Anne Atkins and Michael Portillo: fashionable nonsense

Freedom of conscience isn’t for everyone, and gender equality is a “fashion”.

I really don’t know why I bother staying up late on Thursday evenings for the BBC’s Question Time and This Week programmes.  Increasingly my only reason is to bark loudly at my 32-inch flatscreen television and get a few extra cat claws in my thigh for my troubles.

On Thursday 22nd November I missed Question Time but luckily – or not – I did catch This Week.  There was a lengthy analysis of the Church of England’s reaffirmation of its (and other major religions’) historic view that women are inferior to men.  Or if that’s too inflammatory for you: not inferior, but just not as equal.

First up was Anne Atkins, the Christian commentator and regular on Radio 4’s Thought For The Day.  Atkins wasn’t exactly troubled by the church’s decision not to allow women bishops.  Well, that’s her right (but for an excellent discussion of why “women fight women” see this piece by Joan Smith in the Guardian).

The members of a religion or a private club are free to organise themselves as they see fit, and if that means debarring those with vaginas from senior roles (apart from the most senior role, in the case of Queen Elizabeth II and the Church of England) then that’s their business and no-one else’s.

There’s one ickle problem, though. The Church of England is not any old private club, and it is not any old religion.  It’s the established religion and an arm of the state.  Its decisions – in fact, its very existence as an established religion – affect us all.

A third of our state schools are run by the Church of England; its head just happens to be our country’s head of state; and 26 of its senior managers are installed as of right in a legislature which makes laws for everyone.

Following the synod’s vote to maintain the status quo on women bishops those 26 seats are therefore still reserved not just for Christian bottoms, but male Christian bottoms at that. That is an affront to the democracy and dignity of the United Kingdom (I’m talking about the reserved status of the seats, not the actual bottoms).

Atkins made an impassioned plea for freedom of conscience.  Ordinarily I would wholeheartedly support her but this is an institution of the state, Mrs. Atkins.  If an institution wants total freedom of conscience in how it organises itself then it cannot simultaneously be part of the state.  State institutions – indeed, commercial organisations too – are bound by certain rules of fairness.  We call those rules of fairness “equalities legislation”.  Disgracefully, the Church of England has exemptions from these rules.

If Atkins were really serious about maximising freedom of conscience then she would call for disestablishment of the Church of England but she didn’t exactly focus on this point last Thursday; when presenter Andrew Neil suggested it she merely remarked that that was another discussion.  It’s not: it’s the crucial part of this discussion.  If ever there were an elephant in the room this was it – other than an actual elephant.

My calm diagnosis is that Atkins isn’t too concerned about anyone’s freedom of conscience other than her own and those who agree with her.  Whilst the Church of England is bondaged to the state its members do not enjoy freedom of conscience because the church’s decisions are thrust into the political and wider public arena for dissection.

So long as the Church of England remains established there will always be this uneasy, unworkable tension where the church interferes in politics and public life generally, and political leaders and the public feel they’re entitled to call the church to account on the very reasonable basis that it’s a state institution.  For the sake of everyone’s freedom and sanity this cannot go on.

The only way to ensure maximum freedom for everyone is to decouple this out-of-control train wreck of a freak show and leave it to concoct its various potions, lotions, rules and regulations in peace.  The consequence of that may well be a break-up of the church into its more female/gay-friendly and misogynistic/homophobic (sorry, “traditional”) wings, and in conjunction with the emasculating act of disestablishment itself this subsequent process of specialisation (almost akin to evolution?) would probably weaken the church further, which is presumably why so many in the church want to preserve its established status.  But it’s certainly not true that all Christians, or all Christian organisations, want continued establishment.  Have a read of this encouraging piece from Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think tank Ekklesia, calling for church and state to be “set free”.

By not calling for disestablishment Atkins unwittingly displays her cards: she is not concerned about freedom of conscience for the church’s members.  And that’s not all: she also demonstrates lack of concern for the free conscience of those outside the church, such as the thousands of parents who suffer religious discrimination when choosing a school for their children – unless they feign religious belief.

The disgrace of our faith school system doesn’t just affect non-religious parents and those of the “wrong” religion. It also affects those of the “right” religion who despise the very notion of religious criteria for school admissions.  Again, Ekklesia supports an end to religious discrimination for school admissions.

And then there was Portillo…

Enter Michael Portillo at stage left, political right.

This former darling of the Conservative Party was once mooted as its possible future leader, until the not insignificant problem of losing his parliamentary seat at the 1997 general election.

Portillo acknowledged the downright strangeness of a state institution having indisputably sexist rules and how we wouldn’t tolerate this from any other state institution.  Unfortunately he also thought Atkins was “onto something” and that it was a jolly good thing for this institution not to just go along with whatever was “fashionable”.  Yes, that’s right: fashionable.

What decent human beings might refer to as “legal equality” and “human rights” is merely a fashion, apparently.  It’s often said you have to suffer for your art.  Well if that’s true then boy were those suffragettes committed to fashion. Imagine hurling yourself underneath a king’s galloping horse in the name of fashion.  Performance art, I suppose.

Portillo arose from the political dead in a November 1999 by-election, claiming the Kensington and Chelsea seat for the Conservatives.  During the election campaign the media became obsessed with a historic detail of his private life: Portillo had admitted in the summer of 1999 to having had some homosexual experiences as a young person”.  Big deal, you might say. Well unfortunately it was a big deal. The Conservative peer Lord Tebbit even accused Portillo of lying about the extent of his (Portillo’s) sexual “deviance”, but luckily for Portillo and the gay rights movement this didn’t seem to pose a problem for the Kensington and Chelsea voters, and his by-election victory came to symbolise at least in some small way the Tories’ rehabilitation.

Homosexuality was once a criminal offence in the United Kingdom. It still is in some countries, and Uganda’s politicians are currently in the process of criminalising it as a “Christmas gift” to the Ugandan people. Santa Claus is coming to town, Ugandans!  But if you’re gay he’ll be in fancy dress. As a policeman.

In some countries homosexuality is even punishable by death.  In Iran homosexuals are often hanged in city centres.

Mr. Portillo, don’t you think you’re incredibly lucky that the current fashion in the United Kingdom is for homosexual acts to be legal?

But don’t worry: if you prefer not to follow fashion, that’s your choice.

I hear Tehran is pleasant at this time of year.

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