Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, who is the second most senior figure in the established Church of England, and who has himself been the victim of direct racist prejudice in the past, has sought to defend the institutional church against charges of discrimination.
Appearing on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning (24 January 2007), Dr Sentamu, formerly a judge in Uganda, said that the refusal of Catholic adoption agencies to allow lesbian and gay couples access to their publicly tendered services was acceptable ‚Äì because to require them to do otherwise would amount to the government involving itself in a ‚Äúprivate matter‚Äù.
He also claimed that legislation for a universal standard of equality in access to goods and services amounted to an abrogation of freedom of conscience for those opposed to homosexuality. But Dr Sentamu demurred from the suggestion by interviewer John Humphrys that there was a direct parallel here with someone refusing black people adoption rights because they did not like them or held religiously-sanctioned view against racial equality ‚Äì as has been the case in the past.
The Archbishop also distanced the Church of England from Catholic teaching that homosexuality is sinful (a condition ‚Äúgravely disordered‚Äù is how it has been expressed), saying that it accepted homosexual orientation but regards homosexual acts as on a par with fornication and adultery as ‚Äúfalling short of the glory of God‚Äù.
Dr Sentamu‚Äôs comments came after he and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, issued a letter yesterday (23 January 2007) backing Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy O‚ÄôConnor ‚Äì who has said that up to 12 Catholic adoption agencies in receipt of public funds through fees may be closed if they are required by law not to discriminate against same-sex couples who pass all the other tests to be accepted as good parents to a child or children.
Equality campaigners, secular groups, politicians, lesbian and gay Christians and the UK religious think-tank Ekklesia are among those to have said that the Church‚Äôs position as a provider of a public service is untenable in this regard, and that it is reasonable and necessary to maintain universal access to services and provisions offered in the public domain.
They point out that the Church is not being required to change its own views on what Dr Sentamu called ‚Äúprivate matters‚Äù, but rather is being required not to impose restrictions derived from its own ‚Äì widely contested ‚Äì teaching against homosexuality on non-adherents in the area of wider goods and services.
The Cardinal Archbishop, along with the Anglican Archbishops, says that he does not regard the refusal of gay people as an act of discrimination.
The argument, which is being considered by Prime Minister Tony Blair, is raising fresh questions about institutional church involvement in public service provision when it is unable to sign up to a comprehensive human rights agenda.
There have been complaints that the Cardinal‚Äôs stand amounts to ‚Äúblackmail‚Äù and ‚Äúbullying‚Äù, charges which he strongly denies. The intervention of the Archbishops also throws into highlight the role of the Church of England as Established by law.
On the Today programme, Dr Sentamu, in a direct attempt to invoke his Church‚Äôs privileged status, said that the Catholic Church‚Äôs refusal of equal access to lesbian and gay adoptees should be seen as an issue of free conscience which he likened to British values including magnanimity, justice, freedom, fairness and ‚Äúallegiance to the crown‚Äù.
The full text of the Archbishops‚Äô letter to the PM is as follows:
Dear Prime Minister,
The Church of England, along with others in the voluntary sector, including other churches and faith communities, have been in discussion with the government for some time over what has become known as the Sexual Orientation Regulations. Those discussions have been conducted in good faith, in mutual respect and with an appropriate level of confidence on all sides.
Last week that changed. Speculation about splits within government, fuelled by public comment from government ministers, appears to have created an atmosphere that threatens to polarise opinions. This does no justice to any of those whose interests are at stake, not least vulnerable children whose life chances could be adversely, and possibly irrevocably, affected by the overriding of reasoned discussion and proper negotiation in an atmosphere of mistrust and political expediency.
The one thing on which all seem able to agree is that these are serious matters requiring the most careful consideration. There is a great deal to gain. It is becoming increasingly evident however that much could also be lost, as the letter from Cardinal Cormac Murphy O‚ÄôConnor makes clear.
Many in the voluntary sector are dedicated to public service because of the dictates of their conscience. In legislating to protect and promote the rights of particular groups the government is faced with the delicate but important challenge of not thereby creating the conditions within which others feel their rights to have been ignored or sacrificed, or in which the dictates of personal conscience are put at risk.
The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well meaning.
On numerous occasions in the past proper consideration has been given to the requirements of consciences alongside other considerations contributing to the common good, such as social need or human rights - the right, for example, of some doctors not to perform abortions, even though employed by the National Health Service.
It would be deeply regrettable if in seeking, quite properly, better to defend the rights of a particular group not to be discriminated against, a climate were to be created in which, for example, some feel free to argue that members of the government are not fit to hold public office on the grounds of their faith affiliation. This is hardly evidence of a balanced and reasonable public debate.
As you approach the final phase of what has, until very recently, been a careful and respectful consideration of the best way in which to introduce and administer new protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in England and Wales, we hope you, and cabinet colleagues, will do justice to the interests of the much wider grouping of interests within the nation that will be affected. It is vitally important that the interests of vulnerable children are not relegated to suit any political interest. And that conditions are not inadvertently created which make the claims of conscience an obstacle to, rather than the inspiration for, the invaluable public service rendered by parts of the voluntary sector.
Most Rev and Rt Hon Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury
Most Rev and Rt Hon John Sentamu
Archbishop of York