Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

27 December 2012

Census and gay marriage: England remains a Christian nation – for now

Earlier this month, two interesting events took place in the same week. First, the results of the 2011 Census of England and Wales were published. Among many interesting findings, this reported that the proportion of the population of England and Wales stating that their religion was Christianity had fallen to 59.3%, from 71.7% in 2001: a drop of 12.4%. There was an almost exactly opposite rise in the number of those claiming they had no religion, from 14.8% to 25.1%: up 11.3%.

The proportion of those identifying as Christian in England alone – 59.4% – was pretty much identical to that for England and Wales combined. However, the proportion of those indicating they had no religious affiliation at all was significantly higher in Wales than in England: 32.1% versus 24.7% respectively. The main reason for this divergence is that there is a much higher share of non-Christian religions in England than in Wales, reflecting the greater extent of immigration to England. In particular, the Muslim share of the population in England was 5%, compared with only 1.5% in Wales. Across England and Wales as a whole, the Census reported that the proportion of the population claiming affiliation to Islam had risen from 3.0% in 2001 to 4.8% in 2011.

On this measure at least, England is still a Christian country. Indeed, the greatest threat to Christianity in England comes from secularisation not ‘Islamisation’, with the English Muslim population still being only 8% of the size of the Christian community. It seems to me that this is one of the paradoxes of anti-Muslim organisations such as the EDL or the BNP: that while they ostensibly seek to defend England’s / Britain’s Christian heritage against a perceived Islamic threat, many of their adherents are far from Christian in their own beliefs and lifestyles. It is really the broad Christian heritage and culture of England / Britain that they see themselves as defending. But the truth of the matter is, as the Census shows, that many people who previously categorised themselves as nominally Christian now no longer do call themselves Christian. That does not necessarily mean they do not believe in God, or even that they do not consider their beliefs and values are compatible with Christian faith. But the fact that they no longer feel they can definitely describe themselves as Christian nevertheless marks a profound culture shift.

Another profound culture shift that has taken place over the past ten to 15 years is in attitudes towards gay sex and relationships. I’m not sure if this is a generational thing, but until very recently, it used to be regarded as something noteworthy, unusual and even a bit distasteful for many heterosexuals if someone you knew was openly gay or in a gay relationship. But nowadays, it’s just regarded as part of normality: more ‘oh yes, and he’s gay’, rather than ‘he’s gay, you know’ – nudge nudge, wink wink.

Take these two trends together, and it’s not surprising that a moral consensus has grown up in favour of legalising gay marriage in England and Wales; and that a nation whose Christianity is increasingly vague and non-doctrinal seems to think that this is compatible with Christian values, and hence that there might be plenty of churches out there that will be happy to embrace their new ‘freedom’ to marry gays. This is the other event that took place earlier this month: the government’s announcement that it would proceed with legislation to introduce gay marriage in England and Wales.

Of course, in reality, gay marriage is far from compatible with mainstream Christian belief. While some have drawn parallels with the issue of women bishops, gay marriage is not at all in the same category. Most churches do not even have bishops or regard them as essential, let alone women bishops. This is simply not a point of common Christian belief across the denominations. By contrast, virtually all Christian churches regard gay marriage as a contradiction in terms, as marriage is by definition regarded as a union between a man and a woman. Indeed, most denominations still view gay sex itself as sinful: a belief that is at the origin of society’s repudiation of homosexuality until recent times.

As society generally no longer regards gay sex, or at least loving gay relationships, as morally wrong, so it seems to have assumed there can be no reasonable objection to gay couples choosing to affirm their relationships through marriage. But marriage isn’t just about de-culpabilising a sexual relationship: a mutual commitment – gay or straight – somehow being less complete, and therefore potentially more selfish and morally imperfect, outside of marriage. It isn’t in fact just about the commitment, which is of course to be welcomed in any relationship: it’s about the union constituted by marriage. In traditional Christian belief, marriage creates something new: marriage is a real – spiritual and bodily – union between a man and a woman, which reflects, restores and re-enacts the original unity of male and female in God: of male and female as created in the image of God. By definition, then, it has to be a coming together of a man and a woman. And the fact that the marital union embodies the union between God and humanity in Christ also means that the purpose of marriage reflects the nature and action of God in the world: as creator and redeemer. Hence, marriage is also intrinsically about creating new life – through procreation – and about dedication to guiding those new lives to faith, and ultimately to the eternal life of salvation.

