Celebrating revolution at Christmas

Tonight and tomorrow, millions of people will gather in churches to tell each other a truly subversive story.

They will tell of a baby born to a semi-homeless family living under a viciously oppressive regime. They will declare that the mother’s husband was not the baby’s father; this was a very unconventional family. They will tell of how the puppet ruler of the area was so frightened by this obscure baby that he killed all the children in the town to try to get rid of him.

They will add stories about visits to the child from migrant travellers, who foiled the king’s attempts to hunt down the baby. They will say that the child was visited also by people whose work was looked down on, but to whom God chose to reveal the news of the birth.

In many countries throughout history, and in some today, the authorities have tried to suppress Christians telling these stories to each other. After all, they challenge authority, monarchy, national loyalty and family values.

Over time, the people with power have become more subtle and effective in their methods. They have found it much easier to tell these stories themselves, repeating them so often that they become familiar and disconnected from the realities of life, death, power and politics today. Some of us can be quite comfortable with this. We can enjoy the stories, but not the challenge they bring to our lives. Even those of us want to change the society we live in can still cling on to the comfort of familiarity.

No king, no dictator, no burner of books has ever suppressed the Christian message as well as those who have domesticated Christianity. Turning subversion into a fluffy story is much more effective than banning it.

At times, we glimpse the transformative potential of Christmas. On Christmas Day ninety-nine years ago, German troops on the Western Front displayed a sign reading “We no fight. You no fight.” The British responded in kind, and the opposing soldiers were soon shaking hands and playing football. The authorities on both sides responded by criminalising such behaviour to make sure it didn’t happen again. If people realise that they are fighting people who are just the same as them, they might decide that there are better causes to fight for, and better ways to fight for them. If the troops had gone on playing football into Boxing Day, they might have stopped the war.

The baby we’re talking about this week grew up, despite the king’s murderous intention. He continued to be in conflict with authority. He welcomed and challenged all whom he encountered. He declared his solidarity with the poor and marginalised, while offering just as much love to the rich and powerful as he called on them to repent. He spoke of the kingdom of God, a revolutionary notion in an empire whose emperor expected to be worshipped. He was executed after a rigged trial by the local rulers, helped by the collusion of religious leaders. Some of us have faith that the oppressive powers could not hold him and that God raised him from the dead to continue to lead and liberate us.

That really is something worth celebrating. Merry Christmas.

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.

Equal marriage in the Lords – We won!

 

I’m giving thanks for all the people who have worked so hard over the years for the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill passed the House of Lords yesterday on its third reading. The law in England and Wales is now set to change within months.

The bill is not perfect, and is particularly confused and inconsistent when it comes to the rights of religious same-sex couples. However, it is massive progress. It deserves celebration – but not complacency.

As I wrote in an article for the New Statesman yesterday, some of the bill’s more vicious opponents will respond to its success with even more extreme and vocal promotion of prejudice.

As if to fulfil my prediction, the homophobic group Anglican Mainstream has compared the passage of the bill to the Nazi round-up of Jews. The new group Gay Marriage, No Thanks peddled their particularly nasty message about “the needs of children” by driving round a van with a billboard showing a same-sex couple ignoring their child.

I am not suggesting that all people who have a problem with same-sex marriage are so bigoted. I appeal to the more moderate opponents of the bill (with whom I strongly disagree but with whom I have had meaningful and helpful discussions) to disassociate themselves from these reactions.

P.S. Sorry that my New Statesman piece went online with a very out-of-date and inaccurate biography of me. This was due to my error in not asking them to update it. It should be rectified soon.

The Christian lobby group and the far-right party

I blogged earlier this week about statements from the homophobic lobby group Christian Concern ahead of the local elections. They encouraged people to vote for candidates opposed to same-sex marriage. Most of these candidates are likely to be UKIP or on the right wing of the Conservative Party. They are therefore likely to be very right-wing on economics. Until now, Christian Concern have largely avoided taking a stance on economic issues.

Today, Christian Concern sent out their weekly email bulletin, which includes a message from the group’s director, Andrea Williams, about the local elections. She writes in a celebratory tone. This is not, of course, because Labour have taken so many seats from Tories, but because UKIP have done so.

