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Newsline 23 November 2012

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If you can’t prove you’re a Christian, get off the school bus

If you can’t prove you’re a Christian, get off the school bus

News | Thu, 22 Nov 2012

Flintshire County Council is proposing to restrict subsidised school transport to religious schools to those pupils who can prove that they are of the religion that the school espouses.

Tower Hamlets council approves £2 million funding to faith groups

Tower Hamlets council approves £2 million funding to faith groups

News | Fri, 23 Nov 2012

The mayor of one of Britain's poorest boroughs is providing £2 million of funding to religious groups to help improve places of worship.

Church of England’s establishment is well past its sell-by date

Church of England’s establishment is well past its sell-by date

Opinion | Wed, 21 Nov 2012

By Terry Sanderson, president, National Secular Society

We've argued for a long time that the establishment of the Church of England as an arm of the state is unsustainable in a modern, diverse society. Last night's vote at the General Synod to reject women bishops simply reinforces that opinion.

Although as secularists we would defend any church's right to make its own rules (so long as they are within the law and don't affect people outside its ambit), in the case of the Church of England it is different.

This is a church "by law established", a status that brings with it many privileges that are denied to other denominations and religions.

There is no denying that the Anglican Church has had a profound influence on the history and development of this nation. But then, so did steam trains and we did not hesitate to get rid of them when they had outlived their usefulness.

The world has changed profoundly since the Church of England was created, and it is time for us to accept that change is needed. If we don't expect our railway carriage to be pulled by Stephenson's Rocket any more or go to America in a Zeppelin, then we shouldn't imagine that there are not better ways to order our constitution to take account of shifting demographics and progress in science and political thought.

Britain has become a society of many religions, but mainly a nation of no religion. This secularising process has brought into being laws that would never have been even considered if the Church was still in charge. Abortion, homosexuality, contraception, suicide, cremation – all were illegal for centuries on the orders of the Church. All have been legalised by a society that has been gradually rejecting religious dogma for over a century now.

Chief among these progressive laws is the Equality Act, which makes every citizen — religious and non-religious, male or female, black or white, straight or gay, disabled or able-bodied — entitled to the same rights. The Church of England has just set itself against this.

As an Established Church, its legislation has to be approved by our elected parliament. Usually this is just a formality, but with this decision there might be resistance in parliament, which has ruled through its own legislation that women must be treated equally and barriers must not be placed in their way.

If the Church of England wishes to continue with its privileged position in relation to the state, it must change its ways. But there are stronger reasons for its disestablishment – the first being that its supporters have voted with their feet and abandoned it in droves. It is now a tiny denomination, but still claims to speak for us all. With this decision it shows that it speaks for only a small group of conservatives who are out of step with the direction of society.

This morning on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, defended establishment because "the Chief Rabbi says it keeps religion at the forefront of the nation".

Well, the Chief Rabbi represents even fewer people than the Archbishop of York.

The Church of England has now shown itself to be an irrelevance, a nuisance and an embarrassment. It is well past its sell-by date and its establishment even more so.

Church and state need to be set free

Church and state need to be set free

Opinion | Thu, 22 Nov 2012

Simon Barrow makes the case for disestablishment from a Christian perspective

If there is one thing that might pleasantly surprise the Church of England in the throes of its embarrassment over failing to approve women bishops, it is surely that so many people who never darken its doorsteps still seem to care rather passionately about what it does – albeit in a generally less than sympathetic way.

Given that fewer than a million people now attend weekly services of the 'national church' in a country of 50 million, one might wonder quite why that is. Judging from the volumes of media coverage and online comment the goings on at this week's General Synod have generated, popular nerves have definitely been touched. But of what kind and to what effect?

The gut issue for many seems to be basic fairness. To many people – religious or otherwise – it seems incredible that an institution of the modern era which is established under the Crown, has unelected members in parliament, receives financial privileges from the treasury and is involved in running schools and welfare programmes should still regard it as acceptable to discriminate against half the human race.

Of course, most in the Church of England do not want to do this. More than 74% of Synod members voted for women bishops. Some 80% of churchgoers approve the change. 42 out of 44 dioceses have also balloted in favour. What has happened is that the Church has allowed itself to be held to ransom by an obdurate minority, some of whom barely regard those with whom they disagree as properly Christian, and most of whom will only be satisfied by provisions which enable them to operate 'no go' areas for women and LGBT people within the institution – discriminatory arrangements which reduce others to a second-class citizenship or leadership.

