God save the Queen

Anglicans have good reason to be grateful to Elizabeth II. But will the church-state link be quite s

The Church of England has announced its plans to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee later this year. It is hoping that all its 13,000 parishes will involve themselves with initiatives including The Big Jubilee Lunch, which "will see millions across the country joining together to have lunch on the afternoon of Sunday, June 3rd", and The Big Thank-You, in which churches and cathedrals will invite members of the congregation to add their names to a collective thank-you letter to the monarch. Containing an introductory paragraph by diocesan bishops, the letters "give the public a chance to say a few words in appreciation of 60 years of loyal service."

In some ways, this is the Church of England doing its job. The Establishment "deal", as conceived centuries ago, gave the Anglican church immense privileges within society (bishops in the House of Lords, for example) in exchange for the church giving its moral backing to the state. The monarchy remains the most visible symbol of the church-state link. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Queen receives the "homage" of bishops on their appointment and even ordinary parish priests are expected to swear an oath of allegiance to her. Prayers for members of the royal family are offered daily in every C of E church in the land. (Francis Galton, the Victorian scientist and inventor of eugenics, once did a statistical analysis of the life-expectancy of members of the royal family and concluded that the prayers didn't work.)

The Queen promised in her Coronation Oath to "maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England" and to "preserve the rights and privileges" of Anglican clergy. But her formal religious duties are in fact fairly limited. She distributes symbolic coins to worthy pensioners at a cathedral each Maundy Thursday, and offers a prayer at each State Opening of Parliament that "the blessings of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels." Her presence at the annual Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph might also be regarded as a religious occasion. At least technically, certain church appointments (such as parishes within the Duchy of Lancaster) are in the direct gift of the Crown. By and large, though, the monarch's position as head of the Church of England is a purely symbolic and ceremonial one.

But there's no doubt that the present Queen has taken a close personal interest in the religious aspect of her job. She is, by most accounts, personally devout. Certainly, her Christmas messages in recent years have been increasingly explicit in their Christian content. In the most recent, for example, she pronounced that "God sent into the world a unique person ... a Saviour, with the power to forgive" and offered a prayer that "We might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord." The Archbishop of Canterbury's own New Year Message contained rather fewer mentions of God.

So the Church of England's leaders have reason to be sincere in offering a "Big Thank You" to the Queen, not least for living and reigning for so long. Things might not be quite so straightforward under the next Sovereign. Prince Charles's interest in religion is well-known, but it would seem very different from the uncomplicated and quiet Anglicanism of his mother. He has famously expressed a desire to be "defender of faith" rather than "Defender of the Faith", a distinction that may seem more appropriate in a multi-faith society but which also implies a more problematic desire to involve himself in theological debates (as well as leaving atheists and agnostics seemingly undefended). Some of the more traditionally-minded clergy objected to his divorce and remarriage in a civil ceremony. A few even questioned its legality.

The next coronation, if indeed there is a next coronation, is unlikely to be an Anglican monopoly like that in 1953. Will the new king be expected, or willing, to swear to uphold "the Protestant reformed religion established by law"? It seems unlikely. But it seems even more unlikely that the Church of England would give up its official status easily, or even that it will be seriously questioned. I suspect that the C of E will be offering prayers, and even Big Thank-Yous, to monarchs for as long as the monarchy persists. Anachronisms survive best if they stick together.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity