Monday, 10 November 2014

Dear Churches of Northern Ireland: My slice of the equality cake

Here are a few of the statements made by churches in Northern Ireland in relation to the Equality Commission decision of action over Ashers Bakery.

First the Presbyterian Church in Ireland:

The Convener of the Church and Society Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Very Rev. Dr. Norman Hamilton, has issued the following statement:
"I want to express deep concern on behalf of our Church at the apparent decision of the Equality Commission to take further steps towards legal action against the owners of Ashers Baking Company.

"In a situation where a business has clearly stated that it is willing to serve any customer irrespective of religion, sexual orientation or political belief, it surely is totally unjust to attempt to compel it to be involved in promoting causes which in conscience are against the owners’ strongly held Christian beliefs. There ought to be much more scope to exercise freedom of conscience in such situations, and as a society we need to strive for 'reasonable accommodation' in situations where there is a genuine conscientious problem.

"Such an apparent decision by the Equality Commission is not only very unhelpful in the particular situation in question, but it potentially undermines and shuts down the kind of respectful wider debate and discussions that are necessary. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland wants to encourage thoughtful, gracious and yet rigorous discussion about how Biblical faith should relate to equality legislation. Indeed, we recently held a well-attended day conference, entitled 'Equality, freedom and religion'.  There is a need to think through what a God honouring and Biblically faithful approach to equality, human rights and freedom should look like in our ever changing society. There is a need for Churches and Christian people to engage with these issues and indeed be to the fore in promoting such equality and human rights. However, decisions such as that apparently taken by the Equality Commission, far from assisting in such necessary engagement, in fact makes it significantly harder. This is a deeply regrettable failure of civic leadership by the Equality Commission." 6 Nov 2014
The Evangelical Alliance added this:

"Ashers Baking Company have been all over the news this week .They have indicated that they won't bow to renewed pressure from the Equality Commission who have decided to take them to court for declining to make what has become known as 'the gay cake'. The Christian run bakery declined to make a cake supporting gay marriage because it was against the directors' religious beliefs. Listen to a discussion of the case on BBC Talkback here.

"I believe the Ashers case could have serious ramifications that many in the media and elsewhere don't seem to have grasped. It isn't about a 'gay cake', in fact it has very little to do with sexuality or gay rights – the McArthurs who own Ashers did not know the sexual orientation of the customer. The Equality Commission have now written to Ashers saying they are not only guilty of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation but also religious and political opinion. The issue is that if this case is lost, religion will have been effectively banished from the public square. Significant political freedoms will also be lost as the Equality Commission decides which political and religious views are acceptable and which are not." 7 Nov 2014

The Methodist Council on Responsibility:

"We are deeply concerned about the decision of the Equality Commission to support legal action against Ashers Bakery following that company’s decision to refuse to make a cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage.

"It is our belief that at the centre of this dispute there is the matter of conscience for Ashers.

"We commend the company for their willingness to take a stance for the sake of conscience.

"If Ashers Bakery should suffer as a consequence of taking this stand how bizarre that the commission action would have been in the name of 'equality'." 9 Nov 2014
Update 13 Nov 2011 from the Church of Ireland

"Two key issues form part of the debate: discrimination and freedom of religious conscience. The Church of Ireland recognises and commends efforts to combat discrimination. In 2012, the General Synod affirmed '[a] continuing commitment to love our neighbour, and opposition to all unbiblical and uncharitable actions and attitudes in respect of human sexuality from whatever perspective' The Church is also currently actively engaged in constructive dialogue through its Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief. What is not at all apparent in the Ashers case, however, is that there is a charge of discrimination to answer. It seems clear that the service was declined, not because of the sexual orientation of the customer but because of the particular political message requested upon the cake. 
"It is a serious concern that the freedom of religious conscience that the law affords to all people has also been challenged by the Equality Commission's decision. The owners of the baking company were upholding their adherence to the traditional Christian view on marriage as being between one man and one woman. In fact this position was affirmed by a majority of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in 2012, and is the legal position in Northern Ireland. It is of real concern that a conscientious choice made by the owners of a small business, which reflects such a position, has been branded discriminatory and made the subject of heavy–handed legal action. The Church and Society Commission would encourage gracious and sensitive dialogue around this issue as we move forward."

