In another 5,000-word essay, the Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, demands “a thorough and wholesale review” of discrimination in the Church of England. And by discrimination he means prejudiced attitudes expressed towards people because of their ‘identity’. And by identity he means those characteristics which are fundamentally ‘given’ (he specifies eye colour, hair colour, skin colour, etc), which is fair (and biblical) enough. He adds gender and sexuality, noting that transgender is now a ‘given’ identity, and “increasingly these days, sexuality is seen as a ‘given’, in the sense that it is a ‘natural orientation’, and not a lifestyle choice”.
You might discern where he’s going with this.
He tweeted his thesis out “With the aim and hope of promoting deeper and further reflection on the key theological and ecclesiolgical issues”, but it adds no deeper theology and no new ecclesiological insight at all. Indeed, an essay titled ‘Not a Matter of Opinion’ is precisely that: an assumed judgment; a passionate point of view. For a précis, see HERE (download option at the bottom). You could save a lot of time reading, however, because Dean Percy’s argument may be summarised thus:
1. Equality is a cornerstone of modern law.
2. It is wrong and bad to discriminate against people on the basis of their given identity.
3. Gender (/sex) and sexuality are ‘given’.
4. The Church of England discriminates on the basis of these ‘givens’.
5. This is wrong and bad and needs reform.
6. That reform must include discriminating against those who insist on discriminating.
He doesn’t call for traditionalists like Bishop Philip North to be ejected from the Church of England (“I do not think it ecclesially wise or in Christian charity to try and drive them out”), but he does demand that the church discriminate against them for their unacceptable discriminatory attitudes:
The church has, in its wisdom, made gracious provision and concessions to those who, in conscience, cannot accept women priests. Through such support, the church enables these groups to flourish. But there is no reason to welcome their inherently discriminatory gender-based worldview into the wider church, and crown it with the honour of governance and grant them even wider oversight.
..Why does the Church of England promote, prefer and resource people and groups who discriminate against people on the basis of their gender, sexuality and identity?
..It is sheer nonsense, of course, to accord equality of status to views that are inherently discriminatory.
..I cannot see how justice or integrity is best-served, or the mission and ministry of the national church can ever be enhanced, by extending the influence of such groups across the wider church. These groups have elected to marginalise themselves; this is their own chosen path. They have chosen opinions that necessitate distancing themselves from the mainstream. And so they should remain in their partially sealed-off wings (but self-constructed, incidentally), until such time as they wish to part company with those alienating opinions, and no longer choose to practice (sic) their identity-based discrimination.
Since the belief that women may not be ordained is not a ‘given’ part of identity, but is, in fact, a “self-constructed..alienating opinion”, it must give way to the belief that women may be ordained (and consecrated bishop), which is not only “mainstream”, but a matter of “justice or integrity”, for women did not choose to be women, and should not, therefore, be discriminated against in the life of the Church merely for being so. So Martyn Percy’s solution is to flip any misogynist or homophobic discrimination right back at the discriminators, because intolerance should not be tolerated: the Church of England should have no truck with those who seek to perpetuate medieval prejudices, and should certainly not offer any kind of parity of esteem in order to keep them aboard. They need to be picked out and hermetically sealed off (which is an ecclesial quarantine of their own theological choosing).
For progressive ‘Modern Church’ proponents, it all sounds so utterly reasonable and enlightened, as you’d expect from an eminent theologian who also happens to be Dean of an Oxford college. He teases out the absurdity of the “truly and lawfully” distinction, which is he says is ‘straining the gnat and swallowing the camel‘ (Mt 23:24), which it truly is.
But there is a flaw (another one) in his reasoning, and it is a structural sociological flaw of such magnitude that, by its unveiling, his whole ecclesio-theological argument is fatally undermined. Consider his reasoning here:
Now, there are three different ways in which one could conceive of discrimination. First, if done on the basis of a person’s or people’s given identity, we rightly call this unlawful discrimination. Except for the churches – who exempted themselves from the 2010 Equality Act – every other employer, organisation or institution that tries to promote discrimination on the basis of another person’s or people’s identity is liable to prosecution and penalty. As gender is a given, including transgender identities, gender-based discrimination is illegal. Increasingly these days, sexuality is seen as a ‘given’, in the sense that it is a ‘natural orientation’, and not a lifestyle choice. For any employer, organisation or institution to try and discriminate on grounds of sexuality is to risk a conflict with the law. Only the churches continue to discriminate in this way.
Setting aside the erroneous assertion that it was the churches which “exempted themselves from the 2010 Equality Act” (it was, of course, Parliament which exempted them), the Dean appears to believe that discrimination on the basis of gender (/sex) or sexuality is the sole preserve of the churches. In fact, in schedule 9, paragraph 3 of the 2010 Equality Act, Parliament exempted all organised religions:
Other requirements relating to religion or belief
3A person (A) with an ethos based on religion or belief does not contravene a provision mentioned in paragraph 1(2) by applying in relation to work a requirement to be of a particular religion or belief if A shows that, having regard to that ethos and to the nature or context of the work—
(a) it is an occupational requirement,
(b) the application of the requirement is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, and
(c) the person to whom A applies the requirement does not meet it (or A has reasonable grounds for not being satisfied that the person meets it).
Moreover, this is underpinned by an EU directive:
(23) In very limited circumstances, a difference of treatment may be justified where a characteristic related to religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation constitutes a genuine and determining occupational requirement, when the objective is legitimate and the requirement is proportionate.
