Ah, Stephen Green – the gift that keeps on giving. Not content with blaming Tesco’s support for Gay Pride for some slightly disappointing sales figures, now he’s using his Christian Voice megaphone to claim that it’s also connected with an infestation of mice in the Covent Garden branch of Tesco. Strangely, though, he seems reluctant to specify exactly how these events are linked.
He mentions the “same inability to distinguish between right and wrong” as being at play in both this case, a previous case (presumably one for which he has more damning information), and the Gay Pride support, which is an interesting bit of hedging. But he also claims that the problems stem directly from the Pride funding:
It doesn’t get any better for Tesco, who have seen their ‘big price drop’ flop, sales and profits drop, the worst perfomance of the ‘big four’ over Christmas, their share price plummet, their UK operations CEO sacked, their local management in a spin, all since announcing a £30,000 gift to London Gay Pride in November 2011.
And the same inability to distinguish between right and wrong is behind their decision to support ‘gay pride’. Philip Clarke was elevated to CEO and the recently-departed Philip Brasher to UK Chief in March 2011. It has all goine [sic] wrong since then. Tesco’s only hope is to put their trust in God. Repenting of the ‘Gay Pride’ decision will be part of that.
So clearly he thinks the Pride donation is the key to this, and appears to think that it amounts to a curse from God. It’s very odd that he doesn’t say so explicitly, but that’s obviously what he’s trying to get at. He’s always asking people to pray for God to do something or other, so there’s no doubt believes in an interventionist God who could and would get involved like this, but maybe he’s worried that he could get in trouble for incitement or aiding and abetting if he admits to asking God to commit an act that would be vandalism or criminal damage if done by a mere mortal. Come on, Stephen – stop hiding your light under a bushel, and open up about your true beliefs. Your denial of God’s work won’t look good on Judgment Day.
Even though the other infestation Green mentions occurred in December 2010, three months before Philip Clarke was appointed CEO (after which, Green asserts, everything started going wrong), and a whole year before the Pride announcement, presumably God was exploiting the foreknowledge that comes from an eternal nature to punish Tesco before they did anything wrong, in order to save time. The only other possibility is that he’s cherry-picking and distorting anything he can find that fits his personal prejudices, but that’s a very cynical suggestion.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel that this latest case really shows what Green thinks it does. I mean, he knows his Bible, so he must surely realise that a small number of mice is pretty weak from God’s point of view. Look at the Plagues of Egypt – frogs, locusts, boils, blood and much more, and He ended up killing every first-born Egyptian child. A few mice don’t even register. In plague terms, it looks to me like a half-hearted slap on the wrist. Maybe God’s message is “I know there are more important things to worry about, but all these annoying bigots are in my ear about it, and technically they’re right – I never got round to redrafting those passages that came out a bit anti-gay – so here’s a minor inconvenience.”
Because the odd thing about this is that there has been no corresponding curse on Pride themselves. If just giving them a bit of money leads to an infestation of mice, the actual organisers must deserve rats, at least. Probably really big ones with the bubonic plague. And then there are all the pro-gay campaigning bodies – why haven’t they been struck by lightning or killed in freak earthquakes? Is it OK to be gay and to support gay rights, just as long as you don’t donate money towards any events? It’s the obvious conclusion, but I don’t think Green would like it.
And of course, I’m sure Green isn’t falling into the old Confirmation Bias trap – he surely isn’t just picking out any slightly negative story about Tesco and holding it up as further proof of his preconceived ideas. So he must be campaigning tirelessly about the apparently far more serious sins of companies like Borders, Woolworths and Game (if Tesco’s punishment was a below-par Christmas, what evil was responsible for these companies having consistently poor results?), and anyone who’s been caught in any form of natural disaster – if mice are God’s curse, hurricanes, floods and droughts must be much worse. Maybe he’s doing it very quietly, so no one but God can see his selfless efforts.
Or maybe not.
