The Westminster Declaration: a considered critique

Abstract

The Westminster Declaration is an attempt to win greater recognition and respect by politicians and society for what its supporters regard as Christian values, and policies in line with these. It has received significant media attention in the run-up to the 2010 UK General Election, and is being used as a rallying point for socially conservative Christians. In this paper, the author offers a carefully considered critique of the Declaration, finding that it is a flawed document overall. Some of the theology which underpins it is highly questionable. Where it is specific on policy issues some of the proposals are impractical or unhelpfully partial, and it may do more harm than good to the church.

It is positive that many Christians are taking an active interest in political and social issues and how their faith might influence the position they take. The Westminster Declaration (http://www.westminster2010.org.uk/declaration/) is an attempt to win greater recognition and respect by politicians and society for what its supporters regard as Christian values, and policies in line with these.

Disappointingly, however, it is a flawed document overall. Some of the theology which underpins it is highly questionable. Where it is specific on policy issues some of the proposals are impractical, and it may do more harm than good to the church.

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1. Background to the declaration

In recent years, there has been much public debate in the UK and Europe on the place of faith in wider society, ranging from when churches should be able to discriminate on grounds that would otherwise be unlawful, to the acceptability of Muslim women veiling their faces in public places. Complex issues have arisen, including the balance of different rights and the challenges of living together in a culturally and religiously diverse society. While people of various faiths have faced constraints, such as the 14-year-old Sikh taken out of school by his parents after his school in North London refused to allow him to carry a ceremonial dagger, some Christians have complained that they are being especially victimised.

According to the Westminster Declaration website:

Westminster 2010 is a declaration aimed to appeal to UK Christians of all denominations who subscribe to the historic Christian faith and who hold orthodox Christian beliefs about life, marriage and conscience…

It is not intended to be a comprehensive Christain manifesto but focuses on those areas of belief and practice where Christians are experiencing most pressure from an increasingly secular society.

It was initially inspired by the 'Manhattan Declaration', which was launched in November 2009 and has now been signed by over 400,000 US Christians. Westminster 2010, however, is a completely independent initiative by UK Christians focused on UK issues.

We are launching it in the lead up to the general election (expected on 6 May 2010) with individual Christians being invited to sign.

We also call upon all parliamentary candidates to pledge that they will ‘respect, uphold and protect the right of Christians to hold and express Christian beliefs and act according to Christian conscience’.

Westminister 2010 was initially drafted, as a service to the wider church, by senior staff at Christian Medical Fellowship with input from a number of the key signatories and other senior staff at CARE [Christian Action Research and Education], EA [Evangelical Alliance] and CCFON [Christian Concern for our Nation].

Key signatories to the document include Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury; Cardinal O'Brien, Catholic Church in Scotland; Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester; Baroness Cox, House of Lords; John Glass, General Superintendent, Elim Churches; Kate and Paul Jinadu, Overseers, New Covenant Church Network; Chris Sugden, Executive Secretary, Anglican Mainstream; Dennis Wrigley, Leader, Maranatha Community; and Bishop Dr Joe Aldred, Secretary of Minority Ethnic Christian Affairs.

David Stroud, who is designated as "Leader, Newfrontiers family of Churches in the UK" is also a signatory. He is married to Phillipa Stroud, the controversial Conservative election candidate whose views and status as "subject" to her husband in the doctrine of her particular church have been raised publicly recently. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/12037)

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2. Structure of the Declaration

The introductory paragraph states, “Protecting human life, protecting marriage, and protecting freedom of conscience are foundational for creating and maintaining strong families, caring communities and a just society. Our Christian faith compels us to speak and act in defence of all these.”

Five sections follow, covering “our beliefs and values”, “human life”, “marriage”, “conscience” and “commitment”. These will be examined in more detail below.

* Beliefs and values

The first section states:

As Christians we reaffirm historic belief in God the Father (who created us and gave us the blueprint for our lives together); in God the Son, Jesus Christ our Saviour (accepting his incarnation, teaching, claims, miracles, death, resurrection and return in judgment); and in God the Holy Spirit (who lives within us, guides us and gives us strength). We commit ourselves to worship, honour and obey God.

