Wednesday, January 31, 2007

It's 'the Christians' versus 'the gays'. Again. Give me the mods and rockers any day.

Another argument, another fight where the church ‘stands up for what it believes’, another media outing where Christians end up looking defensive, unloving and narrow minded. Jerry Springer, faith schools and now sexual orientation regulations. Sigh.

To briefly clear up the misunderstandings: Religious non-commercial (i.e. charities and churches) organisations are exempt from the regulations as long as they can show that it is necessary “(a) to comply with the doctrine of the organisation; or (b) so as to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religions followers.” Churches don’t have to hire out rooms to the local gay pride group if they choose not to. Ministers (who are specifically mentioned in the regulations) will still be allowed to condemn sexual orientation as a 'disease' in their preach should they be that way inclined. Churches and other organisations don’t even have to be organised enough to have it written in their statement of faith - as long as a significant number of their followers agree – that’s fine. The regulations only affect Christian businesses – and no, a Christian publisher wouldn’t be forced to print gay porn, because it would also refuse to print straight porn. However, it might have problems refusing to print a leaflet advertising a pro-gay march. Yes, it will affect a Christian bed and breakfast who didn’t want gay couples to stay in its rooms.

When the dispute over the sexual orientation equality regulations arose two questions came into my mind:

1) Is this a freedom of conscience issue even if the vast majority of the public disagree?

2) Are Christians right to fight for an exemption even if they do honestly believe that practicing homosexuality is wrong?

My immediate reaction to the first point was to think that surely a business can operate in a free country as a private entity and therefore choose to serve whoever it wants. However, businesses operate within the stability of the legal framework given to them by the government and business is regulated in hundreds and hundreds of ways. Whilst our society protects the right to own private property and forbid entrance to others at your whim or discretion once you register a business that legal entity becomes subject to regulation including discrimination legislation. In any case, as the opt outs above indicate religious groups have been granted freedom of conscience in this issue.

Should Christians fight for an exemption for Christian businesses? I don’t think so. Most Christians (some bedrudgingly) accept that people are gay and can’t do anything about it even if they wanted to, but say that the sin occurs when homosexual acts are practised. To take the bed and breakfast example – there are no guarantees that two men booking a room (even a double room) are going to have sex in the bed and who’s going to check?

The more important point though is that Christians should stop defending their own rights not to be upset for a second and welcome everyone in as created and loved by God, even when they personally find this difficult. Sacrificing what you consider to be your own rights for the sake of demonstrating Jesus to others is a hard thing to do. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” This doesn’t mean that Christians have to agree with everything someone says or does, but it will be a far more effective witness to the grace, compassion and Good News of Jesus than telling someone to go away. Based on the teachings of Jesus and the Bible, Christians should be at the forefront of social inclusion and equality not dragging their heels.

This brings me to the ‘gay adoption’ row. I help run a weekly activity for children on a local estate, most of whom are from broken homes. I constantly see the need, especially although not only from among the boys for strong, positive role models of the same sex. Hopefully the work I do plays a small part in providing that role model, but ultimately that figure needs to comes from within the home – day to day, month to month, year to year contact. Adopted children who are likely to have had a very disadvantaged start to their life are likely to need this even more. Therefore I really struggle with the idea that a boy should be placed for adoption/fostering with two women or visa-versa, however loving or stable that home might be.

Now the Catholic Adoption agencies already place children with single parents and this is not ideal for either parent and child (having seen exhausted friends *with* partners bring up a family I am constantly in awe of any single parent that manages to bring up a child). However, being adopted into any stable, loving home is better than living in care, so it may be a necessity. All children’s law puts the interest of the child right at the heart of every case, above that of the rights of the adults involved. Therefore Adoption agencies, all other factors being equal, should be able to differentiate between (not turn away anyone) a married couple, heterosexual partners, a gay couple and single parents when considering a placement for the long term good of the child. This would be a very specific very unusual exemption which would exist not to defend Christians right not to be offended or upset, but for the long term good of a child.

Maybe, just maybe if the Christians who campaigned against these regulations (who don’t represent everyone in the faith) had started from the point of view of defending others’ equality and interests rather than themselves this argument might have ended in a different place than the other public disputes of the past two years. Perhaps next time?

