Bioethics, Public Policy and the Church of England

Lead Research Organisation: University of Winchester
Department Name: Theology and Religious Studies


The aim of this project is to investigate how the Church of England has engaged with selected public policy debates in relation to biomedical ethics since the 1960s. What has it been aiming to achieve, and why? What strategies has it adopted, and why? What effect has its public engagement had on policy outcomes and public perceptions? How has that public engagement been reflected in the media? By concentrating on one Christian denomination and a narrow range of ethical and policy issues, it will be possible to produce a focused case study of the involvement of faith communities in public ethical and policy debates in contemporary Britain.

The interest of this research lies in the fact that the role of religious groups in the policy process in contemporary Britain is highly contested. This is illustrated by the debates leading up to the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (2008): the Select Committee examining the legislation made particular efforts to engage representatives of faith groups in the debate; yet at the same time, some contributions to the debate and some media comment expressed considerable suspicion of religious involvement and influence.

The involvement of religious traditions in policymaking in liberal societies has been much discussed in the academic literature in both political theory and public theology. Less attention, though, has been paid to the ways in which religious groups have actually engaged with public debates, how their modes of engagement compare with the various possibilities set out in the academic literature and what effects their involvement has had.

This research will begin to fill that gap, by focusing on three controversial areas in biomedical ethics that have been the subject of policymaking and legislation between the 1960s and the present: abortion, human fertilisation and embryology, and assisted dying. Over that period, the Church of England has had a high level of engagement with these issues. The aims and strategies it has adopted, and the rationales for those aims and strategies, will be investigated through a study of archival sources documenting that engagement and interviews with key personnel. The effects of its public engagement on these issues will be assessed by analysing Parliamentary records (including Hansard and committee reports), selected media coverage, and empirical survey data on public perceptions of the bioethical issues being studied and of the churches' involvement in public life. In the light of these analyses, further empirical survey research will be conducted to investigate more specifically the public impact of the Church's public engagement with the issues being studied.

The findings of this project are expected to offer new insights into the engagement of faith groups in public debate and the political process. As such, they will be of use to academics working in public theology, bioethics and politics, to those responsible for faith communities' engagement with public issues, and to policymakers interested in the role of religious traditions in the policy process.

Planned Impact

The main potential beneficiaries are (1) leaders and members of Christian churches, particularly those with responsibility for their churches' public ethical and policy engagement; (2) leaders and members of other faith communities, particularly those responsible for public engagement; (3) policymakers seeking to enhance their understanding of the role of faith communities in the policy process, particularly in areas raising sensitive ethical issues.

The potential benefit to churches and other faith communities lies in the insights it will provide into their public engagement with ethical and policy issues. It will offer information and analysis that will help them to reflect critically on their past practice of public engagement: what they have aimed to achieve, whether those aims were appropriate and consistent with their core beliefs and convictions, how they have attempted to realise those aims, and what the effects of their public engagement have been. Such critical reflection is particularly timely in a changing context in which new developments in biomedicine frequently raise complex ethical issues that demand a public policy response, while levels of 'religious literacy' among policymakers and the public are in decline and the place of faith communities in the policy process is contested. In such a context religious groups engaging in public debate need to be critically aware of what they ought to be aiming to achieve in their public engagement and why, and what the effects of their engagement on the policy process and the general public are likely to be. This project will give them valuable tools for developing such critical awareness.

The potential benefits to policymakers include (1) an enhanced awareness of what religious communities (in particular, the Church of England in its position as an established church) hope to achieve through their engagement with public policy and ethics, and why; (2) a greater understanding of the roles that faith groups play in the policy process and the effects that their public engagement has on policy, legislation and public perceptions. Since religious groups have a major involvement in public debates and the policy process in relation to bioethical issues (as can be seen, for example, in the evidence volumes of Parliamentary select committee reports on the issues selected for study in this project), it is highly important that policymakers and legislators have this awareness and understanding.

To ensure that the beneficiaries are able to engage with the project, the student will be expected to produce oral presentations and written briefings on the research findings during the later stages of the project, once the research and analysis are sufficiently far advanced to begin drawing conclusions. A range of presentations and briefings will be produced, aimed at the different groups of beneficiaries: the Church of England, other Christian churches, other faith groups, Ministers, Parliamentarians, civil servants and others involved in policymaking. Both project partners have well-developed networks of contacts with these groups, and will use their contacts to disseminate the written briefings and seek opportunities for the student to present their findings orally to these potential beneficiaries.


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