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Article No. 188

How tolerant should we be of intolerance?

The answer on the surface might be that we should not be at all tolerant of intolerance. Yet that is hardly sufficient because there are lots of grey areas in the no man’s land between firmly held (though intolerant) principles and tolerant attitudes. These we will explore.  But first there is another important benchmark that we must register. This is that we must be intolerant of illegality. If the law requires something, then even if it is a bad law, it is important that we all observe and support it - at least until the law is changed by popular demand.  

It is the unfolding of these two ideas and their interaction that I want to explore in this article.

The papers today are full of  two very current issues:  the celebration of civil unions in churches and the Amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill. In both of these cases we are up against the fuzzy borderline between tolerance and intolerance.

Taking the celebration of civil unions in churches first.  Here there can be no doubt at all that it is eminently sensible from the Christian point of view to facilitate the celebration of unions between gay people in church.  It is surely right from every angle - but especially from the fact that the two people involved want to make their vows before God and the Church Fellowship. That must be good and wholesome.  Then there is the blessing of the Church on their commitment to each other before God - surely that is a good thing? In these days when we are all so conscious of the need for stable families surely we need to help gay couples towards a happy and stable relationship?  

So I don’t find any problem in supporting civil unions in churches - always leaving it to each Church to decide for itself whether or not they wish to perform these celebrations. I find it very heartening that such an impressive list of senior Church people sign the letter in the Times today. Can anyone doubt the wisdom of their support for this move?

Well, yes,  there are some Church People who contest the wisdom of allowing civil unions to be celebrated in churches - and the reason given is apparently that it will ‘cause confusion in the Church of England’!  As if there was not enough confusion already!  Why should this permission - which is open for each church to decide for itself - cause more confusion?  That seems a rather weak excuse for a blocking of the legislation and I suspect that it masks just a general distaste for the acceptance of homosexuality as normal.  That would not surprise anyone!

Turning to the second topic I have outlined above: the Amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Act, we are into a more complex subject, and one where, perhaps, the borderline between tolerance and intolerance is more difficult to discern.

Some religious people are complaining because they see a deterioration in  the attitudes in society towards religion in general and to Christians in particular. This has built up over a few years and has hit the headlines about people who wear crosses to work, people who offer to pray with others, people who object to having to do duties that offend their conscience. Each case is debated and sometimes the decision against the religious person is reversed later!    Clearly society is in two minds about the complaints. Maybe there is discrimination, - but then again maybe the religious people are being over sensitive. And, some say, religious people have had a good innings but now society is less inclined to take the religious route, so maybe the Christians are taking time to adjust!

It is against that background that we must approach the situation in Faith Schools. The issue concerns the teaching of certain  topics (ideas, principles) that are required by law but are against the beliefs of the Faith School. The instance taken is a Roman Catholic School where contraception and homosexuality are two subjects about which the Roman Catholics strongly disagree - but on the other hand all schools in the country are now required teaching to a certain standard.

So the question before us resolves itself into - should Roman Catholics be forced to teach doctrines (ideas, principles etc) with which they disagree? It does of course apply across the board - for Anglican Schools, Jewish Schools, Islamic Schools etc.

So how are we to approach this?  One could talk about a balance between the two varying viewpoints. A question of balancing the civil view (homosexual people should be treated as normal people) against a religious view - which might be for example that homosexuality is a disorder - and therefore homosexuals are disordered.

But is it primarily a question of finding the right balance in this way?  Is there not a prior requirement?  Does not the law of the country come first, as suggested above?
Should not the prime consideration for all parties, whichever side of the fence they are on, be to act legally?  And what does the law require?  It requires that - taking the homosexuality issue - that it be positively taught that homosexual boys and girls and homosexual people should be accepted without discrimination - nothing abnormal or wrong about them.

If the law’s requirement is that it be taught that gay people should be treated as normal - then how can it be taught in the same lesson that the view of the teachers and the school and the church is that they are abnormal, i e. disordered?

So the church school is going to have a difficult job to marry these two ideas - that homosexual people should be treated as not abnormal, and that the school and the church treat them as abnormal i.e. disordered.

Herein lies the problem. The law must be obeyed by us all - whatever our religion. If the law is wrong then efforts must be made to alter it - but it must be observed until it is altered. If the law conflicts with the requirement of a religion then which should take precedence?  The law must always take precedence as regards those enforcing the law and for the rest of us too. For the religious person there is a decision to be made at the point where religious requirements conflict with the law. At that point the religious person has to make their decision on whether or not to obey the law.

If they decide to obey the law - until it can be changed or they can emigrate - then fine. If they decide to disobey the law and be true to what their church teaches then they will break the law and will have to suffer the consequences, if any, in due course.

What we must not do is pretend that it is all right to break the law because you have religious beliefs.  If your religious beliefs mean you have to conflict with the law the Judge has to decide whether you have broken the law, the degree of fault, the degree of punishment appropriate. And then there can be an appeal of it is felt that an injustice has been done.  

It appears that there is an Amendment afoot to the Bill mentioned above and some civil liberties organisations are up in arms against the Amendment as they think it muddies the waters.  It seems that it gives a let out to a certain  extent to the faith schools. If that is correct then it is wrong because it obscures the fact that the law must be upheld by everyone, everywhere, always.

It may be, however, that there is a simple way forward for the faith schools, without breaking the law and without the passing of any  Amendment. This would be for the faith  school to keep entirely separate the teaching of its religious beliefs from the teaching about the social situation.  Thus the pupils could be taught in some social action class about how everyone should be treated equally - including homosexuals and others. While in a religious class it might be explained that alongside some churches accepting homosexuality as normal, their faith believes that it is a disordered state.  

This article is a quick response to the articles in today’s press and no doubt I will need to revisit the subject in due course!

Tony Cross
February 2010

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