Category Archives: Social Policy

Choosing my Faith

Last week I was sitting in church and at the end of the prayer of intercessions I had to say, “Amen, except the bit I can’t say it to”. The bit I had to exempt myself from agreeing to related to praying for our Christian country and against the demise of it, oh and against the de-establishment of the church. Now, don’t get me wrong it’s not that I support secularisation or the attacks on Christianity which some people are undoubtedly engaging in…however hard they protest otherwise but it is I think that alot of the debate at the moment is at best misguided and at worst dangerous. So at the end of the week when Channel Four News had an intelligent “pub” discussion between a Christian, Muslim and Jew who all discussed the subtle issues involved in the debate in a way which was grown up and mature; The Baroness Warsi has been on a trip to Rome and spoken out against agressive secularism; the Telegraph has reported that Eric Pickles has signed a change in the law to enable councils to keep prayer on agenda’s – and so sidestepped the ruling against Bideford last week, Trevor Phillips has spoken out about those who want to sidestep the national law in the name of religion;  Christian Concern has come back saying atheism is being put in the place of Christianity in the public square and Durham has apparently been having it’s own battle between the humanists who have had their “Reason Week” going  head to head with the Christians who have been calling their main mission “Exchanged” I’m going to have my say on where we’re at.

Which strand to start with? Well – for me it is going to be the faith and public life thing. Prayers before council meetings are good BUT only if they are voluntary, inter-faith and not part of the formal agenda which people are expected to attend. Those who point back to the traditions are pointing back to a time where a lack of religion, or having the wrong type of religion resulted in barring from university (as anybody who has been to Cadbury World will know). Do we really want to go back to that type of belonging/ behaving without believing? I think not. Notions of this being a Christian Country and the priviledging of “the established church” go back to these types of attitudes and practices. The right to be a non-conformist and hold a different theological perspective to the dominant state norm or to proclaim oneself somebody without faith is something people in this country literally died for.

However, there is one area my own feelings contradict themselves in somewhat – and that is in relation to the House of Lords. I fully believe in a non-elected House of Lords which contains the aristocracy and “the church” (amongst others). The reasons for this are these people tend to bring knowledge and expertise which is beyond that of career politicians. Cross Benchers are to my mind the best assets we have as voters. My own feeling is that change should see all mainstream religious groups represented within a “faith” block, but equally there should be secularists represented too. By this I mean that I am of the view that rather than a bunch of Bishops there should be some bishops but also faith representatives from the Roman Catholics, the free churches,  the variety of different Muslim streams, Orthodox and Reformed Jews, Sikhs and so on who get seats in the Lords. In terms of why it is important these voices of potential dissent are there one only need look at the coverage of the passage of the recent Welfare Bill.

On to the Trevor Phillips comments – he has a point…but I think that the equalities agenda has been used by secularists who want to try and make sweeping generalisations about Christians which are unfair and push points which are basically saying one persons (predominantly gay rights) have more worth than another minority view (i.e. faith based). Conservative Christians particularly are also making counter claims and pushing their points to make the generalisations and try to push the point in the other direction. Having read the Week report of his comments I think what he says is largely true. However, the wider debate that follows is should more groups be allowed “loopholes” which allow them to practice their beliefs if in doing so people can still access goods and services perfectly well elsewhere? There is a bit of me which wants to say let the market decide…although as a Christian that logic is wrong and actually what we need to be looking for is the most compassionate course of action in these things.

In terms of Baroness Warsi’s comments she has a point….but it worries me that the agenda for making this point is actually nothing about religious freedom and everything about the Conservative Party continuing to promote a sense of nationalism as “social fact” which is actually based on socially constructed ideas of identity. I agree with what she says about, “unease with the rising tide of secularisation” but I think that we need to be more uneasy about the impact this is having on people of faiths other than Christianity. A Christian who decides to wear a cross but is asked not to is very different to a Muslim woman who feels that it she should wear a headscarf but is forbidden to by her the government of the country she is living in. Both should be allowed to display symbols of their faith but Christian symbols should not be given automatic right over other symbols of faith…otherwise are we back to wanting to celebrate the crusades?

