THE DEFEAT on Monday of the Government’s attempts to extend the reach of the Equality Bill further into the realms of religion puts both the Church and the Government in an awkward position. A clause inserted into the Bill attempted to clarify the extent of the Church’s exemption from equal-opportunities legislation beyond the clergy. The first draft was clumsy, the most recent one less so, restricting the Church’s right to discriminate to a minister of religion or “another post that exists . . . to promote or represent the religion or to explain the doctrines of the religion (whether to followers of the religion or to others)”. Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, voted for the amended wording; all the serving bishops in the House voted against it, and it fell.
As a result, the Government is left with draft legislation at variance with European law, which generally has little room for special pleading. The Government was reticent this week about what it might do next. If the legislation remains as passed, there is every prospect of a long and expensive test case, probably involving the C of E, to check the legality of continued discrimination against lay people in positions of responsibility.
One oddity is that the Church has been drawn into a debate about who may be discriminated against rather than the grounds, if any, on which discrimination may be applied. This might have been something that the Churches addressed collectively. Instead, they seem to have shown scant concern about a position in which they have to fight for the right to discriminate at a time when society in general is becoming more tolerant of diversity.
This was a dangerous victory, then, on at least four counts. First, retaining the status quo does not encourage the Christian community to re-examine its attitudes towards opinions and behaviour that are deemed unacceptable. Until it does so — stating, for example, the reasons why infidelity is unacceptable in anyone in a teaching or pastoral post, regardless of sexual orientation — it is exposed to the charge of prejudice from its critics. Second, as suggested above, the status quo is unlikely to stand unchallenged for long. Third, if the Church is seen to be a discriminatory employer, it will dissuade many from considering a career in its service. Every once in a while, the merits of gay clergy are lauded, but not to the extent that the Church can honestly describe itself as an equal-opportunities employer.
Finally, it once again traps the Church into concentrating on sexual orientation and behaviour, with the damage to its reputation which this causes. The big inequality story this week was the revelation of how divided the UK has become in recent decades, to the extent that the top ten per cent of the population has acquired one hundred times the wealth of the bottom ten per cent. This should be the focus for the Church’s energies, and at parish level it often is. The Church’s leadership should follow the example of the led.