This view of marriage is, however, very far removed from society’s increasingly secularised understanding of it as primarily a mutual commitment between a man and woman, and – if mutual commitment is what it’s all about – why not also between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman? Nevertheless, the government’s legislative proposals stopped short of imposing an obligation for churches to conduct gay weddings if they were requested by gay couples to do so. And in the case of the Church of England and its Welsh counterpart, the Church in Wales, the government proposes to actually prohibit those churches from carrying out gay marriage ceremonies, even if they, or individual parish churches, wish to do so.

The fact that the proposed legislation compels the Anglican churches of England and Wales not to marry gay couples, whereas other churches and religions in those countries can choose whether or not to do so, is linked to the Church of England’s established status. This means that Canon Law – the Church’s own internal legislation – is part of the law of the land. You cannot therefore have a situation in which statute – parliamentary legislation – and Canon Law are in conflict. This would have been the case if Parliament had allowed the Church of England to conduct gay weddings, whereas Canon Law forbids it. Of course, Parliament could have chosen to engineer such a conflict with the Church, in order to persuade or coerce it into bringing Canon Law into line with statute, rather than the other way round. However, if there had been resistance to this change within the Church – which there certainly would have been – this could have risked triggering the disestablishment of the Church. And this is a risk which, it seems, Parliament was not prepared to take at this stage.

It is indeed ironic that it is the very established status of the Church of England that exempts it from a measure that Parliament regards as fair and even as consistent with Christian values. And this is to say nothing of the anomalous situation that the Church in Wales finds itself in. Unlike the Church of England, the Welsh Church is not established; and yet it finds itself subject to the same prohibition of gay marriage as its English counterpart. This appears to have happened with very little if any consultation with the Church in Wales. It seems to have been the case that, as the gay marriage Bill applies to both England and Wales, it would have been even more anomalous and potentially unsustainable to completely ban the Anglican church in England from marrying gay couples while allowing the Anglican church in Wales to do so if it wished.

In the end, though, the inconsistencies surrounding the Bill are effectively no more than a manifestation of the contradiction involved in thinking that gay marriage is consistent with mainstream Christian faith, which it is not. Parliament is effectively wanting to have its secular-liberal cake and eat its established-religion cake, too: a secularisation of values, yes, but not a secularisation of the state – at least not yet.

So the Westminster politicians have shied away from pushing the liberal gay-marriage agenda to the point where disestablishment of the Church of England could have ensued. Were they motivated by a dim awareness that – as the Census showed – England remains a broadly Christian country, and that there was insufficient popular support for a confrontation with the Church on this matter, let alone for disestablishment? Or were they terrified at the prospect of disestablishment and of all the unforeseen consequences this might have, and reluctant to be the Parliament that overthrew more than 450 years of constitutional history?

I maintain that one of the consequences of disestablishing the Church of England is effectively the abolition of England as a civic nation. The Church of England is arguably the only English-national institution remaining at the heart of the British establishment: a body that confers a specific responsibility towards England and the English people on those at the heart of power, including the monarch and the Parliament that governs in the name of the monarch. Really, in some respects, the Church of England represents the spiritual heart and conscience of the English nation: its own doctrinal vagaries reflecting the increasingly loose and ill-defined ‘Christianity’ of the English nation at large.

So in this formal sense, too, England remains a Christian nation; and the continuation of the Church of England as not just the national-English church but the UK-state church has ensured in this instance that the laws of England, made by the UK parliament, remain true to England’s Christian tradition and faith. But if Christian faith in England erodes to the same extent as it has done since 2001, who knows for how much longer there will even be a Church of England? And with the removal of the Church of England from the British establishment, will England cease not just to be a Christian nation, but a nation in any sense?

1 March 2011

It’s official: English law discriminates against Christianity

Yesterday, a black Christian couple were told that Derby City Council had been right to bar them from fostering children because of their refusal to tell children in their care that the practice of homosexuality is a good thing, which contradicts their Christian views about sexual ethics. The ruling of the High Court in London stated that laws protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation “should take precedence” over the right not to be discriminated against on religious grounds, and that if children were placed with carers who objected to homosexuality and same-sex relationships, “there may well be a conflict with the local authority’s duty to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare’ of looked-after children”.

This ruling may well be correct in law – I’m not qualified to judge – but if it is, it does legalise discrimination against Christians and those of other faiths. The very wording of the ruling implies this: if there’s a conflict between discrimination on the grounds of homosexuality and discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, then it’s better to discriminate against the people who hold the religious beliefs in question rather than (merely appear to) discriminate against gays.