Finally, is it getting harder to be a practising Christian? In my experience no…it is actually getting easier because people are seeking to question and challenge the misuse of faith rather than faith itself. I am finding that alot of people are actually careful to treat my beliefs with respect -even if they will mock them a bit. There are the aggressive secularists who view any religious view as wrong and will get vocal about it but many people in my experience tend to view Christianity with a kind of nostalgic fondness whilst being ready to denounce the way it has been misused. I don’t know if the fact people often know I’m gay as well as Christian helps…it means that when they start on the Christian attitudes to sexuality I can come in from a different angle and show why they have to be very careful about making generalisations because the truth is far more complex.

To conclude I want to  explain that whilst I would love to live in a country where loads of people had chosen to become Christians I would never want to live in a Christian country. For me the choice to connect with Christ and live out a life recognising the full impact of his grace, (shown through His death and ressurection) is the greatest gift we have. Central to that gift for me is the fact it is a choice, and we are given free will to choose our faith. I want to celebrate our heritage and recognise the role faith has had in that, but I don’t want to live in a country where one faith is given dominance and allowed to subject others to oppression (or to label/ view them as lesser beings). That path, in my understanding of theology, leads away from God and His intentions for us individually and corporately rather than towards Him.

More than just tea and samosas

Yesterday was one of those rare days in church, or anywhere else for that matter. One of those days when you meet somebody truly inspirational who is humble and oozes integrity and has actually influenced real change rather than just talking about it. This guy was Inderjit Bhogal, who is according to his website an OBE – something not mentioned at all yesterday. I had heard he was meant to be good and so was glad the coffee rota meant I could get to hear both services he was preaching at aswell as hearing him at Methsoc in good conscience, (i.e. not feel guilty about not being off doing field work).

His main themes are inter-faith dialogue, anti-racism and sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers. He does not talk about this in the usual middle class way which you expect, but rather talks it like it is – to the extent I was wondering if we were going to get the full f word within a quote in the morning sermon, at one point, (and I don’t mean feminism). Yet and here’s the thing in the mist of stating it like it is he shows totally humility and a deep understanding of and respect for scripture and other people. He refuses to dehumanise the other…..using a quote from a Bosnian in one of his sermons to explain when you start viewing anybody as less than human you are on the road to genocide.

This is all not just a good show of humility from a seasoned performer. This is the real deal. It’s a lifestyle thing. I happened to be on the coffee rota this week and so was in the kitchen washing up when he came in to chat to those of us in the kitchen and give a hand with the drying up. I also had a bit of an embarrassing moment at Methsoc when he started flogging his book with a student discount. I’d bought it full price off him in the morning and so started mumbling about the fact I would have waited if I’d known I could get it cheaper in the evening. He turned round, checked he’d heard my mumbling right and then reached in his pocket and gave me the difference – so I got my student discount. There were other things I observed which showed this bloke was the genuine article rather than a performer. He is a good old fashioned activist, who also happens to be a minister, chair of all sorts of commitees, OBE and former president of the Methodist Conference.

In terms of significant stuff this bloke has been involved in starting up the most important I guess is the City of Sanctuary movement, which has grown out of Sheffield. This is about getting places to commit to being places of safety, welcome and inclusion for refugees and asylum seekers.

There is a very good You Tube film where Inderjit and others explain what City of Sanctuary is about
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePzkbNzTn2M[/youtube]

Clause 61: Grey Areas of Free Speech

Free speech is something wooly liberals tend to support……it is one of those things that is a “nice” idea. However, in reality free speech becomes something far more complicated. As the discussions regarding the BNP over the years have shown there is a fine line between free speech and discrimination. There are similar issues around faith and LGB sexual orientation.

