THERE is not much Anglican religious news around this week. I
would not care to speculate why the papers failed to climb all over
the news that there will be no new Bishop of Oxford for a while,
but they did not. Only John Bingham, in the Telegraph,
reported it at all, and not even his professionalism could make the
story seem to matter.
Sometimes we might yearn for the more unbuttoned style of
American religious journalism: I loved the explanation, by Dan
Schultz, a Baptist pastor who used to write for The
Guardian, who told the readers of Religion Digest
what the problem is with American religion: "The conservatives
don't believe the liberals are actual Christians, and the liberals
think the conservatives are flaming judgemental assholes."
This problem is not entirely unknown outside the United States,
even if the metaphor is not one to be examined literally.
The back story to this outburst was that eight conservative
churches in a small Arizona town have teamed up to offer a series
of sermons denouncing the errors of "Progressive Christianity" -
represented by the Methodists down the road.
I can't say that I think this is a bad way of selling the
message. I think religious life in many towns would be greatly
enhanced if the sermons were explicitly directed at the errors of
the Christians down the road, with names and examples, and
advertised as such in advance. These would differ from present
practice only in that the passage in the sermon explaining that
Jesus loves them, really, would have to come at the end, when there
was a chance that it might be taken seriously.
THERE was, though, the news that Ashers Baking Company in
Belfast had lost the "gay cake" discrimination case brought against
it for refusing to supply a cake showing Bert and Ernie from
Sesame Street and the words "Support Gay Marriage".
There is an interesting and, I think, important case to be made
in principle that the bakery should have been able to refuse this
order. There are two grounds for this argument. The first is simply
pragmatic: bringing this kind of case fuels the resentment and
suspicion of the State felt by some Evangelical Christians. It is
not as if you need to do much to waken the suspicions of an Ulster
Protestant. I think it quite likely that this will lead to a
backlash in the equal-marriage referendum south of the border,
where apparently the immigrant churches are campaigning for a "no"
The second ground is an argument from free speech. There is an
important difference in principle between demanding that someone
not discriminate in the provision of goods and services, and
demanding that they express a belief they sincerely believe to be
Had it been I, or Canon Giles Fraser, who ordered that cake, I
think the bakery should have had a right to refuse our business,
just as it should have a right not to print propaganda for Sinn
Féin, the BNP, or any other political position of which it morally
Unfortunately for this line of argument, the judge concluded
that the bakery-owners had - contrary to their protestations -
known that the man who ordered the cake was gay, and that their
actions therefore amounted to discrimination against the customer
rather than against his opinions.
There is a further difficulty there: suppose the opinion itself
had been an expression of membership in a protected category - if a
Muslim had walked in and demanded a cake iced with the declaration
that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet - should
the bakers be compelled to ice it? I suspect that, legally, the
answer is yes.
There will inevitably be a great deal of grumbling at this
verdict. But, if the Christian Legal Centre had any imagination, it
would find instead a humourless atheist bakery on 22 October, and
ask it to ice a happy 6019th birthday cake for the Earth, dated
according to Archbishop Ussher. Then they could sue that bakery for
religious discrimination in turn.
IF THAT is confusing, consider the adventures of Juan Vicente
Córdoba, the Bishop of Fontibón in Colombia, who told a conference
there that one of Jesus's disciples might have been gay, and Mary
Magdalene a lesbian.
"No one chooses to be gay or straight," Bishop Córdoba said,
according to a report on the Crux website. "One simply feels,
loves, experiments, is attracted, and no attraction is bad."
The next day, it seems that someone reminded him of official
Roman Catholic teaching on these subjects. The Bishops' Conference
published his apology for "unfortunate colloquial expressions",
which might have been a retraction, or might just have referred to
the derogatory term he used instead of "gay".
Next time, dear Bishop, ice your message on a cake.