Photo by Beige Alert, used under Attribution License
I am a man. I am also a woman. I am both married and single. I have two children, but I also have none. Obvious nonsense, but if I claimed to be God, this sort of self-contradiction would not only be fine and dandy, but it would be unacceptable to insist on one or other of the mutually exclusive descriptions given.
For example, Jesus is asserted by the church to be both “fully god and fully man”. There are a number of well-worn heresies that attempt to take this doctrine at face value and make sense of it, and which have been anathematised by the church as a result. Anyone who emphasises that Jesus was divine and suggests that in that case he wasn’t really human in a normal sense is “guilty” of Docetism. If you take the opposite tack and say that Jesus was basically human, and was “divine” in the sense that he was the ultimate man, a sort of perfection of mankind, your heresy of choice is most likely Socinianism. One or the other isn’t enough, you must believe – if not six impossible things – at least two contradictory things before being accepted as a Christian.
Even if you swallow the oversized camel of a nature that’s both human and divine, there are plenty of reasonable attempts to explain it which fall foul of the Heresy Police. If you think Jesus was genetically human, and made divine or “adopted” by God at some point in his life, even at conception, you’re an Adoptionist. The idea of a human body that was driven or governed by a divine nature is Apollinarian. If you think he had two distinct natures, the human and the divine, you’re Nestorian. Even the belief that the human and divine natures were completely joined in one distinct human/divine form (which you’d think would be the “correct answer”) is a heresy, this time Monophysitism.
The reason for rejecting Monophysitism, according to the Council of Chalcedon, is that Jesus is:
to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ
I’m sure that clears everything up.
And this is a perfect example of what I find so frustrating, and why heresy is such an unhelpful concept. I’ve been in difficult meetings where the most important thing is to get something agreed so that everyone can go off and feel like they got roughly what they wanted, and this looks like a classic example of the genre. But even in the face of completely entrenched disagreement, I can’t see the value in “agreeing” something meaningless or contradictory, espcially if it’s meant to stand as ecumenical Christian doctrine for many centuries.
Even if you accept that the resulting doctrines are correct (I don’t), this is problematic because it attempts to codify and privilege beliefs that were held at a particular time (even though the history of the church makes it clear that the matters were controversial even then) and discourages experimentation and consideration of ideas, reducing doctrine to a series of carefully worded statements that are either meaningless or contradictory on the face of it. Worse, any attempt to reword or clarify these beliefs will inevitably fall foul of one heresy or another, and be silenced.
So doctrine is reduced to a series of special and carefully-formulated “magic words”, which are sufficiently opaque to discourage investigation and discussion, and any attempt to explain in different words will inevitably be heretical. The Nicene Creed is meant to be the one thing that all Christians can agree on, but if you asked 10 theologians to explain it in simple language, you’d get 11 different answers, all of which could be viewed as heretical one way or another.
To take another example, similar to the Chalcedonian Creed above, the Trinity is understood as “three persons of one being”, and any attempt to clarify this bizarre belief (as anyone who has attended a service on Trinity Sunday will confirm) ends up either straying into heretical territory or as opaque as ever. If the Trinity is anything other than a nonsensical and meaningless claim, it would surely be valuable to find and allow different analogies to explain it in different ways. Unfortunately, it seems that any such attempt is doomed to stray into an area of the theological landscape which is simply marked in heavy Gothic script “Here Be Hereticks!”
This is a shame not just because of the way it makes these doctrines appear bizarre and unsupportable, but because it stifles investigation and scholarship within the church. Meister Eckhart, one of my favourite Christian thinkers, was accused of heresy and tried by the Pope, simply because he attempted to take a different approach to theology. Galileo Galilei’s treatment at the hands of the Inquisition is well known, and William Tyndale, the Bible translation pioneer, was executed on a charge of heresy. There were many others who suffered similar fates, arguably including Jesus himself, albeit to different standards of heresy.
Heresy isn’t a particularly fashionable thing to talk about these days, but it still has a hold on Christian thought. Go to a Christian discussion forum, and you’ll probably take very little time to find accusations of Arianism, Donatism, Gnosticism and Pelagianism (or at least Semipelagianism) being thrown about and used to dismiss arguments. Even now, it seems, the minutes of those interminable committee meetings from 1500 years ago are still being used to determine which beliefs are legitimate, and which are unacceptable.
