Friday, March 23, 2007

More on the House of Lords debate - the bishops' speeches

The speeches of the Bishops of Southwell and Nottingham, the Bishop of Winchester and the Archbishop of York can be accessed on by clicking on the hyperlinks.

They make very interesting reading and deserve very close attention.

First of the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham. His speech on the Northern Ireland regulations highlighted the perceived lack of consultation and paid warm tribute to the listening and co-operative approach that the Secretary of State (Ruth Kelly) was showing in allowing further dialogue and consultation over the GB regs.

His principal concerns over the GB regs were summed up as relating to the balance between the freedom of religion and the freedom from discrimination:
"It is hard to escape the conclusion that the right to freedom of religion is being treated as of lesser weight than other human rights. The sixth report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights appears to suggest precisely that, on the grounds that religion and belief are matters of choice and therefore less deserving of protection than sexual orientation, race or sex. If that is indeed the committee's analysis, it is certainly not one that we share."
And closed with:
"For now, it gives me no satisfaction to say that the present regulations represent a disturbing erosion of religious liberty."
This seems to be related to schools which he didn't dwell on and adoption agencies which he referred to at a little more length.

In his speech he seems to reflect the approach suggested by the Archbishop of Canterbury that where you find a genuine doctrinal reason for discrimination (even if in a publicly funded service) then that should be left alone.

The obvious critique of that is that you end up with a set of regulations with so many exemptions it basically absolves Christians from obeying the law.

The Archbishop of York gave an odd speech, very much laden with metaphor and imagery which was never entirely explained. The included references to spider's webs, sausage machines and umbrellas versus bus shelters.

He must have been quite proud of his oration as he immediatley released it on the web and it has since been posted by Anglican Mainstream.

He started his speech with a quote of Wlberforce about the passing of Christianity from the public sphere and went on to bemoan a dogmatic secularism alongside a 'new' hierarchy of rights.

In a bizarre quotation he stated
"The whole concept of human rights is one that is alien to rabbinic jurisprudence ..." and "For the Torah is a golfing umbrella, not an infinitely extensible bus shelter".
In summary then:

- we are no longer a Christian country if we grant equal status to LGB people
- human rights are alien to the rabbinic (and therefore Chhristian?) tradition (amazing to find that Christian authorities are now willing to quote rabbinic authorities - we might do better with 26 rabbis in the House of Lords)
- LGB people don't fit under the golfing umbrella of Torah based rights

Following his golfing umbrella analogy (the meaning of which we may have to speculate a little) he stated:

"This freedom of thought may help us to get out of the quagmire of the human rights debate."

So for John Sentamu, human rights which under most human rights intruments are seem as 'universal' are actually a 'quagmire', to which a specifically religious 'freedom of thought' and presumably expression is called for (i.e. the one about to be denied to Nigerian LGBT associations - they are about to be helped out of their 'quagmire' of human rights to free assembly, association and assembly by a religious freedom of thought that is ranged against them - they're no doubt outside God's 'golfing umbrella' of rights)

This is (I presume) to avoid us having a 'bus shelter' approach where "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights - The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which makes Christians uncomfortable because they can only practice as Christians if they are able to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation (and the duty of a Christian nation is to make positive provision for Christian worship and discipleship).

I find it interesting that a specifically religious freedom of thought (one that is denied to its opponents) views the universal application of human rights as a quagmire.

Prior to the bit about the golfing umbrella we had this:

"We must keep in mind the epigram of Montesquieu, that great, great jurist, who said that if mankind was of one mind, and only one man was of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified to silence him than he, if he had the power, to silence mankind."

Which reminds us that Montesquieu was indeed a great liberal of his time - but the relevance to the sexual orientation regulations? And was Montesquieu a Christian in any traditional sense (that is any more than Goethe, whom he also quotes?). [I am advised that in fact this "epigram" is in fact part of JS Mill's On Liberty - the world would no doubt be a much better place if JS Mill was used more often as an authority by Church leaders].

If the regulations "silenced" anyone they would be easily struck down by the Courts - they're regulations and therefore secondary to the Human Rights Act and there's a broad religious exemption. But again to refer to Nigeria - here is a real threat of silencing one small group of people who are "of a contrary mind".

He also appeared to be in a bit of a muddle over the EU Equal Treatment Directive and the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (2003), claiming a wide religious exemption - it is actually much narrower than the Goods and Services Regulations and only really covers ministers of religion.

After many erudite but not necessarily aposite quotations the Archbishop of York sat down, with a lot more to say but I think he'd run out of his allotted time.

Last but certainly not least we have the Bishop of Winchester who I think it's fair to say has form on this kind of debate and I don't think could be accused of having said anything positive about LGB people ever in his life.

The Bishop of Winchester made a number of points but ended up on education (as previewed by the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham - they'd obviously read each others' speeches before hand).

