Taken from the pack "What the Churches Say - on moral and social issues"

CEM 1991

Law and Order

The Baptist Union of Great Britain

Capital punishment

We must be quite clear that when a person is executed by the authority of the state, all the citizens of the state have committed the act even though only one person 'pulls the lever'. It therefore requires all of us to come to some conclusion in a democracy. In any punishment for crime there are three elements. There is the punishment for the crime; there is the deterrent element for others; and there is the reclaiming of the criminal to be a responsible member of society. In capital punishment there is no possibility of reclaiming the person. With capital punishment there must be no shadow of doubt about the guilt of the person and this is impossible in many cases. The question remains, for what crimes would execution be the appropriate punishment? Even those states which do have capital punishment mostly confine it to the crime of murder, the intentional killing of another person. The major question among Baptists would be: Is capital punishment a deterrent?' Some would say that it was and that, when planning a crime, some people at least would draw back at the thought of their own life being forfeit. Others would say it was not because murder is a crime apart. The whole purpose of the planning of a killing is usually just to avoid being found out and therefore it is not a deterrent. Those who are against capital punishment are known as abolitionists. Though no survey has been taken it is thought that there are a higher percentage of abolitionists amongst Baptists than in the society of which they are a part. This statement needs to be read in conjunction with the Baptist section of the introductory document. How the Churches Decide.

The Church of England

Law and order

The Board for Social Responsibility of the Church of England has published various papers covering issues raised under this title, notably a General Synod Miscellaneous Paper in 1983, Capital Punishment (GS Misc 177).

The Board has created an Advisory Group on Criminal Justice 1985 which looks into the prison disciplinary system, including its moral messages for the youth of the nation. The more recent publications Faith in the City and its follow-up Living Faith in the City contain chapters on 'Order and Law’


The Methodist Church

Law and order

God brought the world into existence not for chaos but for order. In the sphere of human behaviour, order is preserved by customs and laws dealing with such matters as the enforceability of contracts, unjustified violence, and the protection of property. The law must constantly be checked and updated for fairness. Respect for law may require that particular laws are contested and reformed. Where a law is gravely unjust, and incapable of reform through the political process, Christians may be called to non-violent civil disobedience of the law in protest. This will be rare in the relatively just, relatively open, relatively democratic society in which we live, where there are many opportunities to draw attention to unjust laws and where argument and campaigning can bring about reform. Basis: Accept and Resist, Methodist Conference Report1986.


Christians recognise that Government has a duty on behalf of society to protect that society from crime for the common good. Those found guilty of breaches of the law may be punished. The punishment will include an element of retribution, but the aim of punishment is not retribution, still less revenge, but the reform and rehabilitation of the offender. Basis: Breaking Out: A Christian Critique of Criminal Justice, Adrian Speller, Collins, 1987.


The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)


A central accepted belief of Friends is that there is 'something of God' in all people, and that each human being is of unique worth. This shared belief has led Quakers to attempt to value all people and not to harm or threaten them. What this means in their daily lives, is that most Quakers feel that everyone should be respected and treated decently, even if they have committed a crime. The issues of crime and punishment are of great importance to the Society of Friends, and they have a history of links with the punishment system both here in Britain and in the United States of America. The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, emerged in the troubled mid-1600s in Britain. The problems in the society of the time led George Fox and others to seek for what they felt was the Truth. Friends did not participate in what was then the religion of the state, and they were often regarded as criminals as a result. It was through the legal system in Britain that the Religious Society of Friends acquired their nickname - Quakers. George Fox told a judge in court in 165D that the time had come for men to quake and tremble before the Lord. 'So you are quakers are you?' mocked the judge, and the name has stuck. George Fox spent nearly six years of his life in prison, and by 16891,500 Friends had been in prison and 450 had died there due to the terrible conditions. When seeking guidance on such issues as crime and punishment, Quakers look to writings such as those gathered together and called Christian Faith and Practice in the Society of Friends. For example:

The terrible sufferings of our fore father's in the prisons of the seventeenth century have given us as people a special interest in the management of prisons and the treatment of crime. George Fox protested to the judges of his day 'concerning their putting men to death for cattle and money and small matters'; and laid before them ‘what hurtful thing it was that prisoners should lie so long in jail'; showing how they learned wickedness from one another in talking of their bad deeds'.