If the church really believe that the conclusions of the early church councils were theologically perfect, despite the bitter and divisive arguments that led to those conclusions, they’re free to do so. But if they want to convince anyone else, they need some actual arguments to explain why the church’s position is right – the word of Cyril of Alexandria isn’t really going to cut it. If they’re right, they’ll have good arguments to support their position. But in that case, the way to demonstrate that they’re right is through open discussion and debate, not a huge list of proscribed beliefs.
But I suppose proscription is easier than discussion.
I find the National Secular Society (NSS) a frustrating bunch. Sometimes, they do a great job of opposing religious privilege, and sometimes their kneejerk opposition to anything that appears even slightly religious leads them into illiberality or simple factual error. Hospital chaplains are an example of this – they oppose them because they sound religious, with little or no understanding of what they actually do. Rather than attempt to tackle this issue myself, I asked a friend, Chiron, who happens to be a hospital chaplain, and he very kindly helped out with a rather more informed take on why chaplains aren’t the religious Trojan Horse the NSS are arguing against.
Here are Chiron’s thoughts on why the NSS have got it wrong.
Thanks to a freedom of information request some time ago by the National Secular Society, we now know that the NHS spends £29million a year on chaplaincy. Let’s naively take that figure at face value, but let’s also get some perspective on it. Last year, a UK citizen on median income paid about £2230 in National Insurance contributions, which we might also naively assume went towards paying for the NHS. Out of that £2230, our average citizen paid 61p towards NHS chaplaincy. Compare this with the £15.78 paid towards the cost of locum doctors (i.e. doctors who are employed on expensive contracts because the NHS can’t get its act together over out-of-hours working), or the £6.60 paid towards NHS management consultants.1 However, one of the most frequent criticisms made by some secularists of hospital chaplaincy isn’t about the money involved: it is that NHS chaplaincy is a religious service provided exclusively for a few religious people. Unfortunately for the secularists, this is just plain wrong.
This mistaken opinion seems to have been held not only by Dr Edward Presswood on Radio 4′s Today programme this week, but also by his interviewer, Justin Webb, who asked the question, ‘Is it the business of the NHS … to be providing chaplains, and indeed other efforts to give comfort to religious people …?’ Dr Presswood, for his part, not only seemed unable to distinguish between mature religious belief and a superstitious avoidance of the number 13, but stated that he thought chaplaincy was provided only for ‘one particular religious belief’.
If that were true, then of course NHS funded chaplaincy would be indefensible. But it’s not true. The hospital chaplains I know and have worked with spend only a minority of their time with people of explicit religious affiliation. Much more time is spent on people of no explicit religious belief, but whose illness has brought them to a place of uncertainty, anxiety, and questioning, and who ask the chaplain to accompany them through that experience. Far from being the narrow-minded purveyors of Bible-thumping religion often portrayed by some secularists, chaplains don’t proselytise (it’s against their code of conduct), and are bound by their professional standards to be open, accepting and non-judgemental to those who ask for their help. In my experience chaplains are likely to have well developed skills in secular ethics, philosophy, sociology and many other disciplines, and also often have a profound body of experience to draw on. Almost uniquely in the contemporary NHS, chaplains organise their time so as to give their patients the attention they need, rather than working strictly to timed appointments. I recently learned of a case where a chaplain was talking with a patient and their family. A doctor arrived, obviously in a hurry, ignored the presence of the chaplain, unceremoniously spent about two minutes telling the patient they were going to die, and left the room. The chaplain then spent most of the morning with that family as they began to find their way through the shock of their experience.
