Mixed reaction to Evangelical appointment on equalities commission

By staff writers
12 Nov 2007

The appointment of Evangelical Alliance UK head the Rev Dr Joel Edwards to the new Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has already caused some controversy, especially among campaigners for lesbian and gay rights.

Mr Alan Wardle, director of public and parliamentary affairs for Stonewall, told PinkNews.co.uk last week: "All commissioners will have obligations to ensure equality for all people, including lesbian and gay people, and Stonewall intends to hold [Dr Edwards] to that."

Dr Edwards will join other commissioners, including Stonewall's director Ben Summerskill, on the new body, which has brought together the three existing UK equality organisations: the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission.

The appointment of the Joel Edwards is provoking intense debate because the organisation he leads has previously been against the Sexual Orientation Regulations and full legal equality for lesbian and gay people in all aspects of public life.

In October 2007 EA gave evidence to a House of Commons committee in which it opposed a new crime of incitement to violence on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The Rev Richard Kirker, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) said last week: "I was stunned when Joel told me personally he was to be a commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

He explained: "Holding such a key role in the organisation charged with supporting gay equality will put him at loggerheads with many in his own fundamentalist constituency.I am delighted he now seems to have 'seen the light' and can embrace and support all the recent pro-gay legislation without exception, and with a clear conscience. I can only hope his late conversion to equality is genuine, deep-rooted and sincere."

LGCM has expressed its scpeticism about what is possible. Meanwhile, the think tank Ekklesia, which looks at religion in public life in Britain, has said that the appointment presents "a historic opportunity for evangelicals to shift toward full acceptance of the equalities agenda."

"The appointment of Joel Edwards necessarily depends upon his acceptance that, whatever the moral and theological debate within sections of the church, the full practical and legal equality of everyone should be upheld in national life, irrespective of sexual orientation," said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

"If that is the case, it marks the possibility of a significant shift in the thinking and practice of a significant constituency which has been reluctant or unwilling to sign up to the full equalities agenda", declares Ekklesia - which has argued vigorously that full acceptance and inclusion of lesbian and gay persons ought to be a Christian as well as a public duty.

The think-tank says its analysis shows that, underneath the very public rows about sexuality within the Anglican Communion and elsewhere, there are already signs of such a shift. It points to the fact that Faithworks, a prominent evangelical Christian service agency with thousands of supporters across the UK, publicly supported the Sexual Orientation Regulations - even as many other evangelicals opposed them.

Ekklesia also points to the growth of Accepting Evangelicals, affirming the full dignity and rights of gay people within the church and society as a whole, and the work of Courage Trust - a former 'ex-gay' ministry which is now pro-gay.

"Evangelicals who recognise that equality ought to be a key part of the Christian message have been slowly coming out of the closet, and even the Evangelical Alliance's sceptical opinions on this issue have been expressed much more temperately of late," said Ekklesia's Jonathan Bartley.

"We fully understand the concern that CEHR should not make appointments that undermine the full equalities agenda from within, but we know Joel, and though we disagree with him on a number of issues we believe him to be a person of integrity who will respect the new obligations he has been given and encourage recognition of them in the section of the church where he has great influence" said Jonathan Bartley.

However, Ekklesia has expressed concern that if a dialogue with 'religion and belief' is to be an element of the new Commission on Equality and Human Rights, this should be conducted fairly. "In particular the commitments of humanists and the principles of others who do not subscribe to religious views, a significant proportion of the population, should be represented and acknowledged too. The aim should be to develop a broad consensus on comprehensive equal rights."

The EHRC incorporates three new human rights strands: age, sexual orientation and religion and belief.

The LGBT Group of the Green Party has opposed Mr Edwards' appointment. "There should be no get-out clauses for homophobes who want to sit on the commission which is purportedly about helping to secure delivery of equality for our communities," declared spokseperson Phelim Mac Cafferty.

"If the new commission is to harness the trust of the LGBT communities, the chair of the commission, Trevor Phillips, must re-examine Dr Joel Edwards appointment", he added.

The National Secular Society has also denounced the appointment, calling the EA head "fundamentalist" - a charge also made by a number of other respondents, but one which those who know Edwards say is unfair. Evangelicaism has been hospitable to fundamentalism, but many evangelicals renounce dogmatism.

Jim Herrick, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, said that Dr Edwards' appointment will distort the concept of human rights and put gay rights in danger.

The EHRC was created "to promote a fair, equal and diverse society and to tackle illegal discrimination." It was established by the Equality Act 2006 and began work at the beginning of October 2007.

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Full statement from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6204

Briefing on 'Facing up to fundamentalism': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/070201

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