Misrepresenting equality... and Christianity

By Simon Barrow
January 25, 2010

With some bishops and hardline campaigning groups up in arms about the Equality Bill, you might think that Christianity per se had some basic problem with equality and social justice.

Indeed, some people probably have come to think that, sadly. And who could blame them, given the shameful excuses, special pleading, scaremongering and misrepresentation (egged on by the Telegraph and the Mail) that has accompanied the attempt to consolidate a framework of equal treatment in employment and the provision of goods and services in the UK?

As Simon Sarmiento, an Anglican who has been following the Bill with an open mind and unusual attention, says: there appears to be an air of panic around among some church leaders and their lawyers.

Why? Because the era of special privileges for the Established church and for institutional religious interests is coming to an end. Beyond the complexities of the current legislative process, that is what lies behind the distress and confusion. For many more, of course, the demise of Christendom is an opportunity not a threat: and that, frankly, ought to include Christians.

The "religion of power" is bad news in terms of the good news that the Christian message proclaims -- God's favour-free and transformative love. The gospels are full of Jesus' confrontations with religious leaders who put their own position above the needs of ordinary people. He forthrightly tells his followers not to hog "the best places at table" and even announces a "divine reversal". Those left out by the system are to be included; the excluders, by contrast, are in danger of finding themselves left out.

The story of how a levelling, other-centred movement became a set of ecclesiastical bodies defending their own interests with worldly power, and how that settlement is now unravelling, is a long and complex one. But at times the disjuncture between two dynamics within historic Christianity becomes painfully clear. For the real tension that we should be attending to is not 'liberals versus conservatives' but that between imperial and anti-imperial religion.

Back to the Equality Bill. Thankfully, the voices of the nay-sayers seeking wide religious opt-outs from the obligation not to discriminate are not the only ones. The Cutting Edge Consortium is bringing together both faith and secular bodies to put the case for justice and non-discrimination.

The fact that it is this kind of coalition is significant. For it would be wrong to suppose that all those who want to thwart this Bill, and the case for equal treatment in the public sphere, are religious. As Andrew Copson, the new CEO of the British Humanist Association, has (generously) put it: the real disagreement is not not between religious and non-religious people but between “people who believe in non-discrimination and equal treatment” and “people who don't”.

Meanwhile, in terms of following the details of the Bill, Thinking Anglicans is doing a fine job. See, most recently: Equality Bill: voting results on Clause 2; Equality Bill: media coverage (25 January 2010); Equality Bill: Clause 3; Equality Bill: the purposes paragraph (24 January); Equality Bill: the proportionality test (23 January); Equality Bill: responses update (22 January); Equality Bill: what others are saying (21 January); Equality Bill: Lord's revision day 3 (20 January). Note also the ruling of the European Commissioner for Equal Opportunities on the UK government's opt-outs.

Briefings from Ekklesia: Equality and employment in faith schools (11 Jan 2010);
The Equality Bill 2008-9 and church responses to it (31 May 2009) and Religion, belief and non-discrimination law (18 Feb 2009).

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