Christians and Caesar – Engaging with Issues of Equality

I’ve not blogged a lot on the Equality Bill currently going through the UK Parliament, mainly because I haven’t had much to say. There’s also very good coverage on Thinking Anglicans (and very poor opinion in the comments) which is keeping most people up to date with what’s going on.

In the last few days I’ve been sent a number of email urging me to sign a petition opposing certain sections of the Bill and supporting particular amendments. Simon at TA has a very good outline of the issues involved, but to summarise, the key point of debate is as to how far churches and other religious groups can discriminate on grounds of sexuality, sexual and gender expression and sexual behaviour when choosing whether or not to employ someone for a particular role.

I’m broadly in favour of the amendments that have been proposed, but the whole issue raises questions for the Church that we really haven’t got good answers for yet. For example, there is a tendency amongst some conservatives to reject notions of transgenderism and transsexualism completely, but real life is a lot more complicated than that. Many of us have the pastoral experience of working with men and women who feel differing levels of dissonance to their biological gender, and the question remains as to what we should do in these circumstances.

What is most obviously lacking is not so much a robust Biblical theology of human sexuality from the Church of England, because surprisingly that does actually exist, not least in the form of the excellent report Some Issues in Human Sexuality. Rather, the deficit is in conservative pastoral experience (for the “official” Church of England position is conservative, however much some would wish otherwise) and this is displayed in a level of naivety in some comment on these issues. For example, I still meet pastors who refuse to accept the good body of scientific evidence that there is very likely some biological component to homosexuality, even if there may also be environmental factors at work. Equally, issues of transgender and transexualism require a level of pastoral reality that transcend simple quotations of Genesis 2. While the Scriptures very clearly point us towards the human ideal of sexual expression and identity as husband and wife or singleness, (and I have argued strongly in the past, and continue to do so, that the kind of pastoral theology laid out in O’Donovan’s “Resurrection and Moral Order” is the correct path to follow), we live in the reality of a fallen world and we need to work with some experiences of human brokenness that simply may not be resolved perfectly this side of the return of Christ.

The struggle for the Church therefore is not so much discerning what the Biblical ideal is, for on this we are pretty well settled, despite what some revisionists may say. Instead, the task is two-fold; first, to grapple with the reality of human sexual existence in a fallen world and to be able to articulate a theology of reality and redemption in response to that, and second, to discover a way to communicate with a society that has largely rejected the paradigm that we are operating under. In some sense these questions can only be answered by wilfully being within a sinful world whilst not yet of it. That however doesn’t just mean living next to those who have differing world views, moral judgements and experiences then ourselves, it requires living with those people. This is the kind of thing that Andrew Marin is attempting to do, sharing the lives of those who are broken and at times sinful while never compromising his Biblical convictions.

As part of this work, we need to think about how we engage with the political process around these issues. When is the time to work within the legislative framework and when is the time to draw boundaries as to ethical behaviour and the limits of compliance with Caesar? These questions are not as easy to answer as might first seem and require careful discernment as we choose, as I suspect we will need to do in the years ahead, when to do both of these things.

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