Comment: Keep the EHRC door open to promote change

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Simon Barrow

Reactions to the news that the Rev Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, had been appointed to serve as one of the commissioners on the new Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), were swift and predictable.

There was acknowledgement but little immediate comment in the religious press (many there are nervous about the news, for the opposite reason to readers) and annoyance and incomprehension in LGBT communities and among civil rights and secular activists.

Since I am co-director of a think tank on religion in public life that has a clear track record of calling on the churches to give full recognition to the dignity and rights of LGBT people, both within communities of faith and in society at large, a number of people rang to ask whether I was ‘for’ or ‘against’ the appointment.

In all honesty, I think that viewing it in these terms misses the point, and a possible opportunity.

The aim of a single equalities body is to produce a coherent strategy for promoting equal treatment for all people, in society and before the law.

That means access to services and the recognition of rights irrespective of ethnicity, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion and belief in the public square.

Everyone who signs up to this task needs to accept that goal.

By the same token, those who serve on EHRC are going to have to acknowledge the continued existence of suspicion, prejudice and resistance in many areas of society, and find ways of dealing with it.

Promoting equal treatment isn’t just about rules and regulations for fair conduct (though those are crucial), it’s about changing hearts and minds.

Joel Edwards is a prominent black church leader and evangelical Christian.

He is a voice emerging from constituencies who contain within them significant opposition to what is often stereotyped as “the gay rights agenda,” and to the recognition and blessing of same-sex relationships.

I strongly disagree with that. I think that the Christian Gospel points firmly in the direction of equality, and to the creation of relationships of love and justice that are not restricted by human differences.

However, like black cultures, evangelical Christianity is not uniform and monolithic.

It is changing. While media attention focuses on loud anti-gay voices, there are many evangelicals (Christians who have a particular reverence for the Bible) who are moving in the opposite direction.

One organisation, Courage Trust, shifted from being an ‘ex-gay’ ministry to a pro-gay, affirming one.

They were kicked out of the Evangelical Alliance for their stance, but they continue to exercise influence in that field.

There are also many EA members who are openly or privately sympathetic to the growing Accepting Evangelicals network.

Even more significantly, in terms of the public equalities agenda, the Faithworks Christian service agency, which has over 20,000 partners across the country in hundreds of projects and churches, fully supported the Sexual Orientation Regulations.

They acknowledge that many of their supporters would still refuse full recognition of lesbian and gay people within the church, but they say that this is no reason at all for refusing fair treatment in society as a whole – especially in areas where public money is involved. The same is true on adoptions.

I can well understand that this distinction will look unacceptable and contradictory to many LGBT people.

But it is a big advance for those involved, a stance that overcomes a crucial policy logjam, and a means by which conservative opinion (which is definitely not restricted sections of the church, especially in some minority communities) can move forward.

In effect it says that the argument going on in the churches (and whose eventual outcome I believe will be full acceptance, just as freedom trumped slavery in spite of evilly misconstrued biblical texts), should not be superimposed on governance and civil society, which has a duty to be open and fair for all.

This is an approach I believe Joel Edwards can endorse. He is not, despite some accusations over the past few days, a fundamentalist or bigot.

We might disagree with him on some crucial points, but he is reasonable, compassionate, honest and influential.

He is part of a vital conversation and argument that can only be won by engagement, not isolation, painful though that may be at times.

Of his EHRC appointment Dr Edwards has acknowledged his responsibility, alongside others, for an agenda far bigger than the interests he seeks to speak for.

He has also warned of the challenges ahead for religious believers “as we learn how to present our faith distinctives within a liberal democracy, where morals and values cannot be dictated to by Christian faith alone.”

I’d like to add, cannot be dictated by anyone, since being dictatorial is the opposite of cultivating ethics.

From Ekklesia’s point of view, we want to argue that whether you are cynical or open in viewing this appointment, it provides an opportunity to encourage a significant section of society that has been resisting change to embrace it incrementally.

Of course we should remain vigilant about the watering down of comprehensive equalities.

There is no question about that. But let our first response be to keep doors open, not slam them shut.

Simon Barrow is a writer, commentator, theologian and co-director of Ekklesia.