The views of the Archbishop of Canterbury

As the BBC saw fit to accede to the request by Lambeth Palace not to broadcast the section of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Today interview with John Humphrys the other day dealing with Iraq (on the grounds that Dr Williams hadn’t been forewarned about the intention to ask him about any topic other than the row over gay bishops), I have downloaded for my own education some extracts from a speech and an article by Dr W from his web site that, if put several times through an interpretative mangle, yield some blurred clues to his views.  Clarity doesn’t seem to be among his undoubted virtues.  Watching several of his series of interviews on television on recent Friday evenings, I’ve mostly been unable to make out what he’s saying:  I recognise the individual words that he uses, but can’t make sense of them in his particular combinations.  And this has nothing to do with my wholesale ignorance of theology:  Dr Williams was in each case speaking and writing of straightforward political and moral issues for, presumably, a non-specialist audience.  

I resist the temptation to express a view on the outcome of the Archbishop’s extraordinary conference of Anglican primates (unfortunate term but a gift to cartoonists) on gay bishops, or on his handling of the affair of the celibate gay would-be suffragan bishop of Reading .  I have already got into deep trouble by saying what I think about those matters, and have retired hurt, reminded that I’m a pagan outsider who can’t be expected to understand these matters and that they are not simple, as I thought they were.  But judging by last week’s "Any Questions" and "Any Answers", the Archbishop and his C of E haven’t exactly emerged from these debates and decisions smelling of roses, at any rate in the nostrils of ordinary chaps of both genders who, like me, take a simplistic view of these rather straightforward matters.  One caller suggested that what was needed was some leadership.  I thought he had a point.

It seems to me that the right — and simple! — course is to legislate to make it illegal to discriminate in any sphere, including employment, promotion, etc., against persons  on grounds of sexual orientation or practices, and to take care not to grant immunity from the ban to the churches (or other religious bodies).  Legislation on these lines seems very close to being achieved, although immunity for churches, etc., is still (as I understand it) being hotly debated.  In November 2002 the DTI published a consultation document entitled "Equality and Diversity – the Way Ahead". As part of the consultation exercise the DTI published draft Regulations – the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 and the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 (due to come into force in December) – which made it unlawful to discriminate against employees on the grounds of their sexual orientation, religion or other beliefs. The consultation period ended in January 2003. The DTI has made some amendments to the draft Regulations and laid them before Parliament for approval on 8 May 2003 .  Sadly, the amendments include an exclusion clause (Clause 7) exempting religious organisations from the regulation’s provisions.  I’m told by a friend who’s actively engaged in the campaign against the churches’ exemption that the Government pushed them through both Houses despite the unprecedented doubts expressed, after a public grilling of DTI officials, by the Joint Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, which accepted virtually all the objections he and others had hastily managed to put before them (three memos in three days) to question the legality of the draft concocted to placate the Anglican and RC Bishops.  They were enacted on 26 June and come into force on 2 and 3 December.  But first the NUT, and then, after the TUC Conference, seven other unions, decided to challenge the offensive provision before the courts and sought Judicial Review (this had to be done by 26 September, ie within three months of the Regulations being made).  It’s not known when this will be heard, or whether indeed the court might refer it to the European Court.  If the Government loses, the churches and mosques will be in well deserved difficulties.   

In the same context it’s interesting that the Court of Appeal recently found that legislation was discriminatory in treating same-sex partners less favourably than unmarried heterosexual couples. Having considered the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights 1950 and the Human Rights Act 1998, the court held that a schedule to the Rent Act 1977 was discriminatory in providing the survivor of a same-sex partner relationship with a less secure tenancy than the survivor of an unmarried heterosexual couple. A resolution of the European Parliament has declared that "it will not give its consent to the accession of any country that, through its legislation or policies, violates the human rights of lesbians and gay men".  The writing is on the wall, and it’s very difficult to discern any grounds for exempting the churches.  At the very least it would effectively get the Archbishop of Canterbury off the hook on which he seems to have impaled himself.

Some readers of this may well ask why on earth I spend time exploring and trying to fathom the meaning of the views of this prince of mumbo-jumbo, however good and spiritual a person, on an issue which most of us surely regard as (a) morally crystal clear and (b) essentially trivial.  And I have a feeling that they would be right.

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