the Epiclesis from Scotland.

They’ve been using it well ever since.

God Bless America and the US-based Episcopal Church today!

Scotland gave

Kelvin | November 14, 2014 at 8:06 pm


Thanks to Fr. Kelvin at Thurible.net‘ for this reminder of the origins of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA), when The Revd. Samuel Seabury - elected as their first bishop by clergy of the Church of England in the United States – was consecrated as such by bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church, including ‘Robert Kilgour of Aberdeen (who was the Primus), along with two other Scottish bishops, Arthur Petrie (who – as evidenced by Fr. Kelvin, Provost of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, “had connections with my own congregation here in Glasgow”) – and John Skinner. 

The fact that the episcopal ordination took place in Scotland – rather than in the mother Church of England – was due to the reluctance of the hierarchy of the Church of England at that time to do anything about the establishment of an independent branch of the Church in North America. This meant that Seabury had to look elsewhere for his episcopal ordination. And where better that in the Scottish Episcopal Church – independent of the Church of England and yet sharing the provenance of the historic episcopate with that Church?

This spirit of independence from the Church of England – and yet its acceptance of the commonality of the world-wide Anglican Communion in fellowship with the historic See of Canterbury – the Episcopal Church of the United States still owes its episcopal characteristics and origins to the Episcopal Church of Scotland -is  a point worth remembering in the current disputes within the ACC.

And what about the fact that the Scottish Episcopal Church persuaded TEC to adopt the ‘epiclesis’ – the prayer of invocation of the Holy Spirit over the elements at the Eucharist – that was evidently missing in the English Prayer Book rite at the time? (We, in New Zealand, have the ‘epiclesis’!)

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Pope Francis demotes Conservative Cardinal Burke



Pope Francis finally dropped the long-expected axe on Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the curia’s cultural warriors-in-chief, on Saturday. Burke was removed from the powerful position of head of the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican’s Supreme Court, and relegated to the largely ceremonial role of patron of the Sovereign Order of Malta, a Vatican charity, effectively ending his career.

It’s the second time Francis has demoted Burke from a key role at the Vatican; last year he removed him from the Congregation for Bishops, which makes recommendations about which priests should begin their climb up the ladder of the Vatican hierarchy by becoming bishops.

While the move had been expected for some time, it was still significant in that Burke has emerged as the most outspoken critic of Francis’ agenda. During the recent family synod he was openly critical of Francis surrogate Cardinal Walter Kasper’s reform proposals for communion for the remarried and afterward suggested that the church under Francis was like a “ship without a rudder.”

The conservative Catholic blog Rorate Caeli called Burke’s pending removal some ten years before the mandatory retirement age of 75 unprecedented and “the greatest humiliation of a Curial Cardinal in living memory … a complete degradation and a clear punishment.”

Punishment or not, Burke’s demotion means that one of the leading conservatives in the United States no longer has a platform and is unlikely to be invited to participate in future high-level discussions about church doctrine. Burke is best known for saying that communion should be denied to John Kerry and other pro-choice Catholic politicians during the 2004 elections, a move that many bishops felt debased the sacrament of Holy Communion by turning it into a political weapon. By removing Burke, Francis appears to be signaling a preference for bishops who worry less about politics and more about the pastoral care of their flock.

Conservatives within the church are reacting with horror that Francis should exercise his papal authority to remake the curia more in his image, much as his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict did. (It was Benedict, née Ratzinger, after all, of the smaller and purer church, who appointed Burke to the high court in a clear signal of his preference for doctrinal purity and rigidity.)

Combined with a number of other lower-level curial promotions and demotions—including the firing of a bishop accused of protecting a priest suspected of sexually abusing a child—conservatives are complaining of the de-Ratzingerization of the Vatican (which does sound an awful lot like the fumigation the Vatican obviously requires) and throwing around words like “purge” and making not-so-subtle comparisons to Stalin.

The blowback forced Francis to take the also largely unprecedented step of releasing a Vatican edictcodifying the pope’s authority to fire bishops as he sees fit.

