Danish visit to Religious Courts and Councils in London

June 27, 2023


Niels Valdemar Vinding, PhD, LLM (Canon law) from the University of Copenhagen writes:

In mid-May, a small delegation of Danish university researchers and social field practitioners had the distinct pleasure to visit religious courts and councils in London. Our delegation came to London to visit the London Beth Din at United Synagogue and The Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton, as well as a visit at the newly built Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as explore legal institutions in the Church of England. Amongst others, this brought our delegation on a tour through City of London to visit St Mary-le-Bow, St Stephen Walbrook, and St Helen Bishopsgate with Morag Ellis, Philip Petchey and Russell Dewhurst.

Lunch in the Crypt.

From a Danish point of view, the fact that the Church of England has such well-developed and significant judicial bodies is quite astonishing, and difficult to grasp for most. Our gracious hosts knew this of course, so they welcomed us to lunch in the Cafe Below in the Crypt of St Mary-le-Bow, and the Dean of Arches could perfectly pedagogically illustrate for us, why it had such a name and how it developed historically. After lunch, we set out on foot to see the churches and to see with our own eyes, e.g., the Henry Moore altar and the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren. This in many ways gave a full scope of the tensions and interests at play in faculty jurisdiction between architecture and aesthetics, tradition and renewal, theology, and doctrine, as well as law and justice, and it all comes together in the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved.

The contrast to Denmark is striking. Our visit was motivated in exploring fully functioning religious courts and to explore new avenues for research in Denmark. We do have provisions for doctrinal courts in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, and there is an occasionally convened Beth Din at The Jewish Community in Copenhagen. For Muslim institutions, there have been attempts to establish Sharia councils to help with marriage and divorce, as well as counsel and mediate on conflicts. However, none of these religious courts or councils have been studied to any clear extent, nor are their presence, function and jurisdiction understood in the public. Against the backdrop of political trends, this is an urgent challenge to research and to the courts themselves.

Doctrine, discipline, and a host of new types of social cases

In Denmark, we have heard and seen examples of misconduct, social cases, and religious abuse. There have been cases of imams allegedly meddling in divorces and public matters, there have been cases of misconduct by Catholic priests, as well as cases of abuse of power and religious authority in free churches. And there are still many lingering issues, such as the difficulties of Muslim women in obtaining a religious divorce and the coercive control that often follows in very complicated social cases. However, while some of these types of cases have been dealt with professionally and expediently – although some have certainly not – there are two new challenges facing religious courts and jurisdiction. In both Denmark and United Kingdom, I think.

First, for some years, several Ministers of Justice have called for barring not just (perceived) Sharia courts, but all religious courts, as they are by some seen as ‘totalitarian lifestyle,’ ‘in-compatible’ with public law, ‘fundamentally theocratic’ and ‘obsolescent historical relics’, to paraphrase the opening remarks of Norman Doe’s Comparative Religious Law: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (CUP, 2018).

Second, a new wave of social cases is facing both Churches of Denmark and England, as well as all other religious communities. Conduct that was not widely addressed a generation ago is presently revisited in a new, critical light and in terms of a better understanding of the abuse, violations and neglect that has taken place, and perhaps still is. Measures such as safeguarding and requirements of mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect to government authorities, as well as whistle-blower measures, stricter codes of conduct, zero tolerance policies and more, are on the increase and certainly here to stay, and no doubt, we are better for it. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse illustrates these challenges well, as do the recent findings regarding John Sentamu, Stephen Sizer and others, each in their way.

Taken together, this leaves both a problem and a need for the religious institutions to explain themselves as they struggle to understand their past in a new light, to live up to the higher expectations and to defend the point of view of religious freedom, internal liberty to discipline and to demonstrate that they are surely part of our shared future.

The task of scholarly research into religious courts.

This is then our task in Denmark. While the religious institutions are realizing that they have to give a better and clearer understanding of how they work and what contribution they might have to wider society, it is the task of scholarly research not just to explore what kinds of religious courts we have and how they work, but also to critically explore shortcomings and misunderstandings that have to be remedied. As scholars, we are more critics than caretakers, but all parties have an interest in well-functioning institutions, clear guidelines and at proper judicial procedure when the courts do intervene. The alternative of banning religious courts might even be the worst option, as this would drive some underground, and we would further loose transparency, governance and accountability, and the weaker parties would be even worse off.

The visit in London was a tremendous start to this research programme, and we got to hear about everything from faculty cases, mediation and conflict resolution, clergy and membership discipline, disfellowshipping, and much more. The next step is to consult and explore Danish religious communities and then to continue dialogue with Danish politicians and authorities, before publishing our white paper on Religious Courts and Councils in Spring 2024.