Thursday, 29 April 2010

Let's get rational

Gary McFarlane, a marriage guidance counsellor, was sacked because he refused to provide his services to homosexual couples. An employment tribunal backed this action in 2008 and McFarlane was in court today seeking leave to appeal. Lord Justice Law (no pun intended), however, found against McFarlane and, in his ruling, stated the following:

"We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.

"The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the state, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself."

We do not quite know on what grounds McFarlane's lawyers tried to argue the case, but we do know that Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, intervened on McFarlane's behalf and found his argumentation criticized in Lord Justice Law's ruling.

What I find interesting about this is how much it reveals the deeply unwise strategy of ecumenical associations of common witness. There are several reasons for my saying this. The first is that theologically speaking it has blurred the difference between ecclesial faith (as transmitted by the Church) and privatized faith (the individual conviction of this person or group). That is not to say the latter is unimportant, but that common witness can involve a veiling of the difference. Bad mistake.

The second reason I make this point is that the fostering of a 'faith' ticket has been a great facilitator of ecumenical friendliness, especially now we are surrounded by a secular society, but it seems to have been achieved at the expense of a cogent, persuasive and well-argued Christian rationality. Seeking out a richer scriptural basis for doctrinal understanding is all very well as an ecclesial exercise ad intra, or as a way of convincing Bible Christians that the Church is no stranger to Scripture, but if you want to win an argument in the public square, you have to base your position on principles recognized in the public square. Claiming a special status for Christian sensibilities is just not going to work in the current climate.

Could McFarlane's job have been saved with a more rationally grounded argument? I'm not a lawyer and frankly I don't know. But I do know that since conscientious objections are recognized elsewhere in the law, there must surely be some grounds for a legal argument. The most worrying thing is that in Law's ruling, and its ilk, a hardening secular reason marches on almost without any opposition, and the religions intervening in the debate are sounding increasingly shrill by looking for a special 'faith' status.

Defend this ground on the basis of natural law, or you'll not have a shred of religion left in this country which can function in the public domain. The paradox is in this regard that we have to be faithless in order to be faithful.

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