Why? Apart from debatable technical reasons (i.e. “there may well be a conflict with the local authority’s duty to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare’ of looked-after children”), the only reason for privileging sexual orientation over religious belief is that the moral rectitude, or at least the absence of immorality, of same-sex relationships has become unquestionable and uncontestable (including in law), whereas religious beliefs are now regarded as fundamentally questionable and are no longer accepted as resting on absolutes, either moral or epistemological (i.e. as being based on an objective theory of knowledge).

As the BBC’s religious correspondent Robert Pigott, writing yesterday, put it: “This was the most decisive ruling against the idea of Christian values underpinning English law since judges ruled last year that to protect views simply because they were religious would be irrational, divisive and arbitrary. Today the message was that courts would interpret the law in cases like the Johns’ according to secular and not religious values”. So not only do the laws themselves enshrine secular values and philosophically sceptical views towards religion – including Christianity: England’s traditional faith – but secular interpretions of the law will ‘take precedence’ over religious ones where there is a conflict.

I suppose one should not complain too much if the law and its interpretation reflect general changes in society, and its views on ethics and faith. But my point is that, as a result of yesterday’s ruling, this is likely to result in egregious discrimination against Christians and those of other faiths, which ought to be prevented in law not defended. For a start, the Johns – the couple at the centre of the case – were not adjudged to have committed any act of discrimination against gays: they weren’t actively trying to prevent gay couples from fostering; although many people, not just Christians, would regard a married couple like the Johns as more suitable foster parents than a gay couple.

So in reality, it’s just the Johns’ beliefs that were regarded as discriminatory and as therefore potentially being a ‘bad influence’ on the children committed to their care; i.e. as encouraging children to take on similarly ‘discriminatory’ views, thereby damaging their welfare, which the Council is statutorily obliged to safeguard. But is the Court, and society in general, really saying there is such a thing as a totally neutral, non-discriminatory environment in which children can grow up? The ruling appears to imply that it’s wrong for Christian foster carers to tell children that gay sex is morally bad but it would be OK for atheist couples to tell children that Christianity is wrong, both morally and in terms of its claim to truth. Is that what we’re saying: it’s wrong for Christians to tell their foster or adopted children (and their own children, too?) that gay sex is wrong, but it’s OK – in fact, positively a good thing – for non-believers to tell their charges that Christianity is wrong?

Besides which, the Johns weren’t even insisting on the right to tell children in their care that gay sex was ‘wrong’, only that they couldn’t tell a child that “the practice of homosexuality was a good thing” [quote from Mrs John’s speech after the ruling]. In other words, the Court has decided not only that foster carers shouldn’t preach their Christianity to their children but that they should preach the ‘virtues’ of a gay lifestyle, i.e. actively promote homosexuality.

Let’s try to imagine a real-world situation: a child being looked after by the Johns is asking them about sex and relationships and, in the interests of that child’s rounded development, they’re supposed to tell him or her that it’s not only perfectly all right to be gay but that gay relationships are a positively good thing – just as good and valid as marriage (if not more so?) – even though the Johns don’t actually believe that last point to be true and their own lives are lived out on different principles. What nonsense! How is the child to make sense of that? ‘So, you’re telling me it’s OK for me to have gay relationships, even though you don’t think they’re right?’ How is that providing coherent moral guidance for kids?

No, what they would of course do is say that it’s OK to be gay (which virtually all Christians believe nowadays) but that, in their opinion, the practice of homosexuality is morally wrong and that the child should wait till he or she had grown up a bit more and was sure about their sexuality before deciding to enter into a relationship; and that after the age of 18, they would in any case be completely free to make their own decisions and that, whatever they decided, they would still be loved. This is being honest with the child and presenting him or her with moral guidance consistent with their own lifestyle, which the child can react against or not when they reach maturity. Plus it’s no different from what most loving parents would do, even in the case that their child came out as gay rather than just seeking guidance on matters of sexuality: they’d prefer their children not to start having sexual relationships until they were 18 and / or had left home.