20 Questions to a fellow blogger

Paul Burgin over at Mars Hill invited me to answer ‘Twenty Questions to a fellow blogger’ which I did in my normal concise style (!!) You can read it here.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Death and taxes: the NHS has become the battleground for survival

Alice Mahon (former MP) today became the latest in a growing line of people threatening to take legal action against the NHS. Calderdale Primary Care Trust (PCT) have refused to prescribe her a series of injections of a new treatment to prevent her going blind costing several thousand pounds because it has not yet been approved for use by NICE. When Ann Marie Rogers went to court in order to try and obtain cancer drug Herceptin on the NHS she was originally refused, but won her case on appeal. NICE then ordered Herceptin to be made available across the country.

Individuals can’t be blamed for trying every available avenue open to them to secure treatment for a disease that could severely affect quality of life or cause their deaths. However, one person’s successful battle for treatment means another’s cut in funding, extended waiting list and death. In November doctors in Norwich estimated that funding Herceptin for 75 people would mean around 200 people not receiving chemotherapy. There must be hundreds of other examples across the country where one person has managed to work the system to their advantage leaving other services on which people depend without the resources they need to function to save more lives. We may not literally fight each other in the UK for our survival anymore, but the natural instinct for self preservation above all others is still alive and well.

We are all fighting for scarce resources and NICE and NHS trust managers are caught in the middle holding the purse strings having to make incredibly difficult decisions about the most effective use of funds and, to put it bluntly, who should live and who should die. It seems ludicrous that a court of appeal judge is able to make a decision about a drug’s or treatment’s availability without ever having a chance of appreciating the complexity of choices NICE and NHS managers have to make and without having to deal with the subsequent implications for funding of other treatments. If we want the fairest outcome for all people, not just those able to take their claim to court the decision must be left in the hands of the medical experts and trust managers. They won’t always make the ‘right’ decision because managing funding is not an exact science and you can’t always anticipate the consequences of funding a particular treatment, but at least the decision will be made taking into account all the factors. We need a transparent system, with a means of appeal within the NHS so that patients can understand the decisions made, but judges need to recognise that they cannot rule on something so far reaching.

In the meantime as a country it is time to start deciding what our priorities are – do we want to invest in quality of life or length of life? Is dying with dignity more important than curing all diseases? In a consumer society this is a tough conversation to have because we are used to the idea that we can have everything if only we can discover it and pay for it. We hide from our collective mortality, even when dealing with our frail ill health. But however much money gets taken from our payment packets and ploughed into the NHS we will all still get ill and die. The NHS proves once and for all that however hard you try you cannot avoid death or taxes.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The magnificent man still in his flying machine: Tony Blair vows to fly on.

Tony Blair has announced that he has no plans to stop using long haul flights, although under pressure he has announced that all his flights, both ministerial and personal will be ‘carbon neutral’.

Offsetting Carbon emissions by planting trees is fine as a short term mechanism and certainly better than nothing, but what happens in 40 years when the trees rot and decay? The carbon in them is released again. These articles and diagrams from the New Internationalist show clearly why offsetting will salve some consciences, but is not a long term solution.

It is true that not flying is the biggest single action that an individual can take to reduce their carbon emissions. One short haul flight can wipe out hundreds of saved car journeys and thousands of energy saving lightbulbs. Flying already contributes 3% of the UK’s CO2 emissions and is expected to grow significantly. Blair argued that not flying would damage the economy, but the Stern Report showed that not dealing with climate change would have a far bigger and possibly devastating impact on the world economy.

If we’re going to change our lifestyles in any way reducing our flights is the best option.

In addition to not flying we ought to choose not to fly we ought to write to an airline explaining our decision: Carbon free flying is estimated to be 35-50 years away at the moment – if airlines became worried about their profits that timescale could be dramatically reduced. (Incidentally this is also why I support airlines being bought into the Carbon emissions trading scheme with tough year on year reductions in credits to incentivise green innovation.)

However, I’ve argued before that we must seek largescale scientific and political solutions to climate change that involve China and India whose emissions of C02 are rising exponentially – we don’t have time to be messing around recycling.

The unsightly media scrum descending on Tony Blair’s personal choices is therefore not only slightly distasteful and puerile, but more importantly misses the point. Unlike most of the rest of us, there are dozens of political decisions that Blair could prioritise that would have a massive impact on the environment. I would happily swap Tony Blair commuting from Sydney every morning by private Concorde if he prioritised:

a) pushing a tough EU wide carbons emissions trading scheme,

b) investing the same amount of money into clean energy technology as into Trident

c) facilitating fast, effective and cheap technology transfer to China and India

d) a tidal barrage on the Severn (5% UK electricity), a new generation of Nuclear power stations and a solar panel and wind turbine on every new home.

