France and gay marriage

Earlier this week, the long and fractious debate in France about “mariage pour tous” finally came to an end when the new law was ratified. Gay civil marriage in that country will soon be permitted. It’s been a tough ride. French society is pretty much split down the middle on the issue, and although support has grown over time, at least a third of French citizens are vehemently opposed.

France has for some time had the equivalent of British civil partnerships (called the civil solidarity pact, about as French a name for an institution as it’s possible to imagine), with the major difference that these arrangements are also open to straight couples. But marriage is a special institution in France, bringing with it a raft of rights and privileges, especially over money and property, that are not available to civil unions.

But above all, French marriage is about children. When I got married in France, notwithstanding that neither I nor my partner had the slightest intention of bringing any children into the world, and quite possibly not the means, either, most of the ceremony was about bringing children up, and the responsibilities of parenthood. The marriage certificate is contained in a dinky little book entitled “le livre de la famille” with special pages in which we could enter the details of our sprogs. To be honest, it reminded me of nothing more than the service history you get in the book that comes with a new car. Have a child, get your log-book stamped.

So in France, marriage is to do with children, and this is what has caused so much heartache and controversy. The right of gay couples to live together in legal union is not really at issue. What is at issue is that marriage brings with it the legal right to adopt children, and to seek “artificial” means to conceive them. I put that word in inverted commas because its meaning has become pejorative, but I mean it here in its original and literal sense: that artifice has to be used because the usual biological mechanism is not available.

As those who’ve read my blog before will know, I’m a supporter of gay marriage. In a secular society, it is no argument to say that God forbids or disapproves of gay relationships, even if He does, which I very much doubt. France has long celebrated and jealously guarded its secular constitution. All marriages in France are secular, and the church has no part to play in the legal process of marrying. For sure couples can, and often do, rush smartly from the mairie to the church, car horns blaring, to have their secular marriage blessed by the curé.

So in France there isn’t the problem that’s created in England by the fact of the established church, with its priests as authorized as secular registrars to perform the legals at a marriage. I’ve argued here before that if we could have a fully secularised version of marriage, then the arguments of the church in particular, and Christians in general, that gay marriage is an oxymoron, would fall away. In effect, I’ve been arguing that the position in Britain should be the same as that which already pertains in France. I believed that this clear separation between the secular and the sacred would make gay marriage an uncontroversial issue. Well, I’ve rarely been so wrong. The opponents of gay marriage in France have been involved in violent protest (albeit violence that has been disowned by moderate opponents) and if anything emotions run higher there than here.

No, it’s not gay relationships that are really at issue: it’s all about children. And I fear this is a much more thorny question. It’s easy to dismiss the opponents of the legal recognition of gay relationships as simply homophobic. Many of them are sincerely of the view that God’s disapproval is the basic issue, and that active gay relationships are sinful and that’s all there is to it. Regardless of their sincerity, this fundamentally religious objection to gay marriage is illegitimate in a society where only a small minority are actively religious. Even as a person of faith myself, I can see that this argument is irrefutable.

But the issue of children is more difficult. If someone argues that adoption by same sex couples, or the artificial conception of children for the benefit of same sex couples, is wrong because it’s against some God-given rule, then that is easily dismissed in the same way as the argument against gay marriage in principle. But that’s not what a lot of French society is arguing. The argument is about whether it’s in the best interests of children to be brought up in a same-sex family. Even more fundamentally, it’s about whether it’s right to procure children specifically in order to satisfy the wishes of same sex couples to have offspring. You do not have to be homophobic to ask that question. I have the same problem with surrogacy in general, as much for heterosexual couples as for homosexual ones. My concern is about the use of children to satisfy the desires of adults, when those children have no possibility of choice in the matter.

It’s a great pity that all these things have got so mixed up and intertwined. It’s unhelpful to try and unpick these difficult and complex matters by the use of name-calling. Because I have serious concerns about the issues of children and family life, that does not make me a homophobe. I am crystal clear that people of the same sex should be able to get married. I am not remotely as clear that this should automatically include the right to adoption or surrogacy. Maybe it should. But I’ll not be dragooned into agreeing that that’s the case merely on pain of being insulted.

