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Last night's debate on same sex partnerships in the house of Lords was conducted against a backdrop of debates about religious liberty. Nothing was mentioned so often or with such conviction. Yet it appears that the concept of religious liberty itself was not able to decide the issue.
For those opposed to Lord Alli's amendment, the main concern was that this would lead to an erosion of religious liberty. Even a permissive amendment, such as Lord Alli's it was argued, could create an expectation upon religious people that they could receive a religious ceremony whilst forming their civil partnership, or upon members of the clergy that they would perform such a ceremony. The fact that many denominations would not want to grant them this opportunity could lead to conflicts that would inevitably end up in court and lead to judges ruling that religious groups had to perform such ceremonies, whether they like it or not.
For those supporting the amendment, the main concern was that the law was currently in the anomalous position of forbidding religious groups from doing something that other groups could do, thus appearing to grant them less liberty despite the clear concern many religious groups have in supporting the relationships of their members through appropriate witness.
Of course, choosing between these competing concerns is not as simple as many would like it to be, although personally I have no difficulty in placing myself in the second camp. However I am reminded of Gladstone's famous phrase:
'liberalism is trust in people tempered by prudence, conservatism is distrust of people tempered by fear'
On the one hand we have religious groups who feel threatened by their very members and clergy and feel a need for legal protection against even the possibility of challenge. On the other hand we have religious groups who seek to find a way of performing their witness to the equality of all whilst seeking to preserve the rights of those who disagree. I dare say that there are many on the opposite side of this debate who would gleefully turn this argument on its head and say that the ever present reality of sin means that the many should be kept in check by the holy few. Yet amongst all this bickering and fighting, there remains a man who said:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."
or as his mother put it:
"My soul doth magnify the Lord. . . .
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree."
When, some day, these things have truly come to pass, then perhaps a bit of conservation will be in order. However until then, my prayers will remain for trust and prudence between all people, heterosexual, homosexual, Christian, Jew or atheist. Most of all however, I shall remember the words of an old Quaker hymn:
When tyrants tremble as they hear
the bells of freedom ringing
when friends rejoice both far and near
how can I keep from singing?