Tag Archives: sexuality

B&B case: thoughts on the bigger things

The commentary on the gay/christian thing has been done elsewhere. Instead, here are some thoughts on the bigger issues over at my other blog

Advertisements

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.

Transsexual Jesus?

JQH02web-sendOver 300 people demonstrated outside the Tron theatre in Glasgow last night over the depiction in Jo Clifford’s new play of Jesus as a transsexual woman.

My view… I’m not about to join the crowd who were penning hate-fuelled placards, that’s for sure.

First though, let’s be clear. Was Jesus transsexual? Highly unlikely. In the 4 accounts of his life (the gospels) Jesus is consistently and exclusively portrayed as a fully human male.

However, do I think God is male? No. Does God transcend sexuality? Yes. God is triune (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). John’s gospel starts by explaining (describing Jesus) that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning”. Jesus lived on earth as a man around 2000 years ago, but he existed before then, at the creation of the earth, and he continues to live today, one interdependent part of the trinity. For another modern characterisation of God you need go no further than a (fabulous) book like The Shack to have your preconceptions challenged.

Is the play intended to cause offense? I haven’t seen it, so take all of this with that caveat, but I don’t think so. According to an interview with Clifford in the Scotsman:

“Jesus, Queen of Heaven, which portrays Jesus as a transsexual woman and has been condemned by elements of the Christian community, is “about rescuing Jesus from the fundamentalists”. But it’s also about Clifford’s pride in being transgendered; she insisted on performing the role herself. Her honesty is striking and within minutes I get a one-woman show of her memoirs, starting from the beginning, Clifford peppering her lines with laughter and relishing the story of her own life.

It’s taken her a long time to get here. “There is an awful lot of hostility towards transgendered people,” she says softly. “I’d internalised a lot of that and was terribly ashamed. I was ashamed for most of my life.” These feelings formed the subject matter of a play Clifford wrote in 2002, when she still was identified as John, called God’s New Frock. The new play is the sequel. “God’s New Frock was partly an autobiographical piece about growing up transgendered and trying to suppress it,” she explains. “The story I told was of me and God in parallel.”

There’s a trailer for God’s new frock here. It looks to me more like an autobiographical attempt to understand how Jesus relates to a personal situation than anything else. Or am I wrong? I’m open to suggestions as to how else I should look at it.

No doubt there are those who will discard both plays out of hand as blasphemous. Maybe they’re right; I’m not sure. Even if I was, I don’t think shouting it down would be helpful. Building relationships and getting round the table to work through an issue isn’t usually facilitated by reciprocal insult-slinging.

What I do think is that it’s complicated. I think there’s something to be said for Clifford’s desire to “rescue Jesus from the fundamentalists”. We (and I mean everyone, but maybe especially people of faith, who seem to think we can claim “right” understanding of the Bible) need to consider what it is we know about God through the Bible very carefully. I do believe that objective truth is there to be had, but the Bible is a complex ancient collection of texts, and must be recognised as such.

I was privileged to hear and be challenged by a gay bishop, Gene Robinson talk on the subject of our biblical understanding of sexuality earlier this year at Greenbelt. It was interesting to hear just how persuasively he made the case for the alternative to the mainstream evangelical view.  It encouraged me to reflect on how easy it is for us to twist (in many different directions) the Bible’s teaching to fit our cultural norms. God’s Word needs and deserves to be handled with care, respect, and with a realisation of our potential to twist it. For those of faith – in which I include myself – that means being self-aware, studious, careful and most of all prayerful in considering what God wants me to understand from scripture.

The other thing that strikes me as I ponder Clifford’s interview and the trailer for God’s New Frock is (yet again) how sad it is that the best we seem to be able to do as a Christian community is to react to things in such a way that, as Jesus’ followers, we’re viewed as judgmental and exclusive rather than loving and accepting of people for who they are. I struggle to see how protesting outside the Tron fits with following Jesus’ example. Surely we can learn to love better than that.

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.

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.