A more permissive attitude

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 49:1 - Jan 2008

From the time when King Alfred placed the Ten Commandments at the head of his laws there has been a strong level of agreement between what Christian opinion of the time approves and what the law of the land allows or forbids. In the 1960s the Church of England played an absolutely key role in persuading Parliament and public opinion to adopt a more permissive attitude on many issues. Through the reports of its Board for Social Responsibility and through the speeches of its bishops, the Church of England led the way in the debates leading to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, abortion and suicide, in the abolition of capital punishment and in liberalising laws relating to marriage and divorce and to censorship. In all these cases the Church supported the move to a more humane and less judgemental society. It is a tragedy that the same cannot be said of the role of the Christian churches today.

Increasingly we see tensions between Church and State, particularly in relation to equality issues between men and women and in attitudes towards homosexuality. In both these cases the churches have obtained 'opts outs' from the laws which are binding on others. We find that it is more and more the case that the moral values upheld by society as to how a decent person ought to behave towards his fellow human beings differ from the moral values seemingly upheld within the churches which derive from an earlier consensus.

Eric Stoddart discusses some of these issues in his fascinating article 'Restrictions on the Gospel: Some Illegitimate Concerns of "Marginalised" Evangelicals'. The main focus of his article is on evidence submitted by evangelical groups to the House of Lords committee considering the law on blasphemy and on religious hate speech. This led to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 which deeply worries many evangelicals. Stoddart considers some important test cases in which Christians have been censured for their denigration of other people's religions or for wearing a placard in a public place saying 'Stop Homosexuality', 'Stop Lesbianism', 'Stop Immorality'. He notes however that both the bishops of the Church of England and the Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops broadly support the provisions of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act arguing that society has an interest in protecting religious groups from hatred against them.

Stoddart's article provides a very helpful survey of the debates leading up to the 2006 Act. Since then there have been further developments and the debate intensifies. We noted that the bishops had argued successfully that religious groups have a right to be protected against hateful speech. In October 2007 the Government proposed that this protection be extended to homosexuals and lesbians. They too have a right to protection against hateful speech and anyone who incites hatred against their life-style could now face seven years in prison. The Lawyer's Christian Fellowship believes that this would cover any criticism of homosexuality and life styles.

At the same time however the Council of Church Colleges and Universities have advised their institutions to include in their contracts of employment reference to the 'Christian ethos' of their institutions. This might enable Church of England Universities and Colleges to claim that adherence to a 'Christian' life-style in relation to sexual orientation, or in attitudes to abortion or marriage could be held to be a 'genuine occupational requirement' and could enable a church college to discriminate against, or even dismiss staff who flouted this 'Christian ethos'.

We must hope that common sense will prevent a rash of court cases on either side. As one who is employed by a university which has a strong Christian history but which is not a church university it is deeply disturbing to note the way polarisation is developing in our society. For those employed by a secular institution it is a serious offence to practise any form of discrimination against another person on grounds of religious belief or sexual orientation. It would be very worrying if church colleges and universities were to succeed in obtaining the right to discriminate in their institutions on such grounds.

One ground for concern in this regard should be the question, for a Christian, of what discipleship of Jesus should contribute to our understanding. Richard Bending's article on 'Jesus, the Law, and Moral Issues Today' is a very careful and detailed examination of what the Gospels tell us of the approach of Jesus to moral issues. Bending argues sensitively that:

Jesus clearly saw the law not as a mere set of rules but as a living tradition, open to discussion and argument. He appears to have taken a more flexible and pragmatic approach than some of his contemporaries, and was noticeably unwilling to allow the law (and even more so the web of human regulations built up around it) to be used to further alienate those who were already marginalised.

Bending's article is thus an important contribution to our current situation and a call to re-examine the foundations from which we as Christians seek to justify our moral stances.

Paul Cudby considers an entirely different issue: the need for 'Fresh Expressions in Worship'. He illustrates the way in which 'wordiness' dominates our worship today and shows how complex much of the language we use actually is. It is often barely comprehensible to the occasional visitor. He urges the importance of colour and music and action and suggests that greater experimentation in liturgy is an essential element for church revival. Those who would like to see an example of how liturgy might be revitalised might ask Google to find 'Modern Churchpeople's Union Jonathan Robinson'. This will get you to his new liturgical suggestion Celebrating the Light.

My own contribution to this issue is to explore 'Religion in Britain and China: Similarities and Differences'. This draws on the most detailed study of Chinese religion yet undertaken: a four year research project supported by the John Templeton Foundation and led by my colleague Professor Xinzhong Yao. Its primary focus was on religious experience and it documents the continuing and growing influence of religion on Chinese life. The differences between China and us were what we expected to find. The similarities were what surprised us.

David Lewin takes the issue of religious experience further in his discussion of 'Mysticism, Experience and the Vision of Teilhard de Chardin'. Lewin shows how vital the dimension of mystical experience is to living religion and he seeks to show how this was exemplified in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. This article is an extremely interesting overview of a creative thinker whose work can still appeal to a new generation.

The final article by David Wemyss is a provocative and controversial study of 'Radical Orthodoxy, Don Cupitt and Heidegger'. Modern Believing is keen to encourage theological controversy and the three themes addressed by David Wemyss lie at the forefront of current discussion.

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.