Church opposition to equality is counter-witness

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
27 Jan 2010

Church of England bishops have helped to weaken the Equality Bill as it passes through the House of Lords. They seem largely unaware of the damage such actions cause to the reputation and mission of the church.

In particular, these actions seem to contradict the experience of church communities up and down the country. Last Sunday, I saw worshippers connect more deeply with the divine and grow in faith, hope and love. The congregation, like many in the Church of England, was diverse – women, men and children, black and white, gay and straight, disabled and able-bodied. Likewise, as in other parishes, members were encouraged to widen their concern, caring for the sick and vulnerable and working for justice and peace alongside their neighbours of all faiths and none.

In the Bible readings, we were urged to think of the church as a body in which "our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this" and "If one member suffers, all suffer". The Gospel told of Jesus announcing that he had been anointed "to bring good news to the poor" and "let the oppressed go free". In the sermon we were reminded that, as Christians, this was our calling too.

In one of the hymns, "The Kingdom of God is justice and joy", we sang that:

The outcasts are welcomed God's banquet to share,
And hope is awakened in place of despair.

Of course, as in all communities, there are flaws and people fall short of their ideals. Nevertheless, numerous congregations strive to embody the compassion and concern for justice which they see as central to their faith.

What a contrast to the house of bishops! Individually, many bishops share the desire of local Christian communities to be caring and inclusive. But publicly their focus is very different.

The bishops have been energetic in resisting attempts to clarify equality law in line with the European Union's requirements and what many would regard as basic decency. Churches are allowed to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people in appointing ministers of religion and recruiting for a limited range of lay posts. But senior clergy have become concerned that faith-based organisations might not have enough freedom to exclude those who do not fit their "guiding doctrine and ethos".

Yet LGBT laypeople and clergy have long played an active part in church life. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, growing numbers of Anglican theologians came to accept same-sex partnerships, and Church of England working parties which studied the issues came to the same conclusion. This went too far for many leaders and in 1991 the house of bishops made a statement which took a more conservative position.

Though "homosexual people are in every way as valuable to and valued by God as heterosexual people", they were urged to abstain from sex. However, in the case of clergy, "the practice of the Church of England" was "to trust its members, and not to carry out intrusive interrogations". And there should be acceptance of laypeople "conscientiously convinced that the way of abstinence is not the best for them, and that they have more hope of growing in love for God and neighbour with the help of a loving and faithful homophile partnership, in intention lifelong, where mutual self-giving includes the physical expression of their attachment."

The bishops have since moved backwards. In 2007 an employment tribunal found the Bishop of Hereford guilty of discrimination after he spent two hours intrusively interrogating a gay candidate for a youth worker post, before turning him down.

Justice in general is undervalued by Church of England leaders, which is why moves towards women bishops have been delayed. The feelings of those opposed (for reasons of theology, fear of change or prejudice) to greater inclusion should indeed be taken seriously. But the bishops' highly publicised defence of discrimination damages the image of the church, undermining valuable work at parish level.

Their political victory is a moral and spiritual defeat.

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© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. This article is adapted with acknowledgments from her Guardian Comment-is-Free column: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/savitrihensman

An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008). She is a member of the Church of England and has written widely on Anglican affairs.

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