Archbishop of Canterbury’s Presidential Address – my response
In his address to the General Synod in London, the Archbishop of Canterbury discussed two main issues: the question of how much control the government should exercise over the employment policies of religious institutions, with particular reference to the Equality Bill, and the question of assisted suicide. In this blog post I respond to the Archbishop’s comments on the former of these two issues.
The Archbishop stated that Christians were contesting a small but significant detail:
whether government had the right to tell religious bodies which of the tasks for which they might employ people required and which did not require some level of compliance with the public teaching of the church about behaviour.
I agree that there is a debate to be had here, I do not wish to address this general debate. I want to talk about something else: the specific debate about whether the government has the right to tell the Church of England to comply with employment law. And let’s be clear, the Church of England is a special case. The 26 most senior bishops of the Church of England sit in the House of Lords – they are members of our government. Hence any allowed discrimination in the appointment of bishops is an allowed discrimination in members of our government.
The Church of England is being hypocritical here: it wants to benefit from the power that it gains by being part of the government, but it does not want to abide by the employment laws of that government. And this power is not just theoretical, it was most recently exercised to defeat the Equality Bill that would require that religious organisations did not discriminate on grounds of gender, marital status and sexual orientation.
If a business organisation had an allocation of seats in the House of Lords and used those seats to block legislation that was detrimental to that business, there would be an outcry. Yet this is precisely what the Church of England has done.
The Church of England has deferred the debate about women bishops and the Archbishop has expressed concern over moves by the American Episcopal Church to appoint more gay bishops. The Archbishop said in his address:
The freedom claimed, for example, by the Episcopal church to ordain a partnered homosexual bishop is, simply as a matter of fact, something that has a devastating impact on the freedom of, say, the Malaysian Christian to proclaim the faith without being cast as an enemy of public morality and risking both credibility and personal safety. It hardly needs to be added that the freedom that might be claimed by an African Anglican to support anti-gay legislation likewise has a serious impact on the credibility of the gospel in our setting.
In his address the Archbishop stated that time is required to look at solutions and seek structures that would allow future reconciliation within the Church. The Archbishop should have some leeway as to how quickly he addresses the issue of discrimination within the Church. The problem is that the Archbishop is simultaneously saying that the Church of England should have exceptions to anti-discrimination law, while saying that the Church of England should be allowed to discriminate against women and LGBT people in its appointments to the House of Lords. This is an untenable position. The Archbishop, if he wishes to act with integrity, has two choices: immediately allow the appointment of women and LGBT bishops, or voluntarily withdraw the bishops from the House of Lords.