Tuesday, February 12, 2008


This quick reflection arises from a news brief about reactions to the Archbishop of Canterbury's Church of England General Synod address on the sharia row yesterday, and press statements I made on behalf of Ekklesia about two aspects of it - the global context on religious law, and the issue of 'conscience'. I will focus here on the latter.

A key part of Rowan Williams' claim that a unitary secular system of governance and law necessitates the granting of exemptions to religious groups within UK legislation is the 'conscience' argument. In the way that it is being presented, this is seriously skewed in both its formulation and its effect. First, it mixes individuals and organisations. Second, it does not acknowledge that consciences, like rights, clash. Third, it fails to address the specific consequences of a general exemption-based position.

Allowing conscience in life-or-death questions is one thing. Wherever possible we need provisions of this kind. But should Catholic and Muslim pharmacists, for example, be allowed by law not to sell condoms in chemist shops? Where do we draw the line? And who decides? The answer at the moment is a democratically elected parliament acting in concert with the executive and legislature. To change that would be a pretty big deal. Moreover, which consciences and which religious or other civic bodies do we recognise for exemptions? There is a need for discussion, deliberation and decision about conscience and the law, but not wholesale waivers for certain groups of people.

The situation we are in now is one where these issues are becoming much more vexed as a result of two trends. The first is the increasing eagerness of church and other bodies to take public money, sign contracts for public service delivery, run taxpayer-funded schools, and so on - and then to say that they wish to refuse to serve, admit or employ certain kinds of people. This does not seem reasonable to me, or very Christian. It is not a human right to run or offer public services, and it is not a denial of religious freedom of conscience (or any other kind of conscience) for the authorities to make comprehensive equalities requirements for service delivery. Opting out and acting differently - rather than demanding legal exceptionalism - remains a possibility for those who object, whatever their hue or interest.

Second, under pressure from the growing pluralisation and (in certain key respects) secularity of public life, combined with the rapid decline and shift in the overall ecology of institutional religion, some religious groups are pushing for more and more exemptions. But while it is absolutely right that personal conscience is allowed for in public life (for both the religious and the non-religious), a government elected from a cross-section of the whole of society will not unreasonably want to ensure that the ability of people to access facilities intended for all is not thereby comprised. And the basis for this will be exclusion not exemption.

There is also a big difference between making allowance for personal conscience and taking taxpayers' money and public contracts for schools and services while maintaining a 'right' to select and discriminate. Using 'conscience' as a wedge for a wide and unspecified raft of exemptions is at best confusing, and at worst dubious. If churches and other faith bodies do not feel that full equality of access in public services is something they can endorse, they do not have to take state money or engage in works of public benefit beyond their own premises and membership. They are not compelled to do so, and nor should others be compelled to accept discriminatory practices as part of a public service.

Regarding the Church of England, of which I remain a member, I have argued elsewhere that moving beyond an Establishment mentality and practice (including the desire to enshrine threatened vested interest through some muddled multi-faith extension of them) "would take imagination, bravery, intelligence and prayerfulness." I continued: "Dr Williams has those [qualities] in spades. It is a crying shame that they are currently being applied to a totally misguided strategy – defend ourselves by extending religious exemption; use church schools to get the next generation (demographics suggest that won’t work); and try some ‘fresh expressions’ of church locally without transforming the core of the institution. Maybe the shock of this current archiepiscopal humiliation will shake some of the church’s leaders into a more radical, creative and outward looking re-think?"

The underlying point is not, as some critics of Ekklesia suggest, that the choice is between exemption and privilege for faith or the exclusion of faith. It is, for Christians at least, a matter renewing our trust in a Gospel message that points beyond exclusion, injustice, partiality, self-interest, self-justification and the defence of institutional interests - and invites us instead to work courageously for a new community in the company of Jesus, who was prepared to face down religious and political domination to the point of being executed by those vested interests, and whose vindication came through life as a gift rather than life grasped away from others.

The whole meaning of the Christian faith, when seen through eyes not clouded by power and privilege, points the churches in a direction which is demanding but exciting, rather than fractious and (frankly) embarrassing. If that's "woolly liberalism" (as someone suggested to me recently), I'd suggest that the wool is wire wool and the liberality arises from the depths of the tradition, not from some feeble accommodation to 'secularism' (understood partially, as just an attempt to suppress the religious, rather than to negotiate an open and plural public square where people can come and go.) Christians need robust consciences, for sure. But not special exemptions from fairness and justice.

No comments: