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The peer and the persecuted

05 April 2013

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THE strange ungainly bellowings of Lord Carey, running around in his retirement like a bewildered elk at the Grand National, do a great deal to explain the Church of England's current problems. He was at it again on Holy Saturday, with a piece in the Mail complaining that Christians feel persecuted because they reject gay marriage.

This sounds ridiculous in summary. It's even sillier when you get to the detail. His argument, such as it is, is based on a ComRes poll claiming that "More than two-thirds of Christians feel that they are part of a 'persecuted minority'." Yet this is the same Lord Carey who claims that Christians are the majority in this country, and has been known to quote the 72-per-cent Christian figure from the 2001 Census. Two-thirds of 72 per cent is 50 per cent of the population. And we're expected to believe that this half is a persecuted minority? Are we even supposed to believe that they are opposed to gay marriage particularly?

In fact, even Lord Carey knows it is ridiculous: "Their fears may be exaggerated because few in the UK are actually persecuted." If you just corrected "few" to "none", the sentence would be perfectly OK.

If this were just absurdity, it would not be worth noticing. But this particular absurdity is all of a piece with the mistakes that Lord Carey inflicted on the Church as Archbishop. Remember that, by the standards of his age and bench of bishops, he is remarkably open-minded. He claimed last summer that he was going to attend the civil partnership of a gay couple who were friends of his.

I think that he was absolutely sincere about not persecuting gay clergy. He was quite happy to deny them promotion, ignore their opinions or experience of their lives, and keep people who sympathise with them out of jobs, too; but he really wouldn't see that as the same thing as persecuting them.

His policy as Archbishop is certainly not to be compared with the treatment that, he states, the Government has in mind for people with his views: "Strong legal opinion also suggests that Christian teachers, who are required to teach about marriage, may face disciplinary action if they cannot express agreement with the new politically correct orthodoxy."

His complaint has nothing to do with the enforcement of an orthodoxy. It is a wail that his particular orthodoxy is no longer the one enforced; for Lord Carey believes in order and hierarchy. His policy as Archbishop was to find out where power lay, and settle with it. Hence his appeasement of the worst instincts on display at the Lambeth Conference in 1998. Hence his tone of outrage now that the Government is ignoring his opinions: David Cameron "seems to have forgotten in spite of his oft-repeated support for the right of Christians to wear the cross, that lawyers acting for the Coalition argued only months ago in the Strasbourg court that those sacked for wearing a cross against their employer's wishes should simply get another job.

"More shockingly, the Equalities Minister, Helen Grant, recently gave her support to the Labour MP Chris Bryant's campaign to turn the 700-year-old Parliamentary chapel of St Mary Undercroft into a multi-faith prayer room so that gay couples can get married there."

Well, yes. That is a direct consequence of the Carey-esque attempt to ensure that civil partnerships were entirely distinct from real marriages. It was the Carey/Nazir-Ali line that everyone would have to choose between Christianity and gay marriage. Very well. The country has clearly chosen. Marriage is no longer primarily a Christian institution. This applies far more and far more often to straight partnerships than to gay ones.

Lord Carey writes: "By dividing marriage into religious and civil, the Government threatens the Church and state link which they purport to support. But they also threaten to empty marriage of its fundamental religious and civic meaning as an institution orientated towards the upbringing of children."

But people have been marrying in register offices for more than a century. The idea that marriage must be about children is probably still widely held - but what matters is the commitment, not the gender of the committed parents.

These are facts on the ground - fences, if you like, that the Church must learn to leap across. But still the poor old elk tries to push his way through. It is the only trick that he ever learned, and he thinks the stands are full of people cheering him.

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