Let’s get this blog started! Here’s my response to the Feb 2012 Clearing The Ground report, from the APPG Christians in Parliament. How is Christianity expressed in wider society? Why does it matter, for Christians, for those of belief and for those in public life? Chances are, you will come across a Christian group to deal with, whether you share their interpretation of faith or not. This report offers some issues of current debate beyond that level of respect (and respectful disagreement) that may only serve to sweep problems under the carpet.
Why read the report?
‘Ranging in their intensity and complexity, the problems can all be seen to contribute to a gentle squeezing of religious belief, and in this case specifically Christianity, from public life.’
This is a generally fair-minded report on the marginalization (rather than discrimination or persecution) of Christians in UK society. There are some worthwhile points to open up debate and dialogue, such as ‘religious belief is often only considered for the challenges it might pose rather than the benefits it can bring.’
Sexuality and the right to opt out of service: a crucial debate
As I expected, in the area of sexuality the report acts as an apology for the Evangelical Alliance and the most traditional wings of other denominations.
‘The legal and cultural conflicts that the hierarchy of rights creates can also perpetuate the idea that Christians are obsessed with sex. Christians have historically received a clear biblical model for sexual relations with vital spiritual dynamics that reflect Christ and the Church. As contemporary ideas have adapted to express other sexual ethics, the consistency of the Christian view has presented a problem for legislators. Although sexuality is widely acknowledged in society to be intrinsic to identity, religion is not, and our legal categories have come to reflect this contradiction. The reality is that sexuality is more fluid and religious commitment less fluid than the law assumes.’
Sexuality is fluid? – we choose it? Not from most people’s experience. As for Christians being obsessed with sex, this report would give some support for that view, quoting case after case of ‘Christian X doesn’t agree with having to interact with or serve LGBT people, and wants to reserve the right to tell them they are abhorrent to God’, quoting the Bible for back up. And this is called ‘orthodox Christian belief’ many times to give it legitimacy!
A poor argument, which comes down to ‘allow us to hate’. Jesus served and befriended sex workers, and the traditionalists pointed fingers then. Even if you believe that a loving relationship between two people is wrong, how about following Jesus’ example and serving them as human beings?
A framework for conversion therapy doesn’t make it more sane
This struck me as extremely dangerous:
‘While it may be controversial to help people who decide that their same-sex attraction is not what they would prefer, this shouldn’t be prohibited where it is mutually agreed and especially if within a belief framework to which both parties subscribe.’
Many cults offer a belief framework in the same way. Should it be permissible to allow people to propagate harmful beliefs and practices among vulnerable and deeply unhappy people (ie. LGBT/LGBT questioning people who are uncomfortable with their sexuality)? Beliefs that have been utterly discredited by the very groups that profess them as well as medical authorities? Let’s not forget it’s the NHS that often picks up the pieces of misguided ‘Christian’ teaching on this topic: ask anyone who’s been through the mill of self-hatred supported by so-called orthodoxy. It can take years of counselling to approach self-acceptance after this abusive behaviour.
I’m not sure that I want those specific changes recommended by the report, which may end up promoting more incidents of hate speech (which the report argues should be removed from the legal process). Legal proceedings may well be overkill in many cases, a waste of public money and a further hardening of individual Christians’ beliefs that society is weighed against them in an orgy of political correctness (eg. vilifying mutually-consented-to prayer in the workplace). But I don’t think LGBT people need any more people telling/ yelling that they are ‘fundamentally disordered’ for example.
The rest of the recommendations are a mixed bag. Some unlikely, some unworkable and some sensible.
Reasonable accommodation to cover unreasonable prejudice
A proposal for a ‘conscientious objection’ type law, using a similar framework as reasonable accommodation for disabled people, sounds plausible but pretty unworkable – and I don’t think I’d want it to be. ‘I am disabled in my compassion and ability to serve, so let me off this part of my job’ comes across as both antisocial and anti-Christian.
‘We recognise that there are two important distinctions between how reasonable accommodation is currently used in relation to disability issues and the form it has been proposed for religious belief. First, most of the accommodation required in the current usage is functional, meaning that buildings need to be adapted, or work practices changed. If reasonable accommodation was used in relation to religion, the meaning of such accommodation would be harder to assess because it is likely that the impact may be more subjective and difficult to quantify. [...]
The second challenge is that, in many of these cases, the accommodation would need to work both ways – with the employer and employee genuinely seeking to accommodate each other. [...]So while an employer might need to show that reasonable steps had been taken to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, acknowledging that certain activities might condone behaviour contrary to their beliefs, it might also be necessary for the employee to show they were willing to accommodate the values of those who disagreed with them.’
We could see how that worked out in practice…would Christians be happy to accommodate others’ values if they felt their own were being properly respected? I hope so.
Local authorities working with faith groups
‘We acknowledge that the former secretary of state for local government and communities, Rt Hon John Denham MP, issued a set of myth-busting guidance for local authorities on how they can work with faith groups. This was a helpful innovation. Yet, the persistence of cases where Christian organisations are marginalised or excluded because of the manifestation of beliefs indicates that this guidance is either being ignored or needs further development. There is also a role for Local Government Improvement and Development (formerly the IDeA) in encouraging the sharing of best practice across different authorities. Martyn Eden gave evidence to the committee on behalf of Premier Media Group. He said: “Local authorities will not work with Christian groups and churches. My own church wanted to put money and people into a youth centre, the local authority said ‘no, we can’t mix public money and church money in any way, shape or form’.”
