Simon Barrow

Adapting ourselves to adoptive grace

By Simon Barrow
January 26, 2007

It would appear that the most senior figures in the English Catholic and Anglican churches have no real idea just how bad they look to a massive number of people right now. Living in something of an ecclesial cocoon, they express "shock" at the reaction to their determination to discriminate. I refer, of course, to the unseemly row over the Equality Act 2006 (due to be implemented on 6 April 2007) and Catholic adoption agencies.

These bodies do a good job, and receive public funds in a variety of ways, including local authority fees. It is not unreasonable, therefore, that they should be expected to comply with universal access regulations. But the church, which seems to be fixated on homosexuality at the moment (scandalously, it counts for much more than baptismal identity and commitment in determining one’s good standing), doesn't want to. It fears a threat to marriage – from what is certain to remain a small minority of adoptees.

The upshot is that if you are an atheist, a Muslim, a lone parent, divorced and remarried, or cohabiting - all estates which put you outside the Catholic fold, or at least its teaching - you can adopt through one of 12 Catholic agencies, provided that you can show you are a good parent. But if you are gay and in a permanent, stable partnership, you can't - even if you are an active, prayerful, dedicated Christian.

This will strike most people as odd, inconsistent and not a terribly good testimony to the transforming love of God. It will also, from April 2007, contravene the UK law, which wants to give lesbian and gay people the same rights as would rightly be expected to apply on grounds of race, gender, age, disability – or religion. The Cardinal Archbishop's response (backed by Canterbury and York) has been to threaten the closure of 'his' adoption agencies, while acknowledging that they assist the most vulnerable. This beggars belief.

In seeking compliance with the equalities agenda, no-one is requiring the church to change its teaching on homosexuality - though many of us feel that it can and should do so on perfectly mainstream, biblical, tradition-generated grounds. Evangelicals, too, are questioning the simplistic 'family values' agenda. This is not some wild liberal conspiracy.

No, what is being asked of the church as institution is that, in seeking the kudos and responsibility of being a public service provider, it does so with the same fairness and equanimity as anyone else. And that, in this case, it puts children first. As government minister Harriet Harman has put it, you can't be "a bit against discrimination". In this she is backed by a significant number of Christian MPs. Tony Blair, an Anglican, has said he personally supports gay adoptions, too.

Overall, this is another classic case of Christendom catatonia – the result of confusion between the polity of church and governance. If the churches choose to operate as service providers in the public arena (one they do not control, and where they will increasingly meet those with different convictions and values, moderated by elected authorities which have to make space for all), they need to be honest about the consequences. The option of withdrawing or establishing separate facilities where issues of conscience arise, remains. There is no threat to freedom of religion in this. Oh, and the C of E adoption agency, the Children's Society, has accepted gay couples as adoptees for the last eight years. Rowan Williams has personally supported one gay couple in the past. And senior Vatican official Cardinal Levada, when in California, allowed three such cases, too.

Significantly, one of the key terms the Epistle to the Ephesians uses to describe those who belong to the church is “adopted children of God”. The Pauline point is to stress that people belong to the family of Christ not because they are good, worthy, rich, of the ‘right’ family line, ethnicity, gender, theological persuasion, or anything else. No they are ‘in’ solely because the God of Jesus loves without discrimination, incorporating people through renewal and forgiveness – and they are a sign of that. Divine adoption is not about right or favour, but grace. It radically re-orders community.

The sad thing is that, overall the churches are patently not practicing this barrier-breaking ekklesia of equals created by the Gospel. They are resisting it. But as they struggle to accept the full humanity of the homosexual minority, those they are now claiming ‘rights against’ perhaps have something to show them of God's grace-drenched purposes.

Meanwhile the scaremongering about equalities, as if they are a special trial for the churches, continues. It's tragic. And no way to promote ‘family’ to the last, the least and the lost. Suffer the little children, indeed. And Ruth Kelly, who is under pressure from all sides.


Also worth reading: the stimulating, humane and scholarly study by Professor Deirdre Good, Jesus' Family Values (2006) – available from the Ekklesia/Metanoia book service in the UK and from Church Publishing in the USA.

This piece is revised from an entry in the FaithInSociety weblog, together with excerpts from one of the author’s recent press articles.

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