Gay Church blessings and a crisis of faith: fisking Damian Thompson

By Jonathan Bartley
March 6, 2010

Damian Thompson has written in today’s Daily Telegraph.

A few quick responses to his article are in bold:

Eighty years ago a Scottish shepherd's boy won a place at St Andrew's University. A graduate of Divinity, John Ebenezer Brown went on to become a minister in Kirkcaldy, Fife. He was much loved by his flock – not least because he never let himself get angry. "I keep thinking of my father and how he never raised his voice," said the Prime Minister, in an interview with this newspaper a week ago.

Even so, one can't help wondering how the Rev Mr Brown would have reacted if a gay couple had asked him to allow their "wedding" to be performed in his church – and then, when he demurred, threatened to take him to court.

I imagine he wouldn’t have got angry and lost it then, either. An example a few other Christians could perhaps learn from?

And how would he have felt, knowing that this was happening entirely as a result of the steely secularist agenda of the government led by his own son?

You are not going to mention then that this was an amendment responding to requests from religious groups like the Quakers, who are currently prohibited by law from performing religious civil partnerships?

On Tuesday night, the House of Lords passed an amendment to the Equality Bill tabled by the gay Labour peer Lord Alli.

As a result, the Bill now removes the ban on civil partnership ceremonies being held in places of worship. If passed in its current form, the doors of churches will be thrown open to what are effectively gay weddings – not as a result of a narrow and bitter vote in a Church Synod, but by political fiat.

No. Churches would still have control of their doors. The amendment merely means that the churches now have the choice to open them or not.

And if they refuse to comply? The front page of Thursday's Daily Telegraph spelled it out: "Vicars to be sued over gay weddings". And not just vicars, but Catholic priests, rabbis, imams, ministers of the (gay-unfriendly) Church of Scientology – to say nothing of soft-voiced ministers of the Kirk.

The headline (which isn’t linked to from your article) which appeared on the front page of Thursday's Telegraph was inaccurate. It represented an unsubstantiated claim by the Bishop of Winchester as 'fact'.

This was not a headline the Government wanted to read, just weeks before a general election.

This is not a headline that anyone should have read.

Indeed, it seems as if the Cabinet had not been expecting, and didn't welcome, Lord Alli's amendment. Harriet Harman's Equality Bill was already controversial enough, without forcing stony-faced rectors to marry male couples.

Cue squeaks of panic from Government sources. The Equality Minister "will decide with Cabinet colleagues" whether to allow Alli's amendment to stand when the Bill reaches the Commons next week, we learned yesterday. In the words of a Labour MP who has championed the Bill: "Brown's gone wobbly on this. And some of us feel very let down that Harriet is caving in under pressure."
The problem for the Government is that this Equality Bill was not supposed to provoke a showdown with the Churches or other religions. The legislation was presented as a "clarification" of the law, consolidating existing anti-discrimination regulations into a single Act. That should have been easy enough to slip past Church leaders, for whom discrimination is a mortal sin.

If many in the churches believed discrimination was a mortal sin, one might expect a lot more bodies around

But not so fast. The Church of England is caught up in a worldwide Anglican civil war over homosexuality. Britain's fastest-growing congregations, both inside and outside the C of E, are evangelical: they regard the whole concept of gay weddings as gravely sinful.

If you read what evangelical Bishop of Liverpool is saying today, as reported by The Times, you’ll see that quite a few evangelicals are far more open that you suggest

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is privately sympathetic to homosexuals who want to get married, but dare not say so in public. His fellow bishops are all over the place on the subject – but they agree on one thing: they don't want to be pushed by the Government into gay church blessings.

You haven’t mentioned that 20 bishops and former bishops wrote a letter to the Times last week supporting Alli’s amendment

Until last month, they were in a similar stew about an amendment to the Equality Bill…

I’m going to skip the next few paras because there’s a lot of stuff here which I haven’t got the time on a Saturday morning to wade through

The Catholic Education Service, for example, has rolled over in the face of a sex education Bill that will force all state primary schools to teach pupils about sexual intercourse.

The Catholic Education service is claiming credit for getting an amendment tabled and passed to the Equality Bill, which means that faith schools can entirely overrule requirements to teach a range of perspectives in sex education, if they feel it doesn’t fit in with their religious ethos.

Meanwhile, Ed Balls insists that Catholic schools provide information about where to "access" abortion. And what was the response from the Catholic authorities and their Left-leaning advisers? Silence, apparently in return for an amendment to the Bill that allows faith schools to teach their own doctrines in addition to compulsory advice on condoms and abortion. The amendment is worthless. "We've been sold a pup," says a leading Catholic peer.

You are in fact advancing a similar argument to Ed Balls. He said his amendment won't really change anything either.

It remains to be seen how much aggressive legislation Labour can push through before the election. The likelihood of a change of government, coupled with the fact that this administration has apparently climbed down on a couple of sensitive issues, has persuaded some conservative Christians that they can recover ground. But before they repose too much hope in the Tories, perhaps they should read the Telegraph blog post that Lord Tebbit filed yesterday morning.

Yes, I can see how you would share a lot of ground with Lord Tebbit. He was writing on your blog wasn't he?

In it, Tebbit described how he and Lord Waddington fought against Lord Alli's "gay wedding" amendment in the House of Lords on Tuesday. "The result was a rout rather than a defeat for us," he wrote. "We lost by 95 to 23. Neither the Government nor the Conservative official spokesman who had both argued against the amendment voted with us. That does not enhance the reputation of politicians."

Bishops didn't really turn out in any force either. Only two voted, one on each side. Does that say anything? Most notably, the Bishop of Winchester, whose unsubstantiated allegations the Telegraph cites as 'fact' in the headline you refer to above, didn’t turn up to listen to the debate, or cast a vote.

Maybe not; but it does suggest that we are moving towards a fundamental change in the relationship between politicians and Britain's enfeebled Churches. Although Labour may not want to push the cause of gay weddings this side of the election, it heartily embraces the principle that religious teachings with social implications must be subordinated to political definitions of equality. Do the Tories think the same way? That may depend on who is sitting on David Cameron's sofa when he has to make up his mind on a delicate issue. Conservative sources say he has already come within a whisker of formally endorsing gay marriage.

But it is not the Conservatives who initiated this historic change, next to which arguments about disestablishment seem like a sideshow. It was Britain's first post-Christian government, presided over by Gordon Brown, a man whose ideological allies not only exude contempt for the Church but also know how to manipulate public opinion and European legislation to accelerate its decline. And so a thousand-year contract between government and religious believers begins to fall in on itself like the roof of a redundant church.

The idea that there has been a standing "contract" between government and religious leaders for a thousand years just isn’t born out by any fair reading of history. The relationship between churches and state has shifted continually, with churches and state vying for power. Deals have certainly been done and redone. And it is true that certain Christians have had special privileges, powers and exemptions for most of this period. But the period we are now entering is better described post-Christendom (I address this in my book Faith and Politics After Christendom).

But calling all Governments ‘Christian’ during the last thousand years, during which time they have periodically killed, maimed, and destroyed in the name of religion, not to mention persecuted other Christians, demonstrates the assumptions on which your argument is based. Like the churches who have been allied with the state, you show here no regard for other Christian and religious groups who hold different positions to your own. It continues to show how the Telegraph is ethnocentric in its perspective on religion.

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