Bishops resist moves to outlaw BNP membership

London, UK - Church of England clergy could be barred from membership of the far-right British National Party under a controversial motion to be debated this week, The Times has learnt.

The move, which coincides with intense public debate over race and equality, is backed by Sir Ian Blair, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who will attend the General Synod to support a policy borrowed from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which bans officers from joining the BNP.

In his first interview since leaving Scotland Yard, Sir Ian said that his Anglican faith had been a great comfort and support during difficult times as the country’s most senior policeman. “I used to say to my wife, if I did not have my hour and a half on a Sunday morning, the week was going to be much more difficult,” Sir Ian said.

He saw a parallel, he said, between the Church and the police in that both “need to be able to welcome people from all backgrounds”. He added: “The issue around race is about equality. I am on that wing of the Anglican Communion that is very much in favour of women priests.”

Sir Ian will sit at the Synod with the proposer of the motion, which states that clergy and lay staff of the Church cannot belong to any organisation which contradicts “the duty to promote race equality”. The motion specifically identifies the BNP.

It is likely to rekindle the dispute over racism, and what defines public and privately held views, less than a week after the BBC dropped Carol Thatcher from one of its programmes for using the word “golliwog” in an off-air conversation.

However, the motion will be opposed at the Synod by bishops and lawyers who will argue that banning individuals from membership of political organisations would infringe their human rights.

William Fittall, Secretary General to the Synod, has circulated a paper which states that the Church’s legal advice was that the policy could not be enforced.

He wrote: “Since the BNP is not a proscribed political party, it is lawful to be a member. Merely being a member of it could not, therefore, provide a basis for disciplinary proceedings against a member of the clergy.”

Mr Fittall added: “Cases outside the Church concerning the BNP have seen employees bringing claims against their employers arguing that their less favourable treatment is an interference with their human rights.”

Vasantha Gnanadoss, the proposer of the motion and a civilian member of staff with the Metropolitan Police, argues that the policy should be adopted to “carry a clear message to society at large”.

She said: “It will make it much more difficult for the BNP or similar organisations to exploit the claim that there are Anglican clergy or church representatives who support them.”

Simon Darby, deputy leader of the BNP, said: “It is not a very Christian thing to do to say that because you belong to a political party you cannot work for the Church of England.”

The BNP debate is one of a number which are likely to prove divisive at the Synod. Traditionalists are expected to resist plans to create “complementary” bishops who would look after opponents of women’s ordination if women are consecrated bishops. However many parliamentarians and the thousands of women priests that the Church now depends on to sustain its ministry, along with their male supporters, will also be dismayed if Synod members turn their back on women bishops. Proposals to ordain women bishops depend on thenew class of bishop being accepted.

Anglo-Catholics are expected to resist the idea because the complementary bishops will ultimately be answerable to women bishops.

A two-thirds majority will be needed when the final vote on women bishops takes place three or four years from now, after dioceses and parishes have been consulted. Wednesday’s debate on complementary bishops will require only a simple majority but will signal whether the final measure will go through as traditionalists marshall their forces once more against women’s ordination.

Some bishops fear a re-run of the 1992 vote on women priests, when just one change of mind by an opponent of women priests secured the two-thirds majority that let the measure through.

In a third debate likely to set traditionalists against the liberal wing of the Church, the Synod will be asked by an evangelical lay member, Paul Eddy, to affirm the “uniqueness of Christ” in a multi-faith society. This motion, if passed, would implicitly confer a duty on Church of England clergy and laity to proselytise Muslims, Jews and other minority faiths.