The right to free speech comes with responsibility 

Rowan Atkinson has defended Boris Johnson's right to free speech
Rowan Atkinson has defended Boris Johnson's right to free speech

Rt Rev Christopher Foster, Bishop of Portsmouth    

Jokes about religion aren’t anything new. I know that comedians make jokes about the appearance of bishops like me when we robe for church services, for instance.

You might think I would be offended by that, but I’m not. Jokes about religion aren’t by definition offensive, but they can be if they are personal and harmful to an individual or group.

I know that I am fair game in this regard, as are all bishops to one degree or another, and our nation has a vital tradition of using humour as a tool for holding the establishment to account.

From medieval court jesters through to modern TV satire, comedy reminds those in positions of authority that they are still regular human beings, as fallible as anyone else.

And while I’m not asking for extra mockery, I know that when people joke at the Church’s expense, that’s usually what’s going on.

If I’m not offended by jokes about my robes, where should we draw the line?

Recently the comedian Rowan Atkinson defended Boris Johnson’s comments about women wearing the burka and said he didn’t need to apologise because freedom of speech is important.

Absolutely it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s right or good to say things that hurt, and would harm others. The point is that having the right to say things doesn’t always justify saying them.

All of us, and particularly those in important, influential or powerful positions – whether comedians by trade or not – shouldn’t speak or make jokes at the expense of a whole group of people.

Then it becomes about someone wielding power to belittle a specific group of people, instead of using that power to bring people together and build up our communities.

So I think there’s something here about intent. We all say things we shouldn’t, or things we regret, from time to time, so I’m not about to pass judgement here. But I do think that words are incredibly powerful, and they can be used to hurt or heal, to break down or build up.

We have great freedoms in this country, so let us use our words with care, to heal, to challenge when needed, but always in order to build up our common life.