Time the C of E stopped dodging

07 April 2010

Too many opt-outs have undermined the Church’s mission, says Hugh Rayment-Pickard

Using its privileged position in public life, the Church has success­fully negotiated exemptions from laws designed to ensure that em­ployers act justly, exemptions from laws to stop discrimination against women and gays, exemptions from the Civil Partnership Bill, exemptions from listed-building consent and school-admission arrangements.

Fair enough, you may say. The Church is surely entitled to defend its own interests and have its conscience respected. It is not so strange, surely, for the Church, as for any other organisation, to look out for the needs of its members.

But the Church of England is not an organisation like any other. It’s our national Church, and narrowness of vision does not do it justice. One of the marks of a national Church should be its pursuit of the common good. We expect the C of E, as the Established Church, to take an expan­sive view.

Sadly, with every new opt-out, it surrenders a little more of the moral and theological high ground. If it wants to be a national Church, it needs to think and act like a national Church. Otherwise it sounds like a sect looking out for its own peculiar interests.

IN THE debates about the Equality Bill, the Church failed to engage with underlying ethical vision of the Bill, focusing its attention almost exclu­sively on question of religious exemp­tions. This made it look petty and self-preoccupied.

The Equality Bill was an important piece of legislation attempting to mend our unequal society: women are paid less than men; people from ethnic minorities find it much harder to get work than white people; and poor children are educationally dis­advantaged from their early years. As well as simplifying the 2500 pages of existing legislation and guidance, the Bill imposed duties on government bodies to reduce socio-economic inequality.

In its response, the Archbishops’ Council concerned itself with the implications for the Church of Eng­land. The mission statement of the Archbishops’ Council says, with­out a trace of irony, that it is “seeking to transform unjust structures in society”.

In his February Synod address, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a valiant attempt to argue for the nobility of the Church’s approach to the Equality Bill, by appealing to a higher, “three-dimensional” view of liberty which balances competing freedoms. He argued that we need to accept that the sauce for the goose is not the same as the sauce for the gander. In this “higher” view of liberty, discrimination against gays and women can be simultaneously right and wrong: right for the Church but wrong for everyone else.

This sounds more like a fudge than wisdom, and the Archbishop knows where this kind of argument will lead: this is why he thinks it is “inevitable” that Parliament will create bespoke legislative arrangements for Muslims.

This is the domino effect: when you start to allow exceptions, it be­comes increasingly difficult to draw the line. If the Church claims the right to discriminate against gay people, it also lends power to the elbow of the BNP in discriminating against black people. If the national Church leads the way in securing special treatment, we can hardly complain if others follow our example.

The consequence of persisting with this policy will be the slow-motion collapse of our national Church into a Christian sect. Step by step, we will join the ranks of more or less self-serving religious organisations. Over here the Scientologists, over there the C of E.

THERE is an alternative approach, which has a powerful theological grounding. Jesus taught that his followers must serve the greater purpose of the Kingdom. It is this Kingdom-vision of Jesus that we urgently need to recover. The King­dom is not a religious organisation in any ordinary sense, but rather the transformation of the entire social and political order. The Church of England needs to lift its head above the fog of ecclesiastical concerns and address the values of the Kingdom.

Those who heard Jesus’s teaching about the Kingdom spoke about his extraordinary power and authority (exousia). It is this authority to speak in public life which the Church needs to recover. The more the Church focuses its thinking and speaking on the Kingdom — on justice, poverty, and social exclusion — the more it, too, will command respect.

This new Kingdom-focus would impel the Church to take the lead in articulating a national vision for faith and maintained schools, a national vision of what equality means for marginalised groups, and a vision of a flourishing national life.

The General Synod would have a national reputation as a forum for en­lightened debate, proposing new initiatives to promote justice. Bishops and other church leaders would be better known for engaging with issues of public concern than for banging their own drum.

When others merely argue for the protection of their own rights and freedoms, the Church would be working for a vision of rights and freedom for all. This — if it were ever to happen — would result an Estab­lished Church worthy of the title.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is one of the founders of the charity Into­-University.

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