Tag Archives: church

The Equality Bill: mountain or molehill?

The Equality Bill 2009 aims to simplify and modernise UK anti – discrimination legislation. If passed, it will roll up the rules on a broad range of circumstances, currently covered by diverse legislation, into one Act. If it’s done well (which these exercises often aren’t), it’ll be handy for us lawyers.

Over the last month or so there’s been a renewed rumble of concern from within the faith community. What’s the problem? Well, bluntly, it looks like folks are worried that if the Bill is passed as it stands it will undermine the rights of Christian (and other faith) organisations to require that employees share their religious convictions.

The move has been described as a “bid from the marching band of parliamentary secularists to drive religion from the public sphere” by some, whilst one minister in the Equalities Office has admitted churches should be “lining up their lawyers”. So much for balanced discussion.

Much of the media hype around the Equality Bill focuses on concern about restrictions over  the selection criteria religious bodies can impose when recruiting employees. It seems to be being suggested that this will be the first time significant constraints will have been introduced. In fact, however, for the most part the Bill restates principles already in operation in the UK allowing religious organisations to place restrictions on those whom they employ or desist from employing, on grounds of religious conviction.

Under the The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, an employer can restrict applications for a job if they can show that a religious belief is a “genuine occupational requirement” of a role – i.e. that one needs to be of that faith to carry out the actual duties required by the individual position. They must also have regard to  “proportionality” – i.e. the extent to which that is the case. The effect is that for a job to be protected, faith must be central to the particular duties required for its fulfillment. It’s easy to ensure the job description of a minister is safeguarded, but harder to justify the position for, for example, a church office administrator.

Under the proposed legislation, it would remain the case that organisations could, on grounds of religion, continue to impose restrictions, for example on employing those who don’t share their faith, or on employing women.

So what’s the problem? The Christian Institute in one of a number of concerned bodies. It has (to its credit) taken advice from a QC. The matter of greatest concern relates to the wording of the part of the Bill intended to protect individuals against discrimination based on sexual orientation. It is feared that in proposing new, enhanced protection for individuals against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the Bill may erode a church’s freedom not to employ someone on those grounds.

Under the proposed wording of paragraph 2(8) of Schedule 9, the Bill, if passed, will prevent churches from refusing to employ someone on grounds of sexual orientation unless the job in question “wholly or mainly” involves leading worship or teaching doctrine. Churches fear that, for example, were a minister to be asked to leave their post because they were in a gay sexual relationship, then unless the church could show that at least 51% of their time was spent in conducting worship or teaching doctrine, they would be prevented from dismissing him, or from refusing to hire him in the first place.

However, what most people seem to miss is that because religious employers already benefit from protection similar to that under the 2003 Regulations, this would only ever arise in a very small subset of situations. The nub of the issue is a very short point indeed: that a religious body might be prevented from refusing employment to a professing member of their religion solely on the basis of sexual orientation or conduct, unless that person’s main job was to lead worship or teach doctrine.

Viewed in that light, perhaps the sting is taken out of the religious campaigners’ tail?

What I will say is this. Having spent hours getting my head around a long and very complicated Bill, I can vouch for one thing: it is not straight forward. Therefore it is understandable that there are misleading rumours making the rounds. In my view, those on all sides would be well advised to be rather cautious about jumping in at the deep end before ensuring they understand the nature and extent of the issues involved. Maybe I’m dismissing the rumpus too hastily…perhaps this is all, indeed, all very worrying and I have myself misunderstood the legislation – in which case I hope you’ll correct me. As an evangelical christian I am, as you might expect, interested to preserve my freedom to exercise my faith, and my church’s freedom to employ only those who share it. That said, I remain unconvinced that this Act is a serious threat to that. If you think differently, I’d be interested to read why. Comments welcome.

What’s wrong with church? Have your say in OU Christianity survey

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“Would you call yourself a Christian? You’re not alone. In the 2001 Census, 71.6% of people in the UK described themselves as Christians, but only about 15% of these said they belonged to, or were active members of, a church.

So, what does it mean to be a Christian without a church? What exactly do people mean nowadays when they describe themselves as Christian?” (www.open2.net)

The Open University is carrying out an anonymous online survey to gather views. They especially want to hear from you if you don’t go to church. Share your views, and learn about other people’s, here.

As a “nosey parker” bonus (!), once you’ve completed it you can view snapshot analyses of the responses so far…

The survey ties into a BBC series called the History of Christianity, kicking off at 9pm tonight.