I’ve seen this myself at council level, organisations doing groundbreaking community work with homeless/elderly/young people not getting funds they otherwise would. However, I’ve also seen the mirror image of religious prejudice, such as Brighton’s evangelical Church of Christ the King (CCK) refusing to hire out their spaces to an LGBT group.
Everyone likes joined-up thinking
‘We recommend that steps are taken to coordinate all relevant policy areas across government. This could take the form of a dedicated unit within the Cabinet Office, or a clearly stated key responsibility for the minister for the Cabinet Office. Such a move would help overcome the complex and confusing arrangements that currently span numerous departments and policy areas.’
Recommendations for Christians: rationality encouraged
An example of the well-thought through aspects of the report are recommendations to Christians to think carefully about our actions:
‘It is a Christian responsibility to proclaim the gospel, challenge injustice and to speak out for those without a voice. In a context of competing claims for power, it is critically important that Christians respond rather than react to the challenges they face. Chapter 1 showed how, by sometimes adopting an aggressive and amateur approach Christian campaigning can be complicit in exacerbating the problems that they set out to oppose.’
Court cases and media spin
‘We strongly suggest that the groups who bring these cases to court and into the public’s attention need to first reflect upon the impact that their actions might have upon politics, public opinion, other Christian public policy groups, and Christian confidence. Closer consultation with a broad range of parliamentarians, representative organisations and think-tanks, and more cooperation between public policy groups should be priorities for Christian campaigning.
Despite this report showing that there are legal and cultural problems which represent discrimination against Christians in the UK, the negative forms of Christian public engagement perpetuate an idea of Christians being pushed out of public life that is not supported by the evidence of this report.
It concerns us that those organisations most associated with the legal cases rely on the publicity that legal cases generate to raise funds from their supporters. In evidence submitted to the committee the financial cost of bringing cases and a customary reluctance of many to enter into legal proceedings was reiterated. However, it is doubtful whether some campaign organisations would remain financially viable if all the cases they were involved with were settled through informal and unpublicised mediation and accommodation. […] The erroneous communication of the full facts pertaining to legal cases and judgments is particularly concerning. Although the presentation of information in a campaign will always be part of an overall strategy, in a media context of intensive and cynical scrutiny, any embellishing or exaggerating of the facts can quickly bring Christianity into disrepute.’
Reality check – little victimisation, lots of fear
‘In addition to their written submission, Premier Media Group (PMG) published a report for the inquiry on the marginalisation of Christianity in the UK. This report refers to PMG’s own consultation, Freedom of the Cross, where, although 12 per cent of respondents had experienced victimisation for their beliefs, 63 per cent had “observed marginalisation in British public life”.
This exposes a gap between perception and reality. It also identifies a process whereby, by encouraging the public to think the situation is worse than it really is, a Christian withdrawal from public life can be affected through disillusionment and misinformation.’
That process exacerbates an attitude among Christians which appears in both the traditionally apathetic younger generation and the older generation likelier to vote: church and politics don’t mix, and it’s more ‘Christian’ to choose one over the other. It’s very frustrating when people refuse to use their God-given voice to speak up and work against injustice (a constant refrain of the Bible!) because they believe politics is too grubby and can lead one into corruption and untruth. But there is a positive vision held out by the report:
‘Too often the Church can be defined by what it opposes, instead of what it proposes. It is essential that Christians articulate a vision for society that goes beyond defending their own interests and is seen to be for the good of all.’
Blow, trumpet, blow
A theme familiar to Lib Dems cropped up, namely speaking up about our achievements.
“The Catholic Church has been doing some work on how its entire social action network is organised, and when we start to analyse the amount of money involved, the number of people involved, the frequency with which activities took place, you start adding up all the care homes, all the schools, all the religious orders, all the members of the St Vincent de Paul society who only exist locally, but they go out in every parish visiting the old and the sick, and needy every week. You have a vast undercurrent of active Christian function living out their faith in this country which is so prevalent but no-one actually notices it.”
Richard Kornicki, Catholic Bishops’ Conference
(I left this quote in despite this weekend’s shocking behaviour in respect to LGBT rights of the Catholic Church – which is not the whole picture, of course.)
‘It is perhaps understandable that Christians are sometimes reluctant to publicise their activities, achievements and social contributions. This is probably related to scriptural injunctions for humility and to not boast about good deeds. However, if freedoms for Christians are to be preserved and the socio-political role of the faith is to be properly valued, it is important that Christians increase their voice and volume about what they contribute to society.’
Cameron weighs in on faith
Some members of the APPG are obviously thrilled at David Cameron’s speech on the importance of faiths to set the tone for a more moral society. As a Lib Dem I’m less thrilled about anything Cameron says in any case. He simply says ‘that faith can play [a role] in helping people to have a moral code…’
It can. But for many, they aren’t interested and won’t seek this out. The best we can hope for is somewhere along the scale tending towards tolerance and mutual respect rather than hatred (not forgetting that some people journey towards an embrace of active faith).
Truly respectful of different beliefs
Despite the fact that ‘The Clearing the Ground committee of inquiry was administered and sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance for Christians in Parliament’ with all the anti-LGBT bias one would expect, I will be looking out with interest for and writing on future reports. Among the recommendations for Christians is included: ‘Being distinctively Christian, they must work for the good of society, and towards a society that is truly respectful of different beliefs. Christians should encourage a confident pluralism that acknowledges disagreement and is not a cover for enforcing sameness under a cloak of diversity.’
I look forward to seeing this worked out in a spirit of bold openness and experimentation, which may well draw the ire of the Evangelical Alliance itself!