She writes:

“The local election results are showing massive losses for the Conservative party. This was by no means inevitable but David Cameron’s insistence on pursuing the same sex ‘marriage’ agenda has undoubtedly contributed to this dramatic result.

His determination to dilute marriage has alienated not only Conservative supporters but voters at large. UKIP is notably the only party that supports marriage and their success in these elections is in large part due to that.”

Contrary to the above statement, there are in fact several other parties that oppose same-sex marriage (BNP, English Democrats, Christian People’s Alliance, etc), but Christian Concern seem happy to ignore them today.

Should we take this as indicating that Christian Concern is happy to support – or at least overlook – UKIP’s other policies? They include cutting taxes for the rich, raising taxes for the poor and people in the middle, increasing military spending, renewing Trident, going further than the Tories with cuts to public services, increasing workfare, banning all immigration for five years, withdrawing from the UN Convention on Refugees, scrapping human rights law and teaching children a pro-imperial view of history.

Do Christian Concern think that these are appropriate policies for Christians to support? I think they should tell us.

Same-sex marriage and the local elections: Who thinks they’re connected?

The “Christian Right” in Britain – inasmuch as it exists – is not like the Christian Right in the US. Over there, conservatism on issues such as marriage and abortion seems to go hand in hand with right-wing views on economics and foreign policy. Over here, we have conservative Christian lobby groups with a far more narrow focus. Organisations such as the Christian Institute, Christian Concern/Christian Legal Centre and so-called Anglican Mainstream focus largely on attacking LGBT rights. They also speak out against abortion, Islam and the supposed marginalisation of Christians in Britain.

But unlike their US counterparts, these groups rarely comment explicitly on economics or international relations. True, the tiny Christian Party adopts a right-wing stance on virtually every issue, cheering on Trident and tax cuts for the rich. In contrast, the (slightly older) Christian People’s Alliance is just as hostile to LGBT rights and Islam, but has a suprisingly good record of campaigning against the arms trade and talks quite a bit about poverty.

Shortly before the 2010 general election, Christian Concern appeared to endorse the candidacy of George Hargreaves, the Christian Party’s leader, in an email bulletin to supporters. The bulletin clearly provoked some negative reactions, as the group almost immediately issued another email insisting that they do not endorse one party or another.

This makes an email that they have sent out today particularly interesting. When giving advice to Christians about voting in tomorrow’s local elections, there is only one issue they mention: same-sex marriage.

Subscribers to their mailing list received an “action alert” today that declared:

Please take the time to find out which of your candidates supports marriage as between one man and one woman before you go to place your vote.”

You might think that the afternoon before polling day is a bit late to be finding out such things. You might also wonder what local elections have to do with marriage law. The email declares:

Local authorities hold a lot [of] power which they could use to penalise people or organisations who believe in authentic marriage, so it’s important that local councillors are pro real marriage.”

There is then a link to a leaflet produced by the “Coalition for Marriage” about the links between local government and marriage law. It consists largely of unsubstantiated statements. For example:

Schools could be forced to promote the new definition of marriage in the classroom. The rights of parents could be ignored, and teachers who believe in traditional marriage could be pushed out of their careers… Churches that refuse to hold same-sex weddings may be denied grants or refused permission to hire halls from councils in the future.”

No evidence is provided to back up these claims (I hope that schools will encourage children to consider all sides of the argument on ethical, political and religious issues – as they are already expected to).

The only party that the email mentions by name is the Conservatives. Christian Concern quote a Daily Telegraph poll that shows:

…that the plan to redefine marriage makes far more people ‘less likely’ to vote Conservative than ‘more likely’ to do so.”

Speaking personally, there is nothing that would make me “less likely” to vote Conservative, as there has never been any chance of my voting Conservative at all.

Will Christian Concern’s supporters vote primarily (or even solely) on the basis of which candidate or candidates oppose same-sex marriage? This could have alarming results. Of course, there are a few Labour, Lib Dem and SNP candidates who oppose marriage equality, but most anti-equality candidates are likely to be Tory, Independent or from far-right parties such as the UK Independence Party.