Mind the gap: faith in the MediaCity

On the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal a massive experiment in economic engineering is nearing completion, at least of its first stage. MediaCityUK is being built, literally and metaphorically, around the BBC. Some studio recordings have already been made (including A Question of Sport), and from May this year a significant number of operations will begin to be transplanted from their existing home at Television Centre in London’s White City, along with the hundreds of technical and broadcasting staff involved in making programmes. The construction of MediaCityUK was entirely contingent on the BBC’s decision to expand its production presence in the north of England, and the site in Salford was chosen after some intensive municipal scrapping between the Manchester and Salford City Councils.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into modern Britain, and into how decisions get taken. The port operations that made this area an economic powerhouse in the early 20th century fell rapidly into decline as the century neared its close, and the banks of the Ship Canal, once a kind of maritime aorta supplying the life-blood of economic prosperity and employment to the entire area, became wastelands of dereliction and decay. MediaCityUK is a much more ambitious scheme than its two predecessors (the Lowry Centre and Imperial War Museum North, on the Salford and Trafford banks of the canal respectively) but is modelled on their success. It’s a “partnership” between political authorities, private enterprise, and a quango – albeit an unusually rich and powerful one. I put partnership in inverted commas because that’s too cosy a word, with its implications of friendly cooperation and an almost altruistic collective yearning after a common good. The reality is rather less saccharine, and more like an arranged ménage-à-trois in which each party has its own agenda, whether it be making a profit, securing political capital, or seeking lower production costs. MediaCityUK might glide effortlessly like a swan on the Ship Canal, but under the surface is a struggle for advantage altogether less elegant.

A mobile phone snapshot of the BBC's studios at MediaCityUK

During a visit to the site last week, I came across an institution called The Anchor. Its publicity blurb tells us that it is “the MediaCityUK Chaplaincy [which] is open to people of all faiths and none”, that “it will be the place where honest business values can be celebrated”, and that “the Anchor will root the new city to its surroundings, providing a firm place from which to float ideas, grow and engage.” Well, it certainly seems that the writers of this publicity have absorbed the literary values of the community the Anchor intends to serve since if one removed the references to faith in the leaflet then it could have been advertising a media consultancy or business development guru.

One of the Anchor’s more popular events has been the bacon sarnie mornings (with suitable alternatives for the pork-averse) which, with the enticement of an early morning breakfast calorie boost, have been a means of making contact with the wide range of people currently employed on or visiting the site. Whilst initially some were wary of a dog-collar-sporting provider of victuals, these occasions have provided a platform for engagement and discussion, and perhaps the seeds of a greater sense of community.

I did not visit MediaCityUK alone, and many of those I was with seemed to be more impressed by the Anchor and its message than by the great and good from Peel Holdings (the developers), the BBC and Salford City Council whom we also met. But what should we make of all this, and what does it tell us about the current debates around the place of faith in society; about the allegation that it is now Christians in this country who are the victims of discrimination; and that the secular state is now preventing freedom of conscience and religion?

I was struck by the almost total absence of religion in the way that the role of The Anchor was described in its publicity. The references were seemingly entirely to concepts such as “community development”, to the fostering of “a sense of identity”, to values such as “respect”, “support”, even “humanism”. It was all about building links, making connections, creating partnerships. Although I discovered that Morning Prayer is also offered along with the bacon sandwiches, albeit not at the same time, such aspects of the Anchor’s work seemed somewhat under-stated, even apologetic. I make this observation not as a criticism, but merely as a way of illuminating the awkwardness of the current relations between the secular and the sacred in our society. It seemed that everyone acceded to the notion that the normal everyday discourse of secular concerns is missing something of importance. My fellow visitors, not bound by any religious allegiance, certainly felt that the Anchor was identifying some need that was not being met in other ways. And yet these needs are not remotely religious. They are needs for community, to look after and to be looked after.

