On reaching one million page-views
On Sunday, we had our millionth page-view: rather sooner than we expected and a prospect that we could hardly have contemplated when we started this enterprise in June 2012 over a pint (or two) in the Maltsters at Llandaff during a break from the LLM (Canon Law) course. Almost 2,000 posts later, this one marks some of the highlights since the blog was first launched and in anticipation of its new (slightly) revised format, looks towards the future.
Our thoughts on the benefits and pitfalls of academic blogging, our approach to writing Law and Religion UK were summarized in Writing on the “graffiti wall of death” – the role of an academic blog which we presented at the “Meet the Editors and Bloggers” session when were again in Cardiff at the LARSN Conference in 2016. Our views on blogging have not changed appreciably since then, although the blogs itself has developed further. The period 2012 to the present has witnessed many significant events within law and religion, and it perhaps timely to identify the major themes, assess how we have reported them, and indicate how our readership has responded to them.
The blog and its readership
Our posts tend to be issue-driven, reflecting current topics which we believe will be of interest in the broad field of “law and religion”. This has two implications: there are “quiet news” days (and sometimes weeks) when there is little to report, as tends to happen when the Westminster Parliament is in recess or the courts are not sitting; furthermore, it is not always possible to predict which issues will be of interest to our readership, which itself is quite variable. It is not unknown to observe a spike in page views of an item we thought relatively unimportant if it is picked up by a group outside our normal readership, such as our reporting on the safeguarding issues associated with the York Minster bells. Recent trends are best reflected in the quarterly statistics, whereas longer-term interests are shown in the annual and “all time” figures.
We currently have 588 e-mail and WordPress followers and about 1300 followers on Twitter. What use they make of our material we do not know, though we are occasionally cited in hard-copy publications – in itself, symptomatic of the increasingly blurred lines between traditional peer-reviewed publication and blogging. And, of course, all that a page-view means is that someone has landed on the page: not that that person took the trouble to read it. But even assuming that 90 per cent of page-views are pure accidents and immediately ignored, that would still leave 100,000 occasions on which the person conducting the search actually read the post – which is far more readers than either of us will ever get for an article in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal.
We also suspect that a certain amount of traffic is generated by people who simply want some detail on a matter of church law which they cannot find anywhere else. If so, we hope that we at least provide useful background but – and we cannot stress this too strongly – we certainly don’t claim to be authoritative.
Reflecting issues in law and religion since 2012
The five or so years during which we have been blogging have witnessed a number of major events in the legislation which impacts on religion and the activities of faith groups. Space does not permit a detailed summary, but within the churches, these have included: the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI; the eventual appointment of the Rt Revd Justin Welby; the appointment of women to the episcopate in the CofE and the subsequent non-appointment of other bishops; the work of the Independent Reviewer; changes to the Lords Spiritual; same-sex marriage within secular legislation and the response within the Anglican Communion; blessings of civil partnerships (or not); safeguarding.
There have been important developments in the case law of the CJEU, ECtHR and domestic courts relating to discrimination, abortion, same-sex marriage, employment, to name but a few. Possibly the most important for the longer term was the attempt by the late Lord Toulson in the Supreme Court to provide a definition of “religion” appropriate to a multi-faith, multi-cultural and rather secularised society. It begins: “a spiritual or non-secular belief system, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite… “: see R (Hodkin & Anor) v Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages  UKSC 77 at .
Equally important was the ruling of the ECtHR in Eweida and Ors v United Kingdom  ECHR 37, on which we posted at some length at the time and in which the most interesting distinction was that drawn between the two religious dress cases: Ms Eweida won because BA’s uniform policy was about corporate image, while Mrs Chaplin lost because her NHS Trust’s policy was about health & safety and the Department of Health guidelines on appropriate dress for clinical staff.
Possibly the third area of general importance has been the development of a more consistent approach by the courts on employment of church-workers and others since the judgment of the Supreme Court in President of the Methodist Conference v Preston  UKSC 29: see Sharpe v Bishop of Worcester  EWCA Civ 399, on which Russell Sandberg guest-posted a long analysis, and the recent Grand Chamber judgment in Károly Nagy v Hungary  ECHR 782.
WordPress provides a detailed analysis of readership figures, and over the time we have been publishing, the highest readership has been for Sharia and the English legal system: the Government’s view, in which we summarized the position in April 2013 and which people still appear to read, even though it is out of date. Although accessed less recently, interest in sharia courts in the UK remains; and on Wednesday 14 February the ‘Quote of the Day’ on The Brief Newsletter @TimesLaw was from Russell Sandberg’s guest post A Fear of Sharia: why the Independent Report is a wasted opportunity,
“We still do not know enough about the activities of sharia councils to know how and the extent to which they operate in a way that is incompatible with English law and which discriminates against minorities within minorities”,
Russell’s post was itself the third most popular within the month.
