Today’s Observer contains a leader and an opinion column both of which respond to the remarks of the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali as quoted last week in the Daily Mail.
First, a reminder of the Daily Mail report by Steve Doughty:
A senior Church of England bishop have warned that Anglican youth clubs, welfare projects and charities may close because of new gay rights laws.
The Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, said that the Church of England’s charities would be “affected” by the rules, which will force them to give equal treatment to homosexuals.
He declared: “It will be the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers….”
…Pakistani-born Dr Nazir-Ali said: “I welcome warmly what the Roman Catholic Bishop of Birmingham has said about the Sexual Orientation Regulations.
“In the proposed regulations there is no clear exemption for religious belief even though it is widely known that several of the faiths in this country will have serious difficulty.”
He added: “Religion affects every area of life and cannot be reduced to just worship.
“These regulations will certainly affect a great deal of charitable work done by the churches and others. It is the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers.”
Now, today’s Observer. First, Nick Cohen in Let’s not sleepwalk with the Christian soldiers says:
…Last week, full-page adverts launched a histrionic campaign from the church’s evangelical wing against New Labour’s attempts to secure equality for homosexuals. The low point came when the Bishop of Rochester claimed ‘the poor and disadvantaged will be the losers’ if religious charities are forced to treat gays fairly.
Much can change before 25 December, but after the past fortnight, there is a fair chance that the hedonism and family quarrels of the traditional British Christmas will be overshadowed by religion, of all things.
Only the Tory press sympathised with the wild assault on equality under the law for homosexuals, but hardly anyone defended British Airways. Tellingly, only now can you see widespread anger at the failure to call Christmas by its proper name, although Birmingham City Council has been burbling about ‘Winterval’ since 1998.
The ferocity of the Church of England’s internal conflicts could make a Balkan warlord blanch. However, Ekklesia, a think-tank on the church’s left, and Anglican Mainstream, from its evangelical right, agreed on one point. They both told me that committed Christians with a sincere faith were just another minority – somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent of the population. But beyond them there were millions of people who could be glad that Christians were asserting themselves under special circumstances…
and the leader column The government must not buckle over gay rights said:
…It says much about modern Britain that civil partnerships were introduced without a rumpus. The law was not forcing liberal values on a reactionary society, it was catching up with attitudes that had already changed. Prejudice still exists, but there is no doubt that Britain in 2006 is a much better place in which to be gay than it was 10 years ago…
…In the same spirit a law has been drafted that would ban discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Hotels, for example, would not be able to deny rooms to gay couples. Schools would not be able to deny places to gay pupils. The changes were due to be introduced earlier this year but have been postponed because of lobbying by church groups.
Last week the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols attacked the government for what he called the imposition of its moral agenda on the church. The Anglican Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, warned that church-based charities would be forced to close their doors if the government insisted they let in gay people. ‘It is the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers,’ he said.
The churches are thus trying to depict the Sexual Orientation Regulations as an assault on their philanthropic work, including faith schools and adoption agencies. That is a tendentious argument. ‘The poor and disadvantaged’ would only lose out if the churches choose to hate homosexuality more than they like good works. Their objection to the new law is not, as they like to see it, self-defence against a meddling government. It is a threat by powerful institutions to withhold their charity out of prejudice.
Churches are free to preach that homosexuality is a sin and their followers are free to believe it in private. But the elected government of Britain does not share that view and has rightly sought to give gay citizens the same public rights as everyone else. Or at least it has done thus far. On this latest measure the cabinet is divided. Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, a devout Catholic, is the minister responsible for the new law and is sympathetic to the idea of exempting churches. The Prime Minister is also thought to be amenable to religious petitioning…
To judge for yourself whether or not “there is no clear exemption for religious belief” read the regulations as published for Northern Ireland, from this page (which has links to the full text).