It’s funny how conservatives everywhere suddenly get all un-deferential to formerly revered, and unquestioned, sources of authority as soon as their agenda is out of favor.


‘Religion Dispatches’ blog-site offers us this latest evidence of Pope Francis’ movement towards a greater liberalisation of Roman Catholic policies towards people normally outside of the Church’s pastoral provision. Cardinal Burke, an American conservative, whose appointment to a place on the Doctrinal Commission was made by the previous Pope, Benedict, has finally been relegated to a minor post outside of any Vatican influence on the discussion of Church Doctrine. This paragraph tells the story:

“While the move had been expected for some time, it was still significant in that Burke has emerged as the most outspoken critic of Francis’ agenda. During the recent family synod he was openly critical of Francis’ surrogate Cardinal Walter Kasper’s reform proposals for communion for the remarried; and afterward suggested that the church under Francis was like a “ship without a rudder.”

Ironically, Cardinal Burke, whose ultra-conservative stance on Roman Catholic dogma would normally have been expected to support the initiatives of the reigning Pope; has become noted for his intransigent opposition to Pope Francis’ attempts to modernise the papacy, with a radical openness to re-married divorcees who had been refused the consolation of access  to reception of the Eucharist.

This sacking o Cardinal Burke is yet another sign of Pope Francis’ determination to broaden the platform of pastoral initiatives towards people on the fringes of the Church – thus overcoming the prejudice that has prevented the mission of Christ to all people from being pursued in the spirit of Christ in the Gospel.

This latest move will further dismay the leading conservatives in the Vatican – and other parts of the Church where Pope Francis’ palpable openness to the world is being resisted. May God’s Spirit continue to bring relief from prejudice against the marginalised of the world – so that God’s Kingdom might be seen to be coming among  us. 

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Lambeth Youth – Religious Community – Prior appointed

Archbishop appoints Prior to oversee radical new community at Lambeth Palace

Posted on: November 11, 2014 12:27 PM

Swedish Anglican priest the Revd Anders Litzell will pioneer the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new community for young Christians at Lambeth Palace.
Photo Credit: Lambeth Palace
Related Categories: Lambeth, Prior, Revd Litzell

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has appointed the Revd Anders Litzell as Prior of the Community of St Anselm, a radical new Christian community at Lambeth Palace.

Mr Litzell, 34, is an Anglican priest from Sweden, who has experience of the Pentecostal and Lutheran traditions as well as three provinces of the Anglican Communion. He will pioneer the Community, which launches in September 2015, and direct its worship and work. He will work as Prior under the auspices of the Archbishop, who will be Abbot of the Community. Mr Litzell will take up the role on 5th January 2015.

The Community will initially consist of 16 people living at Lambeth Palace full-time, and up to 40 people, who live and work in London, joining as non-residential members. The Archbishop hopes that the Community will be definitive in shaping future leaders to serve the common good in a variety of fields, as they immerse themselves in a challenging year of rigorous formation through prayer, study, practical service and community life.

Mr Litzell was ordained in the Church of England in 2012. He is currently serving at St George’s, Holborn, in the Diocese of London – where his ministry focuses on students and adults in their 20s and 30s. At the same time he is pursuing a doctorate which focuses on the relevance of St Benedict for contemporary leadership.  He trained for ordination at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, UK, including a sojourn at St Agnes, Diocese of Natal in South Africa.

Mr Litzell grew up in the Swedish Pentecostal Church. During his undergraduate studies at Wheaton College, Illinois he discovered ‘high church’ Anglicanism through St Barnabas Episcopal Church, Glen Ellyn – where his journey to ordination began. Back in Sweden he served in the Lutheran church, Sollentuna Parish in Stockholm, while directing the Alpha Sweden office, before moving to London to work with Alpha International.

Archbishop Justin Welby said: “My vision for the Community of St Anselm is that it be both ancient and postmodern: that young adults be steeped in the rich monastic traditions of the likes of Benedict, Francis and Ignatius, while discovering their striking relevance for the transformation of self and society today.  I am delighted at the appointment of Anders Litzell who will help to work this out at Lambeth Palace.”

