Wrong debate, wrong language

Malcolm Duncan
By Malcolm Duncan
31 Jan 2007

Tony Blair announced on Monday (29th January 2007) that faith-based adoption agencies will not have special exemptions from the new Sexual Orientation Regulations, but that they will have a ‘transition period’ of 21 months before the SORs come fully into force at the end of 2008. He also paid tribute to the work of agencies motivated by religious faith, and stated that it was important to ensure that the expertise and services of these groups was not lost.

Much of the mainstream media has portrayed this as a defeat for the Church. We strongly believe this is not the case. The next 21 months will bring the opportunity for all faith-based organisations delivering public services to think about our distinctives, and about our relationship with the state. Faithworks will continue to engage in dialogue with government and churches to help broker a way forward.

We believe that people have been having the wrong debate, using the wrong language, about the wrong issues. People are confused about the role of institutional Church, the role of religions and the contributions of faith-based providers. They are all different, and we need this national debate and a new Framework for Faith as a way forward to help people come to terms with these, without discriminating against any population groups.

There is a danger of religion and the state becoming polarised. In order to respond, I’ve thought about what I would say on these issues to my own congregation, and have been struck by the challenge to remain Christ-like.

Paradigm Shifts

The world around us is shifting. The age of the church and the state sharing political power is coming to an end, and the deconstruction of Christendom is directly connected to this debate. We are returning to a more authentic place of spirituality and service - a more difficult place. The challenge is to understand ourselves as followers of Christ in this changing world.

1. Christian understanding of identity leads us to a commitment to give our service rather than make demands (John 13).

It is clear to me that Christ’s assurance of his identity and purpose led and enabled him to serve those around him unconditionally, compassionately and confidently – even those who would ultimately betray him. (John 13.4-5, NIV)

We must follow this example – refusing a demands-ridden approach. Christian identity means a commitment to serve above demands. It means putting the interests of others above our own interests. Local projects and congregations the length and breadth of the United Kingdom make this choice every day and wrestle with its implications.

2. Christian understanding of equality leads to a commitment to sacrifice rather than an assertion of our rights (Philippians 2)

Christian faith teaches and recognises the equality of every human being (Genesis 1:29; Colossians 3.11; Acts 10:34) as well as challenging individuals and communities to live within the best framework possible (Exodus 20). But what do we do when, having recognised the equality of all people, we find ourselves in a situation where our own equality is questioned or put under pressure? When tolerance of all leads to intolerance of us, how do we react?

We cannot ‘demand’ our rights whilst remaining true to the example and teaching of the New Testament. It perhaps shows the depth of our misunderstanding of our own power and influence that our first reaction is to ‘defend’ our rights. The challenge for Christ’s followers is to recognise the equality of all people, defend that equality and then when faced with those who treat us as less than equal, to be able to maintain our Christ-likeness by refusing to grasp at our own rights and equalities, (Philippians 2.5-8; The Message).

We are free to articulate our rights, but we must not walk away from society when we do not get them. We must be willing, if faced with the decision, to lay down our rights in order to remain engaged in the world. From the example and teaching of the New Testament, our identity is not affected at all by doing so but our ‘political’ influence and power may well be.

3. Christian understanding of influence leads to accepting our responsibilities rather than demanding privileges (Luke 22.25-27).

The central call on Israel was to live as the people of God in order to demonstrate to the wider world that God was gracious, just and compassionate. Their mistake was that they lived in the privilege of their relationship with God without accepting the responsibilities of that relationship. The only power that matters is the power given to the church by God. Why then do we try to maintain a place of privilege, no matter what?

As citizens, we have a responsibility to fellow citizens as well as to government and each other. The Christian church is not entitled to special privileges just because we are the Church. We live in a society of competing rights and demands. Our responsibility is to live out of our clear sense of identity – who we are, and to commit ourselves to live and be like Christ – our service. Just because wider society in the UK is demanding privileges does not mean that we should do the same. Of course we should engage in debate, seek to shape opinion, and make our views known but we must also remember that we are called to be light and salt and yeast (Matthew 5, Matthew 13), engaged in society no matter what the political climate might be. We are in the world, not of it. Such a difference does not entitle us to privilege but it demands our service.

4. Christian conscience leads to accepting the consequences of our decisions rather than demanding protection (Romans 13).

Conscience is crucial. There are situations where our faith means we cannot carry out certain activities, condone certain behaviours. We will even be in situations where we must refuse certain requests. What do we do when our consciences tell us that we must take actions that contravene legislation? We must join with millions of people through the entire history of the church and accept the consequences of our allegiance to God.

I have a sense that many Christians see issues of conscience where actually they are talking about preferences. That being said, there are undoubtedly situations where our conscience tells us we cannot take a road set out before us. In those situations, we must again recognise that some funding will not be available to us, that certain partnerships are not ones of which we cannot be part, and certain activities are ones we choose not to engage in.

The consequences of this work both ways. For a nation so dependent upon the faith communities for the delivery of services, there is a need to think about the gap that would be left and how it could be filled. As Christians, we must be careful not to use government legislation as a shield for our unique commitments to our faith. Nor should we use our commitments and compassion as a bargaining tool. Our commitment to serve remains intact – and we must live with the consequences of our decisions – even if those consequences involve funding withdrawal and prosecution.

A key challenge to government, then, is to recognise the importance of diversity and equality not just for those who receive goods and services, but also for those who deliver goods and services. The idea that every agency must help every person is a blunt instrument when it comes to diversity and equality. Surely a better way forward is to ensure that the mosaic of service deliverers covers all the needs of a given community, whilst enabling the service providers themselves to remain true to their own conscience?

5. Christian understanding of diversity means a commitment to humility rather than to superiority (Romans 12)

The New Testament call to honest self-appraisal and awareness are vital when it comes to issues of diversity. I try to adopt the approach of comparing my worst attributes with the best attributes of those that criticise me. That way I am careful not to caricature those who are different. Diversity is not something to be endured by the church or by British society. Instead it is to be celebrated and welcomed.

However, it appears we are more concerned about equal rights than we are about understanding how to live with difference. It also appears that in the UK we are close to saying that faith isn’t an acceptable difference in terms of service provision. There is confusion in people’s minds about the role of institutional Church, the role of religions, and the contributions of faith-based providers. They are all different, and we need a new national debate and a Framework for Faith to help people come to terms with these, without discriminating against any population groups.

Conclusion

In our conversations, we must be clear that the wider world is watching and listening. But we also need to remember that God is listening. When we talk about identity we need to discuss our service of others, not our demands. When we talk about equality we need to be willing to give our rights away, not demand them. When we talk about influence, we need to avoid the language of privilege and instead accept our responsibilities. As we address issues of conscience, we must be willing to accept the consequences rather than seek protection from them. Lastly as members of a diverse society, we must adopt an attitude of humility rather than superiority.

This should never be about power – it should always be about service, love and self understanding.

© Malcolm Duncan is leader of the Faithworks Movement.

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