Church Freedom of Conscience

Thursday, 23rd February 2012 at 0:56 UTC 9 comments

A line in my last blog post, “On the Immovability of Marriage”, got an interesting response based on one line that I wrote that I’m "in support of individual churches, clergy and congregations following their consciences with” offering or denying Gay couples marriage. “ Given that you bring the example up, are you also in favour of them being able to follow their consciences in impose a ban on inter-racial marriage?” Merrick wrote. Here’s my response, which is far too long for a comment.

It is a very good question, and possibly not one I can answer too clearly. On one level, I don’t mind the idea that someone can join an organisation who’s internal rules they happen to like, even if I don’t like them. The obvious downside to this being the experiences of, say, children growing up in those churches and coming out as gay. They can’t necessarily decide that this Church isn’t for them and move on.

The long term experience of the Church of England with Women Priests has been pretty mixed. Individual parish churches were allowed to pass “Resolution A”, opting not to allow women to celebrate communion on their altar or even “Resolution B”, rejecting all women as potential future vicars. The result has been that people didn’t run off and hide in a cave, but (if you know how to find out) they do have a nice warning sign that the contents may not be suitable for those who think the church should have moved on.

Some churches have discovered, possibly from having a woman vicar down the road at the next church, that maybe its not such a bad thing, and some have moved on, whilst others have solidly retrenched. I’m glad we didn’t drive them underground, or off to Rome, though, even though I’m equally, if not more glad that the church as a whole accepted women as priests. The debate rolls on, and little by little, churches are changing their minds.

There’s also a level on which I think that if people want the church to disestablish, then saying the state should still be able to dictate how it treats its freely associating adult members is, well, a big bad state.

If a church decided not to marry people because they were of different racial backgrounds, I’d be horrified, and I’d wish on them all the bad PR they’d patently obviously be about to get. I’d happily go on the march, but I’m not so certain I want to make this a criminal, state interference thing, in just the way I don’t like Britain spying on Muslims despite plenty to disagree on.

Where I’d put the line is when this stuff begins to affect kids/vulnerable people who can’t decide not to attend, or are being actively harmed (Elephant in room: Child Abuse). Then its an organisation abusing its power over people who can’t freely react, and then its time to involve the state as arbiters, unless we’ve done away with the state already, in which case hopefully some other body has come along to deal with people who prey on kids.

But when we’re talking about two adults who can decide whether to act in their own interests (presumably moving churches, or leaving altogether) then surely they can make their own minds up? And if you bring in the law, you just create whining martyrs with ammo, whereas mostly George Carey is just a whining martyr without substance.

Also, to broaden this out, I disagree with Hizbut Tahrir on plenty of issues, but unless and until someone can show me proof they’ve been involved in terrorism, I will defend their right to exist, to associate, to believe and to govern their own group.

I hope that explains something of why I’m all for churches and other religious groups making their own minds up and suffering the consequences from the public, rather than the state. There should always be a place for churches to act on conscience, and for people to be members of an organisation even if I or another observer thinks its against their interests. After all, I hope no one in this debate actually wants a state so big it becomes an arbiter of people’s private thoughts, or indeed the internal policies of organisations. There’s a difficult balance to be drawn, but there’s a dangerous line we shouldn’t, as a society, cross.


Entry filed under: Church, Faith, Human Rights.

On the Immovability of Marriage Why the CPP investigation matters for York

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. WalkingInTheGrey  |  Thursday, 23rd February 2012 at 10:58 UTC

    I’m sort of thinking out loud here, which is always a bad idea, but I think those Churches that wouldn’t perform same-sex marriages out of conscience would argue there was a difference between inter-racial marriage and same-sex marriage. Surely they would argue they don’t want to perform same sex marriages because they see them as wilfully sinful, I can’t see any contemporary churches arguing that being black goes against God.

