Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Gospel according to John

As far as I can tell, Just Plain Sense is the world's only regular Podcast about Diversity, and the issues of Equality and Human Rights which tag along with the simple fact that we are all incredibly unique. This eponymous Blog complements the regular audio episodes, giving me the opportunity to expand on some of the topics raised – or occasionally go off on a complete tangent, as I've done recently on LGBT equality matters.

The Podcast has been running for almost exactly a year. It started on 4th March 2008. In that time I've tried to cover a wide variety of topics connected with gender, race or ethnic background, disability, LGBT matters and age.

Until now, however, I'd not been able to record an item on the vexed issue of where religion sits among those other equality "strands".

The omission wasn't intentional. Last summer I wrote several times, very politely, to the Bishop of Manchester for instance.

Snubbed

I had already taken part in an event for the Bishop. Last summer I read a lesson at a special LGBT service organised by the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF) at Manchester Cathedral.

So it was a huge disappointment when neither the Bishop nor his staff even acknowledged my requests to talk seriously about protection in law for people to follow the religion of their choice and to worship in safety.

Indeed, after producing 55 episodes,, the Bishop of Manchester is still the only Just Plain Sense invitee who has given me the cold shoulder.

Not to be deterred, however, I've continued to look for other guests willing to discuss religion's place in the Equality and Diversity debate. Monsignor John Devine was the first to agree. More about John's interview in a moment.

Confusion and conflict

I've been keen to cover the topic because "religion and belief" is the non-discrimination rights issue which generally seems to be the most problematic. That's partly because it is so misunderstood and misapplied.

The first big issue concerns what the law does and doesn't uphold.

What the law says

Until December 2003, legal protection against discrimination on grounds of religion or belief was confined to those from particular faiths who were covered by virtue of their ethnicity, as in the case of Sikhism and Judaism.

A certain degree of protection was afforded to other religious and nonreligious communities by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, through the Human Rights Act 1998, but this was very limited.

The European Council Directive of 2000 established a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupations. It came into force in the UK in December 2003 through the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations. These regulations make it unlawful to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religion or belief.

The regulations apply to vocational training and all aspects of employment including recruitment, terms and conditions, promotions, transfers, dismissals and training. They cover direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, victimisation, or instructing someone else to discriminate unlawfully in these ways.

So far, so good...

What the law doesn't say

As you'll see, the thrust of the law is intended to allow people to believe (or not believe) in a particular theology and to worship freely, along with others in that faith. We use the term "religion and belief" to emphasise that the law also protects people who are agnostic or atheist to the same extent.

The problems arise when followers of a religion are expected to proselytise, or if believers interpret the sacred texts of their faith to mean that they should act in a disapproving way towards others. The law does not provide a license for either of these behaviours. Neither does the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the latter case, the right to follow a particular religion and to worship in that faith is a so-called "qualified" right. It's not absolute. A person's right to a religion or belief needs to weighed in a proportionate manner against the rights that protect other people. For instance, the right to life is an unqualified right and therefore cannot be outweighed by someone's religious beliefs.

Wide scope for conflict

It is in this area of balance that all the problems lie, however – bringing some people with strongly orthodox religious beliefs into conflict with (potentially) just about everyone else.

People with strong religious beliefs can attempt to challenge the rights of women (e.g. on birth control and abortion), people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds (e.g. with different religions and customs), people with disabilities, and gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans people. It's a long list.

In a small geographic area like Britain, religious disagreements and rivalries can also threaten social cohesion – as communities with strongly different beliefs and traditions find themselves living next door to one-another.

Full scale hostilities

Then there are incidents which seem almost calculated to pour petrol on smoking coals:

Significant bad feeling was created when evangelical Christian groups lobbied hard for exceptions in laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans people from discrimination. The media reports cases such as that of Islington Registrar Lillian Ladelle, who claimed harassment on grounds of her religious belief when she refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.

An employment tribunal initially decided in Ms Ladelle's favour; however that decision was later overturned on appeal.

Then Pope Benedict provoked dismay and fury among LGBT people when he said in a 2008 end of-year address that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was as important as saving the rainforests.

Interviewing Monsignor Devine

Like all Just Plain Sense interviews, I planned my questions to Monsignor Devine carefully in advance. I know John fairly well as he is a member of the regional Equality and Diversity group that I chair. His official roles include being Churches Officer for the North West; he chairs the council of Liverpool Hope University; in addition he is a Priest in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Liverpool.