It seems that on the one hand secular society, the big, bad world of commerce and politics, is unable to articulate these deficiencies without embarrassment, without feeling that these human concerns are somehow not truly their business: their true business being making money, or securing political advantage. On the other the Church seems equally embarrassed to admit that it has anything to contribute that isn’t merely greasing the wheels of secular society, of ensuring the presence of “honest business values” as The Anchor’s media-savvy publicity puts it. Both sides of this divide seem to need the other to offer them legitimacy and purpose. Without the veil of religion, Peel Holdings was never going to provide any direct input to community development; but in contradiction to those that claim religion is now demonised, Peel felt it legitimate to provide the Anchor with free office space, thus enabling it to tick the box of social responsibility. The Church no longer appears to have the confidence to sell its wares directly, but relies on a secular agenda that maybe is informed by faith, but in which faith is no longer a necessary part. And just in case anyone might not appreciate its commitment to the secular morality of the age, The Anchor assures us that it works “within the remit of Equality and Diversity (note the capitals) legislation…irrespective of race and ethnic origin, gender and gender identity, disability, mental health, sexual orientation, age, religion and belief, learning abilities, economic and social need.” It reads like a modern creed, the new equivalent of “we believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church, we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

But I suspect this seemingly post-modern diffidence is nothing new. It is, it seems to me, merely the latest and equivalent expression of that disjuncture between the sacred and the secular that was hitherto symbolised by the hapless curate wielding a table-tennis bat, and offering the love of God via a youth club and its concomitant opportunity to snog in the toilets.

Getting our knickers in a twist over baptism

The Church of England has decided to “simplify the language for baptism ceremonies”. Apparently even the Archbishop of Canterbury has observed the eyes of his congregation “glazing over” during his celebrating of this sacrament, and I’m sure it goes without saying that glazed eyes are not what we want. Generally I’m a great supporter of Dr Williams, and it usually seems to me that when he vacillates, say, over gay bishops, he does so because he is not free simply to impose his own views. In this instance, however, it would seem that he is voluntarily offering the weight of his support to the simplification campaign, and in this instance I cannot go with him.

The campaign to change the words comes from the Diocese of Liverpool, and their problem is that the existing language “particularly baffle[s] non-churchgoers”. As a result of their bafflement, and doubtless because their eyes also glazed over, the fear is that they will never return, not darkening the doors of their church again until one of them dies or gets married – and in the latter case probably not even then as the increasing probability is that their marriages will be solemnized in some cheesy hotel or the gardens of a country house in order to give the impression that they are rich beyond imagining. If this is true, then there’s certainly a problem, but it’s not one of baffling words.

On the contrary. The problem is that for such people baptism is not a sacrament (surely a baffling concept in itself) but a social occasion. Why on earth should they have to stand there, eyes glazed, brains baffled, just so that they can get some ickle-pretty, sentiment-dripping pictures of their little baba with which they’ll be able mightily to embarrass the child in later life? The church is no longer about challenging people with difficult truths, but about colluding with them in a sentimental charade.

Ironically, this problem with language has its roots in the literal-mindedness of too many Christians. Rather than accept that the words of the baptism are poetic statements about existential truths, they see them as a kind of magic recipe that has to be understood in a literal sense, otherwise the resulting cake may not rise, and the fruit will all sink to the bottom. Baptism is about “dying to sin, and rising to new life”, to use the existing baffling, eye-glazing language. In case the non-churchgoer should imagine that, Abraham-like, the vicar is about to garotte their child in order to resuscitate them a moment later, this arcane talk of dying and rising must be banished. Of course, this is bollocks. Baptism is intimately connected with the doctrine of original sin. What? How dare you, nasty, wicked vicar, imply that my beautiful, innocent, special-baptismal-gown-encumbered darling is somehow wicked? Except that’s not what original sin means. Of all the church’s doctrines, I should have thought that original sin is the most obviously evidence based. We don’t have to look very far to see the consequences of humanity’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity for cruelty and wickedness. From the outrageous murder of individual gay Africans to the genocide of the Holocaust and the slave trade, original sin is indisputably all around us.

At the heart of the Christian message is the idea, the extravagant, optimistic, foolish idea, that there is a route of escape. Baptism is the doorway to that route. Parents who bring their babies for baptism should be doing so because they understand, and accept, that truth. If they don’t, or they don’t understand it, then baptism is a charade regardless of how it is expressed.