His beef was twofold. First of all that the regulations covering education were for the most part welcome, but that they were drafted too widely and would inevtably end up covering the curriculum.

Now at this point I need to break off my analysis to say that I partly agree with him on this. I think an LGB school student could take a case if the curriculum subjected them to direct discrimination. Now I think that's actually inevitable over time. On this point and (probably) on this point alone I have some agreement with the religious right. This is not though the same as saying that certain things will have to be taught because of the regulations (equally race relations law doesn't mean that a school has to, for instance, celebrate 'Black History Month') so there is no objective duty to do anything different. But if a pupil is subjected to a curriculum, that for instance had the effect of undermining his or her self confidence and/or exposed them to bullying which disrupted their studies then I think there could be a challenge. That is though unlikely to happen if the school takes action against homophobic bullying and follows the guidelines already in force.

The Bishop concludes with this utterly chilling paragraph:

"I greatly regret the fact that the Government chose not to do so, but, rather, chose to legislate to coerce the churches and others to accept as the norm for this society—the regulations ask us to accept this and to collude in the Government's promotion—alternative patterns of living and of family life that many people conscientiously believe are less than the best, less than the most healthy, and less than God's will for humankind."

Remember those words. And if you are reading them as an LGB person this is what he thinks of you - less than the best, less than the most healthy, and less than God's will for humankind.

He wants an exemption so that children can be told they are "less than the best", that they are "less than healthy" that their lives are "less than God's will for humankind".

So the mask slips - we are "less than the best, less than healthy and less than God's will for humankind" and that ultimately makes us a kind of enemy because we see ourselves to be equal and not less than the best.

And the Government "chose to legislate to coerce the churches and others to accept as the norm for this society—the regulations ask us to accept this and to collude in the Government's promotion—alternative patterns of living and of family life".

This really is the nub (I think) to this whole debate.

The Sexual Orientation regulations are fundamentally about equality for LGB people. Religious people may still speak freely, hold teachings that we may or may not approve of. They may even adopt discriminatory practices within their own spheres.

The real nub of this is that the original "homophobic" doctrine goes something like this:

a) To be gay is at the very least to be less than the best (may as well use the phrase now)
b) All Christians have a duty to treat LGB people as their inferiors and to ensure inequality of treatment (for example in marriage and discrimination law and in parenting and family life)
c) Failure to allow Christians an accomodation to create an inferior social status for LGB people means they are being stopped from practicing thir religion, which on closer analysis appears more of a socio-political doctrine of power and control over others than a genuinely religious belief.

In trying to make the manifestation of religion (including discriminatory practice) they are attempting to do that which they accuse the Government of - create a hierarchy of rights with themselves at the top, immune from the law on equality. Well, you can't blame them for trying.

The exemptions provided for religious organisations are, in fact, broad. The bishops appear to have swallowed rather uncritically the line put out by the Lawyers Christian Fellowship and Anglican Mainstream early on in the debate over the Northern Ireland regulations.

Their Lordships did not agree.

As Faithworks have always diligently pointed out, the hysterical reaction to the sexual orientaiton regulations does no-one any good.


  1. For some strange and unexplained reason, Radio 4 in their news bulletin at midnight on Friday morning, decided to quote Sentamu's speech in the Lords, when no mention of the debate/vote had been made in any other news bulletin on Thursday.

    They chose the immortal sentence:
    "It now seems that a legal sausage machine is being creating by the regulations, requiring all of us to go through it and come out the other end, sanitised and with our consciences surgically removed."

  2. It is also interesting to note that despite them all receiving a letter signed by 42 members of the Church of England's hierarchy, inciting them to turn up and vote agains the Regs, only 3 of the bishop/peers did actually turn up...

  3. Yes, I think the fact that 42 members of the Synod were asking for a show of force and didn't get it is significant.

    My interpretation was that the bishops probably decided amongst themselves what their tactics would be. Three speaking and voting bishops is still quite a big intervention as things go and anything bigger might have created a backlash.

    The interventions were of quite a senior nature, it has to be said.

    Who knows what they had in mind? Maybe they just felt they needed to put some things on the record, maybe they felt they had an obligation to stand alongside Roman Catholic colleagues becasue of the adoption issue.

  4. That wasn't Montesquieu, it was John Stuart Mill - not exactly an enthusiast for Christianity!

  5. LaurenceRoberts9:27 pm

    I was glad that the retired Richard Harries was there to remind us by his presence and vote for SORs :it doesn't have to be like this.

  6. You're of course right that it is JS Mill not (the undoubtedly) great Montesquieu.

    I would be glad if bishops quoted JS Mill more often....

    In his speech he described him as an emiment jurist so that makes me think he wasn't thinking of JS Mill at the time.

    The quote is from "On Liberty"

    So - not quite as erudite as I had thought.....

    And 3 cheers for Richard Haries - pity he's resigned - he knows a thing or two about homophobia....