Friday, 11 July 2014

Jeremy Pemberton, 'Gay Marriage' & a Messed Up Church

‘The Church of England recommends civil partnerships for gay clergy…the Church of England has ALWAYS recommended civil partnerships for gay clergy…’

Ok, so perhaps it’s a wee bit naughty to suggest there's something Orwellian in the House of Bishops' thinking around civil partnerships and equal marriage. I’ve been involved in the C of E long enough to presume my senior colleagues adopt a hand-wringing bimbling through issues rather than an overthought Soviet-diktat approach.

However, the emergent events surrounding Canon Jeremy Pemberton (see Church Times story here) should give all of us cause to pause and think. When I say ‘all of us’ I don’t just mean church people, but that wider group of people, of faith and none, who hold an interest in civil society and the pursuit of a compassionate, intelligent and generous society and public square.

Earlier this week Jeremy’s husband, Lawrence, signaled that Jeremy’s promotion to a new NHS Chaplaincy job had been de facto blocked by the acting Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Richard Inwood. Lawrence asked that people write to the bishop and Archbishop John Sentamu indicating support for Jeremy. (Further info here.)

For those not on the inside of the machinations of the C of E – which frankly is basically most people – Pemberton’s role as a chaplain/Head of Spiritual Care in a hospital is a job paid for and contracted under the auspices of NHS, an organization committed to equal opportunities. However, it is standard practice for the NHS to request a Bishop’s Licence for that chaplain. This enables the chaplain to serve specifically as an Anglican priest in the Diocese in which a hospital is set. Licensing is something which is part of the habitus or warp and weft of being a serving Anglican priest in any setting in England.

Bishop Inwood has denied this license. This means that Pemberton cannot take up his new job.

It is the prerogative of the bishop to issue or withhold licences. The withholding of licenses is - as I understand it - a practice which happens under circumstances in which a priest has been disciplined, or has broken Canon Law in specific ways.

What particular transgression of discipline or behaviour has Pemberton committed in the estimation of the bishop? He has legally married.

That’s right. He has married. He has exercised his legal right, contracted using laws signed under the assent of the Head of State, the Queen (who also happens to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England).

The point of contention for the bishop is that Pemberton has married a man. From the point of view of law, that matter is incidental; that is, the gender of the person is no longer of any significance as a bar to the contracting of a marriage. Yet, despite Pemberton exercising his legal right and entering into a relationship which (whether undertaken in a church or not ) the Church has considered a social and human good, Pemberton has had his capacity to work as a cleric in a secular setting effectively denied.

In the eyes of the acting Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham Pemberton has seemingly – in getting married – engaged in conduct unbecoming to a (gay) Clerk in Holy Orders. What he should have done is contract a Civil Partnership (or remain in one if already contracted.)

Let’s be clear here. If I understand the House of Bishops’ advice and Inwood's reading of it aright, the ethically correct behavior for those gay clergy who wish to place their committed, faithful and stable monogamous relationships on a legal footing is to contract a civil partnership rather than get married. That is, there is a moral imperative on gay people not to engage in the kind of relationships which the church has said is the right kind of relationship for those who wish to make a lifelong commitment to each other.

What will bewilder non-religious people who read this blog is how on earth the State church of England has got itself into such a horrible mess. The mess runs as follows: when an ordained person exercises their legal right to commit to another human being in love and faithfulness, and this person happens to be of the same gender, this leads to them being denied work in a setting subject to the Equalities Act 2010. It rather bewilders me and I’m ‘of the church.’

I have no idea what the future holds. I already sense that the overwhelming majority of people in England have already switched off the internecine machinations of its State Church. We’re not even a laughing stock. People have to acknowledge your existence for you to be a laughing stock (trust me – as someone who’s experienced mockery and bullying for being trans – I know).