How the Church of England moves forward from this impasse is a fascinating and difficult question in its own right. But increasingly people within and beyond its walls are asking another one. Why should these internal wrangles and problems be superimposed on society at large? For on the terms of the current settlement between church and state they most surely are being.

So, for example, the Church of England (along with other religious bodies) enjoys a range of exemptions from the Equality Act 2010 which impact the employment rights of a significant number of people. The Church has also used its reserved places in the House of Lords to try to stop others, including Quakers and Liberal Jewish synagogues, from conducting civil partnerships. It wants to stop same-sex marriage, not for its own congregants but for everyone. It also runs taxpayer-funded schools that are allowed by law to select pupils and staff on religious grounds, whether parents and children in the wider community like it or not.

There is a massive dose of 'having your cake and eating it' in all this. It increasingly looks like privilege without responsibility. This is the reason why questions are now being revived concerning the Church of England's established status; about whether male leaders of one denomination from one religion in one country should be in the UK legislature as of right; and about whether exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation should automatically be granted to a body which styles itself a national institution, but still wishes to behave like a private boys club.

In the past these questions have been difficult to raise, at least in any way that might promote actual change. But with Synod's abject and humiliating failure to approve women bishops, two changes have become visible. First, the fund of public goodwill towards "the dear old Church of England" seems to have been further eroded. Second, the party political division over these issues appears to be breaking down. Once the C of E was dubbed "the Tory Party at prayer". Now the Tories are led by someone who is prepared to chide the Church for excluding women and to disagree with it over civil same-sex marriage, just as Tony Blair was prepared to go against the Catholic Church hierarchy over the issue of discrimination against lesbian and gay couples by its adoption agencies. Voices right, left and centre are now uttering the word 'disestablishment'. The political ground is shifting, and over the past week it has taken another discernable lurch.

It is important to realise, and to stress, that the issue here is not about restricting religious freedom. On the contrary, freeing the church from the state and vice versa would enable both sets of institutions to address their respective problems and challenges without having to get bogged down in the incommensurate agendas of the other. It is not the job of the government to resolve theological differences within religious bodies, and it is not the job of churches or faith groups to require others to be governed by rules based on the beliefs of one minority.

So much though I want to see women (and indeed gay) bishops in the Church, I do not think the government should force it to have them. But by the same token, there is no reason in a plural society why the Church should be able to stop the government from licensing marriages and partnerships for same-sex couples. The Church should remain free to bless or not bless those relationships, but not to prevent others from forming and celebrating them. Freedom is a two-way street.

The case I am putting forward, and which has almost certainly been strengthened by shenanigans in the General Synod this week, is not simply a secular one, either. The argument for the independence of church and state is one that has been strongly articulated within the theological traditions of nonconformity for many years. It argues that non-compulsion is the essence of true religion, collusion or subjugation a dangerous threat to it.

Along with the emancipatory message of Jesus, who was himself executed by an unholy alliance of state and religion for his subversion, this spirit of mutual freedom is one the Church of England most definitely needs to embrace as it addresses both its own problems and its changing place within the fabric of an increasingly diverse society.

Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia. He has worked in the past as an advisor within the Church of England. This article first appeared on openDemocracy website and is reproduced here with kind permission

Another Irish abortion scandal emerges

Another Irish abortion scandal emerges

News | Thu, 22 Nov 2012

The Irish Government has paid substantial compensation to a woman who was forced to travel abroad for an abortion, despite being terminally ill with cancer.

Acceptance of gay rights is an indication that USA is secularising

Acceptance of gay rights is an indication that USA is secularising

Opinion | Mon, 19 Nov 2012

By Adrian Tippetts

This weekend the US media pundits have been asking to what extent LGBT people swung the vote for Obama in the 2012 elections. It's a difficult call to say any one particular social group might be responsible for stopping the Republicans, whose party platform seemed all about protecting the privileges of mainly white, older, religious, affluent voters. Three-quarters of LGBT people rejected Romney but as the election demographics show — Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, 55 percent of women, 93 percent of blacks — there are millions of offended parties.

The demographics of diversity and declining religiosity will force the GOP to embrace inclusiveness or die. Pandering to a white evangelical base won't work because the USA is becoming ethnically diverse at a fast pace: collectively, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities make a third of the population and growing; of the 0 to 18 age group, whites make up less than 50 percent.