I won’t deny there are problems with NHS chaplaincy. I believe that largely because of a historically privileged position, chaplaincy is sometimes insufficiently professionalised in its approach. There are inconsistencies in provision and funding (why, for example, don’t we have more Humanist chaplains?), and despite years of discussion, there’s no firmly agreed programme of continuing professional education or compulsory registration. But these problems don’t feature in the arguments we’re currently hearing from secularists. They tend to argue simply that chaplaincy should be taken out of NHS hands altogether and, in effect, privatised by handing it over to religious organisations. My counter-argument is that this would make chaplaincy more narrowly religious, less helpful to patients, and virtually useless to NHS professionals and the institutions in which they work. A chaplain employed by a Church would see only patients who were members of that Church; a chaplain employed by the NHS is available for anyone. A chaplain employed by a Church would have no commitment or loyalty to the hospital they worked in. An NHS chaplain not only has that commitment and loyalty, but has an often explicit remit to help guide and challenge the institution when needed. The chaplain is also one of a usually small group of professionals whose role is to resist the tendency of modern technological biomedicine to see sick people merely as broken-down machines, and who try to affirm and promote the human values of good healthcare.
The bottom-line question on all sides of the discussion, however, is this: what does caring for the sick involve? If you believe that a sick person is qualitatively no different from a broken car engine, and that therefore the NHS is really only a Kwik-Fit repair centre for human beings, then cast your lot with the secularists and ask the Chancellor to refund your 61p each year. But if you believe that in addition to top-quality biomedical care, a sick person deserves to have someone with whom to discuss their decisions, anxieties and relationships, their past and their future, their nature as a complex being in a complex world – then is it just possible that your 61p a year might be worth it?
Image by xenia, used under MorgueFile License
Warning: Contains possible spoilers
I’m a big fan of the Toby Whithouse’s BBC3 drama Being Human. If you’re not familiar with the series, you should check it out, but the basic conceit is a sort of supernatural flatshare, with a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire living together in the same house.
One of the main plot strands is about the resident vampire’s struggles to avoid killing and drinking blood, with some fascinating side issues to deal with. Being a vampire, he’s old – much older than he looks – and has previously been both powerful and respected in what I suppose could be termed the “vampire community”, but by staying “teetotal” he’s lost all of that and now finds himself quite isolated, struggling on his own to change and do what he thinks is right, while others attack and kill with impunity.
The other aspect that interests me is that of recruiting. Vampires don’t always kill their victims – they can also recruit them, creating a new vampire, and this week’s episode revolved around such a case. A vampire called Cutler was attempting to persuade Hal, the reformed vampire, to return to the fold, offering him a glass of blood to drink and talking of how powerful he could be and how much he was missed. This was interspersed with flashbacks, during which we discovered that Hal had originally recruited Cutler back in the 1950s. We also saw him pressuring a nervous, resistant Cutler to take his first drink of blood, and eventually succeeding, just as Cutler did with his present-day offer.
This all seems quite familiar to me. It seems to be a pretty good analogy for what it might feel like if I finally leave the church. I’d be following my conscience, but I’d still be separating myself from a whole culture that I’ve spent a lot of time in, and which I’ve always found pretty supportive. And then there’s the recruitment.
I should clarify before I go any further that I’m not saying that Christians are vampires, bloodsuckers, or anything else. I’m not even saying there is or should be anything wrong with being a Christian. My imperfect ad hoc analogy from popular culture is much looser than that, and makes no moral judgment. I just found this storyline rather pertinent to my situation.
But it was the idea of recruiting that really hammered this home for me. It was the thought that I could walk away from the church and leave behind people who wouldn’t be Christians but for my efforts, and who would then consider that they had a responsibility to change my mind. I may resent that or feel uncomfortable about it, but I’d have no grounds for complaint, given that I did the same thing with the roles reversed. And if I feel that Christians are mistaken, my “escape” would be tempered by the knowledge that I led others into that error.
That’s what makes Hal’s relationship with Cutler so poignant. If it hadn’t been for him, Cutler would have led a normal, boring life. Having recruited him and subsequently forsaken blood, the pain of Hal’s inner struggle is amplified. Cutler’s very existence is a constant reminder of who Hal used to be and how much has changed, and despite his own abstinence, if Cutler remains a bloodsucker, Hal will know that he is indirectly responsible for any resulting deaths.