As UK citizens we affirm our Christian commitment both to exercise social responsibility in working for the common good and also to be subject to all governing authorities and obey them except when they require us to act unjustly.

A “blueprint” suggests a detailed specification guiding future activity. Many people would question whether this approach truly reflects the essence of Christianity, and would endorse Paul’s rejection of legalism: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5.1). Instead, Christians are called on to take responsibility for seeking to understand what love might require of them in different situations, for “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’" (Galatians 5.14).

The greatest risk of claiming God’s authority for a “blueprint” is that a human-made programme may be treated as if it were divinely inspired, and not properly questioned. The Declaration appears to take a particular social and political worldview for Gospel which many Christians would find highly contentious.

* Human life

This section states:

We believe that being made in the image of God, all human life has intrinsic and equal dignity and worth and that it is the duty of the state to protect the vulnerable. We will support, protect, and be advocates for such people – including children born and unborn, and all those who are sick, disabled, addicted, elderly, in single parent families, poor, exploited, trafficked, appropriately seeking asylum, threatened by environmental change, or exploited by unjust trade, aid or debt policies. We pledge to work to protect the life of every human being from conception to its natural end and we refuse to comply with any directive that compels us to participate in or facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or any other act that involves intentionally taking innocent human life. We will support those who take the same stand.

Many Christians would agree with the broad sentiments expressed but question the details. Not all, for instance, believe that full personhood begins at conception. In fact many Anglican moral theologians do not. Even for those with misgivings about abortion, the issues are not necessarily straightforward: would it be immoral, say, for a mother to save her two-year-old child from drowning even at the risk of a miscarriage? Is opposition to abortion automatically co-terminous with a refusal of any choice to those who take a different view?

Again, on research involving embryos, some with life-threatening conditions hope that a cure might be found by using such methods, and they too deserve consideration. It might be argued that the good arising from such research is outweighed by the bad, but matters are not as straightforward as the Declaration seems to suggest, and at least an acknowledgement that there might be Christians and others with deep ethical concerns who think differently would have been welcomed.

On other areas of policy connected to the ideals put forward, however, the Declaration is silent. While the sentiment of protecting the vulnerable is to be welcomed, it is unlikely this could be achieved in practice without a substantial redistribution of wealth, at a national and international level. The Bible and church tradition say a great deal about economic justice, but the Declaration sidesteps this issue.

Moreover, nuclear weapons, and other methods of warfare which almost inevitably lead to large-scale death among non-combatants, are not mentioned. Surely, if giving in to a dying person’s pleas to hasten the process is wrong, killing thousands or even millions of civilians who wanted to live is even more so? Once again, despite New Testament teaching and church tradition (which, whether pacifist or endorsing “just war”, condemns unjust methods of warfare), the Declaration says nothing.

* Marriage

The section on marriage states that:

We pledge to support marriage – the lifelong covenantal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife. We believe it is divinely ordained, the only context for sexual intercourse, and the most important unit for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all. We call on government to honour, promote and protect marriage and we refuse to submit to any edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage. We commit ourselves to continue affirming what we believe as Christians about sexual morality, marriage, and the family.

Not all Christians would share the view that remarriage of divorcees and same-sex partnerships are not sometimes morally acceptable contexts for sexual intimacy. There has been extensive debate about these issues among theologians and within churches.

In any case, there seems to be confusion between the belief that a particular way of life is best (in which case, it should be its own reward) and discrimination against those with other ways of life. Some Christian parents, for instance, might prefer it if their daughter married the boyfriend with whom she was living, but would be appalled if she were expelled from university for having ‘an immoral lifestyle’.

It is also interesting that lifelong heterosexual marriage is described as “the most important unit for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all” by followers of one who famously taught, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10.34-36). Likewise promoting “strong families”, as mentioned in the Declaration’s opening paragraph, may not always be in accord with commitment to a just and caring society for all, since different families may foster different kinds of values and practices.

