A Message from the Convener of Affirmation Scotland
I’m disappointed with the Archbishop of Canterbury (though perhaps a Presbyterian shouldn’t have too many expectations of an Anglican Archbishop.) When Rowan Williams became the holder of the top job in the Anglican Communion many people saw this as good news for lesbian and gay people. As Bishop of Monmouth, Williams had been quietly supportive of his gay clergy, some of his writings had stressed inclusion and equality and he was generally regarded as a thoughtful, deeply intelligent Christian scholar.
Yet since becoming Archbishop of Canterbury he has failed to give lesbian and gay Christians any sense of hope. His comments this week on the subject of the adoption of children by gay couples underlines this and makes me wonder just how insightful he is.
Williams has said that the “rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning". This refers to the Roman Catholic Adoption Agencies’ request to be exempt from discrimination law on the grounds of their conscientiously held views.
Williams’ argument is unsophisticated: our prisons are full of people who have been put there by the law but whose consciences never bother them. The law to ban fox-hunting made no allowance for the consciences of the women and men in red coats on horse back. Legislation frequently circumscribes conscience.
The other point we frequently hear on this subject of adoption is that the welfare of the child is paramount. Well, let’s consider one child (and this will not be hypothetical.) James has been adopted by Sarah, who is unmarried but in a long term relationship with Lucy. Single people can adopt children under present law. Sarah and Lucy wish that they were both the legal parents of James for if something happened to Sarah what would then happen to James? So what is in the best interests of the welfare of James? Surely the only answer is that the family unit, which has existed for a number of years, be supported and allowed to continue especially in the event of some tragedy. Would it really be in James’s best interests to be taken away from Lucy? The law has to support relationships and be the same law for all people.
Rowan Williams has argued, in the context of the adoption debate, that there is an analogy with doctors and nurses who are able to opt out of performing abortions on grounds of conscience. This is fine and maybe individual social workers ought to be given some exemption – but not an entire organization which, after all, is receiving public fund to do its work. Imagine if a Christian hospice said that they wanted to refuse patients who were homosexual!
Ironically, however, the Archbishop’s comments on conscience have a relevance to our Church of Scotland debate on the marking of civil partnerships: we want freedom of conscience to be upheld – and upheld by the law of the church. At the same time, however, it must be recognised that if the status quo in the Kirk prevails then no-one will be forced to do anything against their conscience.
The adoption debate has arisen due to the legislation going through Westminster, which will apply to Scotland too, on the provision of goods and services and from April it will be illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. For example, a hotel will not be able to refuse a room to a same-sex couple because the hotel owner has a homophobic conscience. There was an excellent Thought For The Day on BBC Radio 4 last week on this topic, given by the Vicar of Putney, Giles Fraser. Here is an excerpt from it (you can read the whole piece on the Radio 4 web-site.)
As a Christian I'm protected by the law against
discrimination - and I'm grateful for it. No one can legally
deny me access to goods and services because of my faith. No
one is allowed to put a sign up in their hotel window that
reads 'No Christians' - or 'No Muslims' for that matter.
Discrimination on the grounds of race and gender is equally
outlawed. All of which is an unambiguously good thing. As
indeed, I believe, is the extension of these provisions to
include sexual orientation. For no one should be allowed to
display a sign that reads 'no gays' either.
Some Christians, however, are strongly resisting this legislation. They argue that being obliged to provide goods and services to gay couples makes them complicit in what they regard as sin, and that this complicity compromises their deeply held religious convictions.
For some, however, these so-called 'religious convictions' are little more than a mask for prejudice. Why, they argue, aren't these same Christian hoteliers up in arms at a legal obligation to provide hotel rooms for unmarried couples? After all, conservative Christians believe sex outside marriage to be equally a sin, yet they haven't been protesting about this. Indeed, many of them may well believe gluttony is a sin, but they haven't been campaigning for Christian waiters to have the right to refuse fat people extra chips on moral grounds.
No, there is real inconsistency in the way some Christians apply the argument from complicity. Moreover, this inconsistency is indicative that they are treating homosexuality as a special case. In other words, this inconsistency is a tell-tale mark of prejudice.
At the end of the day, all that is being asked for is that lesbian and gay people are regarded as full members of society – no half-way house of a little bit of discrimination or semi-equality. We are either equal or we are not. In God’s eyes I believe we are.
And the same it true of the Church. All we ask for is for the golden rule to be obeyed: do to us as you would do to yourselves.