Mainstream parties have been defeated by the monster they created

Nigel Farage’s smug grin is all over the media this morning. But the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have been defeated by a monster of their own creation.

They have failed to speak up for the benefits of migration, they have not provided decent housing, they have bailed out banks and punished the poor, they have pandered to the super-rich. It’s no surprise that people look for an alternative.

Unfortunately, the alternative is provided by Nigel Farage’s ragtag army of racists, sexists, homophobes and climate change deniers. Farage, a privately educated former stockbroker, presents himself as anti-establishment. UKIP’s policies include a tax system that would harm the poor and those in the middle while slashing taxes for the rich. UKIP politicians also advocate a big increase in military spending at the same time as greater cuts to the welfare state.

Most of these policies are barely mentioned in the media, which concentrates on UKIP’s views on migration and the European Union. The BBC must bear some responsibility for UKIP’s success. Fascinated with Farage, keen on sensational change, they have given the party vastly disproportionate attention.

Not that this is any excuse for voting for UKIP. I won’t patronise UKIP voters by suggesting they don’t know what they’re doing. Let’s not forget, however, that around two-thirds of UK voters did not even vote in this election. UKIP have received the support of about one in ten of the adult population. Even the majority of those who did vote supported parties that favour EU membership.

The Tories have already shown their willingness to cave into UKIP’s agenda, attacking migrants and the EU at the same time as they demonise the poor to justify their austerity agenda. Labour have a chance to speak up for migration and point out the real problems of spiralling poverty and inequality. Sadly, Labour politicians are already mentioning the need to talk more about immigration – a euphemism for being more anti-immigration and blaming migrants for problems they have not caused.

Thankfully, there is more to politics than choosing between four parties that marginalise the working and middle classes in the interests of the rich. There are alternative ways of voting – such as Green, Plaid Cymru and others.

More importantly, we can aim for a better world in our own lives and communities – by refusing to scapegoat migrants, Muslims or benefit claimants; by staging grassroots campaigns against austerity, prejudice and war; by supporting each other in resisting poor working conditions and dodgy landlords; by choosing kindness over consumerism. We can defy this rotten system not just on polling day, but every day.

British Baptists take a step foward on sexuality – but need to go a lot further

Ministers in the Baptist Union of Great Britain who bless same-sex partnerships will no longer be disciplined for doing so if they have the support of their local church. I think this is brilliant news.

The news has been misreported in some places, with the decision being overstated as a sudden change of Baptist attitudes to same-sex marriage. However, the Baptist Union’s own spokespeople are downplaying the news, implying that they’ve just made a minor tweak to the regulations. To me, this seems to understate the significance of this development.

To be clear: I’m no expert on the Baptist Union of Great Britain and I’m still struggling to understand just what has happened. The key point to grasp is that Baptists believe strongly in the autonomy of the local church. The Baptist Union is not a church in the same way as the Methodist Church and the Church of England. Rather it is a union of churches.

As Stephen Keyworth, the Union’s team leader for Faith and Society, put it in a recent interview with Adrian Warnock, “The supreme authority in all things is the person of Christ, as revealed in scripture, discerned in community, through the power of the Holy Spirit… each church has liberty to discern that for themselves. This is the basis by which churches belong and function within our union.”

Because a lot of Baptists are passionately committed to this structure, there are Baptists who do not personally endorse same-sex relationships but who believe in the right of each local church to make its own decisions on the matter.

Despite this, many Baptists ministers have until recently feared that they would be disciplined for blessing same-sex partnerships. Some seem to be claiming that the position was unclear and that the Baptist Union was merely clarifying things. I am not convinced by this, as I know of Baptist ministers who have feared for their jobs after effectively blessing same-sex partnerships in secret.

I must thank Adrian Warnock for asking lots of questions to the Baptist Union’s Stephen Keyworth and thus getting some answers about what’s going on.

Keyworth said:

“First I need to correct you, there was no decision made last weekend. What happened was a very small part of a very long, thorough and prayerful journey… We are not a denomination that makes central decisions and policy – we discern the Mind of Christ through the prayerful deliberations of His people gathered together in church meetings.

“On this issue, over the last year or so we have encouraged churches, minsters and associations to engage in conversations through a whole series of approaches, and what was offered last Saturday, was a very simple update from the Baptist Steering group – which in essence said to the wider Baptist Community – this is what we believe to be your view on this matter.  This is what we think we have heard.”

This answer suggests that the Steering Group discerned that most people within the Union wanted ministers and churches to be allowed to follow their differing consciences on the subject and therefore made clear that ministers would not be automatically disciplined for blessing same-sex partnerships. This is fair enough. Nonetheless, there are two ways in which I find the statements of Baptist Union spokespeople to be highly questionable.