If the Court thinks that providing children with strict moral guidelines together with loving care, up until the time that the child is legally old enough to make all his or her own decisions, represents a threat to the child’s healthy development, then it is the Court that is out of touch with English social mores, and it is the Court that is being discriminatory, not people like the Johns. Does the Court really think it would be more in the interests of a child’s welfare for its foster parents to say: “being gay is a good thing, and we’d be perfectly happy for you to start having a same-sex relationship just as soon as you’re over the age of consent”? That would appear to be what is being implied by the ruling: better to give children the ‘moral guidance’ that gay sex, and indeed any sex, is fine and proper so long as it’s legal. So one of the unintended (or perhaps intended?) consequences of this ruling will be to undermine the authority of parents to give their children any moral guidance about sex that might appear to limit their sexual freedom once over the age of consent.

And there are other apparent unintended consequences or implications to this ruling:

  • The Court appears to be saying that it’s ‘better’ for children to be fostered and adopted by gay couples than by Christians with a strict moral code
  • A same-sex relationship is therefore ‘better’ than a conventional marriage lived according to Christian principles, as being brought up in such an environment is potentially damaging to children
  • It’s wrong to tell children that gay sex is wrong, but it’s OK – indeed, a good thing – to tell children that Christianity and other faiths are wrong
  • It’s legitimate in certain circumstances to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religious beliefs, even when those beliefs do not result in discrimination against other people or beliefs
  • The legislature for England now gives greater ‘precedence’ to secular-liberal principles – even ones which conflict with general custom and practice in society – than Christian principles
  • The views of working-class black-English Christians are treated as less worthy of respect than the ideology of middle-class British liberals: would the Johns have been treated with the same contempt had they been middle-class white Londoners? Maybe; but maybe not.

In making its ruling yesterday, did the Court intend to imply all of the above statements? If not, an urgent clarification is needed – and, indeed, the Johns have called for a public enquiry on the issues raised. There are two fundamental issues at stake: the welfare of children and the law’s attitude towards those with religious beliefs. Without further clarification, yesterday’s ruling strongly implies a discriminatory attitude towards traditional religious faith: that it is somehow ‘objectively’ wrong, both morally and philosophically; whereas the belief in the moral rectitude of gay relationships has somehow been elevated into an unquestionable objective truth. On what basis? Are we really saying that if foster, adoptive and even genetic parents have strong religious views and moral principles, and they pass those on to their children, they are thereby damaging those children’s welfare and development?

Well, one unintended consequence of this prejudiced, stupid and ill-thought-through ruling is that the law has once again shown itself to be an ass: and an ass that, in matters of faith versus homosexuality, has got it completely arse over tip.

30 September 2010

Why gay sex is wrong, from a Catholic perspective

This is something of a departure from my normal themes; although some of my recent posts have had an explicitly Christian, indeed Catholic, subject matter. I think a defence of Catholic teaching on homosexuality still falls within the remit of this blog, however, in that it involves challenging one of the sacred cows of contemporary Britishness: the view that, unlike certain benighted parts of the world, we in Britain have a rational, tolerant and, by implication, correct attitude towards homosexuality.

Clearly, this subject could generate vast tomes, as it’s so complex and controversial. I’m going to try to cut through some of that by means of a direct assertion: the wrongness or otherwise of active homosexuality (gay sex) is bound up with the nature of the life of faith itself. It’s impossible to understand or accept Church teaching on homosexuality without an appreciation of what faith is, which in a sense requires that you have faith.

If you don’t have a faith, whether Christian or that of any other ‘God’-centric creed, then the centre of your universe and of meaning in life will probably be your self: your personality, relationships, life experiences, aspirations, career, family, beliefs, etc. The purpose of a life lived without faith could be variously described as to fulfil your potential, care for those you love, be successful (or rich, or famous), make a difference in the world, pursue your dreams, do whatever you want, make the best of what you’ve got, etc. What these goals have in common is that they are all centred on the self, which is not necessarily the same as self-centred: who I am, what kind of person I am, self-discovery, self-fulfilment, self-realisation. If you’re a gay person without faith, then it’s obvious that one of the main goals in your life is to be true to yourself as gay and to express your sexuality in your relationships. End of discussion.

However, the life of faith is not centred on the self in this way: it is, or should be, centred on God. And that’s the living God and risen Lord, as Christians know him, not some random, patriarchal giver of archaic homophobic laws, or the prime mover of creation, or other contemporary caricatures. For people without faith, or of another faith, those words – living God and risen Lord – could also appear to be a cliché and caricature. But they don’t do, cannot do, justice to the lived experience of Christian faith, which ultimately is centred on a direct, personal encounter with God. All I can say is that, for me, the love of God in Christ is real and is the most powerful motivating force in my life. When your life has been touched by that love, then the best part of you wants to live out that love and be true to it in all that you do. And you’re carried forward by the conviction that that’s precisely what God wants for you: that your life should be in every aspect be a visible, tangible expression of the love of God, for yourself and everyone you relate to.

