The Bishop of Salisbury Nicholas Holtam and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons Angela Eagle MP were among faith leaders, politicians, humanists and trades unionists uniting to fight against religious homophobia and legal discrimination against gay and transgender people at the Cutting Edge Consortium annual conference in central London this weekend.

A key intention of the conference was to expose the falsehood of conflicts between faith and sexuality. That can be achieved, if only the progressive, accepting, rational majorities, would raise their voice and assert influence within their denominations. The support of Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury, who delivered a keynote speech to blast the Church of England’s ‘disastrous’ stance on marriage equality, could not have come at a better time.

Bishop of Salisbury: Church of England’s position on marriage equality ‘a disaster’

He stated that the Church of England’s vocal opposition to gay marriage would be ruinous for its future. He cautioned against the certainty that moral positions on homosexuality are built with Biblical support. The Bible has been used in previous ages to support positions we would today regard as outrageous: “Before Wilberforce Christians in this country saw slavery as having Biblical support for what was the God-given in the ordering of creation. In South Africa Apartheid was seen in the same way by the Dutch Reformed Church.Within the churches, Christians conscientiously disagree about the interpretation and significance of the six Biblical passages referring to homosexuality.”

Holtam stated that the institution itself has been fluid through the ages: “Of course I accept the traditional teaching of the Church and the ordering of personal relationships, family and society by marriage and I think it is right that this traditional practice is defended; but the doctrine and practice of marriage has developed significantly in Christian history. Probably the most significant changes to marriage today are among young heterosexuals, particularly with many couples living together and sometimes having children before marriage, which is still seen as an honourable estate.”

If one can turn a blind eye to sex and having children before marriage – John Sentamu excused Prince William and his wife to be of cohabiting before their big day – it only emphasises the arbitrary cruelty in denying loving, same-sex couples equal recognition of their relationships.

Religious leaders have pressed for and gained government assurances that there will be no lifting of the ban on same-sex marriages in religious buildings, whatever the outcome of the consultation on civil marriage.

To Holtam this is a Pyrrhic victory, creating a category of religious marriage that only recognises the commitment of a man to a woman. And this separation of civil from religious marriage will show how deeply the church has become separated from the rest of society.

Holtam described how a discussion with sixth formers at a local school made him realise how ridiculous the Church’s position on homosexuality was seen by the young today. With attendance declining and average age of congregations rising, such an inability to connect presents a crisis. It is impossible to see how marriage equality devalues heterosexual marriages unless you see homosexuality as a choice or lifestyle. There was an evangelical imperative for the Church to realise that covenantal relationships are equal to those of heterosexual relationships and can be good for society.

With too much focus placed on building ecumenical and global relationships, sensible discussion on the issue of sexuality is made impossible. The church has moved on this issue in a relatively short time, for a great many questions marriage is a first-order issue. The Coalition for Marriage’s 450,000 signatories is a significant number, representing as much as 12% of Britain’s church attendees.

The poisonous campaign driven by a vociferous minority on the internet does not reflect the nature of the discussion that is happening within church communities especially where fellow congregants are known to be gay. Acceptance and understanding has come through sharing worship, readings and communion together.

Holtam lamented the current Alice in Wonderland predicament of the Church: “It is not right that I can bless a bridge, or even new toilets, but I cannot bless a loving couple who want to spend their lives together.”

Free School and Academies: Opt-outs provide licence for homophobia

Sarah Veale, head of equality and employment rights at the TUC, explained how almost thirty years ago, a NALGO deputy persuaded other originally hostile unionists to support fellow LGBT workers. People don’t walk into work and depart from their humanity and become a Dickensian paid-hand. Since those times, the TUC has developed to realise that our race, gender, religion, sexuality and disabilities are core to our identities and make us whole human beings, and has championed equality legislation.

A plenary session looked at homophobia in schools, where some teachers indeed feel like they are little more than ‘paid hands’. Jennifer Moses from the NASUWT teachers’ union reported that equality exemptions gained by Free Schools and Academies, which can oblige staff to live according to the school’s own moral codes, have created an intolerable atmosphere for many LGBT members. In an atmosphere evoking that of the American Military under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, some teachers live their lives in the closet fearful they may lose their jobs if they come out.

Julia Neal, from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said training was needed to give teachers the confidence to tackle homophobia head-on. Teachers must recognise homophobia when they hear or see it, and be able to challenge it effectively as soon as it arises in the classroom or the playground.

For Neal, the sharp growth in the number of Academies, currently at 24 but soon to rise to over 100, was also of great concern. Academies are out of the control of Local Education Authorities are free of the constraints of the National Curriculum and have freedom to teach PSHE education according to their own ethos. Some do not recognise trades unions. This is not to say that all Academies are bastions of extremism; but with no checks in place, it is potentially easy for schools to fall under the influence of homophobic groups. Neal condemned the Government’s allocation of over £330 million for promoting the Free Schools, while cutting back training budgets.