I am gutted for Jeremy (and Lawrence) at a human level. However I am also gutted that the prospects for an institution that can offer so much seem so bleak. I want people to know God. I also still dream that people switched off by an institution that has worse LGBT policies than an organisation as crummy as McDonalds might come to recognise the C of E as a beacon of hope. That seems a pretty forlorn prospect.

Friday, 23 May 2014

'There & Back Again' - A Month of Adventures & Discoveries

At the end of Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee returns home to The Shire and says, ‘Well, I’m back.' This afternoon, as my train pulled into Piccadilly Sam's words was running through my head. It’s been an absurdly busy few weeks and getting back home to Manchester from Norwich felt (despite all the fun I’ve been involved in) like a complete relief.

If getting home felt great, I still feel like I’ve got loads to process. In the absence of Albus Dumbledore’s device to dump thoughts, the Pensieve, I’ve decided to write a short blog post. So here are some thoughts about some of the things I've had the privilege of being involved in over the past month.

Hull & East Riding LGBT Fellowship

At the tail end of April, Lucy Gorman invited me over to Hull to speak to a meeting of the LGBT Fellowship she helps run. Quite apart from taking the opportunity to stay with my lovely friends James & Louise & their family, ‘ull was full of delights. While it was a privilege to be asked to speak at the Fellowship's post-Easter meeting as well as talk with Lucy on’t radio, the real highlight was witnessing what committed, out LGBT Christians can do when they put their minds to it. The work and energy Lucy and others have put into getting this ace fellowship going is inspiring and humbling. This is a group I really hope goes from strength to strength. Sometimes people get the feeling that if you live outside of places like London, Manchester or Brighton, there’s little on offer for LGBT people. The Hull group, and the work of the likes of Andy Train & Hull Pride, proves the lie in that claim.


I’d never actually made it to this ‘thin place’ before and, by the time I got up there on Saturday 3rd May, I was so knackered I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to go again. Yet, all I can say is that it was a mind-blowing week. I’m not sure I’ll ever be quite the same again. It was a week of vulnerability, tears, laughter, challenge and grace. Given the confidential nature of the week I can’t go into details, but that week on Iona reminded me that it’s the simple, human things that really matter. Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a show-pony, but all of that – fun as it is – is pretty brittle. It’s the God who’s shown in human relationships that really matters. I may have been leading that week up on Iona, but, in the quality of love and commitment shown by those who came to the programme, I received far more than I could ever give.

Hertford College, Oxford

I really don’t get to the dreaming spires enough. As ever, it was fun, charming and energizing. As chapel worship goes, it has to be said that Hertford is about as relaxed and welcoming as it gets. While only a fool would claim that Oxford doesn’t have privilege inscribed in the very walls of its colleges, behind the money and the facade are still people. The conversations both at (a relatively low-key) High Table, over drinks after chapel and with Gareth, the chaplain, were intelligent, honest and humane. I particularly enjoyed chatting to Eden (who I’ve got to know via twitter) and Anna about LGBT stuff, equality and faith, among other things. It was cool and inspiring to listen to what they’ve been trying to model in sometimes quite conservative Christian settings.

Asylum Magazine Event, Manchester

I mentioned this event, ‘Transgender in the Time of Psychiatry’ in my last blog post. The testimonies and stories shared by attendees were, by turns, moving, shocking and humbling. The ordinand who’s on placement with me at the mo’ said words to the effect, ‘I didn’t realize it was so tough. I had no idea.’ Like many people I guess he thought that if your trans* in the UK, you go tell your GP and the NHS supports you. But, alas, that’s rarely how it works. I found the evening challenging to my own categories about the relationship/s between trans identity and the medical profession. I was struck by how easy it is for institutions and organizations to mistreat and misunderstand real human stories.