The book of Acts describes a way of life based on sharing (Acts 4.32-35) in which the community as a whole sustains health and welfare. While marriage is respected, this is in a wider context, and open-handed generosity of the kind commended by Jesus (Matthew 5.42-48) is encouraged.

New Testament scholar Deirdre Good’s book, Jesus’ Family Values (http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/content/jesus-family-values-deirdre-good), takes the biblical texts on family and relationships with rigorous seriousness, while pointing to very different approaches and conclusions to those reached by the signatories of the Westminster Declaration – and ones which thoughtful, passionate Christians who do not see themselves as easily dismissed ‘liberals’ would hold as part of their central convictions about the Gospel.

* Conscience

Perhaps the most contentious section of the Declaration is that on conscience:

We count it a special privilege to live in a democratic society where all citizens have the right to participate in the political process. We pledge to do what we can to ensure our laws are just and fair, particularly in protecting vulnerable people. We will seek to ensure that religious liberty and freedom of conscience are unequivocally protected against interference by the state and other threats, not only to individuals but also to institutions including families, charities, schools and religious communities. We will not be intimidated by any cultural or political power into silence or acquiescence and we will reject measures that seek to over-rule our Christian consciences or to restrict our freedoms to express Christian beliefs, or to worship and obey God.

While many Christians would agree that religious liberty is vital, and also that there might be occasions when it is right to break the law, the approach suggested here would result in chaos. It blurs the distinction between making choices about one’s own behaviour, blocking other people’s choices even if lawful, and punishing people for what one regards as the wrong choices.

The background is a series of employment-related cases, largely focusing on the unwillingness of certain Christians to treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people as equal, and other debates on the extent to which expectations and laws relating to equality apply to faith-based settings and organisations. It is widely agreed that, for instance, the Roman Catholic church can refuse to ordain a woman as a priest, while other forms of ministry might be barred to someone openly gay and partnered. Even if some (including many Christians) might regard such discrimination as morally undesirable and maybe contrary to God’s will, they would generally want to persuade religious organisation in time to become more open, rather than use the law. But there has been heated argument about where the line should be drawn in non-ministerial posts.

The duties of those in public services have been another contentious issue. In 2006, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow condemned attempts by Strathclyde Fire and Rescue to discipline some firefighters – several of them Catholic – who refused to staff a fire safety stall at an LGBT pride event, on religious and other grounds. A church spokesperson said that “This is a larger issue of human rights, freedom of conscience and freedom of religious expression”, though he conceded that “Obviously, if a gay bar was on fire, nobody would defend it if firefighters said they weren’t going. That is part of their job, but this is a step beyond the remit.”

However the logical distinction between prevention and rescue is unclear. Reducing the risk that someone will be injured, lose their possessions or life in a fire, is surely as important as trying to help them when their home is already ablaze. And if some people of faith are encouraged to believe that their conscience might require them not only to abstain from certain things themselves, but also to fail to protect those of whom they disapprove, there are clear risks.

One may sympathise with men in a traditionally macho occupation, and who are unused to open same-sex affection or eroticism, being asked to do their duty in settings which they find uncomfortable. But there is a risk of confusing moral (or indeed aesthetic) distaste with the demands of faith, and failing to recognise the problems which can arise when public service values of helping all without fear or favour are undermined.

More recently, a registrar who refused to register civil partnerships on religious grounds was sacked, and her dismissal upheld. Lilian Ladele had declared that “I hold the orthodox Christian view that marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all others and that this is the God-ordained place for sexual relations. It creates a problem for any Christian if they are expected to do or condone something that they see as sinful. I feel unable to facilitate directly the formation of a union that I sincerely believe is contrary to God’s law.” This appeared to confuse the formation of a union – which a couple does – with its legal recognition. Moreover, her position would imply that a Christian registrar could (and maybe should) refuse to conduct second marriages other than for widows or widowers, which even some of her admirers would regard as a step too far, in a society where stigmatisation of divorced people is no longer widely acceptable.