Major upheavals in belief or understanding are difficult. When we leave indelible marks on the lives of others through causes we once believed in but now doubt or reject, it does nothing to make the transition any easier.
Photo by jdurham, used under morgueFile Free License
(Sorry about that!)
Rowan Williams has announced that he is to step down from his position as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year. So it seems an appropriate time to consider his legacy as an Archbishop. I’ve found his quiet, thoughtful approach a breath of fresh air, especially when compared to his predecessor, but his academic leanings, while contributing to that thoughtfulness, have also been a hindrance in other aspects of the job.
Despite his own liberal views, he’s always seen his role as reflecting the views of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, rather than leading them. As a result, he’s conscientiously taken great care to be balanced in dealing with the various disputes, even when the agenda has been dominated by views he would personally disagree with. Sadly, that’s only led to attacks from the liberal wing, while the conservatives continued to distrust and dislike him as much as ever.
Part of the difficulty he’s faced has been due to circumstances – he inherited a divided church, with various factions pulling in different directions and the whole body split in two on the subjects of women priests and homosexuality. This has continued, with the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) breaking an agreement by electing Gene Robinson, an openly gay and partnered man, as Bishop of New Hampshire, and appointing Katharine Jefferts Schori as their Presiding Bishop, or head of the church in the US, provoking angry reactions from traditionalists on both issues.
Meanwhile, the conservative wing has become ever more vociferous, with the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) meeting in Jerusalem to create a form of conservative alliance against what they described as the “false gospel” they believed was being promoted within the Anglican Communion, by permitting this sort of pernicious liberalism. With both sides stirring up trouble, he’s understandably struggled to keep the church together.
I don’t feel that Rowan is naturally suited to the politics that comes with being the head of a church. He isn’t the sort to play one side off against another in some sort of Machiavellian powerplay, and his gentle, considered thoughtfulness isn’t sufficient to keep warring factions like these from each other’s throats. That hasn’t helped him in his mission to keep the Communion from splitting.
His academic manner has also led to some difficulties in getting his message across, as his way of speaking, in dense and careful prose which needs to be fully digested, doesn’t easily lend itself to a 24-hour soundbite culture. His reported comments on Sharia Law demonstrated that, as did his recent speech in Geneva. The Coalition for Marriage picked up on it as evidence that he supported their cause, as did Robert Pigott for the BBC, without any agenda to support. To me, it looked like a measured discussion of the difficulties of balancing rights, and Lambeth Palace confirmed to me that no endorsement of the campaign against gay marriage was intended or implied, but his wordy impenetrability made it possible to draw other conclusions.
Where I have a particular grumble about Rowan’s tenure as Archbishop is in his handling of Jeffrey John’s appointment (or not) as Bishop of Reading. John, a gay man who was in a long-term celibate relationship, fulfilled all the requirements of the recently concluded CofE memorandum on handling homosexuality. Nevertheless, when conservatives objected to his appointment, the Archbishop pressured him to withdraw, and Reading lost a very decent and capable bishop because he wasn’t willing to face the conservatives down and hold them to their own previously stated position.
I like Rowan as a man, as a thinker, and as a theologian. He’s one of the few members of the church I would always listen to, because I know that he will be careful, moderate and above all, thoughtful. But I feel that the church has wasted his many talents by appointing him to a post which didn’t suit him, and by failing to support him having done so. That’s something I regret, even though I wouldn’t have had anyone else and his likely successors fill me with dread.
But I don’t want to dwell on my perception of the man’s weaknesses, because I genuinely respect him, so I’d like to conclude by quoting one of my favourite bits of Rowan. A six-year-old girl called Lulu wrote a letter to God, asking “How did you get invented?” and sent it to various religious leaders. Most didn’t reply, but Rowan’s response was as follows:
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –
‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected. Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’
And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.
Frankly, I think he’s wasted in Lambeth Palace, and I wish him all the best for the future.