This is particularly relevant at a time when UKIP is under such scrutiny. Last week, their candidate Anna Marie Crampton was thrown out of the party for anti-Semitic comments on Facebook. When the story broke, one of the first to call for Crampton’s expulsion was Sam Westrop, director of the interfaith group Stand for Peace. He said, ““UKIP, to its credit, has expelled extremist and bigoted members in the past.” It is able to have done so only because it has had so many of them to expel.

Three years ago, I analysed UKIP’s policies and discovered remarkable overlaps with the BNP. UKIP are not only anti-European, anti-migrant and anti-Muslim. They also deny the reality of climate change, support an increase in military spending and want a flat rate of income tax (so milllionaires pay the same as cleaners and nurses). UKIP believe that the Tory cuts are not going far enough. Nigel Farage has described David Cameron, the man currently presiding over the destruction of the welfare state, as “a social democrat”.

And of course, UKIP is also strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. Winston McKenzie, UKIP’s candidate in the Croydon North by-election, made this one of the main points of his campaign, targeting religious voters with the untrue claim that the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties want to force churches and mosques to host same-sex weddings.

Mackenzie also described adoption by same-sex couples as “child abuse”. The party’s spokespeople disagreed with him, but they didn’t expel him. Instead, it was the head of UKIP’s youth wing who was forced out of his job for supporting same-sex marriage.

Is this the party that Christians are being urged to support tomorrow? Are Christian Concern simply naïve about the likely economic policies of most candidates opposed to same-sex marriage, or are they actively in favour of them?

Please pray for equal marriage on Sunday 3rd February

The UK Parliament will vote on Tuesday 5th February on legislation to give legal recognition to same-sex marriages in England and Wales.

Supporters of equal marriage will be praying for it on the Sunday beforehand.

Please take a moment to pray about the issue at 12.00 noon (or at another time if you find it more appropriate). We’re also asking churches to pray for marriage equality in their Sunday services. You can click here to visit Facebook and add your name to those who will pray.

We will pray for:

  • All marriages and similarly committed, loving relationships, regardless of the gender of those involved.
  • The success of legislation to give equal marriage rights to same-sex couples.
  • God’s forgiveness for any occasions on which we have promoted prejudice against same-sex couples, whether by word, deed or silence.
  • God’s guidance for all those affected by this issue and involved in debates on it, whatever their views.

The event is supported by Queers for Jesus and by Christians for Equal Marriage as well as a number of individuals, including Christians and people of different faiths.

We aim to treat those who disagree with us with love and humility, while standing up firmly for love and marriage as principles that are greater than social convention and legalism.

Disability, abortion and UKIP

What must life be like for UKIP’s press officers? Just as the party’s support is rising, their candidates keep expressing views that are even farther to the right than UKIP’s official policies. Last month, UKIP’s culture spokesperson described adoption by same-sex couples as “child abuse”. Now one of their local government candidates in Kent has suggested that disabled children should face compulsory abortion.

Geoffrey Clark, who is contesting a council by-election in Gravesham, believes that the NHS should (you might have to brace yourself before reading this) “consider compulsory abortion when the foetus is detected as having Down’s, spina bifida or similar syndrome which, if it is born, will render the child a burden on the state as well as the family”.

He also wants the NHS to offer “free euthanasia advice to all folk over eighty” because their treatment is “extremely costly”.

Clark has chosen a bizarre moment to make these disgusting suggestions. He’s not even standing for Parliament but for local government. Does he want the power to carry out compulsory abortions to be put into the hands of Gravesham Borough Council?

Clark’s views are too much even for some members of UKIP to stomach. He has been thrown out of the party, with a UKIP spokesman saying that “the party was not aware of these views when it allowed him to stand under our name”. The fact that someone who believes in eugenics can be selected as a UKIP candidate – even without going into his views on certain issues – says a great deal about far to the right UKIP is.

One of Clark’s oddest claims is that he wants to promote “Christian values”. Some socially conservative Christians share his view that same-sex marriage is an “abhorrence”. They might back his desire to ban the niqab. They may well applaud his attacks on the Qur’an. But they would not back compulsory abortion, or – in the cast of some of them – any abortion at all.

Nonetheless, many anti-abortionists overlook some of the concerns that Clark is exploiting. His claim that disabled people are a “burden”, implying that they only take from society and give nothing to it, is both morally repugnant and demonstrably untrue. Presumably he means that being disabled often costs more. This is true. The answer is not to abort babies but to ensure that society and the state provide adequate support so that individuals and families are not punished for something over which they have no control.

