This archaic nation of angry bishops and petulant peers

The Church of England seeks to enjoy concessions and protections the rest of us are not entitled to
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ANY ARCHBISHOP of Canterbury is entitled to feel alarmed when approached by shouting men as he preaches in Canterbury cathedral. All around are reminders of the time, less than a millennium ago, when Roger de Tracey burst in upon a Christmas Mass, and made several holes in the vestments of George Carey's predecessor, Thomas a Becket.

So last Easter, when a thin, pale man suddenly ascended the steps of a small pulpit already filled to capacity with the person and accoutrements of the Archbishop, Mr Carey may have feared the worst. The television pictures of the incident certainly suggested a moment of initial alarm, but this was soon replaced by irritation. It was evident that the intruder was no murderer, but that over-ardent gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell.

Mr Tatchell is not a completely reasonable fellow. He argues, among other things, that it is homophobic to prevent grown people from having sex in public on Hampstead Heath, or to ban them from nude, tumescent sunbathing in various men-only swimming places that are also occasionally frequented by children. Neither am I a fan of "outing", pioneered by Mr Tatchell's organisation OutRage, long before it became all the vogue down at News International.

No, Mr Tatchell can be a pain in the bum. But he is also courageous, completely non-violent and - not infrequently - a champion of those whom you might expect to find the church defending: the downtrodden, the abused or the cast-out. So when he mounted those stairs in Canterbury, Mr Tatchell did not whip a Sabatier from out of his modish leathers and plunge it into the saintly, mitred flesh above him; rather he produced a battered placard and started to address the assembled worshippers in a voice only slightly less monotonous than that of the Archbishop himself.

It was therefore a shock for me to discover yesterday, in a letter from the National Secular Society (the body which resists religious privilege, and takes up the cudgels on behalf of freethinkers), that Mr Tatchell may face two months in prison as a result. This is two months more, incidentally, than Roger de Tracey got for bumping off St Thomas - a sin for which he atoned by roaming the West Country building churches (hence Bovey Tracey, Nymet Tracey and others).

The cathedral case will be heard on Monday week at Canterbury Magistrates' Court, and the possible severity of the sentence is due mostly to the Act under which Mr Tatchell has been charged: the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860. This act abolished the right of church courts to try cases of brawling in or around church property, but instituted an offence tryable in the regular courts.

The offence covers anyone guilty of "riotous, violent or indecent behaviour" in church or chapel, or who "shall molest, let, disturb, vex, or trouble, disquiet or misuse the preacher duly authorised to preach therein".

As you may imagine, this Act - like the blasphemy laws - does not get used a whole lot. In 1967, however, a former vice-president of the National Secular Society, that magnificent obsessive Nicolas Walter, was sent to prison for two months after having flung a few well-turned epithets at Harold Wilson during a Methodist service held at the beginning of the Labour Party conference. So it can happen.

Which is absurd. If an irate Independent reader bursts into the paper's morning editorial conference, and interrupts our revered editor when he is in the act of instructing the faithful, then he or she will not be charged under this Act. Vexing an editor is (a) not illegal and (b) the prerogative of journalists. But, for some reason, heckling a bishop may be punishable with a spell in a slammer.

There are two, interrelated, issues here. The first is the often archaic nature of British law and British institutions. The second is the way that organised religion, and particularly the Church of England, seeks to enjoy concessions and protections that the rest of us are not entitled to.

This has been a great week to observe the former. On Monday a significant section of the House of Lords attempted to prevent a Labour motion permitting the Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, to don tights only for ceremonial occasions. We witnessed the peculiar sight of the party of Mrs Thatcher supporting the expenditure of taxpayer's money by unelected relicts, determined to embarrass an important member of the Cabinet by dictating his choice of legwear. I spent a jolly evening last weekend being regaled by a friend of mine who has just become a baroness (the way they do), with strange tales of how the Lords operates. Did you know that speakers are chosen through susurration, with the peer most murmured in favour of being allowed to speak?

And for the rest of this week, the hereditary peers have been bouncing the Euro elections Bill back to the Commons, ostensibly because they do not like "closed lists" for this particular poll, arguing that to vote for a party rather than an individual is undemocratic. Mr Hague has sought to deflect Blairite fury by pointing out that it has not been Tory hereditary peers alone who have inflicted defeat on the Government, but that the odd bishop has also supported the Lords' defiance of the elected chamber. Some may be mollified by this information, but it infuriates me. What, one wants to know, are bishops doing there in the first place? If ever there was a closed list system it is the one that allows 26 CofE prelates to sit in the Lords.

What they are sometimes doing is defending their own interests. Earlier this year the Government moved to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. In January, Lady Young, the Duke of Norfolk and the Bishop of Ripon jointly sponsored an amendment seeking to exempt the officials and functions of any church, religious denomination, mosque, synagogue or temple and the CofE ecclesiastical court from some of the provisions of the Human Rights Bill. This was only narrowly defeated.

Undaunted, they were soon back again, this time passing an amendment allowing a legal defence to non-criminal abuses of human rights "in pursuance of a manifestation of religious belief in accordance with the historic teaching" of six named religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism and Buddhism. The prejudices of Zoroastrianism, theosophy and shamanism were, for some reason, excluded. Fortunately this piece of religious special pleading was mostly reversed in the Commons.

But it was a reminder that, in this country, modernity is at constant war with heritage. At certain times, as now when you have a reforming government, the struggle becomes very sharp - whether it be over the changes to the second chamber or how to deal with a relatively harmless (if ill- mannered) interruption of a cathedral service. And in all these, and more, I believe that Britain is better served by modernity.