Every so often I like to re-read the writings of the late Donald Mackinnon, Scottish philosopher and theologian. Today it was his public lecture – though still not an easy read – in the early 1960s on ‘moral objections to Christianity’.
Mackinnon was very much the eccentric professor, and as a lecturer he could be fierce-sounding, and sometimes almost terrifying to behold. In this particular talk he lambasts, amongst others, ‘certain sorts of clergy’ who – remember that this was 1963 – give the impression that ‘the effective exclusion from sacramental communion of divorced persons who have remarried is the highest form of the Church’s moral witness’. And he adds that the cynic might be tempted to ascribe their ‘heartless zeal’ in this respect as compensation ‘for their unwillingness to engage with the other besetting moral issues of our age, for instance the moral permissibility of nuclear weapons’.
Mackinnon’s punches were frequently, and painfully, on target, and it was interesting to read these words in the light of what happened yesterday in the House of Lords, when certain bishops and peers rallied opposition to secure three amendments to the Equality Bill, which the tabloid press has declared – wrongly I think, though the intention is evidently there – will effectively bar LGBT people from leadership (including ordination) in religious organisations. (As I understand it the legislation, as amended, would serve to protect religious organisations from legal action if they were to refuse to appoint someone to a particular post on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender reassignment).
In the debate Lord Ali made the important point that ‘sexual orientation’ was the wrong expression. Most religious bodies would be prepared to accept someone whose orientation was homosexual: it was sexual conduct that was the issue. However, no one seemed to develop this idea, except that, when the Archbishop of York asked for examples of cases that illustrated the supposed injustice of the status quo (which it was claimed the three amendments were merely reinforcing) Lord Ali’s swift reply was ‘Jeffery John and John Reaney’: the former a celibate at the time of all the fuss about his appointment to Reading and the later a single man when he was appointed as Hereford Diocesan Youth Officer.
In fact Jeffrey and John are but the tip of an iceberg of inequality, and the Archbishop is naive if he thinks that the status quo is beneficent. For example, I could list here – and probably will one day – the Trans clergy who have been shabbily treated by their bishops; currently they outnumber those who have been well-treated. We don’t hear much about these, and other cases like them, perhaps because the people concerned are reluctant to make a fuss, or maybe they are intimated by the, at times, frightening power of the institutional church.
Mackinnon, ever an astute observer and trenchant critic of the latter, wrote as follows:
‘A false passivity, an invalid acquiescence in intolerable evils, a cultivation of obedience for obedience’s sake, when revolt rather than acceptance is a plain human duty – these moral illusions have been fostered by misunderstanding of the work of the Christ and dignified by the language of sacrifice, even of love’.
And having read the Lord’s Hansard report for yesterday I am convinced, more than ever, that for those who favour the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Church of England the time for revolt has arrived.