    Many of us would disagree with their assessment of homosexuality, and so for us equating it to something like skin colour is a helpful parallel to reveal prejudice. Ultimately though, I feel as if they have stronger grounds for acting within their conscience on same-sex marriage than they do inter-racial marriage.

  • 2. Merrick  |  Thursday, 23rd February 2012 at 11:48 UTC

    It’s not like the disagreements between Christians and Muslims. This is about repression.

    The only way countries with a significant minority ethnic population get proper integration is through laws. The USA banned segregated schools and bussed black children in under guard. Scary at the time, but it would never have reached today’s normalised multiracial circumstances any other way. To have allowed those schools the freedom of conscience to exclude non-white pupils would mean it continued and we’d still have it today. That’s what you seem to be advocating here.

    Taking such decisive domineering action did not create whining martyrs of the KKK and White Citizens’ Council, it helped sweep their views away and create a society that is that bit further along the road to liberty and equality.

    It’s not just people growing up gay in a homophobic church. It is harming children, and others, far outside the church’s doors. It’s about the way that the church promotes and preaches, the way it makes the congregation more likely to be discriminatory in the outside world, and beyond that the normalising effect that this has on wider social bigotry and discrimination.

    There are many things that fall under the ‘i don’t like it but you have the right to do it’ bracket. I don’t want to hear Genesis albums or have genital piercings but people should have that right if that’s their taste. Making people reinforce insitutional bigotry is a whole different level. And when that institution is a fabulously wealthy one that is the state’s conjoined twin, it has to be inclusive of all the people that state rules over. The Anglican church is not some minor group like the BNP or Koran study class.

    In this situation, as in so many others that concern the exercise of graeat power, to stay neutral is to side with the mighty.

  • 3. Merrick  |  Thursday, 23rd February 2012 at 14:26 UTC

    Walking In The Grey, whilst very few churches would argue that inter-racial marriages were sinful, it isn’t long since they did. They had biblical reason to.

    Whilst homosexuality breaks laws set down in Leviticus (as does eating seafood yet I don’t see them banning prawn cocktails), non-whites bear the Mark of Cain. In that time – still well within living memory – they were rightly opposed by people who saw at as nothing less than institutionalised bigotry.

    Just because they’ve moved on from one form of discrimination and not another doesn’t mean it should be tolerated.

  • 4. Clive Billenness  |  Thursday, 23rd February 2012 at 22:49 UTC

    The problem with leaving churches to find their own way on this issue is what I can now refer to as the Bideford Effect. Bideford you will remember was the small town council targeted by aetheists to take to court over the saying of prayers at the start of their meetings. The aetheists chose a small organisation, poor in resources, to make their test case.
    In the same way, I fear that a militant group would seek to ‘pick off’ individual churches over this issue if there is not a single decision taken by General Synod binding upon all. As a Churchwarden, I would be very concerned if my small parish church was suddenly targeted like this.
    Let us have clear, open, informed debate on this issue and a decision binding upon all from the General Synod. And then, like those Anglican priests who felt they could not stay in a church alongside female clergy, those who disagree with the view of the Synod can choose a different path.

  • 5. Merrick  |  Sunday, 26th February 2012 at 11:46 UTC

    Football clubs are, like churches, small groups of people with a common interest who come together and decide how they want to apply themselves to their shared task.

    Football has a deeply embedded history of singing, chanting and shouting. Much of it is banter, but there is also a large amount of taunting. Anything that can be used to taunt an opposition player has been used.

    Racism used to make up a large part of it. I remember the 1980s when people brought bags of bananas to games to throw at black players. As recently as 2004 one of the figureheads of the game, Jimmy Hill, was defending someone begin called a “lazy, fucking thick nigger” as just being the banter of the game.

    People argued – as you do about churches – that it’s up to the individuals involved and the clubs as entities to make their own choices. But this was an extremely blinkered view that ignored football’s cumulative place in society. If millions of people see such racist displays, it made it a normal attitude to have. It made it harder for those of a strong anti-racist disposition to get heard. It meant that people of colour far away from football were subjected to a greater level of discrimination and abuse.

