Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Equal marriage: freedom of religion or politically motivated authoritarianism?

And so – first the good news.

The very good news.

As a photographer I will shortly no longer have to hear the discriminatory phrase “according to the law of this country, marriage is the union of one man with one woman” when working at weddings.  As a believer in, and advocate for, marriage equality this is indeed very welcome.  I am absolutely delighted that marriage is being redefined – as it has of course many times previously – to enable same-sex couples to have the same legal rights to marry as opposite-sex couples.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s announcement today was not entirely unexpected.  What was somewhat surprising is the degree to which she appears determined to appease Conservative backbenchers and religious traditionalists.  I am genuinely shocked and concerned at the weakness and insecurity Conservative ministers have demonstrated on this issue, which in turn highlights how grateful we should be to Lynne Featherstone and our Liberal Democrat parliamentarians for their dedication and energies, which have ensured that equal marriage legislation is all but set to become reality.

It is not, however, the legislation I would have either hoped for or envisaged.  On the first count, I accept that being in coalition with a party that boasts amongst its parliamentarians such luminaries as Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries, some form of compromise was inevitable.  But the compromise that I foresaw was not a legalised form of institutional homophobia or a licence to discriminate on the superficial basis of sexual orientation.  I suspect many other progressive Christians are equally disturbed by this unexpected development, not least those who are members of the Church of England.

Ms Miller intimated that the government will “explicitly state that it will be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples”.  Read that again.  

It will be ILLEGAL 


I still can’t quite believe it.  Even her justification didn’t make any sense: the Church of England had “explicitly stated” its opposition, she claimed, so therefore it was only right for the government to “explicitly” reinforce the Church’s entitlement to legal exception. 

She wasn’t using that logic when pressing the Church of England to rethink its internal democracy after the furore over women bishops.

So, let’s get this right.  Ms Miller is only capable of seeing the Church of England, and therefore looking at the wider issue, through the prism of institutional authoritarianism.  She doesn’t view the church as a collection of individuals with widely differing views on this and many other matters.  She doesn’t see the gay Christians, the progressive movements within Anglicanism such as Inclusive Church or the many clergy who have taken a stand for marriage equality.  She has listened to a vocal minority, and assumed – wrongly – that they speak for the majority.  And so the Church of England, which contains so many more inclusivists than – for example – the Plymouth Brethren, will be legally barred from conducting same-sex marriage against the wishes of many of its members and clergy while hardline evangelical churches will be able to “opt” to marry those they actively discriminate against.  It’s an absurd situation whereby those most in favour of legislation are banned from participating while those most vehemently opposed have the option to perform same-sex marriages should they at some point before Hell freezes over decide they want to.

My friends, who are committed Christians and members of the Church of England, I’m sure would love to be married in their own church but will be legally prevented from doing so.  That is not in the spirit of religious freedom that supposedly underpins these proposals.  It also asks why, given the proposed legislation will not force any church to conduct same-sex marriages and that there is provision for an opt out, it was necessary to go as far as to make it illegal for one specific church to even consider allowing itself the opportunity to do as other denominations will be legally permitted. Make no mistake - this is quite different to the issue of women bishops.  The Church Synod won't be able to make another decision in a few years' time.  That right has been taken away from them by legislation supposedly promoting religious freedom.  

It seems that there are a number of political motivations behind this misguided proposal, not entirely disconnected with the Church of England’s identity as The Established Church.  Whatever her reasons, Miller has gone too far and risks creating potentially divisive tensions within the Church which will not now be permitted the luxury, as in the case of the Church of Scotland, to embark on a period of sober reflection on the way forward. 

I can only imagine this is Maria Miller’s revenge for the Church of England’s refusal to accept women into the bishopric.  Clearly she wasn’t too pleased with the outcome and is now determined to render the Church socially irrelevant.  Or perhaps she was simply highlighting the urgent need for the Church of England to be disestablished and for its historic unmerited privileges to be revoked.  If today has shown anything it’s that a liberal society is a secular society, and that such a society can only be achieved if the established church is afforded precisely the same freedoms as any other religious organisation.

We’ve heard throughout the debate so far that marriage equality is a “conscience issue”.  I don't actually agree – for me it’s a basic question of human rights.  But if we’re going to promote it as a conscience issue for parliamentarians, why can’t the same logic be used when applied to the Church of England and its clergy?  As the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan explained, “it should be left for us to opt in or opt out."  Another leading Anglican, the Bishop of Leicester, criticised politicians encroaching into the sphere of religious freedom and warned of widening divisions between “political classes” and the Christian faithful while former Bishop Richard Harries was eager to put on record the significant level of support equal marriage had within the Church. 