Exactly the opposite is happening. The government is cutting benefits for disabled people and local councils are cutting disability services. It is almost certain that this will lead to more parents choosing to go ahead with an abortion when they discover their child has spina bifida, Down’s syndrome or one of several other conditions. Indeed, the rise in poverty caused by the economic crisis and the government’s cuts will lead to an increase in abortions generally, as more people decide they can’t afford to bring up a child. For most of these parents, that decision will not be made lightly. It will be horribly traumatic.

But in the face of all this, debates over abortion are still conducted with little if any reference to poverty or disability. Some talk of the rights of unborn children, but condemn mothers making unimaginably horrific decisions. Others are suspicious of any talk of the rights of unborn children. This is understandable given how that rhetoric has been used to attack women, although it is possible to believe in the rights of mothers while still valuing unborn children.

Banning abortions wouldn’t stop them happening. It would simply condemn mothers already facing trauma and pain to receiving more trauma and pain at the hands of backstreet abortionists. If anti-abortion groups really want to reduce the number of abortions – or at least to stop the number increasing – they need to campaign against poverty, prejudice and the government’s cuts. Only when they do so will they have any moral claim to describe themselves as “pro-life”.

Equal marriage: We need campaigns, not court cases

I’m disappointed to see that a same-sex couple in Essex say that they plan to sue the government over the ban on same-sex weddings taking place within the Church of England.

My position may surprise some people, given my enthusiastic support for marriage equality. However, the government’s proposals for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage have not even passed the Commons yet, let alone the Lords. I suggest we should concentrate on trying to change the proposals before they reach the statute book. Suing the government at this stage implies that the bill has already become law.

I strongly believe that same-sex couples should have the same rights as mixed-sex couples. I also believe that no-one should be obliged to participate in or host an act of worship in which they do not believe. Therefore, I do not want to see any faith group forced to carry out same-sex marriages against their will.

The government’s proposals go further than this. They give the Church of England a special status and make it harder for pro-equality Anglicans to achieve change within their own denomination. Rather than have a system in which churches can “opt in”, I would rather they were able to “opt out”.

Certain anti-equality groups have been claiming for a long time that churches will be forced to host same-sex marriages against their will. For a long time, I have been asking them to name any group that believes this. They have been unable to do so. They have claimed that campaigners are planning legal actions – but not named any. It is significant that this action has been brought not by a campaign group but by an individual couple (who, incidentally, are wealthy enough to embark on legal action).

While I do not think the couple have chosen the right course, I can understand their anger. Also, I think it is vital to recognise that they are not demanding that a church should be forced to host a same-sex wedding against its will. They want to be married by a pro-equality priest in the church in which their children were baptised. They are practising Anglicans.

I want to see the Church of England treated the same in law as other religious groups. This is difficult when several Anglican leaders want the privileges of establishment (e.g. bishops in the Lords) without the obligations (e.g. conforming to equality laws). Disestablishment would make this whole issue a lot easier. However, even with establishment remaining, it should be possible for the law to allow each faith group, including the CofE, to make its own decision. I wish the CofE would allow individual congregations and clergy the freedom to follow their consciences. If they won’t, I recognise their right not to host marriages on an equal basis, however abhorrent I find this position.

The government’s proposals, by giving special status to the Church of England, are discriminatory. Their bill might be passed as it is; it might be improved by amendments; it might not pass at all. There are several good reasons to challenge the government’s proposals. But let’s do that on the streets, in the media and in Parliament. Let’s not imply we’ve lost already by going straight to the courts. 

Miller’s marriage mess-up reveals ministers’ ignorance and contempt

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would be tempted to believe that the government’s current proposals for same-sex marriage have been designed with the intention of scuppering the whole idea. But this government seems far too disorganised for a decent conspiracy.

In the space of less than 24 hours, ministers have revealed the UK government to be clueless about religion, contemptuous of civil rights and bizarrely ignorant about the history, culture and politics of Wales.

To recap: the government conducted a consultation on same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Cameron’s ministers had been expected to propose only civil ceremonies for same-sex marriage, a sham equality that would have maintained discrimination against religious same-sex couples. Last week, Cameron said he had changed his mind. He backed the right of faith groups to hold religious same-sex weddings if they choose to do so. This followed years of hard work by Unitarians, Quakers, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and other pro-equality groups.