That means that God has a purpose for each and every one of us; and that purpose is love. And as God himself is love – the source and centre of all human love and life – then that purpose is also to draw us into an ever deeper union with (communion with and in) his love and being. This means that sexuality and sexual activity also has a divine purpose and meaning. And that’s not only procreation and, for that reason, necessarily heterosexual. The purpose is to share in God’s love and in what that love does, which is to bring new life into being and to bring mortal life into his eternal being.

Therefore, sex is not just for procreation, but it is for life and for marriage, defined as the life-long union between a man and a woman in Christ via the sacrament, or sacred mystery, of matrimony. Sacraments enact and express the union between God and humanity in Christ. Therefore, the union between a man and a woman in marriage is both bodily (as expressed in sex, among other things) and spiritual, just as Christ is both incarnate and pure divine Spirit. In that union with Christ, and with each other in Christ, married couples are called by God to live out and manifest in human form the very nature and action of God himself known as a Trinity: two – God the Father and God the Son – being united in love for each other, and in that very love (a love also known as God the Spirit or the Giver of Life) giving rise to and sustaining the whole of creation. By analogy, the married couple, in their union of love lived out both spiritually and physically – including through sex – are intended to become a father and a mother giving new life of themselves and of that love in the form of their children, who they are called not only to procreate but to guide into the fullness of life that is Christ. Like Christ himself, the new life that results from that union is literally the love of God incarnate.

Sex is therefore intended by God to be a means for human beings to be united in and with his own love and being, and in the fruits of that love, which are life itself. What are called the ‘unitive’ (a man and woman becoming one in Christ) and ‘procreative’ purposes of sex as lived out in marriage are integral to each other: if the sex is not both unitive (sacramental, matrimonial) and open to procreation it cannot fully express and embody God’s love. That’s the common reason why gay sex, unmarried straight sex, non-genital straight sex, and marital sex using contraceptives are all viewed as sinful by the Church: ‘sin’ meaning when, in our actions and thoughts, we close ourselves off to the love of God. In sexual life, that love is intended by God to be realised most fully in the loving union between a man and a woman in marriage from which new life comes.

So it’s not just gay sex that is, on this view, ‘wrong’, i.e. immoral and sinful. All sexual activity that we engage in with either the deliberate intention to ignore what the Church, speaking words inspired by the Holy Spirit, teaches us to be the true meaning and purpose of sex, or in ignorance of that teaching, is to a greater or lesser extent sinful, because it means that our will and our actions are directed to the ends of our self rather than to God’s purposes and love. And the more we structure our lives around the ignoring and ignorance of God, the more we are in danger of being unable or unwilling to turn to God and welcome his love into our lives.

Therefore, what is essentially ‘wrong’ about gay sex is that it is sex without any reference or regard to the divine purpose of sex, which is one important way, but not the only way, to share in the love and action of God in the world. That doesn’t mean that gay sex is necessarily or always without love, which it manifestly isn’t: gay couples are often just as loving, if not more so, than many straight ones; and their relationships just as long-lasting. But gay sex is an imperfect expression of the love of God – but, let’s face it, which one of us is perfect? – insofar as God intends that love to be expressed in sex: it cannot be either unitive (a man and woman becoming one body in Christ) or procreative (giving of new life). And, for that reason, gay sex can never be the realisation of a divine calling: God doesn’t call gay people to have sex, because gay sex cannot in itself serve God (bring God’s life into the world, and be an expression of his intentions in creating sex, and creating through sex). Gay sex is ultimately an expression of what the self wants – ‘I’m gay, so therefore I want sex and am going to have it’ – rather than of God’s purpose for sex and for the gay person him- or herself, which is to share fully in the love and being of God.

So gay sex is ultimately, from the Catholic perspective, a potential barrier to the gay person in responding fully to God’s offer of love and eternal life: it can orientate our will and our actions towards the pleasures and goals of this life and of the body, in opposition to the Christian calling to open our hearts, minds, bodies and souls to the love of God for us in Christ. And gay persons are therefore called upon to be celibate, not out of an arbitrary, servile and ignorant submission to a homophobic prohibition on something to which gay people’s personalities naturally attract them; but out of the need – which all of us share – to put God’s love before all other needs and desires.

And that’s because God’s love is both the true purpose of our life in this world and its eternal destination.

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