Cardinal raises debate about church-government relations after adoption row

By staff writers
January 30, 2007

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and the most senior figure in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, has claimed that the government’s decision to refuse the Church an opt out from anti-discrimination legislation threatens the voluntary work of all churches.

Following the Anglican Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, in a speech yesterday, he also accused the government of being close to “imposing a new morality” on the country.

But the UK religious think-tank Ekklesia says that it is a mistake automatically to conflate church-based initiatives in civil society with publicly funded services, and points out that discrimination has been strongly opposed by a number of Christians on theological grounds.

The think-tank also says that the proposed period of adaptation to equalities legislation for Catholic agencies gives both government and the churches an opportunity to think more creatively about the distinction between their roles and responsibilities - recognising that Britain is no longer a 'Christian country'.

The Cardinal made his remarks on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning (30 January 2007) following a statement from Downing Street yesterday, which said that Catholic adoption agencies in receipt of public funds and offering a public service would not be allowed to refuse lesbian and gay couples as adoptees.

The Church has been given 21 months to readjust their work in line with the regulation, which is part of the Equality Act 2006 that is due to come into force on 6 April 2006 – and which also outlaws discrimination against people in goods and services on grounds of race, gender, disability, age – and religion.

The Cardinal demurred from the proposition that the Church was in a war with the state over this and other issues, and said that its desire for an equalities exemption was not discrimination, but a determination to preserve marriage and a male-female role model for children.

However, critics point out that gay adoptions area tiny minority, and that other church-founded agencies (such as the Church of England’s Children’s Society) have been successfully and beneficially placing children with gay parents. There has been little detailed research on long-term same-sex adoptions.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor said that the Church was acting in favour of “the common good” in its education, healthcare and adoption services, and expressed the hope that an exploratory committee established with the government would find ways that such work “can continue according to Catholic principles.”

The Catholic Church has called homosexuality a “gravely disordered” condition, and Pope Benedict described as “evil” the practice of gay adoptions by church agencies in the USA – which were subsequently closed.

The decision to maintain a universal equalities regime in public services has been welcomed by a number of Christian groups, including the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM).

The UK religious think-tank Ekklesia said today that the crucial distinction missed by the many church leaders was between public provision and voluntary action.

“Church reactions to the Equality Act, which most people see as a matter of consistency and fairness, hark back to the Christendom era when the action of government was based solely or largely on principles determined by the churches”, commented Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

“However, we are no longer in that era. Britain is a plural society in which the great majority of the population are no longer regular Christian adherents. The churches can therefore no longer assume that their definitions of what is right will be accepted by everybody, especially when public money is going into service intended for the whole community.” he added.

Ekklesia also points out that the issue of sexuality is a heated debate within the churches, and that many theologians reject the suggestion that lesbian and gay couples can be excluded from a proper definition of “the common good”.

Simon Barrow added: “Church agencies are reported to have adopted children to remarried divorcees, to lone parents who are gay, and to cohabiting couples. These all contravene official church teaching. If you are an atheist, a Muslim or a Buddhist you can adopt, but not if you are a faithful Christian couple who happen to be homosexual. People are bound to argue that this is discrimination, not religious principle.”

However the think-tank says that the “adjustment period” of 21 months granted to Catholic adoption agencies, which many acknowledge do excellent work, now creates an opportunity for a “mature and careful reconsideration on both sides of the role of the churches in relation to the government, with its responsibility to provide for all, and civil society, where there is space for a number of actors and different contributions.”

Ekklesia argues that there is no general threat to church-based voluntary initiatives, but says that standing out against equal treatment in public services “is bound to cause hostility towards the church, with people questioning whether it is fit to be a state recognised provider.”

The think-tank says that instead of resisting change, the churches need to take a positive attitude to what the Cardinal described today as their "loss of power", since this gives them an opportunity to recover the dynamic of the Christian message as an identification with those at the margins of society.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.