Homophobia, religion and a radical alternative

Pink TriangleBBC News is debating an increase in homophobic violence on Britain’s streets. The story includes a comment by Michael Cashman MEP.

Cashman played one of TV’s first gay characters when he appeared as Colin in EastEnders in 1986. He’s quoted as saying that homophobia is being reinforced by faith schools:

“Within faith schools we are still getting a message of anaesthetised hatred – ‘we don’t hate these people but they’re not equal’. If that is said enough, it softens the brains of young people and that’s so dangerous.”

Religion makes the news for all the wrong reasons: sectarian violence; hatred; war; in-fighting about gender roles; arguments about the “correct” biblical view of sexuality. You name it, religion seems to have had an unhelpful influence on it.

If you’re reading this thinking “religion’s bad and wrong”, then: Shock! Horror! – I’m very tempted to agree. You can take your dead end Sunday mornings, doing your duty by turning up to a draughty old building while your heart deadens within you, and you can – well, you can do whatever you like with them. But… (there had to be a but, didn’t there?) I don’t believe that’s what  the christian faith is about.

So what is it about? Forget the rules. Forget the religion. My faith is grounded in a relationship with a person. A person who’s an example of how to live right. A role model who offers me a way into “a rich and satisfying life.” Someone who knows me – who really knows me – and who chooses to love me anyway. Someone who has the authority – and chooses to use it –  to forgive me my biggest mistakes. Someone who keeps on giving me second chances. Someone who frees me to get up, brush myself down, and try to do better next time.

The person in Jesus.

Christians get a lot of stuff wrong, and unfortunately having a faith doesn’t prevent that. I’d say, unscientifically, that Christians mess up at least as much as (and possibly more than) other people. But the stuff-ups are our doing. They represent what’s wrong with us, not something wrong with Jesus. They’re the reason we need Jesus in the first place.

And what does this Jesus guy have to say about homophobia? Easy. He tells me it’s simple: “Love others as well as you love yourself.”

Does this sound compatible with homophobia? No.

Does it sound compatible with loving and accepting people for who they are? Yes.

Does that mean everyone (me or anyone else) always gets it right? No.  But as I’ve said, our stuff-ups are our doing, something wrong with us, not something wrong with Jesus.

The idea that “anaesthetised hatred” might be taught to our young people in the name of faith schooling is both frightening and contrary to Jesus’ way. Hatred, anaesthetised or otherwise, must very clearly be off the educational menu. But are faith schools really to be singled out for any failures here?I’m not sure. OFSTED recently published its report on faith based schools, considering whether the Regulations governing their operation are fit for purpose. The report comments on how schools nurture citizenship and community involvement in their students. According to the report, faith schools seem to be succeeding in culturally relevant education of their students:

“The provision made by all the schools visited to develop their pupils’ spiritual, moral,social and cultural understanding was at least good [and schools desired to promote] their pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and to live successfully in modern Britain.”

It seems to me that the presence or otherwise of homophobic violence on our streets is far wider than one of the teaching in faith schools. We need to look wider. How do we as a country, a society, a local community and as individuals behave towards people who are “other”? And how do we teach our children to approach “otherness”? Other faiths, other nationalities, other ethnicities, other political views, other sexual orientations… Maybe our terribly trendy liberalism (“you can do what you like; I can do what I like; just don’t threaten my space and I’ll stay out of yours”) isn’t working.

Jesus once told a story about who we should consider to be our neighbours, called the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus scandalised his listeners by casting a Samaritan man, a social outcast, as hero. The Samaritan disregarded cultural norms to help a fellow traveller (who probably wouldn’t normally have accepted) while religious leaders and pillars of the community preferred to steer clear.

I think the message is simple. We need to engage, not to disengage, with things that challenge us. When I next come across something or someone that’s different to my little world, my challenge for myself is to answer question: “This is my neighbour. How can I love this person better?”. I invite you to join me.

Cool thing.

Journeys_May06_RBGC_RedSand2Now here’s a great idea.

At Faith Journeys some folks are ingathering information about people’s experience of the Christian faith – what’s influenced them (positively or negatively) both as children and as adults, and what turned them onto (or off) all things faith-related.

I love hearing other people’s stories. It never ceases to amaze me how different people are, and how diverse our different perceptions of God are.

The plan is to collect loads of people’s experiences and stories and share them (with permission of course).

I hope it might help us see what the contemporary experience of Christianity looks like, and how church in different forms “works” or doesn’t.

I’ve just joined up. The site’s in its infancy, so it’s more about giving than receiving for now, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with. Why not have a look..?