Firstly, there is Stephen Keyworth’s insistence that “no decision was made last weekend”. This is not really believable. The steering group may have been responding to what they discerned to be going on within the Union as local churches discerned the mind of Christ. But in doing so, they made a decision. They changed – or at the very least, clarified – the regulations concerning ministerial discipline.

However much they try to play it down this is potentially very significant for Baptist ministers who want to affirm loving same-sex partnerships, as well as for gay and bisexual Baptists who want their relationships to be blessed in their own church.

Of course, it does not go nearly far enough for those of us who wish to see equality in Christian churches.

This leads on to the second problem. At the same time as saying that Baptist ministers would not be disciplined, the Baptist Union reaffirmed “the traditionally accepted biblical understanding of Christian marriage, as a union between a man and a woman, as the continuing foundation of belief in our Baptist Churches”.

I find it hard to see how this could not be contradictory. More worryingly still, the Baptist Union still maintains that its ministers are required to follow guidelines that state that “a sexual relationship outside of Christian marriage (as defined between a man and a woman) is deemed conduct unbecoming for a minister”.

So it seems that ministers can bless same-sex partnerships but not enter such a partnership themselves. This is an incoherent position (reminiscent of the sort of baffling compromises adopted by the Church of England).

Furthermore, it remains very unclear what will happen if a Baptist church wants to go further and carry out a legally recognised same-sex marriage. The legislation allowing same-sex marriages in English and Welsh churches seems to say that the national body of a religious organisation has to apply for permission to hold them. As I pointed out when the legislation was going through Parliament, this would rule out an individual local church applying for permission, even in a denomination such as the Baptists in which authority has always been located in local congregations.

This week’s news does not indicate a sexual revolution in the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It does not mean that Baptist ministers and churches are truly free to make their own decisions about loving sexual relationships. But it is a far more significant step forward than some seem to think. The chance to celebrate your love in the context of worship is not a minor thing, and I’m sorry that anyone should imply that it is.

During his interview, Stephen Keyworth said, “I’m tired of speaking about sexuality and its complexities when what I would like to do is tell the world about Jesus. I’d like us to be known as spirit-filled and spirit-led communities who are able to make a difference in the world living as disciples of Jesus Christ.”

I can understand Keyworth’s frustration. But I’m sure he would agree that following Jesus in our daily lives has a deep effect on our relationships. This includes relationships with friends, colleagues, enemies, and strangers as well as sexual relationships. We can’t avoid talking about them by talking about Jesus. Those of us who believe that Christ has freed us from the law to live by love will keep resisting regulations and structures that prevent this from happening.

Welby, homophobia and the lives that are at risk

Justin Welby has declared that acceptance of same-sex marriage could lead to Christians being killed in South Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere.

In his comments, Welby made some valid points. But the conclusions he drew from them seem to me to be severely mistaken.

The archbishop told LBC Radio that he had “stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America”. In the incident in question, in Nigeria, the murderers had allegedly said “If we leave a Christian community here, we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians.”

Welby is right to say that “We have to be aware of… the impact of that on Christians far from here.” As he pointed out, “Everything we say here goes round the world.”

It would be naïve and uncaring not to think of the possibility that same-sex marriage in British churches could be used to incite anti-Christian hatred elsewhere in the world. Welby rightly reminds us that we need to take that into account.

However, when something is used to incite hatred, this does not mean it is necessarily the underlying cause of the hatred. I am sure Welby would acknowledge that anti-Christian prejudice in Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere is due to complex social, historical, economic and political causes. The same can be said of homophobic prejudice.

I dare say that some Nigerians assume that Christians in South Sudan all share the views of Christians in the US. They show as much prejudice as those British people who assume that all British Muslims are comparable to the Taliban. I am sure the majority of people in Nigeria, like the majority of people in Britain, have the sense to realise that this is not the case.

Much of the British reporting of African homophobia has racial undertones. An assumption that all Africans are homophobic (clearly not true) is accompanied by an implication that Africans will naturally behave in a prejudiced, irrational and ill-informed way.

I am not suggesting that Welby shares this attitude. Nor, to be fair, does every British media report. But it is nonetheless a common attitude. At its worse, it combines appeasement of homophobia with underlying racism.

Bigots who attack Christians in South Sudan, Nigeria or Pakistan have no more excuse than the bigots of the English Defence League attacking Muslims in Britain.

This does not mean that we should be callous about things that might provoke them into turning their hatred into violence. We should not be naïve or thoughtless about the effects on Christians in these countries of decisions taken in Europe or North America.