Miller’s interference represents the very worst kind of politics.  Not only is it authoritarian and arrogant, but also totally unnecessary.  The legislation as proposed by Maria Miller should be resisted because it is by nature homophobic.  It allows – in fact, it compels – an organisation to discriminate against an already oppressed minority on the basis of something it cannot change.  It will be legislation that reinforces discrimination and that does so purely on the grounds of sexual orientation.  For all the positives contained within the proposals, Liberal Democrats must oppose this heavy handed and ham-fisted approach from the minister.  It runs contrary to everything any liberal thinker believes in. 

There is little question that momentum is with the progressives and that marriage equality is now a virtual certainty.  It is supported by the Liberal Democrats, almost all of the Labour Party and a fair proportion of the Conservatives.  I want to see marriage equality become reality – I’ve long campaigned for it.  But I don’t want to see it delivered with these shameful conditions attached.  I believe that sometimes political compromise is not only necessary but inevitable - even desirable - but in this case there really is no need for this divisive, discriminatory and frankly illogical proposal from Miller.  Rather than celebrating the pending advent of marriage equality, Liberal Democrats should be considering how to ensure the legislation is carried without unnecessary exceptions being applied for the Church of England.

I’m not convinced the Church of England actually wants this exception, other than perhaps as a means of avoiding a fraught internal wrangling on the issue against which the battle for gender equality would pale into insignificance.  I hope that, in addition to liberals across the political spectrum standing up for real religious freedom, many Anglicans also join the fight for freedom from government interference.  Already I have spoken to a number of Anglican Christians, none of which welcome today’s announcement at all and suggest Miller has made a catastrophic mistake.

Among them is the Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, who urges his colleagues in the Church of England to “refuse to [conduct] any weddings until there is equality.”  In his blog he urges them to “put a ban on banns. The time is coming for you to stop doing weddings. Once the new legislation is passed, if your denomination cannot or will not opt in then the time has come for you to stand up for what’s right. If you support equality, do something about it and show us what you are made of.

I agree with Kelvin.  If the Church of England hopes to regain its relevance and role at the heart of British society it must heed his advice.  It must also take on those within its midst who, in their misguided evangelical piety, actually destroy the very thing they claim to be so determined to save.  But it must go further still – in the words of former Bishop John Spong, “reformers cannot just tilt against the windmills of antiquity.  They must develop new visions, propose new models, chart new solutions.”  Within those new visions must be a new inclusiveness, in which all people – gay and straight, religious and atheist, can feel welcome and accepted in a church that actively reaches into our communities and whose desire to help forge a new interconnected and all-embracing society resonates with the public.

That, of course, is a matter for the Church of England.  A matter in which I have interest, but a matter for the church and for the church alone nonetheless.  A matter in which government ministers would be wise not to meddle with simply to appease a few loose cannons on the Tory backbenches or to reinforce historic privilege on the part of the Church of England.

And so while there was much to be pleased about in today’s announcement, we cannot rest on our laurels and wallow in smug self-satisfaction in what we as Liberal Democrats have achieved.  Indeed, the fight is not over however substantial those achievements are.  We must continue to press for real, full and unconditional equality and (as my party membership card reminds me) the creation of a liberal society - something that doesn’t seem to feature in Maria Miller’s thinking.  


Richard Thomas said...

If it were not Maria Miller putting it forward, I would see this as a smart ploy to force the C of E out of the long grass to confront its metaphorical demons. As I understand it, as the state church in England it has to conduct the marriages of anyone eligible in the parishes. If the Church accepts what's on the table it is as I see it a step towards disestablishment because it is no longer universal; if it goes along with permissive gay marriage according to the views of the minister (sorry - parson in England) then argument over.

Perhaps then, this is not Maria Miller's own work. I'd see Ken Clark's hand behind ths.

Andrew said...

The C of E certainly has a few metaphorical demons to be dealing with.

I agree that if the Church accepts this then the logical outcome is a move towards disestablishment. That would be a positive outcome, perhaps proof that authoritarian approaches actually undermine their supposed purpose. More negative would be the church's descent into exclusivism, and those within with a more universal vision becoming powerless to facilitate change, and that powerlessness creating frustration, tension and potentially division.

I strongly believe that a church that turns its back on inclusivism is committing suicide as far as its social and spiritual relevance is concerned.

Whether or not this is a clever ploy from Ken Clarke, it certainly doesn't look like that. The perception of an overbearing minister pandering to the whims of her backbenches does neither the Conservative Party or the government much good.