Call for comment: Gay Clergy

Since my previous post “biblical sexuality”, the General Assembly has considered the the issue of the appointment of a Church of Scotland minister who’s gay and living with his boyfriend to a parish in Aberdeen. They decided to allow the appointment to go ahead, as reported in the Times. They’ve also decided to have a period of consultation for 2 years before making a decision about whether in general the Church should agree to the ordination and appointment of openly gay ministers, reported in the Scotsman yesterday.

I’ve been following the news on this with interest, but also with regret. It may be predictable but it’s certainly sad that the debate has resulted in such polemic from both sides. I’d like to blog a bit more on the whole issue, but before I do I’d be interested in your views. 

If you’d like to, please leave me your comments.

Living it?

practice

A minister got up to do his sermon. He said ‘love one another’ and sat back down. Some were very annoyed at this while others were perhaps delighted. The next week he did the same thing. He said ‘love one another’ and sat back down. As before, some were annoyed and others were pleased. He repeated this performance week after week, until those who were angry before were now raging and even the ones who were previously happy were somewhat perplexed.

Eventually, one week, after the rather short sermon, a furious member of the congregation piped up. ‘what sort of joke is this!? week after week the same few words… what are you playing at!?’

The minister responded calmly. ‘when I see signs that we have really grasped what it means to love one another, we’ll move on.’

Thought provoking. How often can we really say we’re living this stuff we hear? Big challenge.

 Thanks to Asbo Jesus for the cartoon and JonBirch for the story.

Bono & God

bonoThe spirituality of U2 in general and Bono in particular has hit the news a few times. If you regularly fill a pew somewhere, it’s quite likely that you heard about it in church, but if you don’t do church it’s quite possible you haven’t heard that Bono has a “God thing” going on.

Why is that? Maybe people simply aren’t interested in whether celebrities believes in God. But I don’t think so. You only have to look as far as Jade Goody to find tabloid media interest in a celebrity’s faith journey. Instead, I think it’s just that we’re happy to read cliched, non-threatening accounts of belief, but we don’t want to be challenged. Many of us had childhood experiences that led to us thinking of religion as boring and untrue. Maybe you remember them too: old, cold churches half empty and devoid of the young; sermons delivering a tired message and  dirge-like music from another century.

As adults, we like to have recourse to some sort of comfort in hard times, so we’re vaguely encouraged by stories like Jade’s that God was there for her. Often we tolerate “traditional” church events and expressions of belief – christenings, weddings, funerals –  as part of the furniture of our lives. We’re used to them; they wash over us; and we take comfort in their familiarity whilst ignoring the irrelevancies.

Bono doesn’t fit that mould, though. We can’t write off his beliefs as a “crutch” in the way we might have been tempted to for Jade Goody, or as a matter of habit. It’s not obvious why Bono would need God. He seems already to have it made based on modern society’s criteria for success and happiness. And yet he has a faith. If you doubt it, have a look at this:

I first heard that about Bono when I was pretty anti-God. I started to read about it a little. I couldn’t understand how I’d missed the theme in U2’s lyrics. More than that, I couldn’t understand how this guy, whose language was as bad (ok, maybe not quite) as mine, and who had a hugely successful, mainstream, rock’n’roll career, could possibly conform to my image of “nice, good, christian”. I thought it was interesting that he didn’t have the hugely annoying smugness I so often identified in christians. There was an authenticity about him. It was a massive challenge.

More than that, it had motivated him to do things.

To me, Jesus was a fairy story. He was a man with beard, long flowing hair, white robe, standing in the sun with a lamb clutched under his arm. Yet here was one of the worlds biggest rock stars, ill shaven, intermittently ill-behaved and with nothing to prove to anyone taking on the world’s superpowers to campaign for the eradication of third world debt. And he did it all with reference to  a God who was in amongst, and who loved the dirty and the broken. Who wanted justice and transformation for them. How could my preconceptions of God and my judgment of christians stand up to a God described like this:

God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them. “If you remove the yolk from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom with become like midday and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched places”. – Bono, Annual Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, Feb 2006

Last Sunday, Bono wrote a piece in the New York Times. You can read it  here. The jury seems to be out on whether he’s any good as a columnist, but I liked it. I think it’s good that we have someone who can capture the public’s attention and who’s outside the traditional religious mould commenting on things. It’s a shame he was writing in the US rather than the UK. There’s so little coverage in the mainstream press of the radical, positive teaching the bible has for us. Bono, or any other modern, radically minded christian writer, would be a happy addition to the Sunday papers.