Thursday 14 November 2013

Law and Order

I spent Tuesday evening at The Law Society in London, next to the Royal Courts of Justice.  I was there to speak in a debate entitled “Protecting Diversity: Belief, Conscience, and the new definition of Marriage.”

Around 100 people gathered and there were 4 speakers comprising myself and 3 barristers including Andrea Minichiello Williams, the CEO of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre.  The debate was chaired by Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, former President of the Law Society.
Most of the debate was good natured enough. 

Andrea quoted at length from selected passages in the Bible, and spoke of her fear that Christians were being persecuted in England today for simply living out their faith in an increasingly hostile society.  At the centre of her message however, was the fact (as she presented it) that God is against same-sex marriage, and if we embrace it, we are against God.
I, on the other hand, summarised the fears of some Christians at the thought of same-sex marriage, but then quoted from Evangelical Alliance FAQ’s on marriage to show that there was absolutely nothing for churches and church leaders to be afraid of because no church (or faith group) can be compelled to celebrate or facilitate a same-sex wedding and every church and church leader has the right to refuse.   But what concerned me more, I continued, is that there is a diversity issue which is not being recognised – the diversity of belief and conscience among Christians on the subject of same-sex marriage. 

A You Gov poll from earlier this year has shown that more Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians support the right of same-sex couples to get married than oppose it.  Furthermore over a 1/3 of those who identified themselves as members of mainstream Christian churches went further and said that Same-sex Marriage was right (as opposed to wrong!)  Yet where is this diversity being recognised and expressed in statements by our denominational leaders?  Answer – it is not.
During the question and answer part of the debate, Andrea and I disagreed on how to interpret the Bible, the importance of looking at the context of Bible passages, the wideness of God’s love, and on the importance of marriage for all.  Andrea’s bottom line was that, according to her faith, all same-sex partnerships were wrong and sinful – and there was no recognition that there could be a different way of interpreting Scripture or being a Christian.  My bottom line was that faithful, committed, loving relationships honour the creative will of God for human kind and may (in my opinion) find their ultimate expression in marriage.

When the formal debate drew to a close, everyone was invited to the bar to continue our discussions in a more informal way, and I experienced an amazing thing.
Person after person came up to me to thank me for what I had said, and went further than that.  Again and again, I was being told, in different ways, “I am not religious – in fact I tend to be anti-religion – but what you said tonight has made me more open to the possibility of believing in God.”

 I was deeply moved by these first tentative statements of faith.  I had thought that I was going to the debate to defend the same-sex marriage from wild accusations and hysteria.  In the end, I saw people coming closer to God.
That reflection was particularly interesting in the light of the last conversation I had.

Just before she left, Andrea Minichiello Williams came to speak to me.   I assumed she was coming to say goodbye, but instead she said in a very calm and clear way, “I think that what you are doing is appalling.”
What was appalling, I wonder?  For me, the ultimate mission of a Christian is to live, speak, and act in way which draws people closer to God.  I wonder which one of us achieved that last night.

There was good news in the end, however.
In an effort to lighten the conversation after her statement, I asked how General Synod was going these days (knowing that she was a member).  Her reply was fascinating….

“Well” she said, “They are all like you!”
“Andrea” I replied as she was leaving, “That’s the best news I have had all evening!”

Perhaps there is hope for the Church of England…