I believe passionately in two, perhaps seemingly contradictory, things. First, that in every age we Christians have to reinterpret the message of our faith, to express it in ways that we can make sense of. But second, we owe it to those who come after us to leave the faith as we have received it intact, so that they can reinterpret it in turn in their own age. If we try and impose our particular take on the faith, and lose the original framework, then we deprive them of the opportunity to reinterpret it from an authentic base. Leave the baptism words alone. Try and explain their fundamental, existential meaning. But don’t, if you’ll excuse the pun, throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Astrology and ridicule

The Guardian recently published an article by Dr Rebekah Higgitt in which she questioned whether the routine dismissal of astrology as “rubbish” by popularising scientists such as Professor Brian Cox was really either helpful or even truly scientific. The article seems to have caused quite a stir. The comments thread is full of irate sceptics accusing Dr Higgitt of giving some kind of comfort to the purveyors of arrant nonsense from a past age. But that rather misses the point of her piece, in which she repeatedly makes it clear that she has no more truck with the claims of astrology than any sceptic, no matter how fervent. Her points are different: that those who would declare the beliefs of others “rubbish” should at least be careful to know what those beliefs are as expressed by the most serious  adherents in question; should take the trouble to understand some of the history of those ideas; and should accept that the mere assertion that this, that, or the other is “rubbish” is hardly a fine example of the scientific method.

Judging by the roasting Dr Higgitt received despite her unequivocal rejection of the substance of astrological belief, I had better make it clear that I too have no axe to grind. I think astrology is not so much rubbish as utterly useless. And that is my yardstick in these matters. Regular readers will know that I have frequently argued here that the spheres of science and religion are entirely separate, or at least they should be. The question is not so much about whether or not astrology and its followers should be treated with respect, but whether or not they add any value.

Astrology is not a religion. It is not a faith. Faiths have value not to the extent that they try and compete with science as alternative ways of understanding how the universe works, but to the extent that they satisfy the existential need that most of us have (and I would argue we all have, albeit not always explicit or consciously articulated) to understand why we are here, how we should live given that we are here, and what our personal futures may hold. The latter is not about trying to find out what things might happen to us, what events we may be a part of, but rather what our ultimate destiny might be. And deciding that this last may be nothing more than being once more a random part of the carbon cycle is a perfectly legitimate, if inevitably slightly depressing, conclusion to come to. When faiths expand their area of concern to providing unevidenced alternatives to scientific discovery, then they become proper objects of ridicule and incomprehension. Intelligent design is a classic example. In my judgement the design might be intelligent, but the believers are not.

Astrology has no existential value to add. It does not describe a moral framework. It has no eschatology, nor any symbolic narrative of origins that might enable someone to establish meaning in their life. It is simply an alternative version of causation to that offered by science, but unfortunately without any of the data to support it. In that narrow sense it is indeed rubbish: it doesn’t do what it says on the tin, and doesn’t say on the tin anything that could be useful.

Sceptics will of course say that I’m simply trying to offer special pleading on behalf of my religious nonsense, whilst bashing astrology which is no more nonsensical than my faith. However, just as is argued by Dr Higgitt, it’s no argument merely to say, “It’s rubbish!” I’ve set out a clear distinction between astrology and faith, and my detractors should at least do me the favour of wrestling with the issues. And when astrologers argue for the same favour, I think they have a point, notwithstanding my own position that they are indeed very mistaken. Oh, and useless too. In a very respectful sense, obviously.

Secularism, faith, and the public square

The Pope has raised almost as many hackles with his fulminations against “aggressive secularism” as he has with his alleged covering up of the paedophile activities of some of his priests. We have here an almost perfect example of how the same objective reality can be seen totally differently when surveyed from opposite perspectives. The secularists claim that religious faith has a privileged position in the public square that it doesn’t deserve. Christian groups (since by religion secularists almost always mean the Christian religion when they talk about Britain – unless they are thinking about arranged marriages or burkas) on the other hand talk about discrimination against them and the use of the state to enforce the secularist agenda. So how can these diametrically opposed conclusions be drawn from the same data?

