For the second week running, English bishops are criticised by an Observer columnist. This time, Mary Riddell has a piece titled Integrate? Tell that to the Christian church, Mr Blair. Here’s an excerpt:
…Even so, the bishops are on the prowl. The Bishop of Rochester criticises diversity legislation, while lamenting the lack of Christmas celebrations in that hotbed of Saturnalia, the nation’s SureStart schemes. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, announces that ‘illiberal atheists’ and ‘aggressive secularists’ have stolen Christmas. On a point of semantics, secularists do not wish to harm religion or deny its great cultural influence. They simply want it to know its place.
Which, in the view of many bishops, is in every corner of the public realm. In the current Times Higher Education Supplement, the Archbishop of Canterbury defends Christian campus groups which risk banishment because of their attitudes to gay sex. ‘It isn’t as though sexual activity were any different from any other conscious choice,’ writes Dr Rowan Williams, likening any threat to such groups to banning CND. Public organisations should operate within the statute. On 1 January, laws protecting gay people in Northern Ireland will be tightened. Ruth Kelly, who plans weaker, later rules for the rest of the UK, has bowed to religious leaders complaining that the pillars of Christendom will totter unless Christian adoption agencies, bookshops and hotels are allowed free rein for prejudice. Islamist extremism is obviously never to be compared to the behaviour of peaceful citizens. Even so, the harmonious society Mr Blair desires is not best served by Christian leaders passing themselves off as a persecuted minority and the whipping boy of multicultural Britain.
This is purest fallacy. The might of bishops trickles down from the House of Lords, where they sit without a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy. Cathedrals are forecasting record attendances this Christmas. In a fearful, divided country, religion is the beneficiary. Mr Blair, though recognising that shift, was too selective and too timid in his remedies. He condemned radical Muslim schools, quite rightly, but omitted to say that creationism in Christian ones is deplorable, too. He demanded that faith schools must abide by guidelines requiring tolerance and respect for other faiths…
The article by Rowan Williams to which she refers can be found in the Times Higher Education Supplement which is read largely by university academics and administrators. The article is trailed on the front page of the weekly journal this way:
The Archbishop of Canterbury has hit out at the “suppression” of Christian unions on university campuses with an impassioned defence of free speech in an exclusive article for The Times Higher.
and the background to it is summarised in a news article entitled Archbishop hits back.
Rowan Williams’ article is titled It is not a crime to hold traditional values. A couple of excerpts (but read it all, please):
…But beyond this, we sometimes seem to be unclear. Quite often in discussion of Christian attitudes to homosexuality (and this is often the presenting issue where Christian unions are concerned), it is taken for granted that any statement that a form of behaviour might be sinful is on a par with the expression of hate, so that it is impossible for a conservative Christian, Catholic or Protestant or, for that matter, an orthodox Muslim to state the traditional position of their faith without being accused of something akin to holocaust denial or racial bigotry.
Yet the truth surely is that while it is wholly indefensible to deny respect to a person as such, any person’s choices are bound to be open to challenge. Any kind of behaviour or policy freely opted for by a responsible adult is likely to be challenged from somewhere; it isn’t as though sexual activity were different from any other area of conscious choice. And to challenge behaviour may be deeply unwelcome and offensive in a personal sense, but it is not a matter for legislative action…
…Christian unions, like most student associations, can be a nuisance. As a university chaplain many years ago, I was blessed with good relations with members of the Christian union, thanks to the maturity and warmth of the local leadership; but I know that not every chaplain in higher education has the same good fortune. Questions about tests for orthodoxy recur regularly in the histories of Christian unions, and every few years there is likely to be some degree of conflict and sometimes schism (as in other societies – I can also remember the ferocity of debates in the 1970s within a university Labour Club at the time leading up to the formation of the Social Democrat Party). Furthermore, there is real debate and divergence among Christians about the ethics of same-sex relationships, and some more liberal Christians will find it embarrassing that the traditional position of the Christian union can be seen by the rest of the student world as something like an unquestioned Christian line. Christian unions can appear detached from the rest of student life in some campuses (by no means all); or they can lay themselves open to charges of insensitive recruitment; and so on. But the basic question remains. Is there a straightforward right of association for people with these convictions? …
Other material relating to the current dispute over Christian Unions on British university campuses can be found in this excellent report from Ekklesia (PDF file), which was also written up in the Guardian in Christian unions warned against legal action. See also Simon Barrow here.