Yet again, Christians are complaining of discrimination and persecution as two Christians take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in an attempt to establish the right to wear crosses at work (full details here). And yet again, their complaints are a rather overblown reaction to a fairly simple case.
The two cases are centred on almost identical issues. Nadia Eweida’s dispute with British Airways revolves around her insistence on wearing a necklace outside her uniform, which contravened BA’s uniform policy for her job. She was offered compromises of wearing the necklace inside her uniform, or a transfer to a role which would allow her to wear a visible necklace, and refused both.
In the case of Shirley Chaplin’s complaint against the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospitals NHS Trust, she was told that it was unacceptable to wear any type of necklace for safety reasons, in case a patient grabbed it. Her suggestion of a shorter chain was rejected, but she in turn refused to replace her necklace with a lapel pin.
In neither case is the wearing of the cross relevant to the uniform policy in question, except that both uniform codes allowed for some degree of flexibility for religious reasons, and in both cases, the employers suggested compromises which would have allowed them to represent their faith in another way, so if anyone attempts to portray this as some form of persecution of Christians, it is entirely safe to ignore whatever they have to say, on this matter at least.
Where the complaints are at least worth considering is on the matter of indirect discrimination. Ms Eweida, in particular, claims that she suffered discrimination as some other religious symbols were permitted within BA’s uniform policy. BA, in response, argue that the permitted symbols could not easily be covered up, and also point out that the permitted symbols are required by the religions in question, something which does not apply to the wearing of a cross necklace.
An interesting aspect of the cases which stems from this, and one which has provoked howls of outrage, is that the government are to state that Christians have no absolute right to display a cross at work. Superficially, this looks like a rather oppressive and anti-religious position, but it only means that there are sometimes good reasons for prohibiting their display, not that it would always be reasonable to do so. I don’t find that a controversial position.
But defining when those reasons are good enough is a difficult equation to solve, which is where it gets tricky. Royal Devon and Exeter Hospitals also asked another Christian nurse to remove a cross necklace, and two Sikhs to remove their bangles and kirpans, but two Muslim doctors were allowed to wear snug hijabs. To me, this seems like a sensible way of dealing with issues of safety and hygiene, but it is conceivable that a different balance could be struck without being obviously unreasonable.
That difficulty is also a good reason for refusing to rule that a particular case is an example of discrimination. With religious freedom competing with issues of corporate uniform, safety and hygiene, any decision more nuanced than “anything goes” (which is clearly undesirable) or an optimistic and unworkable attempt to rigidly and precisely define a complete uniform is inevitably going to leave some people feeling aggrieved that others are being treated more favourably. But that isn’t evidence of discrimination, just that the line was drawn in a particular place. It may be that there is discrimination in some cases, but it isn’t demonstrated by a pragmatic balancing act.
In that context, I think it would also be reasonable to expect employees to take a step back and appreciate that there must be restrictions, and that sometimes they will find themselves on the wrong side of a difficult decision. The argument “that’s not fair, you let him do it” is one that I’d expect from my 5-year-old, not a grown woman 50 years his senior. A spot of understanding and empathy would go a long way, because if everyone took this approach, employers would never be out of the courtroom.
It will be interesting to see how the court rules.
This is dedicated to Bideford Town Council, Eric Pickles, Baroness Warsi, and all their fellow travellers who equate religious freedom with permission to enforce corporate prayer in the guise of public service.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. But if you want to go for the jackpot, try to use your position to coerce other people to join in publicly with your prayers. I’m on performance-related bonuses based on prayer numbers, but there’s no quality control, so if you help out to inflate my results, I’ll be happy to pass on some of the profits. You know I’ve never really cared about sincerity – it’s all about numbers.
I passionately believe that most people are basically decent. I know from experience that people often disagree violently with the official views of their chosen denomination. I know what it’s like to be a member of a church which often stands for things you don’t agree with, and I know what it’s like to be caught in a difficult situation where you’re caught on the hop by a surprisingly unpleasant, reactionary comment in church. There are many times I wish I’d made a point of objecting to some form of ignorance or bigotry from the pulpit, but ended up sitting tight and quietly seething.