Nor should we allow this to become a convenient excuse for British Christians who oppose same-sex relationships in any case. If Christians in Pakistan were attacked by Islamic fundamentalists shouting that the doctrine of the trinity is blasphemous, I doubt we would see any British church leaders arguing that we should abandon belief in the trinity.

While talking about the implications of our decisions for Christians in Africa, there was one aspect of the issue that Welby sadly did not mention. He did not point out the consequences for gay and bisexual Africans. Many African cultures were accepting of homosexuality prior to the arrival of western armies and missionaries. As Davis Mac-Iyalla, a gay Nigerian Anglican, points out, it was not homosexuality but homophobia that the west brought to Africa.

The many LGBTI Christians in Africa need our support and solidarity. They don’t need the double curse of homophobia justified by racial, colonial assumptions.

Farage still scaremongering about same-sex marriage

During his recent debates with Nick Clegg, UKIP leader Nigel Farage found time to make a baseless prediction about same-sex marriage and religion.

In his first debate with Clegg, Farage said that UKIP opposed same-sex marriage “while we are signed up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and where we have the risk that our established church, and possibly other faith communities, could ultimately under discrimination laws be forced to conduct services that they find anathema”. 

He went further in a statement released by his office, to correct any perception that UKIP now supports same-sex marriage. He said, “We note that some gay rights activists are already talking about taking legal action in Strasbourg to force this issue.”

Are they, Nigel? Can you name them please?

I’m not sure they exist outside Nigel Farage’s fantasies, but I am ready to apologise if he or anyone else can point them out to me.

The fear that faith groups may be forced to carry out same-sex weddings against their will has been whipped up over the last two years by groups such as the “Coalition for Marriage”, certain conservative Catholics and UKIP.

These claims are less believable than ever. They had largely died down since the legislation on same-sex marriage was passed by Parliament last year, as it became clear that legal challenges were not happening.

By reviving these claims, Farage raises the spectre of the European Court of Human Rights. He does not, of course, explain why the Court has not forced faith groups to carry out same-sex marriages in all the other European countries that already recognise same-sex marriage.

Despite working on these issues for several years, I know of no LGBT rights group that wants to force faith communities to carry out marriages they don’t believe in. I have never met any individual who wants to do so either. Anyone attempting such a legal challenge would almost certainly have to begin it in the UK courts; not in Strasbourg. Furthermore, they would receive no support from any of the major LGBT rights groups in the UK, and very little from anyone else.

In November 2011, Christian Concern (one of the lobby groups behind the “Coalition for Marriage”) commented on new legislation allowing churches to host civil partnerships. Christian Concern’s director, Andrea Williams, said “It is almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation against churches that refuse”.

No such litigation was commenced. No organisation came out supporting such litigation. I wrote to Andrea Williams on 4th November 2011, asking her to name any groups or individuals of whom she was aware who were planning such litigation. Two and a half years’ later, I am still waiting for a reply.

It’s no surprise that the Christian Concern website currently has a picture of Nigel Farage on the front page, with an article saying he is “right to the fear the consequences” of same-sex marriage. Both UKIP and Christian Concern are fuelled by fear. Their baseless claims must be challenged.

Opponents of equal marriage resort to dirty tactics

It must be unusual to find that somebody objects so much to your wedding that he has travelled half way around the world to do a series of media interviews criticising it. All the more so if you don’t know him and possibly have never heard of him.

This is the experience of the same-sex couples in England and Wales who married today. They are the first same-sex couples to have their marriages recognised under English and Welsh law. Pro-equality religious leaders have been among the first to welcome the news. My congratulations and best wishes to them all.

Professor Bobby Lopez, a right-wing US activist, arrived in Britain earlier this week to campaign against these people’s weddings. He is here at the invitation of “Gay Marriage, No Thanks”, a bizarrely named campaign backed by homophobic lobby groups such as Christian Concern and so-called Anglican Mainstream. These groups are so extreme that they tend to embarrass the more moderate opponents of equal marriage.

The particular emphasis of “Gay Marriage, No Thanks” is to claim that children are harmed by same-sex marriage. This repugnant tactic is Lopez’s specialism. He was brought up by a female same-sex couple and claims that the lack of a “male role model” hindered his personal and social development.

I cannot of course comment on Lopez’s parenting. I am sorry to hear it was such a negative experience for him. What I can say is that growing up without a father is not a new or unusual experience. I am not speaking primarily about single parents in the sense the term is now understood. I am thinking of the many places and cultures in which it has been normal for a father to travel a long way to find work, sending money back to his wife and children, who may rarely see him. During both world wars, millions of children were effectively brought up by single mothers, because their fathers were away fighting. The lucky ones had more time with their fathers when the war ended. Others had only a distant grave to visit.

