equality and the church

One of the proposals in the government’s Equality Bill seeks to remove the right of churches to employ only staff whose lifestyle is consistent with the church’s teachings, specifically in relation to the church’s teaching on sexual behaviour.

My MP got a letter from me on the subject, pointing out that this proposal is extremely damaging for religous liberties in this country, as it will make it possible to force a church to employ people whose practice contradicts the church’s own teachings and beliefs on sexual morality.

I then got a letter back, enclosing a response from the Parliamentary Secretary for Equality. According to this gentleman’s letter, the government’s position is that “churches … can require an employee to be of a particular sexual orientation for ’employment for the purposes of organised religion’. This covers a narrow range of posts such as ministers of religion or others mainly involved in the promotion or reprepresntation of religion. … Ultimately the requirement depends upon the nature of the specific job. So a church could be permitted to require a youth worker to be heterosexual if that youth worker’s job mainly involved explaining Christiainty. But it could not require a youth worker to be heterosexual if that youth worker’s main responsibility was organising sporting activities.”

Obviously, this response entirely avoids providing any justification for the government’s assumption that it has the right to override the Christian conscience, the Church’s orthodox teaching, and the teaching of the Bible, in matters of morality and ethics. There is also plenty scope for challenging how – on what grounds – the government has either the right or the ability to judge what does and doesn’t fall within the said narrow range of posts which “involve the promotion or representation of religion” (or indeed to define things in those terms at all). It seems to involve an implicit admission that freedom of conscience will indeed be damaged by the government’s equality agenda, and that with little compunction.

But I’m interested too in how the current state of affairs in the visible church leaves us, in some respects, wide open to this kind of state intrusion. If you remember this brief and simplistic description of the Establishment Principle from a wee while ago – virtually everything that is distinctive to this historic understanding of the right relationship between church and state assumes a set-up which has by and large been abandoned in today’s situation.

This can be seen primarily, I think it’s only fair to say, in that the Reformers, Covenanters, and Disruption Fathers give no indication anywhere that they knew what a youth worker might be. So while the Church in 1842 unwaveringly stood on its right to decide whether or not to proceed with disciplinary action against a thief and a fraudster in the ministry and a licentiate accused of drunkenness and obscenity, in various cases where the civil courts contradicted (interdicted) its ecclesiastical rulings – can it be said that the Church today has as firm a grasp of the power of the keys when it comes to the manifold ministries which individuals seem to perform while attached to the church but not particularly as functions of either the eldership or the deaconate? Does the church’s right to hire and fire Sunday School teachers (if they’re not voluntary any more), cleaners (if the hoovering and polishing isn’t an automatic unpaid rostered delight of every able bodied member of the congregation these days),¬† “worship leaders” (if they’re not just run of the mill teaching elders), small group leaders, football organisers, and any other ministry which I may have inadvertently overlooked – does this right really fall under its powers in sacris in any case? Office-bearers in the church – teaching and ruling elders, and deacons – have a calling, a vocation, to their office, and the appointment, admission, ordination, suspension, and/or deposition of individuals to or from these divinely ordained offices is and must be civilly recognised as the ‘power of the keys’, belonging to the church and not in any sense to the civil authorities – but when the church becomes an employer, things seem to become rather more murky.

Not, of course, that this in any way excuses the state taking advantage of the church’s sloppy attitude to its officebearers (and its often unnecessary impluse to provide a sanitised churchy version of every legitimate kind of social activity within its own pale; who really needs a youth worker to organise football anyway). The Disruption fathers might have been tempted to say that when the church starts to fail in its responsibilities, the state has more and more of an obligation to rebuke and remonstrate as best it can from the sidelines, and provoke her to love and good works all over again.

No. The government’s Equality Bill is no remedy for the ailments of the church. Instead it will only contribute to an atmosphere where the message of the scriptures is more and more suppressed, the gospel trumpet increasingly muted, and most objectionable of all, where the powers of the state are misused to restrict freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. This is good neither for the church nor for society, and it’s a retrograde step for the state too. The government may not like the church’s teaching, or her insistence that those who assist her work of preaching the gospel – in more and less direct ways – should live out their lives in accordance with the scriptural pattern. But it is going well beyond its rightful jurisdiction when it attempts to force its secular, politically correct agenda on people and organisations against their scripturally-informed consciences.

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4 thoughts on “equality and the church

  1. These are good points that you make. I think the Equality Bill is aimed more at where a religious group is essentially providing a public service rather than an instance such as a local football group for the children of one place of worship. In the case where a faith school is receiving public funds to employ teachers and maintain facilities it seems only fair that a teacher in a subject such as Geography should not necessarily have to profess to a particular faith and their sexuality should be considered a private matter and not a necessary condition or employment. However, there are other positions where it is perfectly reasonable to ask that the applicant or employee shares the required faith.

    Personally, I would hope that a faith school wouldn’t turn down a good teacher if they were the best candidate but didn’t profess to the relevant faith as long as the position didn’t require it. Firstly, I would hope that the school would want to provide the best teaching and opportunities for the children that they can, and secondly, it would seem like a good opportunity to show the teacher what faith looks like in action. Even if they don’t convert, they will have a deep respect and better understanding of the work of that particular religious group. Call me an idealist dreamer but I really do believe that we learn and benefit more from interacting with each other than we do if we keep apart from each other. I think a lot of the time we share similar goals and ideals. Love is universal.

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  2. I don’t know too much about faith schools actually – have a faint, pre-1872 presbyterian scepticism about them although i’m sure some of them do a good job – but the bill definitely does cover everyone employed by a church, synagogue, mosque, etc, with the likely exception of those deemed to be employed “for the purposes of organised religion” (the Bill’s terminology), ie, as the Parliamentary Secretary for Equality explains, “a narrow range of posts such as ministers of religion or others mainly involved in the promotion or representation of religion,” and as “a proportionate way of either avoiding conflict with followers [sic] strongly held convictions or complying with the doctrine of the religion”. (Quoting from what my MP sent me.)

    This obviously includes situations where there is no public funding involved, and where it is straightforwardly a case of the government deciding who a church can and cannot employ, based on unashamedly secularist principles and without respect for the doctrinal and conscientious principles which a church defines itself by (is in the nature of things obliged to define itself by). And presumably in some sense synagogues and mosques too, although I’m in no position to speak for them. So that a church finds itself potentially in a situation where it may be forced to employ somebody whose lifestyle is a polar-opposite contradiction of its ethos and principles – probably not if that person’s job was “mainly” to “explain Christianity”, whoever gets to decide what that means, but clearly in any other case.

    I don’t know on what basis faith schools do or can appoint teachers but in a church context it hardly makes sense to talk about positions which don’t require candidates to profess the faith (and associated practice) in question. Interaction and dialogue are of course vital, but it mustn’t be a one-way street (ie it only counts as interaction if a church gives up the right to say that a particular kind of behaviour is morally wrong and incompatible with church appointments on pain of prosecution in the law courts). There are tremendous implications for freedom of expression and freedom of conscience attached to this bill, however well-intentioned it might claim to be.

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  3. The House of Commons voted the other week in favour of the Equality Bill, and it has now gone to the House of Lords, who are expected to vote on it soon.

    This report about the plight & concerns of Roman Catholic bishops can equally be read as descriptive of the problems which any Christian denomination will face if this bill becomes law – http://blog.echurchwebsites.org.uk/2009/12/10/catholic-bishops-england-wales-risk-prosecution-proposed-law-accept-women-sexually-active-gays-transsexuals-candidates-priesthood/

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