So I hope that Catholics in England and Wales are prepared for this weekend. We know that a letter from Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, is to be read out at every Catholic church, and we know what it will say. As a result, we are also in a position to check the facts and consider the issues beforehand, rather than having to assess the situation as it arises.
It is possible for every Catholic to verify some important facts. Many countries have gay marriage without any noticeable effect on their culture, marriage rate, or the wider nature of marriage. The church will not, despite some ignorant or dishonest claims to the contrary, be obliged to marry gay couples, nor will they be obliged to recognise these civil marriages, just as they are not obliged to recognise the marriages of divorcees, or even people married in other churches. And this is a simple question of equality, applying perfectly Biblical principles of treating others as we would like to be treated.
It is also possible to question why, if the church’s understanding of marriage is to determine the legal status of certain acts, there are no similar campaigns to ban the remarriage of divorcees, to abolish civil partnerships, or to make adultery a criminal offence. And to wonder what it is about gay marriage in particular that is causing such a vociferous reaction.
Make no mistake – when the letter is read out, it will be a declaration of war on equality. It will be a statement that the church believes it has the right to tell Catholics that some people should have lesser rights than others. And the church has the nerve to compare their opponents to advocates of slavery! I have no doubt that many decent Catholics will disagree with the church’s position. And those Catholics have the perfect opportunity to make their disagreement clear.
So here’s my plea to all Catholics – before attending church, examine your conscience. Ask yourself whether you genuinely support this letter. You may object on grounds of equality. You may object to the selective nature of this complaint, the way it is made, the interference of the church in a civil matter of administrative definitions, or anything else. But if you disagree, please make that disagreement known.
When the letter is read out, don’t sit there and allow yourself to be treated as a captive audience – stand up for your beliefs, and walk out. You don’t need to make lots of noise or create a stir. You know this is coming, so you can sit in a place where you can easily escape. You can leave with dignity, albeit pointedly, and you can return as soon as the letter is finished and the service proper continues. But please, do this to register your protest.
I understand that this may go against the grain. I understand that you may feel a strong connection with the church, even if you disagree with much of what it stands for. But if no one objects, the church will simply carry on doing the same thing. By remaining silent out of loyalty, you are damaging the church in the long run, just as enabling behaviour harms alcoholics. By way of contrast, imagine what would happen if everyone who disagreed with the church on this issue took this simple step to register their protest.
Even the longest journey begins with a single step. Please, take that first step.
It’s funny the things you remember through the haze of sleep deprivation that accompanies a new baby.
When #2 was born, we started to realise that babies aren’t all the same, and they have their own personalities and preferences just like adults. One thing I remember very clearly from that time is an interesting comment someone made (sorry, I have no idea who – sleep deprivation) about how we react to different children. The gist of it was that when you have two boys or two girls, you notice all the things about the second child that make it different from the first. “A used to do X, but B seems to prefer Y”, you say.
But – and this is the interesting bit – guess what happens when you have one boy and one girl? It appears that most people in that situation notice the same differences, but they interpret them differently. Now, they say “girls do X, boys prefer Y.” Rather than seeing it as two different babies having different personalities, they generalise it into a statement about fundamental differences between the sexes – they know they have one of each, so that’s the obvious explanation for the variation they’ve observed.
I don’t know if anyone’s actually studied this – I’m not sure if it’s important enough to be worth studying – but it instinctively feels right to me. I know that if #2 had been a girl, I would have been very strongly inclined to see any differences from #1 as a product of her sex, rather than simple variation in personality. Everything that didn’t fit my expectations from #1 were a cause of confusion, and a different sex would have been a natural explanation to reach for.
I wonder if we have a tendency to generalise in other contexts, based on obvious and available distinctions. It’s quite easy, through a combination of this sort of misattribution and a hefty dose of confirmation bias, to reach the conclusion that “atheists are like this”, “Christians are like that”, or “agnostics are like the other”, because the only (or most obvious) examples of a certain trait share a certain belief system.