The Archbishop’s Chaplain, the Revd Dr Jo Wells, who has pioneered the setting up of the Community, said: “Anders brings an experience and hunger for spiritual formation which is both wide and deep – crossing a variety of continents and traditions. He brings much energy and imagination to the work, a work in which he will participate even as he leads.”

The Revd Anders Litzell said: “I am hugely excited about taking on this role and, through God’s grace, turning Archbishop Justin’s vision for the community into reality. We pray that the Community will be identified by prayer, by learning, by love of each other and of the poor – all with one intention above all others: to become more like Jesus.”

For more information, visit: stanselm.org.uk


Unlike the Youth Community of Saint Stephen in New Zealand, which has no residential base; this exciting new quasi-Religious Community being formed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, ++Justin Welby, now officially named as the Community of Saint Anselm, will be centred around a core group of 16 members living at Lambeth Palace, in the heart of London, closely associated with a larger group who will be living and working in the outside world.

The Archbishop has appointed the Revd. Anders Litzell, a Swedish Anglican priest, to be the first Prior in residence. Having just listened to the voice of this remarkable young priest (married to a South African), outlining his hopes for the future of the Community, one can detect a spirit of both active evangelism and Benedictine solidarity at work in Fr. Anders’ leadership trajectory.

It would be good if one or two New Zealanders could be encouraged to offer themselves for this experience of a life-time – to live in close proximity to the centre of Anglican life – and to learn to live in community with other like-minded young people who dedicate themselves to  becoming more Christ-like for the sake of the world around them.

May God richly bless these young people as they embark on their community life, in order to bear fruit that will last – in their own lives and in the lives of the people they serve for the Christ they will proclaim by their witness to Him.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Does ‘Religious Freedom’ give ISIS a Foothold?


USCIRF Chair Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett with Peter Van Dalen, co-chair of the European Parliament's Working Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, September 30, 2014.

This weekend in Oslo a group of parliamentarians signed a Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief, launching an international coalition to combat religious persecution and protect religious freedom. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) described the meeting as an “attempt to counter the dark networks of ISIS, al Qaeda and others focused on religious persecution and violence, with one committed to freedom of thought, religion and belief.”

USCIRF co-organized the Oslo meeting with Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, leader of the All Parties Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief in the British Parliament. I met Baroness Berridge last spring at the Westminster Faith Debates when we represented opposing sides on the question of whether governments should promote religious freedom abroad. Seeing her name brought to mind an odd story she recounted during our debate that involved sitting down to tea with General Sisi, shortly after the coup, to discuss the prospects for religious freedom in Egypt.

It was only a matter of time until the Baroness and others in the international religious freedom (IRF) lobby sought to capitalize on the moral panic surrounding ISIS to advance their agenda. The call to arms in Oslo is among the first attempts to link ISIS and international religious freedom, but it won’t be the last. As someone who has spent the past few years studying the global politics of the IRF lobby, my first response to the Oslo announcement was whether it would be possible to imagine a more effective ISIS-recruitment tool than the image of a group of global parliamentarians, led by the US and the UK, poised to lead the way to civilization by instructing citizens of the Middle East on how to be religiously free. In some sense, international religious freedom has become the civilizing discourse of our time.

Of course religious freedom advocacy is not the answer to the violence and oppression plaguing the contemporary Middle East. To the contrary, like missions civilisatrices of the past, such efforts tend to exacerbate the problems they are designed to resolve. Let’s be clear: ISIS and the IRF lobby cannot be equated. Yet they share more in common than either would care to admit. Both claim to be driven by the objective of universal emancipation and collective religious flourishing; both draw strength from an intensive, explicit, and highly politicized focus on religious and sectarian divisions; and both have the answer to how we should live together. In some sense they are each other’s nemesis, supporting and sustaining each other in an endlessly provocative (and for some, quite lucrative), globalized version of the American culture wars.

What would it look like to distance ourselves from the Manichean worldviews of both ISIS and the IRF lobby? Is it possible to refuse both positions, to harbor doubts about all claims to have discovered and perfected a universal model of how we ought to live together at all times and in all places in this world? Is there an alternative to the IRF lobby’s narrative in articulating a response to ISIS? Might the perception of a choice between religious freedom and religious tyranny rest in a misunderstanding of both of these supposed alternatives?

