Why the silence, Archbishops?

The brilliant 1995 film The American President, written by Aaron Sorkin, ends with the film’s hero, the fictional President Andrew Shepherd, saving his presidency (and getting the girl) by breaking his silence and telling a press conference exactly what he thinks about the issues raised against him by his chief, opponent, the villainous Senator Bob Rumson.

Even if, like me, you do not agree with Sorkin’s particular brand of social and political liberalism, the message he gives in the film is nonetheless a very important one, namely, that a healthy political culture depends on politicians (and by extension others in public life) not taking refuge in silence, but being willing to stand up and say what they really believe.

I was reminded of the film, and Sorkin’s message, today, as I reflected on the continuing silence from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York  about the case of Dr Päivi Räsänen who is being prosecuted by the authorities in Finland for publicly upholding traditional Christian teaching on sexual ethics. I posted an open letter to the Archbishops concerning her case on 5 May[1] and since then, although there has been widespread coverage of the matter, the Archbishops have remained silent about it.

This raises the question, why the silence? Why aren’t the Archbishops willing to say what they think about this case, which has become a cause of concern among Christians across Europe and around the world? Do they believe that it is right that a Christian from a church with which the Church of England is in communion should face the prospect of up to two years in prison for declaring publicly traditional Christian teaching about human sexuality (teaching to which the Church of England still officially adheres)? If they don’t believe that this is right, then why aren’t they willing to come out and say so?

This week the European Evangelical Alliance, representing 23 million Evangelical  Christians across Europe wrote to the Finnish Government about the prosecution of Dr Räsänen. Its letter runs as follows:

‘The  European  Evangelical  Alliance  (EEA)  defends  freedom  of  religion  or  belief  and freedom of expression for people of all faiths and none. These human rights are vital pillars of democracy.

EEA  is  therefore  dismayed  to  hear  of  a  case  in  Finland  of  a  woman  who  faces prosecution and up to 2 years  in prison for 3 separate cases for  expressing  biblical views.

The police were asked to investigate 3 incidents  of supposed ‘hate speech’, or more precisely in Finnish law ‘ethnic agitation’.  On each occasion, they concluded that there was no case to answer. In the case of a brochure published in 2004, the police added that, if it was decided that biblical views were considered per se to count as agitation, then it would have to become a crime to make the Bible available. Clearly, such  a  situation  would  be  ludicrous.  Foundational  issues  of  freedom  of  religion  or belief and freedom of expression are both at stake.

Despite the police’s warning, the Public Prosecutor has decided to proceed with the prosecution  of  the  individual  at  the  heart  of  this  situation;  Päivi Räsänen,  former Minister of the Interior of Finland.

International  human  rights  law  protects  the  fundamental  right  to  freedom  of expression.  Under  Article  10  of  the  European  Convention  on  Human  Rights  and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, people have the right to express their views in public.

The United Nation’s Rabat Plan of Action has set certain criteria for defining hate speech. In all three situations for which she stands trial, Päivi Räsänen’s actions do not cross the Rabat threshold for hate speech. The context, content and form of her words were fine.  There is no hint of intent, likelihood, or imminence of acts of hatred happening. The only thing one could say is that, as a public figure, Mrs Räsänen’s words  have  reach.  But  there  is  obviously  no  problem  in  having  reach  when  the content, form and context were all fine.

Is  the  Public  Prosecutor  attempting  to  redefine  human  rights  law?  Freedom  of expression gives the right for anyone to share their opinion.  The right to freedom of expression exists to legally protect those that express views which may offend, shock or disturb others. 

Therefore, EEA calls upon the Finnish court system to uphold freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. We urge the Finnish government to make clear its unequivocal support for these fundamental freedoms, and the Rabat Plan of Action’s threshold for hate speech.

Thomas Bucher

General Secretary

European Evangelical Alliance’[2]

Do the Archbishops agree with what the EEA have said in this letter? If they don’t, then why not? If they do, then why haven’t they said something similar? Why the silence, Archbishops?


[1] ‘An open letter to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on the prosecution of Dr Päivi Räsänen’ athttps:/mbarrattdavie.wordpress.com

[2] EEA Statement on Päivi Räsänen,’ 12 May 2021 at https://www.europeanea.org/eea-statement-on-paivi- rasanen-may-2021/