The Gen Sec of the British Humanist Association, Andrew Copson, said it is time to stop the conservative voices from dictating faith school policy. There is a massive opportunity for equality-minded people to get involved with school governance. Copson also called on the unions to do more oppose equality legislation exemptions for faith schools.

Aidan O’Neil QC questions effectiveness of litigation

Aidan O’Neil QC questioned whether litigation is the solution for promoting equality under the law. The legal profession’s attitude towards LGBT people has changed dramatically in the last 50 years.

Two principles have provided the momentum for change, from the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalising homosexuality to the legalisation of Civil Partnerships in 2005: first that the law should not presume to govern men’s souls and women’s bodies; and second that one particular morality should not rule supreme.

But while litigation has proven successful, most notably in overturning the cruel and senseless ban on gay people serving in the armed forces, O’Neil counselled against the using the law to impose moral views on others. Rights also apply to the undeserving and the undeserved. He invited the audience to reflect that there are some in society who have been left behind by this moral shift.

Some will have difficulty accommodating the fact that their sincerely held views, which were once law of the land are now on the fringe. should there not be a space for those views in society?

It is a shame that out of all the day’s sessions, this was the one occasion when there was no time for questions from the floor, as it begged many. This author might have suggested that there is indeed plenty of space for undeserving views, not least thanks to our nation’s state broadcaster, whose news and current affairs programs provide unquestioning platform for clerical homophobia, funded in part by the licence fees of LGBT people.

It is difficult to understand exactly how the world has changed dramatically for people who hold orthodox views on sexuality. You don’t have to have anything to do with gay people if you can’t stand being around them, for example.

O’Neil’s plea for leniency for conscientious objection provides the pretext for arbitrarily re-enshrining religious codes into law, a slippery slope which could soon lead to Muslim or Mormon shop assistants refusing to serve alcohol. for example. A minimum requirement for achieving equality under law would be that no individual has a say in other people’s consenting relationships. Dissenting marriage registrars can take consolation from the fact that their belief that homosexual unions can never be godly is already privileged in law.

Angela Eagle MP: LGBT equality under threat from extreme religious fringe

Labour politician Angela Eagle MP, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, called for greater vigilance in opposing the reactionary and increasingly vocal backlash from religious fundamentalists.

Eagle says it is right to single out religious homophobia, because it is a strand of bigotry that engages the prestige of moral tradition, enshrining bigotry through doctrinal authority.

She also emphasised that necessity of countering the dominance of reactionary views, and ridiculed the notion of aggressive secularism, when it was secularism itself that protected everyone from a theocracy in which only one religion would be regarded as supreme.

Non-believers have a personal interest in helping the liberal wing to make their influence felt within their denominations, as the unchecked dominance of reactionary forces, and the privileges they wield, have consequences for everyone in society.

Caught off guard by the sudden, seismic liberal shift in social attitudes and law changes, the Religious Right in Britain are using tried and tested tactics developed by their American ‘Tea Party’ counterparts to create a false mantle of oppression under equality legislation and gain influence. The former Archbishop, George Carey, says that Christians are being sought out, vilified and framed by gay activists, and excluded from sectors of employment, but has shown no concern for the plight of gay people in fear for their lives and treated as criminals elsewhere in the world.

At the same time, the Christian Institute and Christian Concern want laws that allow employers to fire at will those who are gay or espouse beliefs different from their own, while seeking to widen exemptions in the Equality Act. This is neither fair, consistent, equal nor acceptable. Mrs Eagle expressed hope that society at large would resist endorsing Coalition for Marriage, whose sponsors will only look for more influence in other areas of social policy in future.

While the current government is pushing ahead on marriage, budgetary cuts, and outsourcing services, it is harder to enforce equality legislation. Parliamentarians need to respond faster to changes during consultation periods. Eagle expressed anger at the last-minute exemptions that the bishops achieved for faith schools in the last months of the Brown government. These had been achieved outside of Parliament, in direct negotiation with 10 Downing Street.

There were many workshops discussing topics such as marriage, good practice in education, secularism and application of law with respect to religious conscience. Conference speakers and attendees were mostly Christian or humanist; a representative from Imaan, the LGBT Muslim group, had to pull out at the last minute but hopefully, more involvement can be seen from other faiths in future. It is especially important as the media presents the institutionalised, reactionary views on sexuality and other social issues from usually self-pointed community leaders as being representative of a whole religious or ethnic minority.

All religions, of course, have their demagogues and hate preachers, and we must criticise and condemn bigotry and hatred wherever it comes from; a sensible discussion needs to take place about calling out Islamist hate preachers, without being the subject of hysterical and nonsensical accusations of racism for doing so. Equally, LGBT people, should be standing in solidarity with Muslims who come under attack from EDL fascists.

CEC 2012 was a platform for people of many backgrounds to share ideas, and forge the close bonds which will be needed to be effective in creating a truly fair, tolerant and equal society for all.

Conclusions
The Cutting Edge Consortium Conference was a great success, bringing together those of faith and non-faith to discuss equal marriage, challenging faith based homophobia, biophobia and transphobia and emphasising the need for equality and diversity training in our schools as a matter of priority.