It is typical of anti-equal marriage campaigners to portray modern nuclear families as the “natural” way for bringing up a child. This is misleading in the extreme. Those who claim to be defending “biblical values” are of course ignoring the fact that no-one in biblical times would have recognised a nuclear family. They also skip over the controversy that Jesus caused by challenging biological notions of family, insisting that all who do the will of God are his brothers, sisters and mothers.

Some would point out that wartime mothers or single parents involved other people in the bringing up of their child, such as a grandparent, neighbour, aunt or uncle. This is exactly the point. Children do not need to be raised solely by parents (whether one or two, whether biological or not). Throughout history, extended families and communities have played a much bigger role in raising children than they do in much western culture today.

I have doubts about the notion of “male role models”, a phrase that implies that children should be taught to conform to narrow and unhealthy understandings of gender. Nonetheless, I accept the point that it is helpful for children to experience a range of role models and encounter loving adults with varied personalities and views. If this is what Lopez and “Gay Marriage, No Thanks” really want, they shouldn’t be opposing same-sex marriage. They should be opposing the destruction of communities under capitalism, the narrowness of nuclear families and the shallow, commercialised approaches to relationships that lay down restrictive and unhelpful roles and pressurise parents to conform to impossible ideals.

This would promote children’s rights, and all our rights. But it wouldn’t satisfy those who confuse the needs of children with their own hatred of same-sex relationships.

If you think UKIP’s members are extreme, read its official policies

Nigel Farage has thrown out the latest UKIP member to provoke controversy through bigoted opinions. Farage says he wants to get rid of candidates with “extremist, barmy or nasty” views. But it is not individual candidates who are the problem. UKIP’s official policies are extremely nasty, based as they are on an ultra-Thatcherite free-market extremism.

Earlier this week, I blogged about David Silvester, a UKIP councillor in Oxfordshire who attributed the recent floods to God’s judgment on the legalisation of same-sex marriage (rather than the real sin of human-fuelled climate change). I have now lost count of the number of UKIP members that have been expelled due to racist, sexist or homophobic comments. Farage’s insistence that there are bigoted individuals in every party is true but now wearing thin as an excuse for the number of them who appear to have joined UKIP.

You only have to look at the policies of UKIP to see why. They want to make even greater cuts than the Tories. They are committed to workfare (forcing people to work for benefits, instead of paying them a wage). They want to withdraw from the UN Convention on Refugees, meaning the UK could turn back people fleeing persecution. They would also remove the UK from the European Court of Human Rights, meaning it would join Belarus as the only other European country that is not signed up to it.

Despite slashing the welfare state, a UKIP government would increase military spending by forty percent and push ahead with the renewal of Trident. The party’s education policy includes the promotion of a biased, pro-imperial teaching of history in British schools. They would not, however, teach about climate change, as they deny its reality. Their policies include investment in several new gas-fired power stations.

Shortly after his comments about expelling “extremists”, Farage gave us a reminder of his own perception of reality by claiming that women can succeed just as well as men at the top levels of big business – if, he added, they are prepared to sacrifice their families. Why anyone should be expected to sacrifice their family to “succeed” was not made clear.

Of course, the debate on the number of women on boards of corporate directors conveniently obscures the reality of sexism for people on low and middle incomes. But given the power of corporations, it is telling that Farage is happy with those who are wielding that power.

It is not individual UKIPers who are the problem but the party itself and its own policies. Expelling right-wing extremists from UKIP is like expelling sand from the desert. 

UKIP, homophobia and the real sin behind the floods

UKIP councillor David Silvester believes that Britain’s recent floods are the results of sin. You may be surprised to learn that I agree with him. There the agreement ends, for we have very different ideas about what the sin is and how it has affected the weather.

In a letter to a local paper in Oxfordshire, Silvester has blamed the foods on the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage in England and Wales.

I respect the fact that many people interpret the Bible differently to me, but Silvester’s statements about the Bible are simply untrue.

In his letter, he writes “The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.”

This is, to put it bluntly, nonsense. The scriptures make no reference at all to a “Christian nation”. They have no concept of a “Christian nation”. At no point in the New Testament is there any suggestion that Jesus’ followers should build a nation-state founded on their principles or expect any nation to prioritise them and their religion. There is certainly no suggestion anywhere in the Bible of a Christian coronation oath.

What Silvester is doing, like many before him, is rejecting the grassroots radicalism of the New Testament in order to pick bits from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) that refer to ancient Israel. The people who use the Bible in this way then decide that the Bible’s comments on ancient Israel (or at least, the ones they’ve chosen to pick out) somehow apply directly to Britain as a “Christian nation” today. This simplistic approach manages to insult and misrepresent both Christianity and Judaism at the same time.