Of these only the first one from the PCI talks about a wider issue, the EA hint at it but only in so far as it encrouches on them. Now if the churches think they are under attack you should try being a gay Christian in Northern Ireland.

If I post anything religious on my tweeter or Facebook timeline I have gay activists attacking me for supporting the churches or being soft on them, if I post something about LGBT equality I get attacked globally. If I post something that mentions both well it is like all hell has broken loose.

I would be more willing to accept the point of view of those in Christian circles on the recent Ashers dilemma if they did actually acknowledge that there is a grey area legally in all of this. That for a start Ashers had taken money for the order as a deposit and later rescinded that order. That also there is no disclaimer on Ashers website that you personalised celebration cake design may be subject to subsequent refusal because of its design. Nor do they acknowledge that part of the legal framework of this country does not allow discrimination on the perceived or actual sexual orientation of a patron by any company.

However, by ignoring certain issues in this case, with some church leaders disengaging with the LGBT community and others talking about it threatening dialogue they are all taking the wrong approach.

There is a wider issue and many LGBT Christians within your denominations have been crying out for your church leaderships to have that meaningful conversation. Notice I'm saying conversation not a monologue as Equality, freedom and religion as mentioned by the PCI actually was. The good Samaritan wasn't the one from across the road who looked at the injured man and assessed that things were fine and carried on at haste, he was the one who came over and sat down next to him, dealt with what was the matter and stayed with him while recovery took place.

Update (13 November) My issue with the subsequently issued Church of Ireland statement is there quoting the legal position as it currently stands in Northern Ireland. We have a complex equality equation here in Northern Ireland but can anyone truly separate religions freedom from political expression on the issues of LGBT equality in protestant circles. The fact that nationalist politicians have distanced church from state is to be applauded but more and more we are seeing the protestant denominations weighing in having political say on such issues. Support of marriage equality is not an illegal political opinion to have, unlike say national socialism, and indeed it is one that many within the churches also support and hold. Nobody is normally expecting the suppliers of bespoke objects they create for them to endorse the sentiment, merely take the money and trade and provide the service, anything further than that is asking someone to sponsor your idea.

The Methodists believe the centre of the issue is a matter of conscience, but when a matter of conscience is based on a precept that excludes others you are missing the whole point of your gospel to lover everyone, no caveats, no matters of conscience. Maybe the centre of this matter does lie elsewhere, many in the LGBT community hate the church and all it stand for. They hate things being done in the name of churches by politicians in Stormont to block LGBT equality legislation.

The others feel like their appeals for their own churches to actually take action, to listen to the grievances and concerns of those who experience both sides is not happening, or ignores actions they have promised, especially when issues like this come to a head. You can say all you want that you are not homophobic but when you language talks of reasonable accommodations, serious ramifications, and taking a stance for the sake on conscience, when only only one side benefits you are actually homophobic. It is like what Fr Tim Bartlett said you want the right of all people, in this case Christians, to freedom of conscience to be vindicated. That is not a good way to go about equality.

Yes I agree with all the churches that there is an issue here. But I do not agree they their freedom of conscience is under attack to the same extent that they continue to have undo and overbearing influence of those of faith and without over civic matters and therefore the freedom of conscience of others.

1 comment:

  1. Lets see how many Christian MP's MLA's Councilors, Peers, and the career Christians [Clergy] will jump to remind Ashers what Jesus Christ , the Son of God commanded to do when anyone took a disciple to court !!

    Matthew 5:40 (KJV)
    40..if any man will sue thee at the law,
    and take away thy coat,
    let him have thy cloak also.

    If tiny Ashers with its 7 retail shop outlets, its place on [Sinful-sodomy-promoting] Tesco Shelves and Spar shelves also is ordered by court to pay compensation Jesus Christ orders them to give more. Perhaps a share in the business might be a charitable Gesture