Podium: Bringing the church into disrepute

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Tony Benn

The evidence given by the Labour MP during the trial of Peter Tatchell at Canterbury

Magistrates' Court

MY NAME is and I am a member of Parliament, first elected in 1950, and have been a Privy Councillor since 1964. I have known Peter Tatchell since 1981 and have the greatest respect for him as a man of principle, who is consistent in his convictions, non-violent in his methods and wholly committed to the rights of homosexuals to equal treatment before the law as a matter of human rights.

This view is not universally shared but it is, at last, becoming accepted by the House of Commons in the drafting of legislation.

It is not necessary for anyone to agree with Mr Tatchell's opinions on this matter, or even to approve of his methods of campaigning, for his own complete integrity to be recognised. His intervention on Easter Sunday, when he entered the pulpit and briefly interrupted the sermon to be preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury because he opposes the views of the Archbishop on this issue, may have disturbed some members of the congregation, may be criticised by others who do not share his view, but cannot be held to have constituted "riotous, violent or indecent behaviour" under the law.

Nor can it be denied that what he did was solely motivated by his long- held personal convictions and was entirely non-violent in character.

I hope that in considering this case the court will take account of the long history of dissent that has taken place in this country, and world-wide, over the centuries, and which is now accepted as having, on many occasions, played a significant and beneficial role in shaping public opinion, the law of the land and the thinking of the Church itself.

When Jesus himself entered the Temple in Jerusalem and turned out the "changers' money and overthrew their tables" (St John, Chapter 2, Verses 14-15), this non-violent direct action could well have been an offence under the then law, but is now accepted by the Church as a historic and symbolic act.

It has long been accepted that conscience is above the law, and that men and women who follow their own deeply held beliefs and peacefully defy unjust laws are right to do so, and though they may be punished at the time for what they have done, their views are often upheld by the judgement of history.

For example, Christians who defied the Heresy Act of 1401, which made it an offence - punishable by being hanged, drawn and quartered - for the laity to read the Bible, are now seen to have been right in what they did, and the law was later repealed. Similarly, the Suffragettes regularly broke the law to argue for the right of women to vote, were imprisoned for their protest and are now seen to have been martyrs in a just cause. Women now have the vote.

Conscientious objectors against war - such as the women at Greenham Common, who were imprisoned in 1982 for action "likely to lead to a breach of the peace", and many others - have done what they believed to be right, have paid the price for it and are now accepted as having been unjustly treated.

Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, both of whom were imprisoned for committing offences that no longer exist, are now honoured for their principled stand.

More recently, three Anglican Bishops, a Roman Catholic Bishop and five others including the Baptist Superintendent and the Moderator of the United Reformed Church, attacked the Poll Tax in 1990 and issued a statement which included the phrase: "Everyone has the right to protest peacefully about a perceived injustice" (April 10 1990). The evolution of democracy and the slow advance of human rights can, very often, be attributed to those very people and to the courage they showed.

Given this background, it would, I respectfully submit, be quite wrong for Peter Tatchell to be convicted under laws that were drawn up in past centuries for quite different reasons, namely the the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860, formerly embodied in the Brawling Act of 1551.

In addition, I must add that were Mr Tatchell to be convicted and punished, it could bring both the courts and the Church itself into disrepute and would serve to remind the public that only the churches enjoy protection of this kind under the law, a protection that is not even enjoyed by Parliament or other public gatherings.

For these reasons, I hope this court will find itself able to dismiss the charges brought against Mr Tatchell. I would be glad to answer any questions the court might like.