Almost as popular has been “Religious” content of civil marriage ceremonies, another early post from July 2013 which was prompted by a couple who were prevented from including the words “in sickness and in health” in their marriage vows as these were “too religious” for a civil ceremony. The use of this and similar wording in civil ceremonies has remained a concern and frequently features in searches on the blog.
Over the long term, in addition to aspects of charity law and marriage, important court judgments also feature, notably Chaplin, Eweida, Ladele and McFarlane and our analysis of Lee v Ashers Baking Co Ltd & Ors, and whether there is a “Right to die” in English law? – R (Nicklinson) v A Primary Care Trust. Also popular are our “idiots’ guides” to Church and State – which we wrote out of exasperation at the apparent inability of the media to distinguish between the constituent parts of the UK – Copyright and religion and, of increasing relevance as the Brexit talks progress, the CJEU and the ECtHR.
As to the immediate future, the UKSC will be sitting in Northern Ireland to hear the appeal in Lee v Ashers Baking and will be handing down judgment on the Reference by the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland on the Province’s abortion laws, heard on 24 to 26 October 2017, so we are unlikely to run out of material any time soon.
In September 2012, we posted “an occasional news round-ups highlighting some of the landmark events and other issues of more general interest”, which was followed by monthly, then weekly summaries, and on 25 November of that year it became the “weekly round-up” which is now a permanent feature of the blog. Interestingly, this first “round-up” in its present format had as its first item “Women as bishops or archbishops? – not yet”. How wrong can one be?
Our reporting of consistory court judgments is greatly assisted by the summaries circulated by Ray Hemingray of the Ecclesiastical Law Association, occasionally supplemented by judgments sent by chancellors. These have now settled into a pattern whereby we publish a summary of recent judgements at the end of each month, with an index to these in December each year. Cases (or groups of similar cases) which merit further examination are considered in stand-alone posts.
In the round-up of 13 August 2017, we included our first “quick answers” to queries made via the search engine on the blog, and using this format, “Recent queries and comment” has become an occasional feature on the blog.
Other blogs on law and religion
When we started in 2012, Neil Addison’s blog Religion Law had been covering religious discrimination since 2008, and Phillip Jones’ Ecclesiastical Law was then, like us, a relative newcomer starting in March 2012. In the US, Howard Friedman had been writing Religion Clause since 2005, with a combination of competence, objectivity and analytical skill that still remains the benchmark to which we aspire – and frequently fall short of.
Since then – to our great disappointment – Neil stopped blogging in 2015, although we always welcome his comments on our posts. In January 2015, using a similar model to L&RUK, Neil Foster started writing his Law and Religion Australia and, more recently, Javier García Oliva and Helen Hall have begun writing Religion, law and the constitution: balancing beliefs in Britain, explaining its rationale as: “Balancing Beliefs is a project which looks at how the legal system can ensure that everyone’s religious, spiritual and ethical beliefs receive appropriate recognition, protection and respect”. Astute readers will observe the strong Cardiff connection running through these blogs.
But the legal blogosphere is much wider than that, and we are unapologetic about trawling it for news. The UK Human Rights Blog and Bristol University’s Public Spirit deal regularly with issues of religion, human rights and wider moral issues, while Donlu D Thayer’s regular Law and Religion Headlines, hosted by Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, is invaluable.
As we have said before, it’s in the nature of blogging that it’s usually first thoughts rather than mature reflection. Sometimes our views change over time; sometimes we simply get things wrong. There’s no great embarrassment in that and we are always grateful when people point out inaccuracies – and we try to correct them asap. It’s all part of the inevitable trade-off between current awareness and deeper analysis; on balance, we take the view that keeping readers informed about what is happening has the edge over writing the kind of piece we would hope to publish in the Ecc LJ or Law & Justice.
We should also, perhaps, reiterate that – guest posts apart – though we frequently consult each other about drafts and we occasionally sign pieces that are purely personal, in principle we are both happy to endorse what appears on the blog, whichever of us has written it. You cannot co-write a blog for almost six years unless each partner trusts the other not to post something that’s completely off-the-wall.
And while we’re on the subject of guest posts, they are always welcome – or, at any rate, we cannot remember ever turning one down.
DP & FC