I think the answer is simpler than we might imagine. Is is merely a consequence of the direction of travel between two hegemonies. The hegemony of religion (and in the West, exclusively of Christianity for the past 1,700 years or so) was so absolute for so long, that its retreat in the modern world has been precipitate even though it’s taken the best part of 300 years. Now, although the hegemony of science-based secularism is firmly established, it still suffers from the nervousness and anxiety that characterises movements that are not entirely confident of their victory. So secularists are hypersensitive to any flicker of life from the ancien régime. Conversely, the bastions of Christian tradition (and no bastion is more bastion-like than the papacy) look with horror on how quickly their grip on their erstwhile hegemony has been prised from their grasp. So they, in turn, are ever-ready to snarl and snap at the forces that they feel have robbed them of their birth-right.

But, inevitably, neither of these jaundiced positions does justice to reality. And neither of them is based on a proper submission to the evidence. Secularism cannot properly sustain its contention that only secularists can reason, whilst the religious cannot use the idea of revelation to dismiss secularism. We will get nowhere if both sides view the tensions between them as some gigantic game of whist in which their own side has the ace of trumps. Religion’s least valuable gift to society was the idea that, ultimately, their sense of receiving divine revelation is unarguable. Secularism will repeat that mistake if they try to argue that “any grown-up and reasonable person” would reject religious faith, and that those who haven’t are therefore both childish and stupid.

What we need is a public square which is less concerned with domination, and more concerned with adding to the sum of human wisdom. Whatever secularists may claim, faith has brought with it important notions of the absolute worth of human beings, and pointed out the dangers of secularism’s more utilitarian tendencies. Equally, faith has also brought with it terrifying reminders of other kinds of absolutism. If the public square can be a genuine arena for exchange, challenge, and respectful debate, then neither secularism nor faith need fear each other’s contributions. On the other hand, we all share a responsibility for ensuring that the public square does not degenerate into a bear pit. Both Pope Benedict and Richard Dawkins might ask themselves whether they are helping or hindering the discharge of that responsibility.

An immaculately conceived offence

The Advertising Standards Authority has decided that an ice-cream advert featuring a pregnant nun, and bearing the strap-line, “An immaculate conception”, is likely to cause offence to Roman Catholics (and apparently more so than to other Christians) and should therefore be banned. The authority said that “to use such an image in a lighthearted way to advertise ice cream was likely to cause serious offence to readers, particularly those who practised the Roman Catholic faith.”

I think this ban is misguided, although it is a useful riposte to the Christians who bleat that their religion can by ridiculed with impunity whilst Islam must be handled with kid gloves for fear of its touchy, and sometimes violent, adherents. Indeed, some readers might think that I am indulging in just such double-think given my somewhat immoderate tirade recently against Mr Terry Jones’ proposal to burn copies of the Koran. I don’t think so.

First, although it is painful to admit, I think pragmatism does demand that in giving consideration to an act or publication that might be deemed offensive, one takes the probable consequences into account. Thus, however galling, it’s a bit different if the offence is likely to result in rioting, deaths, international incidents and the like, than if it’s merely likely to cause people to splutter into their cornflakes. Lacking in principle, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

Second, burning someone’s holy book in a deliberate attempt to insult, antagonise and politically infuriate is not the same as poking gentle fun at a single doctrinal conceit.

Third, throwing offence across cultural divides isn’t the same as engaging in disputation with one’s cultural fellows. The western culture within which Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism specifically, has grown and thrived is a culture which values tolerance, freedom and contention. Those values are indeed (pace the new atheists) one of the consequences of Christian influence on our culture, a fact that isn’t dissolved by the other fact that there have also been some very much less attractive consequences from the same source.

But my real discomfort with this ban comes from other considerations. It feeds the complaints of those who accuse Christianity of claiming some kind of general exemption from the dominant mores of the times. It’s perfectly legitimate for Christians to take issue with that dominance, to criticise it, to seek to change it. But it isn’t legitimate to expect or demand that the organs of civil society, the ASA amongst them, should do it on our behalf. More fundamental yet is that this offence should not be offensive. Christians should not mistake the symbols of their religion for the literal truths of it. I believe in the Incarnation for what it signifies, not for its historical exactitude. As I’ve argued before, having faith is not the same as believing in literal facts. So to my fellow Christians I say what I might say to a child who’s being teased: it can only have power if you allow it that power. And to my fellow citizens I say that I don’t need protection from your ridicule. I really couldn’t give a fuck.

