Complaints Process Then and Now

I found it interesting to read Bernard Howard’s article on complaining to the authorities. I myself complained about an incident that happened some years ago, when someone who was promoting a book he was trying to sell to a school library maintained that the author was “working with the health department on a cure for AIDS”. The book was called Magnetic Healing and Other Realities. I complained to the Department of Trade and Industry, where I was in fact treated with the utmost courtesy and consideration.

Over a period of six months, while they tracked or tried to track the itinerant bookseller down, I received a number of letters and phone calls keeping me in touch with progress to that point. Of course, after six months when the person was finally found, he denied he ever mentioned the Department of Health. The witnesses to this statement apart from myself, having no great interest in this case had forgotten what went on.

Whatever case there was was dropped for lack of evidence. The point being, though, that even with the difficulties inherent in this case, the department did eventually track down the person who made the statement and questioned him without the necessity for me to fill in complicated forms, rather on a phone call and a formal letter.

I recently complained to the same department about a section of an advertising booklet put out by a local chemist. In it a section advertised the fact that an extract from the olive oil tree was able to “prevent AIDS” (or perhaps HIV).

I fail to see much practical difference. I phoned the department and again was treated with courtesy and consideration. I was asked to ring the Ministry of Health which I also did. I had to leave a message at the Ministry because the person responsible was not there. However that seems to be the end of the matter with both departments. No follow-up calls, no letters, no nothing.

I suspect that government restructuring has meant such complaints are now treated with less urgency. People are basically getting away with no less than practising medicine without a licence — or am I too old fashioned?

Bob Metcalfe

Burning Issues

Bob Metcalfe, (Forum No. 51) makes three points to which I would like to reply.

1. “All sides in the religious debates of the 16th and 17th centuries were firmly convinced of the necessity of burning heretics”.

But most Christian groups never burnt anybody, and the last heretic to be burnt at the stake in England was not executed because he belonged to a “side”, but because he made skeptical remarks.

2. William Laud was not executed for persecuting heretics.

Correct, but I never said otherwise. Oxford University, led by Laud and Neile (the future Archbishops of Canterbury and York), burnt a man at the stake for the dreadful crime of denying the Trinity (although he seems to have complicated matters by also denying that humans have an immortal soul).

Parliament became determined to end the arbitrary powers held by the Monarchy, the Anglican Church and Oxford University, of which this was just one example, minor in itself but of great importance in a discussion of skepticism and toleration. Laud lost his head in that power struggle; later, so did King Charles.

After the Restoration, Parliament continued to be the supreme power and the church eventually found that not only could it not prosecute heretics, it could not even excommunicate them without Parliament’s permission. By the time of Hobbs (whom some bishops wanted to burn), the University and Church could reflect on the fate of Laud (and Charles) if they felt any ambition to exercise any of their earlier powers.

3. “Toleration…. was quite limited in its application at this time.”

Not so; the 17th century saw a remarkable advance in England as the power of the church was curbed. There were presumably some children who heard that Oxford University had just burnt a heretic (may even have witnessed it) and then lived through the turmoil of the Civil War to the Restoration. They could then have heard that Cambridge University, Parliament, the King, (and finally the Anglican Church if they lived a very long life!) honoured Newton (who privately held to the same heresy). In 1689 they would have heard that Parliament had passed an Act of Toleration.

This change of attitude in the 17th century is surely as amazing as the technological advances that have occurred in my lifetime.

I do not see why those with a scientific or medical background should not read history. I may know “bugger all about English politics of the 17th century” as Metcalfe claims, but my interest is in intellectual history not politics. For those who would like to know more about this, I recommend two professional historians on whose work I have drawn: Henry Kamen “The Rise of Toleration”, and the essays of Hugh Trevor-Roper collected as “Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans”.

Jim Ring

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