Tuesday 26 January 2010

When revolt rather than acceptance is a plain human duty

Every so often I like to re-read the writings of the late Donald Mackinnon, Scottish philosopher and theologian. Today it was his public lecture – though still not an easy read – in the early 1960s on ‘moral objections to Christianity’.

Mackinnon was very much the eccentric professor, and as a lecturer he could be fierce-sounding, and sometimes almost terrifying to behold. In this particular talk he lambasts, amongst others, ‘certain sorts of clergy’ who – remember that this was 1963 - give the impression that ‘the effective exclusion from sacramental communion of divorced persons who have remarried is the highest form of the Church’s moral witness’. And he adds that the cynic might be tempted to ascribe their ‘heartless zeal’ in this respect as compensation ‘for their unwillingness to engage with the other besetting moral issues of our age, for instance the moral permissibility of nuclear weapons’.

Mackinnon’s punches were frequently, and painfully, on target, and it was interesting to read these words in the light of what happened yesterday in the House of Lords, when certain bishops and peers rallied opposition to secure three amendments to the Equality Bill, which the tabloid press has declared - wrongly I think, though the intention is evidently there – will effectively bar LGBT people from leadership (including ordination) in religious organisations. (As I understand it the legislation, as amended, would serve to protect religious organisations from legal action if they were to refuse to appoint someone to a particular post on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender reassignment).

In the debate Lord Ali made the important point that ‘sexual orientation’ was the wrong expression. Most religious bodies would be prepared to accept someone whose orientation was homosexual: it was sexual conduct that was the issue. However, no one seemed to develop this idea, except that, when the Archbishop of York asked for examples of cases that illustrated the supposed injustice of the status quo (which it was claimed the three amendments were merely reinforcing) Lord Ali’s swift reply was ‘Jeffery John and John Reaney’: the former a celibate at the time of all the fuss about his appointment to Reading and the later a single man when he was appointed as Hereford Diocesan Youth Officer.

In fact Jeffrey and John are but the tip of an iceberg of inequality, and the Archbishop is naive if he thinks that the status quo is beneficent. For example, I could list here – and probably will one day – the Trans clergy who have been shabbily treated by their bishops; currently they outnumber those who have been well-treated. We don’t hear much about these, and other cases like them, perhaps because the people concerned are reluctant to make a fuss, or maybe they are intimated by the, at times, frightening power of the institutional church.

Mackinnon, ever an astute observer and trenchant critic of the latter, wrote as follows:

‘A false passivity, an invalid acquiescence in intolerable evils, a cultivation of obedience for obedience’s sake, when revolt rather than acceptance is a plain human duty – these moral illusions have been fostered by misunderstanding of the work of the Christ and dignified by the language of sacrifice, even of love’.

And having read the Lord’s Hansard report for yesterday I am convinced, more than ever, that for those who favour the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Church of England the time for revolt has arrived.


  1. I agree, Colin. I am considering my position in view of what has happened. I think many others will do the same. I am also reminded of Bertrand Russell: "the church has opposed ever advance in human happiness". It is getting increasingly hard to defend this organisation

  2. So how, precisely, do we revolt?

  3. Thanks Erika. I knew someone would ask that question! And I have been (vaguely) thinking about what it might involve. Have people written letters to the press and to their bishops about this matter? The bishops concerned appear to claim that what they receive in their post bag is all the other way. Again, what about the people, who I refer to, who have quietly acquiesced to their own unfair treatment? Why don't we mobilise and bring forward a few more cases to test the law? It seems to me that it is mainly LGBT people's patience and forebearance that has prevented that - a quietism that is rarely rewarded let alone repsected. One feels here a terrible victimisation of the weak by the strong that needs to be exposed and resisted. The LBGT Anglican Coalition is an emerging group that needs our support and there is talk of some sort of public demonstration later this year: large numbers would be needed for that. These are a few ideas anyway.

  4. I think the result was inevitable given the campaign mounted by the conservative wing of just about every denomination. My wife is a Street Pastor and their local distribution network was used to disseminate videos urging members to write to their MP and to members of the House of Lords.
    The campaign has been subtle, I'll give it that. None of the rants that I've heard has been overtly against the LGBT community but rather have turned the proposed legislation into an imagined attack on the freedom of the Church to live according to the teachings of the Bible, the church Fathers and the traditions of the Church. Some added a phrase like "in regard to sexual ethics" but the whole tenor of most of it was "interfering (and some implied Godless) government meddling in the doctrines of the Church."
    And of course it struck a major chord even among people who have no opinion on whether LGBT folk should be fully included in the Church. I've said before that anti discrimination legislation is an unstable weapon and liable to blow up in the faces of those it intends to protect. In this case opponents only had to point out (truthfully) that a law to protect one section of a community almost certainly involves curtailing the absolute liberty of another.
    In this case the law curtails the liberty of organisations to refuse to employ a person solely on the grounds of their orientation The Church sought and found exemption from that one aspect of the law. But it had to fight for it.
    There was a time when such a protection for LGBT people would have been unthinkable in any circumstances.
    More recently no one would have thought about not granting the Church exemption.
    The Church's special privilege is being questioned and eroded.
    As for revolt - as Christina said large numbers are needed and we are not large in number. It's an uphill struggle - a very steep hill - but we are climbing and we will get there.

  5. Thanks Sapphire - love your name - you have highlighted some important points. There are, as you say, bigger issues at stake here, not least the, apparent, advance of secularism, and the role of religion in the modern state. The myth that Christians are now being victimised seems to have really caught on and deflects attention from the church's own victimisation of those who are different or do not fit in to the current ideal/norm. And, of course, there is a very powerful, and well-resourced conservative Christian lobby at work, which means that organisations such as ours need to be equally organised - sadly, our income has actually dipped a little - and ready to participate in appropriate coalitions in order to 'get the job done'.