What will make the news headlines this weekend? With the closing of the Paralympic Games, we can expect stories about Britain giving people with disabilities their rightful place in society, and whether “disability” is the right word in a competition all about demonstrating sporting ability! The GB athletes wear the same strip whether they’re Olympic or Paralympic competitors.
The positive vibe about the Paralympics shows us how Britain’s changed over the last generation, a change reflected by, and partly driven by, our politicians. There’s much that we can cheer about: there’s something profoundly Christian about taking those who are excluded from society and ensuring they become included. Today’s Gospel is the story of a man doubly excluded – not only through deafness, but also by being a Jewish man living in Gentile territory. In this particular story his restoration is through an act of healing, but the story is as important for its message of inclusion as it is for showing the Lord’s miraculous power to heal.
Two years ago, Parliament passed an Equality Act which brought together rules about several different kinds of discrimination. Having a single set of laws makes things easier for employers, but also hides the fact that there are lots of different issues in the mix.
Part of the Equalities Act concerns the assumptions we make about people’s ability to do things. If we notice that someone is of a particular race, or is old, or happens to be a man or a woman, we might leap to the conclusion that they would be better or worse at certain tasks. But when what we see isn’t relevant to the tasks, we become corrupt judges, just like the recipients of St James’s letter. No, we must judge each applicant on merit, not by our prejudices.
Another side of our Equalities legislation recognises that genuine constraints exist. Disabled persons, by definition, are less able to do certain things. We in Britain have decided that, as a society, it’s important to use a share of our resources to make our jobs and public services accessible. Over the last few years here in St Dyfrig’s, we’ve installed an access ramp at the main church door, placed a hearing-aid loop in the Hall, and made large print hymn books available for services. We’ve done this not only because the law requires us to make reasonable adjustments, but because it’s a very natural thing for a Christian community to want to make its activities as accessible as possible.
Genuine constraints, protected by law, also exist around pregnancy and childbirth. It might surprise you to learn that the official position of Blessed John Paul II was that employers must not discriminate against female employees – in fact, he went further and called for employers to respect and accommodate whatever work-life balance each working mother felt was right for her own mix of duties in the workplace and as a mother. This does create practical problems – on the radio this weekend, Lord Tebbit mentioned the difficulty of having to accommodate maternity leave – he employs two carers for his wife’s physical needs and is worried about the extra expense if they should require maternity cover. The tension is genuine. We’re challenged to ask whether we really believe that being a wife and mother is such an important part of a woman’s dignity that society at large, and employers in particular, should be required to invest in it. For Pope John Paul, the answer was clear!
Also in the news this week are test cases about four Christians who believe they are victims of religious discrimination. Two, a nurse and an air stewardess, had been told they couldn’t wear a cross at work. The other two, a relationship counsellor and a registrar for marriages, wished to avoid endorsing homosexual relationships. And here we find the third aspect of our Equalities law: protection for people’s preferences about sexual relationships and about religion. Both headings concern deep-seated feelings or beliefs which affect the way people interact with society. British law no longer considers any kind of sexual relationship among consenting adults to be intrinsically immoral. But it also protects the right of religious believers to “manifest their beliefs”. Many religious believers within and beyond our Church hold that, whatever temptations or psychological pressures may exist, no person should act out a sexual relationship except with their own husband or wife, in the traditional sense.
Sooner or later, my freedom to act as if certain actions are always wrong, is going to clash with your freedom to carry out those actions. Our law-makers will be forced to make a choice in future legislation, to come down on the side of conscience, or on the side of unfettered freedom.
If conscience prevails, it will be legal for state employees to say, “I’m very sorry, but because of my personal deeply-held beliefs I can’t help you with that” – and managers will be required to employ such people alongside non-objecting colleagues: turning them down would constitute religious discrimination. We could choose to make British culture one in which this is politely accepted, because we believe it’s important to accommodate religious beliefs we don’t agree with. Any client denied service would nod sadly, not agreeing but understanding, and move on to the next window for help.
If freedom prevails, our lawmakers will have decided that certain actions are so clearly right that religious believers can’t have full freedom to act as if they’re wrong. Such believers will have to compromise by carrying out actions they believe are immoral, or else by excluding themselves from certain jobs and voluntary positions. This risks creating a Britain where certain ethical positions are held to be more important than traditional religious beliefs. Today, registrars and counsellors are required to act as if homosexual relationships are moral. Tomorrow, might we see Catholic doctors being required to participate in euthanasia or else quit medicine?
Some months ago I wrote to our local MP concerning Government plans for defining homosexual relationships as “marriage”. The reply I received was little short of a rebuke, implying that I was a bigot who wanted to deny couples their happiness on irrational grounds. I don’t expect our MP to agree with the Catholic Church’s position on everything, but I did expect some show of respect for religious beliefs. Instead, it alerted me to the fact that at least one MP believes that unfettered freedom is much more important than having regard for the consciences of Christians.
In this delicate area, we must make sure that we continue to act as Christians. It’s a cliché to say “hate the sin, love the sinner”, but like many clichés, it’s true. The only kind of action we are permitted to discriminate against, is sin. We condemn the action, while extending love, care and concern to the person carrying it out.
Meanwhile, since you are followers of Jesus, there is one person you are permitted to discriminate against. If a stranger takes your regular pew, you are permitted to say to yourself: “I must act as if I’m less important than this guest in our community. I must be the one who moves to a different place.” You know that you are called to repay evil with good, to love your enemy, and pray for the one who persecutes you. Yes, you have the right to better treatment, but you are not obliged to claim that right. As a follower of Jesus, the one person you may choose to deliberately disadvantage is – YOURSELF!