I don’t know if David Silvester sees any tension between the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus and the policies of UKIP (including even bigger welfare cuts than the Tories, withdrawal from the UN Convention on Refugees, a forty percent increase in military spending and denying the reality of climate change). I don’t know if he thinks that the UK was a “Christian nation” when Britain was engaged in the slave trade or when Britain’s rulers were committing genocide in Tasmania or suppressing religious liberty in Britain. But I do know that Silvester’s comments will attract more amusement than anger, at least in the mainstream media. Sadly, they will also serve to give people a skewed impression of Christianity. People who have never read the Bible may well assume that Silvester’s description of its contents are accurate.

That’s why other Christians need to speak up. Let no-one misrepresent us as being less Christian than Silvester and his allies, watering down the Bible or compromising the Gospel. We too should speak about sin. Sin is all that separates us from God, from each other and from creation. Sin has played a major role in these floods.

It is not sensible to say that any particular flood was caused solely by climate change. What we can say with confidence is that the frequency of floods and erratic weather conditions is a result of climate change. That change has been brought about by human beings pursuing the goals of capitalism led by politicians worshipping the idols of “growth” and corporations pursuing short-term profit.

Jesus’ solidarity with the poor is central to his teachings. It is at the heart of the Gospel. It is already obvious that the poorest people and the poorest countries will suffer the most as a result of climate change. Christians need to work alongside people of other religions and none in working for new economic systems in which resources are shared rather than hoarded or destroyed.

I don’t claim to live up to Jesus’ teachings. I’m not a better Christian than David Silvester. But I can see that sin is present in destruction, poverty and inequality, not in the love between two people who happen to be the same gender.


Why I’m not cheering the Pilling Report

Two and a half years ago, I was undertaking a pilgrimage of repentance for my former homophobia when I received a phone call from Ruth Gledhill of the Times. The Church of England’s House of Bishops had just announced a two-year consultation process on homosexuality. Ruth wanted to know my view on it.

Now the consultation process has ended, resulting in the Pilling Report. It is full of language that says the church should be more welcoming alongside policies that say the opposite. I’m sorry to see some LGBT Christians welcoming it and have written a fuller response on the website of Queers for Jesus. Please click here to read it.

How is the Sun more progressive than the Independent?

Today is the first day on which I’ve been grateful that the Sun has far more readers than the Independent.

I was looking at the front pages of the newspapers in WH Smith’s and my heart began to sink as I saw the front of the Sun. At first glance, it seemed to involve a story about a mother’s whose child’s gender was disputed. I braced myself for an offensive story peddling prejudices against transgender people.

What I found was quite the opposite. The story concerned six-year-old George, who was brought up as a girl (called Georgia). At an early age, George had said “I’m a boy” and asked to be called George. His mother is respecting his decision and treating him as a boy. His twin sister remains a girl.

The Sun‘s report focused on the prejudice faced by George and his mother, Hayley, who has been accused of encouraging her child’s maleness for her own ends. She insists she neither encouraged nor discouraged it, but accepted George’s choice. The Sun is clearly in her favour, giving over a high percentage of the word count to her quotes and portraying the school authorities that disputed George’s gender in a poor light.

The article is not perfect. It could be a lot more helpful and clear about gender fluidity and there are some questionable statistics. But it’s great to see a paper with a history of prejudice, and with a massively high readership, making clear that gender is not obvious and can change.

Uplifted by the Sun‘s coverage, I moved along to look at the other front pages. I saw the Independent, the paper I buy most often and usually admire. This time, my heart really did sink.

Scientists discover the difference between male and female brains” declared the paper’s headline. The standfirst that followed read, “Study reveals variation in hardwiring which may explain skills gap between women and men”.

This is the latest scientific study to “reveal” that men and women have different brains. Some of these studies have more credibility than others, although quite a few have been systematically discredited. However objective or nuanced the researchers’ intentions may (or may not) be, these studies all get picked up and celebrated by people who want an excuse for treating men and women differently and pretending that society is not to blame for stereotyping and sexism.

At the very least, the Independent should be acknowledging that this is an issue on which scientists are divided. A balanced article should surely quote someone who disagrees with the study and make clear why this is such a controversial issue. I am genuinely surprised that a paper of the Independent‘s quality and open-mindedness did not do this.

Today’s Sun gives us reason to celebrate how far we have come in challenging narrow and restrictive notions of gender. Today’s Independent is a reminder that we still have a great deal more to fight against.