A prominent evangelical Christian, the Rev Malcolm Duncan, who heads up the Faithworks movement ‚Äì which is involved in public service provision ‚Äì has welcomed the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) that some Catholic and Anglican leaders have described as compromising their consciences.
In a statement on the Faithworks site and in an extended article, Mr Duncan declared: ‚ÄúMuch of the mainstream media has portrayed this as a defeat for the Church. We strongly believe this is not the case.‚Äù
He continued: ‚ÄúWe 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.‚Äù
Mr Duncan argues that the Christian faith is firmly based in non-discrimination, and that debates about patterns of behaviour in the church community should not translate into exclusion from services in the public arena.
In his article, he writes: ‚ÄúWe cannot ‚Äòdemand‚Äô 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 ‚Äòdefend‚Äô our rights. The challenge for Christ‚Äôs 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.‚Äù
His comments, which differ in tone, content and emphasis from a number of others on the evangelical wing of the church, have been made in the aftermath of Prime Minister Tony Blair‚Äôs announcement on Monday (29 January 2007) that faith-based adoption agencies will not have special exemptions from the new Sexual Orientation Regulations, but that they will have a ‚Äòtransition period‚Äô of 21 months before the SORs come fully into force at the end of 2008.
Mr Duncan has called for the almost two-year period to be used for a national debate, and for what he calls a ‚ÄòFaith Framework‚Äô for religious agencies involved in public service delivery.
This marks out different territory to secular advocates, who have been arguing that faith-based organisations should have no role in public life, and the religious think tank Ekklesia, which has been critical of exclusive faith schools and welfare, putting the case instead for Christian involvement in challenging social injustice and operating through broad alliances and independent initiatives within civil society.
Malcolm Duncan‚Äôs article makes explicit reference to the changing role of the churches in a country which cannot be described uncomplicatedly as ‚Äòa Christian nation‚Äô in a way that many in the churches still hold to.
He writes: ‚ÄúThe 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.‚Äù
The conversation is set to continue, at least in the tearoom, at a major event called ‚ÄòAct Justly‚Äô, aimed at church leaders and jointly sponsored by Faithworks and the global relief agency Christian Aid, which works with both religious and secular partners in anti-poverty advocacy and development.
As well as the Rev Malcolm Duncan, another keynote speaker at the conference will be Anglican Bishop of Durham Dr Tom Wright, who has castigated equalities rules applying to the church and has accused the government of promoting ‚Äúa new morality‚Äù.
Meanwhile, the Ekklesia think-tank welcomed the response from Mr Duncan. Co-director Simon Barrow said: ‚ÄúThe notion that confrontation on the basis of religion or non-religion is the only way forward is mistaken. The Faithworks response to SORs shows that a different approach is possible. We have many questions about the entanglement of faith communities in service provision, but we would like to see a much better debate.‚Äù
He added: ‚ÄúIt is significant, perhaps, that a pro-equality stance has come from a noted evangelical at the same time as the head of the National Secular Society in Scotland has graciously acknowledged ‚Äòthe many religious believers in the pews and in the denominational hierarchies who have courageously spoken out against the stand their leaders are taking.‚Äô We need to find common ground in the struggle against prejudice.‚Äù
On the Bishop of Durham‚Äôs remarks, Barrow commented: ‚ÄúIt is the Gospel, not New Labour, which promotes ‚Äòa new morality‚Äô ‚Äì namely, that the last shall be first, outsiders welcomed in, and those declared unclean by religious rules given God‚Äôs blessing. But it can take the institutional church some time to catch up with these things.‚Äù
There were few signs of conciliation from the Catholic Church today. According to the Daily Telegraph, church insiders say that that the bishops, supported by the Vatican, will urge supporters to lobby MPs to stage the largest possible revolt when the proposed equality laws are debated in Parliament in February.
Leading Catholics in Scotland have also threatened the Labour Party, which has a large base in their community, that it can expect to pay a heavy electoral price for defying the wish of the hierarchy to exempt its adoption agencies from non-discrimination.
Such tactics are being described by critics as ‚Äúbullying‚Äù and ‚Äúcounter-productive‚Äù. A significant number of Catholic parliamentarians have already come out in support of the Equality Act, and attempts to pressurise them unduly are likely to be unpopular.