Some Republicans think a winning strategy is to be more inclusive of ethnic minorities, while remaining opposed to LGBT equality; after all, opponents of marriage equality went 74–25 for Romney. Frank Schubert, the public affairs mastermind who devised several successful anti-marriage referenda, including Proposition 8, sees the failure of the marriage amendment propositions as a mere setback in blue states. But a simple look at the statistics for acceptance of LGBT equality over the last decade, by social group and by region, should tell him that the tide is turning. The younger generation is overwhelmingly accepting. This year, polls show that there are more supporters than opponents of marriage equality among black and Hispanic, as well as among white voters. Moreover, acceptance is growing in all regions of the USA by 15 percentage points per decade. In the least accepting region of America — including the south eastern states like Mississippi and Oklahoma — 35 percent of the population supports equal marriage. That's where the US national average was in 2004.

Studies show that support for equal rights is higher when people know someone personally who is LGBT (pdf). By simply coming out to friends, family and colleagues, the prejudices that are used to justify discrimination are blown away. The testimony of real people outweighs the multi-million dollar anti-marriage campaigns waged on fear, as the marriage votes of Maine, Washington, Maryland and Minnesota have shown.

Others are concerned that backing LGBT equality may alienate the conservative base. But what could be more conservative than encouraging gay people to make a lifetime commitment to the person they love? What value could be more traditional than protecting everyone's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as guaranteed in the Constitution? For that matter, what could be more anti-patriotic, than jeering at a soldier serving in Iraq, putting his life on the line, in a televised presidential candidates' debate – an unforgivable outrage that none of the candidates had the decency to condemn?

If ethical principles won't encourage the Republicans to decouple conservatism from fundamentalist religion, maybe the numbers will. As religious commentator John Shook noted, church attendance has been falling. In March 2012, a Gallup poll found 32 percent non-religious; fewer than 25 percent go to a religious service more than twice a month. Fox News' exit poll of religious voters sends a warning: weekly churchgoers favoured Romney 59–39, while occasional congregants went 55–43 for Obama. But the latter outnumber the former, and the gap is set to widen.

Surveys repeatedly show religious allegiance is increasingly detached from behaviour and attitudes. Lay Christians do not share the reactionary views on social issues espoused by their religious leaders. While Catholic priests and bishops broke the law by telling their followers how to vote from the pulpit, more than four out of five Catholic voters feel no obligation to heed their instruction at the ballot box (pdf). The same Fox survey shows that only 16 percent of Catholic voters think gay marriage is an important issue. And even among evangelicals, the one voting category to whom the Republicans have focused their efforts in appealing to, Obama's share of the vote has actually risen, from 27 to 30 percent since 2008.

Equality is a vote-winner and homophobic bigotry is a vote-loser, because the population abhors such cruelty, and in any case, the same politicians that rail against gay marriage are more likely to get Creationism taught in schools, ban contraception and abortion even in the case of rape, pretend global warming doesn't exist, and so on. After the disaster of the 2012 elections, the Republicans are looking like an offshoot of the Westboro Baptist Church. If the party is to remain a serious force, a secular leadership capable of sidelining the extremist loons and offering rational, reasonable, constructive alternatives is urgently needed.

Secularist of the Year 2013 – tickets on sale now

Secularist of the Year 2013 – tickets on sale now

News | Fri, 23 Nov 2012

Tickets for the 2013 Secularist of the Year event are now on sale. Nominate your Secularist of the Year!

European research shows 32% of Britons are non-believers

European research shows 32% of Britons are non-believers

News | Thu, 22 Nov 2012

Eurobarometer, the public opinion analysis sector of the European Commission, has published a report on discrimination in the EU which includes information on the self-reported beliefs of people across the EU.

Czech Catholic Church set to receive billions from state

Czech Catholic Church set to receive billions from state

News | Thu, 22 Nov 2012

Czech MPs have voted by a narrow margin to let the Catholic Church reclaim properties seized during the 1940s and 1950s by the Communist regime.

Austrian Cardinal relocates to Brussels to insert Catholicism into EU policy-making

Austrian Cardinal relocates to Brussels to insert Catholicism into EU policy-making

News | Thu, 22 Nov 2012

The Austrian bishops conference held its plenary meeting in Brussels this month because it wants to be nearer the EU – where it hopes to increase its influence.

NSS Speaks Out

Terry Sanderson took part in an hour long debate on BBC Radio Wales on Wednesday about the relevance of the Church, after the vote to reject female bishops. His blog on the topic was also published by Huffington Post and was quoted in The Times (subscription only).

Keith Porteous Woodwas quoted in The Guardian on the Supreme Court decision to make the Catholic Church and Christian Brothers share the compensation for abuse of hundreds of children at a Catholic-run children's home in East Yorkshire. He was interviewed on ITN News on the same topic.

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