Backdating the Claim - a few thoughts on Freedom of Conscience
Marcus Green is chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford. He is an organising member of the Oxford 'Sacred' Service, a co-convenor of Inclusive Evangelicals and the author of 'The Possibility of Difference'.
I spent a teaching day recently with a group of clergy and lay leaders talking about what the Church of England is doing around equal marriage. It was a fascinating day. We began by being honest about how we felt to be there - and I may have been the only person to use the word ‘optimistic’!
Of course I’m optimistic.
I’m a gay man and an evangelical. I’ve heard all sorts of things said about me, and had many other things said elsewhere reported to me. I’ve had lovely people on the internet call me names I’ve had to look up to understand. I’ve been offered conversion therapy more times than you’d believe (once at Lambeth Palace, no less) and some genuine psychotherapy too - which was (honestly) more useful.
I’ve been treated as a second class human being before I came out, and worse since. I’ve been pulled apart (anonymously, but pretty searingly) on Livestream at General Synod, and few things compare to an in-private character assassination from a bishop who’s just met you and didn’t like something you said in a plenary meeting…
And through all of that (and please, yes, of course - let’s be clear: I’m an awkward sod and probably deserved a lot of the mess I’ve brought on myself through the years; OK?) there’s been Jesus.
I mean, Jesus.
The kindness, the beauty, the wonder, the glory. The challenge and the cost too, for sure. But it’s the other stuff that takes your breath away and sticks with you. Nobody remembers the cost when you feel the emotion, the yearning, the love.
When you see Jesus.
Moments in worship. Words in a sermon. Flashes of friendship. Music that transports. Days that are so perfect they never end, yet end too soon. In the midst of pain and tears - a humming bird. Raspberry gelato.
I’m optimistic because I’ve lived long enough to know that life isn’t about the pain but the glory. It’s not the dying, it’s the rising. And even if they go together, the glory follows the pain, the rising follows the dying, and though I will never stop fighting to make the lives of people younger than me better than mine has been, I also know that if I can also show them Jesus - they’ll be OK.
So I’m optimistic.
But that day with clergy and lay leaders was fascinating too because something that kept coming out of it was the issue of ‘freedom of conscience’. My conservative friends are very concerned that, should the Bishops or the General Synod or God change the polity of the Church of England and allow for anything positive to be said or thought about LGBTQIA+ people, there must be freedom of conscience for those who disagree to do so without fear of retribution or disadvantage in any way.
I listened to this discussion and found I had two questions.
To what sort of issues does one apply ‘freedom of conscience’?
Who gets this freedom of conscience anyway?
1. The ‘freedom of conscience’ argument kicks in because if - as seems likely - Synod or Bishops or God make some kind of change, and we end up being allowed to pray for something gay in the next five years or so, our conservative friends want the right to opt out without penalty. They don’t want people coming to them and demanding unreasonable things like, say, a Drag Race-themed service in church, and then the local press and TV and and everyone coming and camping on their lawn when they say no.
They want the right that if this stuff happens, it doesn’t have to happen to them. They still get to be in the Church of England, but they get a pass on all the (frankly very limited) pro-LGBTQIA+ stuff that may exist. It’s envisaged that we can all belong to the same church and have conscience protected, so that those who want to be homophobic can be - without penalty.
I’m being naughty, but it’s because I’m confused.
You see: right now, while no pro-gay prayers are allowed (and that’s the current official guideline) and while no gay blessings are allowed, and while no gay marriages are legal in CofE churches, our conservative friends say - this isn’t a minor issue: you can’t change things because it’s a Gospel issue. It’s core to who we are.
It’s not a matter of conscience at all.
Conscience applies to adiaphora. Secondary matters. It doesn’t apply to core matters of faith.
If a church stops signing up to the Trinity - leave it. It’s not a Christian church any more. If a church stops proclaiming the Lordship of Christ - leave it. It’s not a Christian church any more. If a church starts proclaiming a false Gospel - that is, a Gospel which adds something to Jesus as necessary for salvation, you should leave it. It’s on its way to not being a Christian church any more.
Right now, some of our conservative friends are describing marriage (and via that, all issues of sexuality) as a Gospel issue. A primary issue. A core matter. A necessary to salvation issue. The good news is - they don’t believe it. And we know they don’t believe it, because they’re also seeing a future where they will still be in the CofE needing to apply ‘freedom of conscience’ clauses in order to get around inevitable changes. So the truth is, despite often used words, they accept they are fighting loudly on a secondary issue of faith.
Adiaphora. Not Gospel matters.
Secondary issues of faith can be matters of conscience. Not primary issues. Freedom of conscience never trumps doctrine on primary issues. Just cos you don’t feel like believing in the Trinity, you don’t get a pass. Or your own bishop.
Strangely, I think that conservatives arguing on the freedom of conscience issue should be taken as a good sign. It can feel angular and awkward, but it's sort of honest. It takes some of the theological heat out of their argument. I don't like them not liking me - but it does prick the schism balloon a bit, and that's a good thing. I'm an inclusionist. I believe Jesus loves people I struggle with, so we do all belong together.
2. So then - who gets this freedom of conscience? Who does it apply to?
Well, may I go back to the teaching day where this all started off?
Because I told the participants at that day that - should the polity of the CofE change, and should prayers for LGBTQIA+ people be introduced, or even should equal marriage be on the table at some point - should any conservative ever be hauled over the coals and given a CDM for not complying, I would defend them to the hilt and argue for their total freedom of conscience not to offer a service they (in all good conscience) could not deliver.
I, who argue for change, and for affirming LGBTQIA+ people with my every breath. I who believe that all God's children are made in God's image. I who campaign not just for blessings but for equal marriage.
And please understand: I'd do this, I'd stand up for this hypothetical conservative, because in reality I have to live under a church polity where I am not allowed freedom of conscience.
I am not allowed to pray for people like me. I am not allowed to bless people like me. I am not allowed to celebrate people like me who fall in love. If I were to fall in love and get married I could lose my license as a clergyman.
I do not have freedom of conscience.
I have lived my whole life without the thing these conservative friends wish to have, and I would not that anyone else live a single day as I have had to live my whole life.
The ‘freedom of conscience’ argument is powerful, but it is only powerful if it is seen in its proper context. Its proper context is not some putative change that may happen soon in the Church of England.
It is the current state of play.
It is the church polity where clergy have been sacked. It is the place where ordinands have given up. It is the reality that many have not even begun to follow their calling. It is the desperate truth that this inhuman, dehumanising lack of freedom of conscience has gone on for generations - without anyone in episcopal palaces even noticing, never mind it being spotted and taken seriously at General Synod - and has robbed precious people made in the glorious image of God of lives they ought to have had.
And it’s not that no-one’s cared.
No-one’s even seen.
So when our conservative friends talk about the need for freedom of conscience, yeah, let’s agree with them.
And maybe backdate the claim.
* * *
Go sit in the sunshine. Walk the dog and see how he enjoys the simplest of things. Listen to some music you love.
Remember Jesus is holding your hand.
There is always mess, and trouble, and awfulness.
And we’ll get it all sorted. Someday.
But even today, God is good. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Look to Jesus. If you’re going to let someone have your headspace rent free for a while, let it be someone terrific.
Be kind to someone today. I can’t make everything perfect, but I can do something nice. I can make some kind of symbolic gesture toward the world I want to live in. I can claim something for God’s Kingdom.
I can follow Jesus.
So can you.
Let’s be optimistic.
Of all the choices we have today, why not pick that one?