Today the IRF lobby, many IGOs and NGOs, foreign policy bureaucracies, and most of the international media relies on an understanding of religious freedom as a stable human right, legal standard and social fact that can be measured and achieved by all communities. Individuals and governments are expected to comply with this universal norm. States and societies are judged based on the extent to which they have achieved religious freedom. A small industry has emerged to quantify its presence or absence.

My experience as co-organizer of the Politics of Religious Freedom project over the past several years suggests that IRF advocacy is considerably more complex than is suggested by such accounts. To promote religious rights is to promote a particular mode of governing social diversity that implicates religion in complex and variable ways, depending on the context. Legal and political advocacy for religious freedom tends to mask other contributors to social tension and conflict, amplify and entrench the religious divisions it seeks to manage, and force political authorities to discriminate between “good” and “bad” religion. Each of these tendencies has implications for the current debate over ISIS.

A bigger field of play 

Religious freedom advocacy singles out individuals and groups for legal protection as religious individuals and collectivities. Positing religion as prior to other affiliations re-politicizes and retrenches divisions between religions, and between the religious and the secular. It leads to what historian Sarah Shields describes as a particular “ecology of affiliation.” Other factors that contribute to social tension, discrimination, conflict, and co-existence are lost from sight.

In a recent piece in the New York Times magazine, the American journalist Theo Padnos described his experience as a hostage held for two years by the al-Nusra front. In reading his account I was struck by the extent to which Islam and the role of Islam in the war in Syria remain in the background, always part of the context, but never defining it. Padnos’ narrative, like those of others who have been close to the ground in this war, suggest that the tragic conditions leading to the rise of ISIS cannot be reduced to Islam, religious persecution, or a lack of religious freedom.

To understand how a movement like ISIS became possible requires grappling with the effects of a series of complex and entangled enabling conditions. As others have noted, these include a long history of state-sponsored violence with origins both inside and outside of the region, multiple legacies of colonial oppression, a pervasive lack of good governance, the widespread resonance of Islamist politics as an oppositional and anticolonial discourse, a dearth of economic opportunity for the vast majority of the region’s population, an unequal distribution of resources, sectarianizing state politics, exploitation and repression by local, regional and international elites, and ongoing oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians. ISIS is but the latest manifestation, a lashing out, and a last stand against the injustices plaguing the people who live in this part of the world.

To suggest that legal guarantees for religious freedom, as defined and imposed by the international community, will solve these complex problems and challenges is at best naïve and at worst an insult to the people of region. To endorse religious freedom as the solution is to refuse the reality and complexity of the situation on the ground. It hinders the development of informed governmental and non-governmental policy responses by deflecting attention away from the considerations described above in favor of a focus on (whatever is defined as) religion, religious leaders and religious communities.

An informed response to this crisis would combine a deep understanding of the factors listed above with a sense of humility and respect for the people of the region, from all backgrounds, that rose up beginning in 2011 to challenge impossibly repressive governments and their foreign supporters, unthinkable police brutality, and unjust living conditions. This was not, and is not, only about the politics of social and religious co-existence. It is much more encompassing. The response of the international community should reflect this complexity, honoring those who gave their lives attempting to create new forms of political community and solidarity reflecting a democratic sensibility.

Whose religion? Whose freedom? 

But the problem with the IRF lobby runs deeper. Paeans to religious freedom not only mask the causes of conflict in the region but also, and more perniciously, exacerbate the situation on the ground by giving sustenance to the “us versus them,” black versus white, right versus wrong logic on which ISIS thrives. The Manichean worldview espoused by the IRF lobby—either you’re with us or against us; either you support our version of religious freedom or you don’t—ironically works to retrench the very divisions (Christian/Muslim, believer/unbeliever, western/non-western) that groups like ISIS depend on to cement and popularize a collective sense of identity and purpose defined in opposition to western states, Israel, Jews, and Christians. Prioritizing advocacy for religious freedom unwittingly reinforces the boundaries that feed ISIS’s fire. Undermining ISIS is a long-range project that involves, among other measures, unsettling the assumption that the boundaries dividing Jew from Christian from Muslim from Hindu from unbeliever are the only ones that matter. They aren’t.

