Church Freedom of Conscience
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.