But after the two steps forward came one step back. “Gay marriage to be illegal in Church of England” roared yesterday’s headlines. The headline was basically true, but the situation is more complicated – and far worse – than it suggests.

Appeasing prejudice

Ever since marriage equality was proposed, its opponents have argued that churches will be forced to host same-sex weddings against their will. This claim has no basis in reality. These scaremongers are unable to name a single organisation that wants to make it compulsory to host same-sex marriage ceremonies. Most churches have no legal obligation to marry anyone at all. Of all the countries that have legalised same-sex marriages, none has witnessed the courts forcing them onto churches. A religious marriage is an act of worship and nobody should be forced to participate in an act of worship in which they do not believe. This is a scare story spread by a combination of the ignorant, the prejudiced and the deceitful.

Miller suggests a “quadruple lock” to prevent same-sex marriages being forced on unwilling churches. Two of these concern the right of churches not to host marriages they don’t believe in. The other two reveal a worrying ignorance about British churches.

One states that a faith group can carry out same-sex marriages only if its governing body has applied for permission. This is problematic for denominations such as the United Reformed Church, who may resolve to leave the decision to each congregation. In the Baptist Union, there are calls for individual churches and ministers to be allowed to celebrate same-sex weddings if they choose. A positive response to such calls is less likely if the Baptist Union as a whole has to apply to the government for permission, thus appearing to be endorsing same-sex marriage.

Insulting Wales

The worst provision concerns the Church of England and the (Anglican) Church in Wales. Miller proposes that it should be illegal for them to host same-sex weddings, although the leaders of both have already said that they do not wish to do so.

The London-based media noticed the English provision first, but it is the inclusion of the Church in Wales that is more shocking. The Church of England is the established church and its rules are governed by law. Yesterday, Maria Miller spoke of the Church in Wales as an established church. She is 92 years too late. There has been no established church in Wales since 1920.

It says a great deal that Miller and her civil servants appear to be so ignorant about an important political, cultural and religious difference between the two countries to whom their law will apply. I applaud the Church in Wales for responding to the news by saying that they don’t want to be treated differently to other churches.

When it comes to the Church of England, it can be argued that the church’s laws are the state’s laws. Also, the Church of England is the only church that has a legal obligation to marry certain people. This is a consequence of the absurdity of establishment. Many Anglican leaders seem to want the benefits of establishment without the obligations. We will see them enjoying those benefits when certain bishops rise from their unelected seats in the House of Lords to argue that other churches should be denied the same freedom that they demand for themselves – the freedom to choose who to marry.

Freeing ourselves

We do not need “quadruple locks”, designed to appease scaremongers and homophobes who will never be satisfied with any provision that extends gay and bisexual people’s rights. We do not need special provisions to privilege certain religious groups over others. We need a law that states that marriage is open to all regardless of gender and that no faith group (established or otherwise) is obliged to perform a wedding in which they do not believe.

We could also do with an investigation into the unfairness of marriage law more widely, including the fact that some faith groups have far more rights than others to solemnise marriages.

We stand at a crucial juncture in the struggle for gay and bisexual people’s civil rights in the UK. We have come so far – it’s only 45 years since sexual relations between men were legalised on the British mainland. But a long journey is no reason to give up while inequality still remains. Complacency would be grossly immoral when homophobic violence is rife and gay and bisexual teenagers are far more likely to kill themselves than their straight counterparts. Unequal treatment in law sends out the message that unequal treatment in society is morally acceptable.

Miller’s bill risks being laughed through the Commons and bogged down in the Lords. Certain Tory politicians and right-wing lobby groups are determined to fight it all the way. Cameron and colleagues, offering the bill as a sop to the LibDems, may have little incentive to fight for it. The defeat of marriage equality remains a very real possibility.

I do not want future history books to write that civil rights campaigners failed to act at a crucial moment, that we complacently thought that victory was in the bag, that pro-equality Christians were too concerned with passive unity to stand up for active justice. The future of marriage equality is not up to ignorant ministers, duplicitous Tories or celebrity “role models”. It is up to you and me.