I anticipated that it would be difficult to obtain a tightly focussed interview from John, as he's just not like that.

Some interviewees are so well-rehearsed at trotting out their views that you just light the fuse and stand back. But John is a quieter, thoughtful soul – packed full of ideas, but not particularly adept at delivering them in soundbite form. At times it was therefore difficult to tell whether he was actually answering the intended question, or taking such a long way round that we were never going to get there.

Mind you, this isn't to be mistaken for the evasiveness seen in some politicians, who'll just answer the question they want to answer instead of the one the interviewer asked. In John's case it's just the way he articulates his thoughts, and I've no ambition to imitate Jeremy Paxman.

I was asking simple black and white questions: What are the frictions between faith groups living side by side? Where does faith end and discrimination begin? John responded with ideas which at first seemed to be vague and off topic. It was only after I'd listened back several times during later editing that I realised how his approach had turned the interview into more of a discussion between us.

Surprises

Buried in those long, wandering, answers we covered a lot – and with a few surprises too.

He agreed that, faced with the increasing demands of a secular society, the Christian Churches needed to change. Indeed he felt they were changing, albeit far more slowly than modern culture dictates. He felt that it was unfair to compare contemporary Christianity and other world religions with each other; instead, he believes that you would need to compare orthodox Islam (say) with Christianity at the time of the Inquisition to understand the evolutionary process.

We discussed the implied need for leadership and the battle between orthodoxy and liberalism. Why don't Church of England liberals take a firmer stand against traditionalists on issues such as Women Bishops or Gay ordination, for instance? Does there come a point where trying to avoid schism becomes more destructive than allowing it to occur?

That brought us to speculate about Pope Benedict's thoughts and intentions when he expressed his views on homosexual and transgender people at Christmas.

Monsignor Devine's answer came as a bit of a surprise – though I'm not going to spoil the effect by trying to prĂ©cis what he said.

Different legal traditions

John believes, however, that a lot of the issues boil down to different cultural approaches towards rules or laws. He used the analogy of coming up to red traffic lights on a deserted road at 3am to make his point. If you were to cross such a red light in Britain then the law would say that you were guilty of a traffic offence regardless of whether anyone was endangered or not.

According to him, countries which follow the Latin legal tradition would see it in an altogether more pragmatic way though. They would ask what was in the mind of the law maker. They would conclude that the aim of the law was to prevent accidents, not to simply punish people for ignoring red lights. In other words, although the law said one thing, people would weigh what it meant in the circumstances and may decide to set it aside.

Birth rates

To back up this theory, he points to the counterintuitive birth rate statistics in strongly Roman Catholic countries such as Italy or Spain. In spite of previous Papal instructions outlawing modern contraception, he argues, these countries have far lower birth rates than places like Britain.

I've subsequently checked the statistics and he's right. According to the CIA World Factbook, women in Britain have an average of 1.66 children each. It is only our relatively low rates of perinatal mortality and increasing life expectancy that means our indigenous population is still increasing. Spain and Italy both have far lower fertility rates though – both 1.3 children per woman according to the CIA's data. Poland, another traditionally Roman Catholic country, has an even lower ratio – 1.27 births per woman.

Of course, it's dangerous to take conclusions too far on the basis of this peculiarly unexpected statistic. France (1.98) and Brazil (2.22) have higher fertility rates than Britain. So it seems likely there are more factors at work than simply a pragmatic attitude towards the Roman Catholic's stand on birth control.

In talking about the epic arguments between liberalism and orthodoxy, and different attitudes towards rules, John Devine does remind us of an important fact though:

Beware the labels

Just like other diversities, religions are far from homogenous.

All the time we are reminded that it is unwise to pin stereotypical assumptions on people, based on single labels like their sex or sexual orientation. Gay men don't all mince. Lesbians don't all like cats. Pick any group in society and it's readily apparent that people differ more than they are alike.

And the lesson from John Devine's interview-cum-discussion is that the same applies to religions and their followers too. The media may love to characterise all Muslims as terrorists, but clearly that's not the case. And when we take issue with followers of any of the world's religions about the beliefs ascribed to them, such as their attitudes towards homosexual people, it's valuable to remember the same.

As John said to me, "I learned [in Peru] that different is not better, nor worse, but just different".

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