The former Anglican Archbishop, George Carey, a key signatory, recently made the headlines when he gave a witness statement supporting Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor and evangelical Christian, who was appealing against his dismissal for refusing to provide sex therapy to same-sex couples. Lord Carey argued that it was unfair that someone who had sincere religious objections to same-sex relationships should be treated no better than a person who was merely prejudiced, and claimed that it was “but a short step from the dismissal of a sincere Christian from employment to a ‘religious bar’ to any employment by Christians.” He argued that a specially constituted court of appeal made up of judges "who have a proven sensibility to religious issues" should hear the case, and that specific judges not be involved in “further adjudication on such matters as they have made clear their lack of knowledge about the Christian faith". He warned of “civil unrest” if judges continued with “disturbing” and “dangerous” rulings in cases of alleged religious discrimination.

In turning down the appeal, Lord Justice Laws explained that assessing whether discrimination had taken place was not about judging the motives of those involved. In cases of indirect discrimination,” he stated, “the law forbids discriminatory conduct not by reference to the actor's motives, but by reference to the outcome of his or her acts or omissions. Acts or omissions may obviously have discriminatory effects – outcomes – as between one group or class of persons and another, whether their motivation is for good or ill”.

He also pointed out that, while many Judeo-Christian values have won wide acceptance and thus influenced the law, no-one has the right to special treatment in the courts because of their religion. Believers deserve the protection of the law but, even if their beliefs are correct, this cannot be tested using the kind of evidence with which courts deal, and cannot override fair treatment for others. “The general law may of course protect a particular social or moral position which is espoused by Christianity, not because of its religious imprimatur, but on the footing that in reason its merits commend themselves. So it is with core provisions of the criminal law: the prohibition of violence and dishonesty. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, stretching over many centuries, has no doubt exerted a profound influence upon the judgment of lawmakers as to the objective merits of this or that social policy,” the judge explained.

“But the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.”

In the McFarlane case, it is understandable if a sex therapist felt somewhat uncomfortable assisting a same-sex couple, or indeed an unmarried heterosexual couple, or husband and wife who used pornography or bondage. If, however, such a counsellor felt unable to set aside his personal preferences and accept clients’ choices which were different from his own, he might be better off in a different line of work, just as a vegan chef who strongly objected to meat-eating might find it more appropriate to work in a vegetarian cafe than a burger bar.

Opponents of unjust laws, such as those permitting racial segregation in the USA, have indeed in the past been willing to break the law and suffer the consequences. But in general this has been in the course of a campaign to persuade the wider public that this law is wrong for everyone, rather than that Christians (or people of faith generally) should be exempt. Indeed, in the Brown v. Dade school case in Florida in the 1970s, a black couple took legal action after their daughters were refused schooling in a school run by the New Testament Baptist Church, while the school claimed that its actions sprang from religious objections to black and white people mixing, which might then lead to intermarriage. Dr. Arthur E Kreft, the principal, testified that enrolling black children would alienate him from God "in the sense that I would be disobedient, according to my beliefs in the Scriptures", and erode his "religious liberties."

If, as the Westminster Declaration urges, “freedom of conscience” were to be “unequivocally protected against interference by the state”, the consequences could be drastic. Even if such privileges were confined to those whose beliefs were widely held within major denominations, it is hard to see how the smooth running of essential services could take place – and pressure would almost certainly increase to extend this “freedom” to other faith traditions, causing further disruption.

Should it be permissible, say, for a Roman Catholic care home owner to keep throwing away her disabled residents’ condoms on the grounds that she objects to artificial contraception and does not want such sinful practices happening under her roof? Should a doctor who was a Methodist teetotaller be allowed to refuse to refer a patient of his to an alcohol treatment programme based on harm reduction rather than total abstinence, even if the patient’s past attempts to give up drinking entirely had failed? If the cook on duty in a hospital canteen one evening was a Seventh Day Adventist and did not drink coffee or tea herself, should she be permitted to refuse this to others, including busy and exhausted staff who had no time to go out anywhere else for refreshments? Should an air traffic controller whose church taught male headship be allowed the freedom to refuse to obey the instructions of a female supervisor who was more experienced than he was, and what would be the consequences?