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) regularly visited Newgate prison to attend to the needs of the women and children there who were forced to live in terrible conditions. She campaigned against transporting prisoners to Australia, against capital punishment and for reform in prisons.

Quakers have always had strong views on capital punishment. In 1818 the following statement was made:

The awful subject of the punishment of death at this time deeply impressed our minds. We believe that where the precepts and spirit of our peat Lord and Lawgiver have a complete ascendancy, they will lead to the abolition of this practice.

John Bright, the first Quaker member of Parliament, said in 1868:

The real security for human life is to be found in a reverence for it... A deep reverence for human life is worth more than a thousand executions in the prevention of murder; and is, in fact, the great security for human life. The law of capital punishment while pretending to support this reverence, does in fact tend to destroy it.

Today, Quakers are deeply concerned for those who are involved with crime and are 'punished' by our present system. Quakers are aware that Britain punishes more people by imprisonment than any other country in Europe. The Penal Affairs Committee looks at the application of punishment in the laws of Britain and aims to help the Society of Friends and others to be better informed about the present penal system. The Committee accepts that some criminals are so dangerous that they need to be confined, but these are a very small minority of those in prison. Experience in prison can badly damage people, and it rarely stops crime. Prison is punishment not only for offenders but also for their families. Most Quakers feel that other forms of sentencing such as community service are far more preferable, and should be used more. Some Friends are appointed Prison Visitors or Prison Chaplains; others work towards the ideal of anon-punitive society. Quakers would like to see a more positive approach taken towards everyone involved with crime and punishment. In 1981, six Quakers made a statement. The following is an extract:


To do away with punishment is not to abandon safety and control or to move towards disintegration, disorder and lawlessness. A non-punitive approach will not remove the need in some circumstances for restraint or secure containment, but it does mean that restraint and containment should be carried out in a life-enhancing spirit of love and care.

The Roman Catholic Church


There are three purposes commonly accepted for punishment:

1. Retribution. The person is made to suffer for doings something wrong.

2. Remedial. The criminal will change his or her ways.

3. Deterrence. Others will be deterred from misbehaving.

These reasons for punishing give rise to complex issues in the philosophy of justice and political philosophy. What are the reasons for particular punishments for particular crimes? By depriving the criminal of some good, punishment makes it plain that he is not entitled to share in the benefits of life in an orderly society, for be has attacked the order of society. Punishment denounces the crime, and ensures that the criminal does not enjoy the fruits, which belong, by right, to good behaviour. Where, however, would capital punishment fit into the categories being discussed? Rarely does any Christian theologian want to argue that retribution is the moral justification for any form of punishment. Usually arguments are based on either the remedial or the deterrent value of punishment. Clearly the death penalty can only by used as a deterrent, and the arguments are not convincing.

Capital punishment

The Catholic Church has never officially condemned the death penalty. However a number of authoritative voices in the Church have called in recent years for its abolition. These include:

the Canadian Bishops;

the Justice and Peace Commission of the Irish Bishops, 1976;

the Justice and Peace Commission of the United States Bishops, 1977;

the Social Commission of the French Bishops, 1978;

and the Bishops Conference of the United States, 1978.