That’s not necessarily the case, obviously – our experiences of any group are very limited, and when we spend most of our time associating with people in one group, our experience of other groups is necessarily going to be heavily weighted towards the noisiest members of those groups. The important thing is to realise what we’re doing, remember the “Parents’ Fallacy”, and try to prevent our instinctive reactions from running away with us.
But that’s easier said than done.
The Coalition for Marriage’s blog is a rather strange, scary place. It seems to consist of nothing but naff self-aggrandising puff pieces about how many people have signed their petition, and cherry-picked and misleading reporting of things people have said on the subject of gay marriage, wherever it can be used to promote their agenda.
For example, C4M have already made a big deal out of Christopher Biggins (This video only tweeted) and Julie Bindel saying they’re not interested in gay marriage. The latter is particularly interesting. They quote Bindel (described as a “lesbian feminist” in the headline, as if this adds weight to her comments) as saying that gay marriage is a “waste of time and effort”. The predictability of Bindel having controversial, provocative opinions is hardly news, but they claim her as support even while quoting her as she goes on to say:
Many people, knowing that I’m a lesbian who has campaigned for gay rights for many years, would be surprised at me saying this, but I would like to abolish marriage for everyone and say that we should have the right to civil partnership if we so wish.
(My emphasis) A curious message for C4M to be endorsing, I’d say. In the video, but curiously unremarked by C4M, she then says:
And I’m also sick of the privileges that couples get, and this hoo-ha around this union. I think it’s, what is it now, 1 in 2 marriages now end in divorce… my view is marriage should be abolished for everyone, and we should all have the right to civil partnership. And if you wish to have your relationship sanctioned by whichever religion is your particular choosing, then you can go to the synagogue, the mosque, the church and do so, but I think that marriage is… an outdated institution
So not entirely on-message there. Even more amusingly, in the same video clip James Delingpole, hardly renowned as a lentil-weaving, bed-wetting liberal, rubbishes the idea that civil partnership is equivalent to marriage, as C4M suggest:
Delingpole: I actually quite like being married, and I like my wife, and I don’t want marriage abolished. I like talking about “the wife”.
Bindel: I’m sure you’d still like your partner if you weren’t married and you had a civil partnership.
Delingpole: No. I hate that word partner. She’s not my business partner, she’s my wife.
Leaving aside the cherry-picking and the peculiarity of the precise opinions quoted here, I find the trumpeting of Biggins’ and Bindel’s thoughts rather confusing and even distasteful. For a start, C4M seem to think that finding a couple of gay people who personally don’t want to get married or don’t think it’s a big deal actually means something, as if their opinions trump any number of people who do want to get married, or prove that anyone who does want to get married should be denied that opportunity.
By the same logic, as there are straight people who don’t see the point in getting married, the whole institution of marriage should just be abolished, as Bindel suggests, and similarly, no one should be allowed to eat meat, own pets, or do – well, just about anything. I’m also very confident that if they want to make decisions on some twisted tribal/identity basis, many, many more straight people could be found in favour of gay marriage than gay people against or apathetic about it.
What disturbs me most is that the C4M petition seeks to deny people who are gay and lesbian the opportunity to marry their partner, part of an ugly, backward tendency to demonise and exclude anyone who fails to conform to a narrow definition of “normal” behaviour. They think anyone who’s gay should be denied the very rights they consider so important that they’ve started a petition to keep them exclusive – they can have “partners”, but proper marriage should be reserved for decent, normal, straight people, thankyouverymuch. But at the same time, they celebrate and promote any gay person who “knows their place” to the extent of not wanting to get married.
To me, this looks unsettlingly like they’re being regarded as gay Uncle Toms, much better than those nasty uppity queers who actually think they deserve equality. Maybe this isn’t C4M’s intention, but it’s hard to know how else to react when they make such a big deal of these two rather obscure comments by people whose rights they want to curtail.
I get the feeling that this won’t be the last time I write about C4M and their interesting attitudes.