In the first of a three part investigation, Peter Stanford talks to Dr David Owen MP, leader of the SDP, about his perceptions of the role of the churches in the political arena
THE age-old conflict about the involvement of the church in politics, brought back to prominence most recently by the involvement of several clergymen, most notably the Bishop of Durham, in the miners' strike, was one of the principal themes for debate to emerge during the 12 month coal dispute.
On the one side there was the Prime Minister, no less, likening churchmen and their appeals for compromise to the first "cuckoos" of spring, while on the other side the Archbishop of Canterbury vigorously defended the right of clerics to speak out on any issues they perceived as matters for national concern.
And fuelling the debate, according to Dr David Owen, was the media. There was a "Fad" in the press for discussing the role of churches and churchmen in the context of the miners strike, he considered, just as once the papers had taken to making controversy out of the sermons of Dr Mervyn Stockwood when he was appointed as Anglican Bishop of Southwark.
Quite Frankly Dr Owen could not see "what all the fuss was about". On reflection though, while fully accepting that bishops have a "perfect right" to speak out as and when they judge it fitting, he fell that in the particular circumstances of the miners' strike there were times when clerics sounded "demonstrably naive" in their statements. "You have to call a spade a spade" he said, and "Arthur Scargill was not in the business of striking a deal during the miners' strike". Hence the frequent church calls for reconciliation left the SDP leader with an impression of "inexperience" amongst clerics, and of a failure to come to terms with the brutal realities of the dispute.
In general, however, Dr Owen, who described himself as "a Christian, though not a very good one", stressed that in his opinion the church had a right to be involved in every area of human endeavour. The only "caveat" which he would add to this principle is that he would "accord to clergymen appropriate weight to their views". Enlarging on this idea, Dr Owen indicated that on an ethical/moral issue he would pay more credence to churchmen than on an industrial dispute. "I am interested In Cardinal Hume's view of tax policy, but I don't give to it the same weight as 1 would to his view on the Gillick ruling".
Dr Owen, one of the SDP's founding "Gang of Four" and architect with David Steel of the Alliance, was raised in the Church of Wales but has Catholic connections through his wife, Deborah, a literary agent whose charges include Delia Smith, and also through his colleague and follow SDP pioneer Shirley Williams.
Dr Owen made a point of stressing his "very great respect for Cardinal Hume". "Probably of all the church leaders in Britain 1 give most weight to his views". II was the deep thought and prayer underpinning the Cardinal's reasoned public statements which impressed the SDP leader.
He also had words of praise for Archbishop Derek Worlock and his Anglican counterpart, Dr Sheppard, in Liverpool. Their practical concern on Merseyside over pressing issues such as unemployment was a "practical path of ecumenism", which look the Gospel message "out of the church and pulpit and onto the street amid the nitty-gritty details of life".
The degree of involvement of
individual clerics on specific points was of course a "matter for their judgment" Dr Owen emphasised, but in his view on "ethical, personal conscience issues", the pronouncements of the church carried greatest weight. In these areas he considered that if in government he might go as far as to grant "formal rights of representation" to the churches, although in general lie preferred consultations to take place through ad hoc structures.
Dr Owen spoke with pride of his achievement as a Labour Minister of Health in the 1974 Wilson government when he "cleaned up" abuses of the 1967 Abortion Act which were threatening to turn London into the "abortion capital" of the world, a situation which 1)r Owen with his medical background found "intolerable".
He insisted then, and continues to uphold, strict adherence to the "conscience clause", enabling nurses and doctors to opt out of abortion operations on ethical grounds.
On the wider issue of reform of the Abortion Act though, Dr Owen, while respecting the views of the church lobby, fell that there was not much need for change, though he would be amenable lo a reduction in the time limit on abortion operations.
Such views were his personal stance, and not those of his party or the Alliance, the doctor stressed. Moral and ethical matters were, in his opinion, areas for individual conscience and free votes in the Houses of Parliaments.
Equally so the embryo debate. Dr Owen found the Warnock report a "good compromise" in the best of British tradition of pragmatism, but admitted that the choice of 14 days for an end to embryo experimentations was "somewhat arbitrary".
He had voted against the Powell hill which sought to outlaw experimentation altogether on the grounds that it was "too narrow" and placed too much responsibility in the hands of ministers.
The Gillick case is another area where the churches have voiced their concern, over the prescription of contraceptives to under-age girls. Dr Owen had "no doubts whatsoever" that the appeal court ruling in favour of Mrs Gillick was "a damaging judgment".
As a doctor and as a parent, he felt that there must be privacy in the relationship between an under-age adult and his or her
doctor. In the case of his own young daughter, he would be willing to entrust her welfare to the judgment of a trained
professional, but would hope that he and his wife could be involved and informed of any decisions. It was only in "exceptional cases" that parents had to be excluded in his view, but he reaffirmed and upheld the central ''doctor-patient" relationship.
Despite his variance with church teaching on these central ethical matters, Dr Owen fell that the "considered approach" of his party and the Alliance on a whole range of issues was central to its electoral appeal to churchmen. Dr Owen pointed out that some 64 per cent of SDP members, fur him the "most precious element in the party" have never before belonged to any political grouping. A substantial proportion of those are clergymen who recognise that the problems facing society are complex and not suited to the "short-term nature and ideological intensity" of British politics.
Instead they demanded a mixture of realism and idealism which they have found in the SDP.
That same blend, which Dr Owen saw as central to shaping good policy was particularly prominent in the work of the Catholic Institute fur International Relations. As Foreign Secretary from 1977 to 1979, Dr Owen had found CHR "one of the most effective lobbying organisations on the international field".
In the light of Alliance successes in the Brecon and Radnor and other by-elections, it would appear that Dr Owen's cocktail of realism and idealism is attractive not only to churchmen, but also to the electorate at large.
Next week, Dr John Cunningham MP, Shadow Environment Secretary, and in two weeks, John Selwyn Gummer, Chairman of the Conservative Party, will give their views on the debate. HE SCENE in Cologne Cathedral, "the Dome", was amazing. The thousands taking part in the Taize meeting would pour into the building twice each day, having travelled from city and outlying parishes and the various national groups were guided to those areas of the Cathedral where translation had been arranged for them.
It was an almost surreal experience to look on as all these young people went quietly into the great church and passed the groups of helpers who bore placards that said one word in a number of languages, "Silence", "Stille", "Silencio".
And it was incredibly cold. In fact, there was even the sensation of a cold wind deep inside the Dame. But once we were all in, (those without seats squatting on the floor); and the choir began the Taize chants, "Bless the Lord my soul, and bless his holy name", repeated a number of times, this chill cathedral was filled by a great glow of human warmth. One was utterly fascinated and absorbed and moved at this harmony of mind and spirit.
Brother Roger, who founded the community at Taize, was accompanied by fellow monks and sat in front of the high altar. Roger joined in the singing, led prayers for peace and reconciliation and spoke a homily in several languages.
He had written a letter that everyone at the Cologne meeting studied, and themes from this were taken up when he spoke to us in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and SerboCroat .
His words were limpid, challenging: "If a trusting heart were at the beginning of everything, if it guided your every step, big or small, you would go a long way. You would see people and events, not with anxiety, which cuts you off and which does not conic from God, but with a way of looking that is filled with inner peace."
Reconciliation and working for others who need us are at the heart of the Taize experience.
Brother Roger, a Swiss Lutheran, first came to the French village in 1940, when he was 25. His house became a place of welcome for refugees, especially Jews fleeing from the Nazis. After living alone for two years he was joined by his first brothers. At first, these were from different Protestant denominations, but today they include many Catholics.