If he did all this he could even take John Prescott, his long-lost great-aunt-Doris and the entire England Cricket team with him if he wanted.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Twenty-Eight years later and there's plenty of Life in Brian

Monty Python are great. I love sitting down and watching their eccentric, off the wall, irreverent humour. As I’m also partial to mediocre time-filling talking heads programmes I was pleased to flick over to the ‘Secret life of Monty Python’ on Channel 4 the other day which focused on the making of and controversy surrounding the Life of Brian. I’ve seen Life of Brian many times and it’s one of my favourite films. However, as people who have watched it with me will testify, apart from the first time I saw it I always leave the room with about ten minutes to go. This coincides with the crucifixion of Brian to the song of ‘Always look on the Bright side of Life’.

When Life of Brian first came out in the UK in 1979 many Christians, led by Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light movement (which was later renamed CARE) tried to get the film banned because of it’s ‘blasphemous’ nature, particularly the last few minutes. Although it was classified as an AA (14 years plus) certificate a significant minority of local authorities did refuse to show the picture as they were legally entitled to do. Watching the Channel 4 programme made me wonder whether a 26 year old Jonathan Chilvers would have been amongst those campaigning for the film to be banned in 1979 or not. Britain twenty-eight years ago was a very different place and the group of churches to which I belong has some roots in the Festival of Light movement and many Christians at the time felt that the vestiges of Christian Britain needed to be defended and boundaries drawn.

Although it has its downsides, generally I feel fortunate that I have been born into a post-Christian culture and a non-Christian upbringing which means that I’ve never felt that I’ve had anything boundaries or traditions to defend. I don’t feel that I have to make a last ditch effort to man the barricades to stop the tide of secularism and apathy flooding our religious shore. Instead I can focus my energies on proclaiming the central message of Christianity through what I say and do. My central confidence means that if God is true then he is big enough to take whatever people choose to throw at him. As Joel Edwards, head of the Evangelical Alliance (an umbrella group of churches) put it:

“Earlier this year[2006] the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a sermon about terrorism being a form of blasphemy, because it suggests that God is too weak to look after His own honour. The terrorist feels they have to step in with violence to do His work for Him.

I think that sometimes we have engaged in a form of verbal terror that has the same roots. Evangelicals must recognise that we can be secure in our faith in God, and this security then frees us to be risky and curious at the same time...[we need to] resist the knee-jerk tendency to protest everything(sic)… our role is not to monitor mischief but to proclaim this good news that brings spiritual and social transformation to society.”

I am relieved that twenty five years on I am able to sit down and watch ‘Life of Brian’ as often as I want and that the Pythons were allowed to poke fun at religion. Like all of human life religion throws up comical situations and humour can be a great way to cut through pomp, posturing and arrogance. How did acting as a holier-than-thou defensive pressure group help more people see and hear the central message of Christianity? It didn’t. Christianity is not about forcing people to conform to moral standards they don’t agree with in order that Christians feel safe and happy in the world.

Paul says in the Bible that ‘everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial’. I don’t watch the last ten minutes of Life of Brian because visual and aural memories can be very powerful and long lasting. I don’t have many visual images of crucifixion in my mind and I don’t think it’s beneficial to my daily walk with God to have that sequence of film and song in my head when I’m praying or thinking about the death of Jesus. I’m not offended, I just don’t think it’s helpful for my subconscious concept of God and my relationship with Him. It’s probably not beneficial to other people’s view of God either and part of me wishes that people didn’t see ten minutes of film that may contribute to them dismissing a part of Christianity which could have a huge impact on their lives. However, individual free will and responsibility is a vital component of the Christian message and one that fed into the enlightenment idea of liberalism and a free press. It’s a concept that I would never want to obscure and Christians must find ways to challenge people’s attitudes towards Jesus within this context through what they say and do.

On the Channel 4 programme Terry Gillam wondered aloud whether in the current climate of religious groups loudly taking offence, a film such as Life of Brian would still be commissioned. I don’t know what I would have said in 1979, but if the remaining Pythons ever want to make anything even half as good as the Life of Brian I’ll be watching.