It seems that many people (even some of the signatories) have not fully grasped the implications of the Westminster Declaration view that individual ‘conscience’ – which in principle could be rooted in a number of different or entirely contradictory beliefs – should automatically be able to trump other people’s rights and choices, the law and social/employment obligations. If, say, a doctor could refuse to treat a very sick patient’s civil partner as next of kin, why should not a nurse who was a Jehovah’s Witness refuse a blood transfusion to another patient? It is probable that many of those lobbying for this cause would not themselves use the freedoms they demand in such a way, and might at least insist that others should follow the law, but the provision for quite unreasonable and unjust applications is evident.

* Commitment

The Declaration concludes:

We call upon all those in UK positions of leadership, responsibility and influence to pledge to respect, uphold and protect the right of Christians to hold these beliefs and to act according to Christian conscience.

Many – perhaps most – Christians in the UK are content to enjoy our own freedom to worship, to act in accord with our beliefs and to try to persuade our neighbours that policies in line with our core convictions are the most beneficial to society as a whole. The Declaration risks triggering public resentment against the churches if these are seen as demanding special privileges, and polarising opinion over a certain set of policies mainly focused on control over people’s bodies.

3. Embracing the Christian heritage

The decline of Christendom, in which the institutional church lost most of its power to regulate people’s lives through close alliance with an often oppressive state, opened up new possibilities for mission. Christians could engage with their neighbours as equals, and people in general had new opportunities to encounter a God often found among the poor and marginalised. The Church of England still retains certain privileges however, such as seats in the House of Lords, and this is much debated.

The movement of which the Westminster Declaration is part, however, risks creating an image of a church both marginal and unpleasantly fixated on avoiding equal treatment for LGBT people. Meanwhile in the USA the Manhattan Declaration, which “speaks in defense of the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty”, the “three critical moral issues of our time”, is also gathering signatories.

This is longer, more detailed and even more contentious. To quote from the section on marriage: “

We must reform ill-advised policies that contribute to the weakening of the institution of marriage, including the discredited idea of unilateral divorce... The impulse to redefine marriage in order to recognize same-sex and multiple partner relationships is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the erosion of the marriage culture. It reflects a loss of understanding of the meaning of marriage as embodied in our civil and religious law and in the philosophical tradition that contributed to shaping the law. Yet it is critical that the impulse be resisted... It would lock into place the false and destructive belief that marriage is all about romance and other adult satisfactions, and not, in any intrinsic way, about procreation and the unique character and value of acts and relationships whose meaning is shaped by their aptness for the generation, promotion and protection of life... We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. We have compassion for those so disposed... Marriage is what one man and one woman establish when, forsaking all others and pledging lifelong commitment, they found a sharing of life at every level of being—the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual— on a commitment that is sealed, completed and actualized by loving sexual intercourse in which the spouses become one flesh, not in some merely metaphorical sense, but by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation.

However, there is in fact a rich tradition of Christian social teaching, far broader in focus and better able to deal with life’s complexities, which may be obscured by the attention given to the Manhattan and Westminster Declaration and similar initiatives. The current Archbishop of Canterbury and Archbishop of York, for instance, wrote an article in the Church Times on issues which Christians might want to bear in mind in the run-up to the 6 May 2010 General Election which is thought-provoking and touches on some of the concerns which theologians and churchgoers have been grappling with in recent years. Likewise, The Tablet, the highly respected catholic weekly, contained an article by Jonathan Tulloch comparing concrete pledges in the larger parties’ election manifestos with a Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales pamphlet entitled “Choosing the Common Good”.

While many signatories of the Westminster Declaration are undoubtedly sincere in their wish to promote a more just and humane society, the document is disappointingly narrow in its approach, and risks trying to harness faith in the service of a problematic political agenda.

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THE AUTHOR

Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in voluntary sector in health and social care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity, social justice and theological perspectives on religion and society. Savi is an Ekklesia associate.

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(c) The author and Ekklesia (www.ekklesia.co.uk), May 2010.