Julian Mann is Vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire.
The level of apathy about the escalating threat from the state to freedom of speech and of voluntary association is breathtaking. One possible explanation for this indifference is that the state is currently targeting religious people, and most British people are not particularly religious.
But a speech last week by the head of Ofsted should be of profound concern to all freedom-loving people in Britain, whether they are religious or not. Amanda Spielman is a campaigner for the regulation of Sunday schools. Her proposals demonstrate the vagueness typically adopted by the politically correct establishment whenever it goes into liberty-grabbing mode:
“One of our greatest areas of concern is what is happening under the radar in so-called out-of-school provision. Out-of-school provision is a mainstay of the work of the church; indeed it is hard to think of a more British institution than a Sunday school. Similar positive activity groups exist in other faiths, providing extra-curricular activities, language training and spiritual instruction. I have no doubt they provide an enriching experience to the young people who attend them. But some other out-of-school settings operate less benignly. These institutions, some of which operate as illegal schools, use the opportunity to – in the words of the former Prime Minister – put “poison in the minds, hatred in hearts” of young people. They need to be tackled. That is why I am afraid to say it is a matter of regret that the Church has resisted changes in the law to allow Ofsted to inspect these settings.”
She insisted in her speech that “this is not about infringing religious freedom: no one is proposing a troop of inspectors turning up at Sunday schools. Instead, it is about ensuring that the small minority of settings that promote extremism are not able to evade scrutiny. If we are to protect many of the tenets that the Church holds dear, we need the power to tackle those trying to use education to undermine them”.
But the question must be asked, what form will this ‘power’ take? If the state stipulates that church youth work programmes must be subject to inspections when these are teaching children above a certain number of hours, where should the threshold be set?
Many churches run various youth groups across different ages. If the hours for all their groups were totted up across an average week, the number of hours could be considerable, but no individual child would be in one group for all that time.
The devil of the threat to liberty here is in the detail.
Perhaps most people couldn’t care less. But the problem is that once the state starts monitoring the counter-cultural Christian opinions being aired by voluntary church groups, it could be your voluntary group next for thought-policing.
And make no mistake – this is thought-policing. Whatever its vagueness on practical legislation, the head of Ofsted’s speech is clear on that point in her quoting of David Cameron. It is the sphere of the mind and the heart that she is wanting to regulate.
But knowledge of recent European history should teach us that once the state is allowed to interfere with individuals’ souls, a nation is on the road to Stalinism.
In the World War II museum in Gdansk, there is a quote from the Marxist dictator himself precisely to that effect. The state must not only monitor individuals’ speech but their thoughts, Stalin said – ‘yes, the thoughts’.
Because Christianity teaches that our souls are accountable to Christ, not to the State, surely it is no wonder that Stalin hated His followers so much.