    Some cultural institutions really are so large that they affect those that have no contact with them. Football is one. Television is another. The church is also firmly on the list.

    A concerted effort was made to kick racism out of football. It has almost entirely succeeded. Incidents that used to happen on every pitch without comment are now so rare that they cause enormous international uproar. It did not make whining martyrs of the likes of Jimmy Hill. It made them into dinosaurs of bigotry that we rapidly left behind.

    I see no reason why there should not be a similar effort to kick homophobia out of the church. If you think otherwise, yet would object more strongly to an equally racist church, you are being swayed by social norms rather than moral consistency and are a hypocrite who would, 50 years ago, have been defeding the racist churches.

  • 6. Greg  |  Tuesday, 28th February 2012 at 0:22 UTC

    Merrick, comparing racial abuse with gay marriage is comparing apples with oranges. Getting married is an action, and actions fall within the remit of morality, so Christians and the church can legitimately hold an opinion its rights and wrongs. Race, on the other hand, is something you’re born with. They’re different issues and people can hold different viewpoints without being hypocrites – and nobody is abusing anyone here, only discussing how to handle a sacrament that has been given to us by God. You’re only doing damage to your cause if you can’t see that.

  • 7. Merrick  |  Wednesday, 29th February 2012 at 17:09 UTC

    Greg, I am comparing the same thing. The church has a ban on gay marriage. It used to have a ban on inter-racial marriage. Despite it being something you’re born with, the church denigrated people for it, just as the ban on gay mariage does today. There were theological and biblical justifications given for it at that time that almost all modern Christians find at best anachronistic and at worst horrifying these days.

    Walking the Grey ‘feels as if’ there are stronger grounds for being against gay marriage but an’t say what they are. This is, I suspect, because these days it is more socially acceptable to be homphobic than racist. However, go back fity or a hundred years and what would you be doing?

    By the same token, imagine fifty years into the future when our understanding of tolerance and diversity has continued and what will we think of the people of 2012?

    The football comparison was made to highlight the social role of the church beyond itself, as Graham implied this did not exist.

  • 8. Greg  |  Saturday, 3rd March 2012 at 19:04 UTC

    That only works if you start from the position that the ‘liberation movement’ (or whatever you want to call it) is obviously right, and whatever they come up with in the future is obviously right. It groups together racism and sexuality as linked and dependent causes – which they’re not at all – and allows liberation to be the arbiter of truth. Well sorry, I don’t follow. God is the arbiter of truth, we should do all we can to arrive at that truth, and on independent issues like these two, that gives four possible positions, none of which are necessarily ‘phobic’ if the person espousing them has genuinely thought about them can justify them logically.

    That doesn’t make me an apologist for racism, but it does make me deeply suspicious when someone says that the church policy should be defined not by what they believe God tells them, but what another authority (in this case, the leftist liberation movement) dictates. The world doesn’t always progress in the right direction, part of the point of the church is to point this out (prophecy), so kowtowing to popular opinion (in this case, that racism and sexuality can be linked in some sort of progressive whole) is a recipe for disaster.

  • 9. Sarah McCulloch  |  Tuesday, 24th July 2012 at 18:24 UTC

    “Also, to broaden this out, I disagree with Hizbut Tahrir on plenty of issues, but unless and until someone can show me proof they’ve been involved in terrorism, I will defend their right to exist, to associate, to believe and to govern their own group.”

    Sure, just read The Islamist by Ed Husain. He ended up in Hizbut Tahrir and ultimately left when his radicalising resulted in one of his followers stabbing someone in the chest in front of him.

    “Whilst homosexuality breaks laws set down in Leviticus (as does eating seafood yet I don’t see them banning prawn cocktails), non-whites bear the Mark of Cain.”

    The Mark of Cain was a mark by God to protect Cain from being killed by people who considered him a murderer. The racism came a bit later…


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