The history of Christian thinking on the subject suggests that the theological arguments are not conclusive in either direction, for or against the death penalty. Among the early fathers of the church, both views can be found, but the right of the state to execute criminals was defended in extreme circumstances. The early Church did try to influence the legal code in the direction of mercy and correction, but did not succeed altogether. Thomas Aquinas taught that in this life punishment has two purposes, to secure the reform of the sinner and the peace of society. Punishments are not sought for their own sake. For Aquinas the good of society took precedence at times over the reform of the criminal, and in this case he saw the death penalty as permissible. During the Middle Ages not only was the state's right to use the death penalty defended but the Church itself wanted to ensure that it was used in cases of heresy!

During the 19th century the movement against the death penalty gained a little momentum. However even during the first part of the twentieth century, while abolition is favoured, the death penalty is not absolutely condemned, as it is a 'owed that it might be necessary under exceptional circumstances.

There are several good reasons put forward by theologians for not restoring the death penalty:

1 First and foremost it undermines the respect for human life. Reject for life is like a seamless garment. When the state executes it is helping to diminish respect for human life.

2 Mistakes can be made in the judicial system. People can be released from prison when a mistake is uncovered but, if executed, no remedy is possible.

3 A disproportionate number of those executed come from among the poor and the underprivileged. It seems fairer to recognise that those subjected to the greatest pressures may not be as fully responsible for their actions as they seem to be, and refrain from using the most serious penalty against them.


The Salvation Army

Capital punishment

The Salvation Army recognises that the opinions of Salvationists are divided on the moral acceptability of capital punishment and its effectiveness as a deterrent.

However, to advocate in any way the continuance or restoration of capital punishment in any part of the world would be inconsistent with the Army's purposes, and contrary to the Army's belief that all human life is sacred and that each human being, however wretched, can become a new person in Christ.

Arguments based on Scripture have been used both to support and oppose capital punishment, the former drawing primarily on the Old Testament and the latter on the New Testament. The Army recognises that those laws of the Old Testament dealing with ritual and procedure have been superseded in Christ and that a literal adherence to them today would require the death penalty for relatively minor transgressions. Equally, the Army acknowledges that the New Testament does not attempt to provide a systematic treatment of criminal justice or to offer conclusive comment on how society should deal with crime and those who commit it.

Salvationists seek to understand more fully the implications of the fact that the God they worship identified himself with sinners through the life of Jesus, who was unjustly executed as a criminal in degrading circumstances. It was and is the mission of Jesus to bear the pain and penalty of sin within his own nature and person and thereby to make possible the transformation of the character of the offender, who is precious in God's eyes and worthy of redemption. Long experience in rendering service within the criminal justice systems of many lands and in ministering to both offenders and victims, and to their respective families, has confirmed the Army's belief in the possibility of forgiveness and redemption for all through repentance toward God, faith in Jesus Christ and regeneration by the Holy Spirit. The Salvation Army recognises the need of society to be protected from wrongdoers, especially those willing to use violence, but recognises also the responsibility placed upon society so to regulate itself that the dignity and worth of all persons are made paramount and that the lowest instincts of men and women are not incited or inflamed. Special responsibilities in this regard fall upon publishers, broadcasters, legislators and educators. There is equally a role for the Church, the judiciary, the medical profession, and penologists to co-operate in advising government on both crime prevention and the development of just and humane penal systems.

The United Reformed Church

Capital punishment

The URC, like most of the churches in Britain, is opposed to capital punishment and has, through the British Council of Churches, on several occasions supported approaches to Members of Parliament when this matter was being debated.

This view is based on the principle that human life is sacred and that we do not have the right even in the case of those who have committed dreadful crimes, including the murder of others, to take their lives as punishment. The URC believes that even the most depraved person is capable of reform and that it is society's role to offer that possibility of reform through the systems of confinement and imprisonment which the state organises. That, of course, does not imply satisfaction with the present arrangements for prisoners. There is much need for a reform of the prison system so that it can offer a better environment within which reform and change can take place.

Another reason for not supporting the death penalty is the possibility of human error in reaching a verdict. This is not the main reason for being opposed to it but it is a practical reason which adds weight to the objection in principle.