It appears this is something which has come to a head in recent months, particularly in relation to clause 61 of the Coroners and Justice Bill which is currently going through the Lords. According to the information given by Care and by Stonewall the situation is that the government have acted to introduce protection against hatred on the basis of sexual orientation. Parliament voted to include an amendment put forward by Lord Waddington which read:
‘29JA Protection of freedom of expression (sexual orientation): In this Part, for the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up
hatred.’ (Care have produced an informative briefing in PDF form which for some reason wouldn’t link, www.care.org.uk/Publisher/File.aspx?ID=37546 is the address).
This amendment was included within the first reading of the bill in the Lords. However, in January the government removed the amendment and so the version currently going through the Lords doesn’t include it. This is the position that Stonewall support because they believe that “it is unnecessary and could mean that a very small number of people of extreme views attempt to avoid prosecution by citing a ‘religious defence’.”
Religious organisations, however, are concerned. They believe that cases are already starting to emerge where people who object to homosexual behaviour, for religious reasons, are finding their right to express their views are restricted. In addition to Care, which I have already linked to, Christian Legal Centre and CCFON are fighting for the reinstatement of the amendment.
This conflict is not an easy one to sort out. Personally, I believe the amendment should remain. The reason is that I have been in situations where people of faith have said stuff which could, to the outsider, been interpreted as inciting hatred. However, the individuals making these comments have in no way been inciting hatred against people of different sexual orientations. Rather, they have been expressing (i) their fear of the way secularisation has been moving forward and the way they regard the extension of rights for those with differing sexual orientations as a symbol of this or (ii) what they regard as love for those with non-heterosexual orientations, (where they regard homosexuality as sinful). The fact is their interpretation of the bible and they way they have expressed their understandings has been tactless and advocated a range of views including (i) the need to “heal” homosexuals and lesbians, (ii) the view that LGB people won’t be going to heaven, (iii) Jesus hating the sin of homosexuality and so forth.

Now, don’t get me wrong….I in no way believe that Christians putting forward these views -which leave LGB people who are made in the image of God, (just as all of us are), resentful against the church and deeply hurt – are right in their opinions. However, equally, I understand where many of those who say these things are coming from. I have heard their stories, I know their influences and I know their earnest wish to follow what they see as the biblical will of God by taking literal or very conservative approaches. They see their rights being eroded by conservative secularists who are using equality rights as a trojen horse to attack Christianity, and this is another example.

This is why my own belief is that ex-gay programmes, which have been proven not to work and which cause psychological harm, should be banned and it should be illegal to promote them. It should also be illegal to promote views inciting attacks on gay and lesbian people, whether in churches or elsewhere. However, beyond this as said earlier I believe the amendment should be re-instated. The secular fundamentalists must not be allowed to push forward their agenda.

Additionally, despite what some of the Christian organisations are saying Stonewall should be recognised as an organisation which is seeking to recognise the complexities of the sometimes conflicting positions of LGB campaigners and faith organisations. They have produced this booklet on the subject of “Religion and Sexual Orientation: How to Manage Relations in the Workplace”.

This issue is about protection of civil liberties and free speech, but more importantly it is about the dignity of individuals. Sometimes compromises need to be made and the acceptance of this amendment by some LGB campaigners is one such occassion. Equally, I believe on the other side that some Christians need to make some compromises too.

Art(icle)

Carolyn Arends has this article about why the arts matter, even in a recession, in the current edition of Christianity Today. It is an article which makes several important points about why the arts are important. She argues, from a biblical viewpoint, that we are created to participate in the arts….made in the image of a creator God. From here though she moves on to more sophisticated arguments about the inspirational aspect of art and how it reminds us of the transformation which is possible…and the way new realities can be formed. She also highlights the way in which art is a part of the fight against injustice….giving us a faith in unseen realities.

The truths she speaks in this article are important. As we inevitably face public spending cuts….and the recession increasingly sends people looking for scape goats….arts projects run by “do gooders” and associated, often incorrectly, with liberal political correctness will be in the firing line. This is going to be true in the Prison Service aswell as elsewhere. Yet over the last few years, I have heard some truly amazing stories from those working within community arts of the transformative power of these projects. As Arends says the arts really do have the power to transform realities. They have often have educational and / or community building aspects to them which cannot and must not be under estimated.

Within the article Arends is referring to “high culture” primarily, with the exception of folk…which is itself now generally middle class. However, if we look back to previous recessions we can see that one aspect is exciting DIY art movements often arise out of periods such as the current one. The power she refers to in relation to art being a tool in the fight against injustice is real. It also, and this is an aspect she doesn’t pick up on, can act as an agent of escape.

This means that we need to support artists during the recession but also we need to nurture the use of art as a means of expression. This is again why I believe continued funding in community arts projects is important. We should not just be encouraging people to become consumers of art….more importantly we should be encouraging them to become participants in the production. Art and creativity is, as Arends points out, a broad category which incorporates music, visual arts, storytelling, poetry, etc, etc. It can also operate on so many different levels ranging from the heart stopping professional performances to the enthusiastic amateur’s effort which might not be about to attract much praise but which has given huge enjoyment and fulfilment to the producer. It is something which transcends boundaries of class, gender, sexuality, disability, age or ethnicity. We might all have different tastes in art, but in some form or another we all appreciate it. So it is, as you can probably tell, that I wholeheartedly agree with the article.