And yet the IRF project presses the public imagination, legal and political institutions and social practice in the opposite direction, reinforcing the public and political salience of sectarian divisions and empowering some leaders and orthodoxies over others. In this worldview, individuals are identified based on perceived religious affiliation—for instance, he’s a Muslim, she’s a Christian, they are part of a particular “religious group.” These groups are publically consecrated as discrete faith communities and official spokespersons are called forth to represent them. A “religionized” political landscape takes shape. Faith leaders who enjoy good relations with the political authorities are emboldened, while others are marginalized. Dissenters, doubters, those who practice multiple traditions, and those on the margins of community fade into the background.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, in the world of IRF many violations of human dignity fail to register at all, languishing beneath the threshold of national and international recognition as scarce resources go to rescuing persecuted religionists and defending faith communities that have broken through the threshold of international religio-political recognition. As I argue in Beyond Religious Freedom, these selection dynamics cannot be mitigated with a more diverse and sophisticated understanding of religion or religious community. There is no easy fix. Certain questions always plague such efforts: Which religions are protected? Which leaders are engaged? And whom exactly are these leaders presumed to represent?

In another tragic mirroring of ISIS’s ceaseless reckoning of who is a “good” or “bad” Muslim, the politics of religious freedom force political authorities to make determinations between “good” and “bad” religion. In ISIS’s books, al-Nusra once occupied the position of good Muslim, was reclassified as bad Muslim, and, as of this writing, appears to be back in the “good” Muslim column as the two fronts join forces against Assad and the US-led airstrikes. A related set of dynamics bedevils American efforts to identify and support “religious moderates” in Syria. Prioritizing religious freedom in the fight against ISIS simply exaggerates these dynamics as the IRF lobby struggles desperately to distinguish between sects and leaders who support “religious freedom” (as defined by the lobby and its powerful donors) and those who do not.

Beyond religious freedom 

It’s not my intention to judge individuals who find themselves in difficult circumstances and choose to make political claims in the language of religious freedom. Nor do I wish to undermine local groups working to oppose violence and discrimination that have chosen to register complaints using the legal tools at their disposal, some of which will inevitably invoke religious classifications. This is understandable. But there is a larger story to be told about that which is hastily described by the IRF lobby, the media, and others today as “religious” violence and persecution—and freedom and toleration.

The challenges facing the Middle East today cannot be reduced to a choice between religious freedom and religious violence. The solution to today’s dilemmas of global collective life lie neither in the relentless pursuit of the international religious freedom agenda nor in ISIS’s oppositional fantasy world. Despite the rhetoric in Oslo, and the momentum of the new religion agenda in Brussels, Washington, and Ottawa, the last thing the people of the Middle East need is a religious freedom charter that will serve only to embolden ISIS among its followers. If a solution exists, it lies beyond religious freedom, and with the people of the region.


This article from ‘Religion Dispatches’ offers us food for thought. Would the overall advocacy of ‘religious freedom’ be a worthy tool of opposition to the type of fanatical religion such as that presently being thrust upon the world by ISIS and Al Qaeda?

Would a Western advocacy of religious freedom for all people help to curb the growing propagation of fundamentalist religious totalitarianism, which currently has us all wondering about the future of the world’s civilisations? Frankly, looking at the ambitions of the ISIS leadership, it would appear that nothing less than capitulation to a harsh application of inhumane religious sanctions – that includes death for ‘the infidel’ and isolation for Islamists whose way of life is less stringently conformed to the observance of strict Sharia Law – could be countenanced by Islamic Fundamentalists.

As Christians, there can be little doubt that the Lord of The Church counsels us to ‘seek peace’, but, I suggest, not without the possibility of justice. Perhaps this is the basic criterion for any future hope of religious co-existence. There can be no peace without justice, and justice is at issue at this point in time in any negotiations with ISIS.

Father Ron Smith

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