Editorial by Terry Sanderson: A significant event: Is the tide turning against the bishops?
Something extraordinary happened on Wednesday evening in the House of Lords. A piece of legislation that was heavily opposed by religious groups – including the Church of England and the Catholic Church – was passed by a majority of 46 votes (168 to 122). Practically all Labour and Lib Dem peers voted in favour of the Regulations. Eighty Tory peers voted against as did all the bishops and many cross-benchers (non-aligned peers).
The Sexual Orientation Regulations – which seek to protect gay people from discrimination in the provision of goods and services – had become a totem for the religious lobby, something on which they thought they could force the Government to concede. They have been conducting a dishonest but well-resourced campaign throughout the passage of the regulations, both for Great Britain and in Northern Ireland versions.
The Catholic Church, with its pathologically homophobic leaders, tried to gain exemptions for its nine adoption agencies. The Government refused. The Church of England joined the campaign, threatening to close its own welfare groups if they were not given opt outs. Once again, the Government did not yield, although according to some accounts Mr Blair and Ms Kelly were wavering, happy to give the churches the exemptions they were demanding.
Several interesting things then transpired. Members of the Church of England Synod wrote to all 26 bishops that are entitled to sit in the House of Lords and demanded that they turn up for the debate and vote against the Regulations en bloc. Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, attended the debate, and takes up the story:
“As it turned out, only three of the bishops turned up. They probably realised that a show of brute power would seriously jeopardise the survival of the Bishops Bench in House of Lords reform. But they clearly tried to field their top brass. This included the Archbishop of York, who even apologised for the absence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and two senior bishops. All voted against the Regulations.
“The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said in the debate that by introducing the regulations, the government was ‘venturing down an unconsidered path through the establishment of a new hierarchy of human rights.’ The Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, said ‘the right to freedom of religion was being treated as of lesser weight than other human rights.’ The Bishop of Winchester regretted the government had chosen ‘to legislate to coerce the churches and others” to accept as a social norm patterns of living that many people believed were “less than the best’.
“Their remarks were torn to shreds by several speakers in a way that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. The most effective attacks came from three non-aligned Christians, two peers who happen to be gay and a baroness who was chief executive of Childline. To murmurs of approval they lectured the prelates on love and discrimination. It was unforgettable.
“Lord (Chris) Smith spoke of the humiliation of a gay couple being turned away from a bed and breakfast, and the reality of gay and lesbian people being removed from GP lists because of their sexuality. In one of the most powerful speeches of the evening, Lord Waheed Alli spoke of his father, a Muslim. The Koran openly says that Jews should be killed, he told peers. As a Muslim, if he truly believed that, then there should not be a law against it, according to the arguments of the bishops. ‘The sight of children holding up homophobic placards outside the Lords seems a good argument for these regulations,’ he told peers. Baroness Howarth of Breckland concluded ‘Gay people deserve that as much as any of us, just as Wilberforce said that every black person deserved equal treatment.’
“NSS honorary associates Lady Turner of Camden and Lady Massey also spoke out eloquently in favour of the Regulations, and we are most grateful to them for doing so.”
There was a 1,000-strong demonstration outside parliament, mostly attended by black evangelical groups, who made their small children hold hate mongering placards up for the cameras. Later they held a ‘prayer vigil’, but was all for nought (as prayer vigils generally are). The Regulations were passed, and the Christians went away muttering that the Government had “forced a new morality” upon them.
The leader of the evangelical campaign, Andrea Minichiello Williams, recognised profound change was taking place. She commented “History will record that today’s vote marked the increased secularisation of Britain confining faith to private thought, rather than public service.” But then she went into the usual overblown apocalyptic mode, saying: “At the very least the beginning of persecution. And that is something we need to be very alive to. We are no longer able to live according to these [Christian] values and there is the beginning of oppression. Things that are against God’s will are being legislated and it would be good if the church could wake up just upon hearing that and call the nation back to Christ, call for revival in this land.”
What Ms Minichiello Williams fails to appreciate is that this nation does not want to be called back to Christ. It does not want people like her dictating what is in the law. Wednesday night was the culmination of a battle to decide whether Britain has a secular law-making body or a religious one. As in society as a whole, the drift is definitely towards the secular.
The Catholic Church and the Church of England, as well as the many other intolerant pressure groups like the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, the Christian Institute, CARE and the Evangelical Alliance have egg on their faces. They walk away from this confrontation with a reinforced reputation for bigotry. It is well deserved.
Now the Catholic Church has revealed that it might transform its adoption agencies into private bodies that take no state money and would, they hope, be financed entirely from the collection plate. That, they say, would make them exempt from the demands of the Regulations and they could continue to practise their discrimination unhindered. It would mean saying goodbye to £10 million of taxpayers’ money. But when asked what the Church intended to do, Cardinal Murphy O’Connor said: “It remains to be seen.”
We also worry for Ruth Kelly, the Communities Minister and prominent member of Opus Dei, the extremist Catholic organisation. After the vote she commented that the laws were a “major step forward” which would deliver “dignity, respect and fairness for all”. How is she going to face Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor after this? How will she explain her enthusiasm to the Pope who only last week issued new guidelines to Catholic politicians telling them that they were required to oppose any pro-gay legislation? We’d love to be a fly on the wall when she next meets her Opus Dei boss.
Read the debate here.