On faith and belief

In several of my recent posts I’ve skirted around issues of faith but not really dealt with the matter head-on. It’s ironic that the great majority of the Twitfriends who most loyally re-tweet my “new blogpost” pimps are serious, big-time atheists who were probably a tad disconcerted when they discovered that I’d come out as someone with an active faith. To their credit none of them has so far un-followed me in disgust, although I suppose they might now that I’ve decided to go on about it again.

It might be ironic, but the fact that I’ve naturally associated with sceptics and atheists doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. For a start, I’m at least as often embarrassed by my fellow faith-travellers as I am enthused by them. Rather more often, actually. Every time there’s yet another public statement of homophobic bollocks, or thinly disguised misogyny, or happy-clappy fantasy, I cringe inwardly and protest outwardly. But in fact it’s not these matters that most connect me with those atheist comrades, since homophobia and misogyny are not the exclusive preserve of the religious: there are plenty of unpleasant ideologies spilling from the mouths of unbelievers as well. No, it’s that most of the critical arrows shot from the archers of atheism leave me untouched since I don’t believe in half the stuff they think I must believe in anyway.

We have a lot of words and concepts in this area that we tend to use somewhat uncritically as if they all mean the same thing. In particular “faith” and “belief” are often used virtually interchangeably. That’s by no means all, and I’ll return specifically to this in a moment. There are also the relationships between the literal and the metaphoric; between the symbol and the thing symbolised; between myth and history; between the poetic and the narrative; and much more besides. All of these dialectic oppositions are the ways in which we try to make sense of the world and our place in it, to ascribe meaning to ourselves and others, to deal with our identity and our mortality. These activities are universal: they’re not some special thing that only religious people do. It’s not my intention here to make the case for my particular ways of understanding these imponderables, and the only claim I’d make is that I have thought long and hard about them and tried to bring my tentative conclusions to explicit consciousness. There are both atheists and religious believers who appear to have done nothing of the kind. Easy and thoughtless acceptance either of religious dogma or of cultural (rather than examined) scepticism seem to me to be fundamentally identical approaches. I feel much greater commonality with atheists who’ve wrestled with constructing meaning from their belief system than I do either with my religious colleagues who’ve simply swallowed the whole faith pill without chewing it, or with some atheists who show no evidence of having thought about anything beyond shopping.

So back to faith and belief. In a nutshell, I take the view that belief is not something about which one can choose freely. Belief is about evidence. To believe something in the face of contradictory evidence is at best bizarre, and at worst ridiculous. And by extension, to believe in something for which there is no evidence one way or the other is presumptuous to say the least. Where there is no evidence, agnosticism is the only valid response. Faith is a different category altogether. Sometimes faith and belief do indeed go together, but they don’t have to. I believe in the reality of my car’s braking system, but I also have faith in it. I’m prepared to propel myself inside my metal box at speeds that will kill me on the basis that I put my trust in the braking system, and in those who have manufactured it. But it’s also possible, and perfectly legitimate, to put faith in things or ideas that are not literally true or real, or which can’t be known about or examined at all in the way that a braking system can be. I put enormous faith in my wife’s love for me, and act on the assumption that her love can bear the weight of my faith, often in the teeth of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps especially then. When we’re fighting, or when she doesn’t seem to care, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the evidence is now on the side of divorce. It’s my faith, rather than my belief, that gets me, or perhaps more correctly, us, through.

My Christian faith keeps me optimistic about humanity despite the overwhelming evidence that humans are capable of the most appalling cruelty and destruction, and that too often these traits seem to be winning against those other traits of love, co-operation, heroism and the rest. It’s open to anyone to say that I’m deluding myself, and perhaps I am. I feel always vulnerable to the counter-position that life is absurd, and that meaning is illusory. My faith in metaphorical and symbolic categories such as the death and resurrection of Jesus does not mean I believe in magic any more than Wordsworth believed he was experiencing solitary levitation when he wandered lonely as a cloud.