Complex Questions which defy soundbites

The BBC has, presumably, used material released to the media in advance of the relevant government announcements to give us this insight into what the party who still have the audacity to call themselves “Labour” are planning to do on welfare reform. The page includes an interview with James Purnell where he trots out a load of soundbites which do more harm, in a complex debate, than good to my mind.

The debate is not a simple one and in this post I would seek to raise questions to be discussed rather than give short, over simplified answers to vast questions. To explain what I mean by some things requiring more than short soundbites I refer you to useful essay by Robert Peston, (the BBC’s economic advisor), on New Capitalism which can also accessed via the BBC News site.

So what are the questions I think we should be asking as we seek to look at the proposals and lobby our MPs accordingly, if appropriate:

1) What do we define as work?

 For example is “being a mother” meaningful work? If it is does this mean we should pay those who want to be “stay at home mothers” for looking after their own kids, if their partners wage is not enough to support both of them or they have no partner? If we do think that mothers should be paid for their “childcare duties” because this is a meaningful role what age does this be a job until? Also if the state did do this how would we stop those for whom it might not be an appropriate job at that time, (i.e. many teenage mums) from taking this “job” without peanalising those who happen to fall pregnant?

2) How do we support job creation whilst not encouraging people to avoid social and moral responsibility?

For example: “Care work” with either children or the elderly are growing sectors of the economy and one would presume, as reasonably unspecialised sectors, the type of job area which will have to grow if we want to create growth and appropriate jobs for those coming off benefit whose skills are things like looking after people. Yet, if these areas are ones we choose to grow what cost is there involved? Does looking after other people’s children become seen as more valuable by society than looking after our own? and does looking after other people’s parents become seen as more important than looking after our own?

3) How do we give people the dignity of work without giving them the indignity of forcing them into jobs which they are not suited for?

4) What are the right training opportunities?

If we put people onto training schemes to increase their knowledge or skills how do we ensure that the person is put on the right course for them rather than one that the government sees future employment being created in? Additionally, how do we create progression opportunities, as appropriate, that people can afford to take?  Most colleges have been forced into charging fees for Access courses and the like, and whilst some bursaries are available many people find themselves just over the edge? Also benefit entitlements for those taking higher level courses are now being removed, how does this work?

5) How can we help people build meaningful long term careers rather than just doing a series of short term jobs through their lives? Is forcing people from one short term opportunity to another the answer?

6) How do we ensure that the mistakes of the rich don’t get paid for by the scapegoating of the poor?

The current economic crisis and excessive public borrowing requirements are feeding into the warfare on welfare or whatever it’s being called. How do we make sure that many of the most vunerable in our society don’t become scapegoats when they are genuinely “incapacitated”, etc?

7) What type of investment are we going to make in our already over-stretched public services if we want these reforms to work?

The NHS is at breaking point and to help some of those who are on incapacity benefit back into work, without further damaging their health there would need to be the kind of investment into support services we just don’t have. Similarly if some of the long term unemployed are going to be helped back into work it will need the support of social workers and the like who are already overworked and increasingly hampered by “initiatives” which are stopping them giving service users the help they need to. Linked to this is how do we measure what are appropriate jobs? and whether people are “fit for work”?

8 ) What are our attitudes towards mental illness?

 If we want to help those with these illnesses back into work how are we going to those they will be working with understand their needs and ensure bullying, etc don’t place which would cause more harm than good.

9) How do we make volunteering something meaningful to these people, rather than making it being seen as a punishment? Also how do we ensure these volunteers aren’t exploited and that others wishing to get involved in projects are still given the chance? Is there any way we could turn these volunteering opportunities into real jobs rather than “cheap labour”? How does government need to re-evaluate how it gives grants in this situation.

10) What are our own responsibilities for making sure we act in a way which helps lead to job creation and people keeping jobs rather than increasing the number of people registered as looking for work? Do we need to reconsider the amount of internet shopping we do for example? Do we need to be willing to pay the higher prices involved in having real people at the end of the phone rather than an automated machine?

I have opinions on some of these things, but answers for very few. Yet I think these are the types of questions we need to be addressing urgently through our discussions as a society, and within that as faith communities. What are the appropiate responses for us as Christians individually aswell as corporately?