That is to say, UK and EU law recognise that liberty of conscience is a fundamental human right, and that liberty extends to the belief that God ordained men exclusively to reify the divine essence of leadership. You may demur, and Martyn Percy may balk at the desire of the Roman Catholic Church’s ‘occupational requirement’ to keep lesbian nuns out of convents and gay monks out of monasteries (and both out of seminaries, either by virtue/impediment of gender (/sex) and sexuality). But if it is wrong/bad/unjust for women to be barred from being ordained priest in the Church of England, it must be equally wrong/bad/unjust for women to be barred from becoming rabbis, imams, cardinals, etc., etc.
Now, Professor Percy might believe universal gender (/sex) equality to be a virtuous pursuit: he may be a fervent supporter of sex (/gender) equality across and within all religions as a divine expression of natural and essential gender parity. But Parliament understood how profoundly illiberal it would be to ride roughshod over the liberty of the religious conscience and millennia of developed/revealed religious orthodoxy to impose sex equality upon all religions (indeed, it would be equality made tyranny), that MPs determined to exempt them all equally. If Martyn Percy wishes to see this liberty denied to the Church of England (it being unjust and lacking integrity), then Parliament must also legislate for the mandatory provision of Roman Catholic women priests, bishops and cardinals. That leads, of course, to the possibility of an English female pope, not to mention women imams and rabbis. Of course, liberal strands of faith already honour women with leadership roles, but we are concerned here (since Professor Percy mentions it) with the Equality Act 2010 and Church (he says ‘churches’) discrimination. By pluralising, he moves the debate (and his demands) beyond the parochial Church of England.
You either exempt all religions equally, as Parliament (and the EU) has determined to do, or you make them all subject to anti-discrimination laws equally. What you cannot do, in an ostensibly (historically/constitutionally/culturally) Christian country, is to discriminate against the churches by demanding their unequivocal adherence to the law of man while permitting all other religions the freedom to follow the law of their gods.
But it isn’t only church leaders and other ministers of religion which are exempt: a theatre company is free to advertise for and cast a man as King Lear, and a girl as Ophelia. Further, they are free to advertise for and cast a black man as Othello. Moreover, they are permitted to discriminate against a disabled person for the role of Richard III. A Muslim helpline for female victims of domestic abuse would be permitted to discriminate against gay Muslims. Political parties are permitted to discriminate against white/male/heterosexual ‘givens’ in the pursuit of diversity. Discrimination on the ‘given’ bases of sex and sexuality is manifestly not the sole preserve of the churches. And while the androgynous Modern Church may be offended by the traditionalist belief that Church leadership is patriarchal and that women are disabled by their sex, it is actually ‘mainstream’ orthodoxy (literally, Catholic and Orthodox), and the undoubted historic Christian tradition: women priests represent a departure from this ‘mainstream’.
But Professor Percy equates the perpetuation of gender injustice with the evil of slavery:
It appears that we may not argue for a patriarchal priesthood with appeals to Scripture: “…same thinking led the likes of George Whitefield to claim slavery was decreed by Almighty God and sanctioned from Genesis to Revelation!” he tweeted. If you believe that women and LGBT people are unjustly ‘enslaved’ to exclusion by the Church of England, he has a point. To be reduced to slavery by virtue of a ‘given’ aspect of identity is an offence against God: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus‘ (Gal 3:28). When soteriology is appropriated for equality, there is no end to finding ‘relevance’. But it is a tenuous exposition.
What this comes down to is the hierarchy of rights; whose liberty should prevail. He reasons:
Discernment is good, and disagreement can be creative. But discrimination damns others who, quite independent of their gifts and competencies, are destined to be denigrated, disempowered and disabled solely on the basis of their identity by those practising putative discrimination. That’s why it needs to be resisted, at all costs.
At all costs? Even of religious liberty? For Martyn Percy, matters of sex and sexuality trump freedom of conscience and freedom of religion: not only should the churches promote more women to leadership roles, they must offer same-sex marriage services as a fundamental matter of natural and divine justice. But so, then, must the synagogues and mosques, and the gurdwaras and mandirs. For that would be religious equality. You can only mitigate discrimination on the grounds of sex and sexuality by constricting freedom of religion, which transgresses not only UK but EU law. And so when Professor Percy calls the Bishops to take action – “What the Church of England now needs to review is just one thing: discrimination. Just that: discrimination.” – he opens up a can of worms and Pandora’s box wrapped up in a knot of vipers. It is not possible to sustain a distinct religious ethos if the State requires uniformity. When Christian ministers of religion seek to embrace that uniformity and impose it upon their members, we arrive at a new Test Act.
Not since 1559 has there been an Act of Uniformity requiring everyone to assent to a particular worldview, and it took more than 300 years to eradicate that. But now gender (/sex) and sexual orientation equality are elevated to a quasi-religious status which trumps any religious worldview that dares oppose it. It is secular pluralism by statute law which is reducing Christian orthodoxy to ‘bigotry’. Martyn Percy demands action to ensure that priests and suffragan bishops who hold discriminatory views like those of Philip North can advance no further: there must be a stained-glass ceiling to ‘contain’ them (which is, in fact, a self-containment of their own making). This new regulation might be termed the Discrimination Test Act. It will need someone to play pope to ensure the thorough sifting of candidates and strict adherence to its precepts of justice and integrity.
“What the Church of England now needs to review is just one thing: discrimination. Just that: discrimination.”
What an excellent deflection into perpetual socio-political and theo-philosophical obfuscation such a debate would be. Certainly beats having to tell people about Jesus.