The Church of England has published the text of a letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Tony Blair.
Dear Prime Minister,
The Church of England, along with others in the voluntary sector, including other churches and faith communities, have been in discussion with the government for some time over what has become known as the Sexual Orientation Regulations. Those discussions have been conducted in good faith, in mutual respect and with an appropriate level of confidence on all sides.
Last week that changed. Speculation about splits within government, fuelled by public comment from government ministers, appears to have created an atmosphere that threatens to polarise opinions. This does no justice to any of those whose interests are at stake, not least vulnerable children whose life chances could be adversely, and possibly irrevocably, affected by the overriding of reasoned discussion and proper negotiation in an atmosphere of mistrust and political expediency.
The one thing on which all seem able to agree is that these are serious matters requiring the most careful consideration. There is a great deal to gain. It is becoming increasingly evident, however, that much could also be lost, as the letter from Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor makes clear.
Many in the voluntary sector are dedicated to public service because of the dictates of their conscience. In legislating to protect and promote the rights of particular groups the government is faced with the delicate but important challenge of not thereby creating the conditions within which others feel their rights to have been ignored or sacrificed, or in which the dictates of personal conscience are put at risk.
The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well meaning.
On numerous occasions in the past proper consideration has been given to the requirements of consciences alongside other considerations contributing to the common good, such as social need or human rights – the right, for example, of some doctors not to perform abortions, even though employed by the National Health Service.
It would be deeply regrettable if in seeking, quite properly, better to defend the rights of a particular group not to be discriminated against, a climate were to be created in which, for example, some feel free to argue that members of the government are not fit to hold public office on the grounds of their faith affiliation. This is hardly evidence of a balanced and reasonable public debate.
As you approach the final phase of what has, until very recently, been a careful and respectful consideration of the best way in which to introduce and administer new protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in England and Wales, we hope you, and cabinet colleagues, will do justice to the interests of the much wider grouping of interests within the nation that will be affected. It is vitally important that the interests of vulnerable children are not relegated to suit any political interest. And that conditions are not inadvertently created which make the claims of conscience an obstacle to, rather than the inspiration for, the invaluable public service rendered by parts of the voluntary sector.
Most Rev and Rt Hon Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury
Most Rev and Rt Hon John Sentamu
Archbishop of York
Reference is made above to a letter from Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor. That letter can be read here.