Youth Work Summit (YWS), Manchester

Being a show-pony I will always love a crowd, even one that – it might be argued – is potentially pretty hostile. At a purely personal level it’s probably no surprise that I enjoyed standing up in front of over 800 Youth Workers in order to ramble on about the connections between LGBT identity, theology and the Bible. But while speaking at the event was a privilege, that was nothing compared to sharing a stage with Dan and Alex, two young LGBT Christians, sharing their testimonies. They had me in tears and left me gobsmacked. I know I wasn’t the only one. They had genuine presence on stage and did more to change Christian minds about LGBT stuff than a hundred learned books. They reminded me of how tough it can still be to be LGBT and Christian (especially if you are in an evangelical setting), but also showed how much the world is moving and how much hope there is. The Spirit is doing a new thing. Thanks Dan and Alex for doing something remarkable by being your selves.

An Evening With Amazing People, Norwich

Having been nervous about getting pilloried by conservative evangelicals at the YWS, I was equally worried that secular LGBT people would give me a hard time at this event sponsored by Norwich & Norfolk Hospital Trust’s LGBT group. However, I shouldn’t have worried. I forget how generous people are. A hospital trust is a diverse organization and, even if stories of faith are not at the centre of what they do, people recognize that ‘faith’ can be a central part of human identity. The real treat for me was hearing Future Radio presenter Di Cunningham talk about some amazing LGBT musicians including a new discovery for me, the extraordinary Gladys Bentley. Having half expected a tough time for being a vicar (& therefore a representative of ‘the dark side’) I had a great time and was warmly received. It’s time I stopped making assumptions about how Christians and vicars will be seen by the LGBT community.

It’s great to be home, but I’ve had some amazing adventures over the past month. Thanks to everyone who’s blown my mind, borne with my long-winded pontifications and who’s shared the love.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Oasis 'Open Church', LGBT voices & privilege

Last night I attended and spoke at an Asylum Magazine sponsored event called ‘Trans* people in the time of Psychiatry.’ It was a striking opportunity for a number of trans* voices to be heard ahead of a special Asylum Magazine edition focusing on critiques of the psychiatric profession’s treatment and understanding of trans* identity. It was a lively, conscientized meeting which led to a heated and potent discussion. It revealed the range of views present among trans* people about the concepts of ‘treatment’ and even the place of psychiatry in trans* people lives. One of the striking points raised by both trans* and cis people was about how ‘psychiatry’ talks about trans* people. It has now slowly begun to ‘talk to’ trans* people, but this is still framed in a discourse which privileges the normative, clinical and non-trans* voice. (For anyone who is interested in the shattering experience many trans* people have had in the midst of both psychiatrists and the wider medical profession check out #TransDocFail on twitter.)

Given last night’s experience – in which trans* voices were prioritized, foregrounded and cis people were invited to be part of our conversation, but were not privileged – perhaps I wasn’t in the best place to read a tweet from my friend Vicky Beeching which read (I want to flag up here that I’m not trying to ‘shoot the messenger’ for a tweet!):

Myself, @SteveChalke @alantlwilson & @Andrew_Marin will be speaking at this conference on LGBT theology, April 2015: 

Checking out the list of headline speakers I was a bit concerned that there were seemingly no out LGBT on the list. Consequently I tweeted:

@vickybeeching @SteveChalke @alantlwilson @Andrew_Marin at the risk of sounding typically LGBT - where are the out LGBT folk on this list?

This led to an interesting exchange of tweets (see my timeline @revrachelmann) which included Vicky pointing out that there are some gay speakers on this initial list.
So is my reaction a wee bit ‘touchy’? Possibly. I am always conscious that I am quite capable of being a grumpy get, especially first thing in the morning. I am also conscious of how the language of ‘touchy’ and ‘chippy’ can be an internalized expression of homophobia and transphobia – that is, the result of an internalized belief that us LGBT people should just be thankful that straight (-presenting) people are being nice to us.

However, while acknowledging that it is still a year till this conference, I remain anxious about the set-up of the conference. Why? Because as far as I can see it is predicated on the deployment of ‘straight privilege’ and the conservative credibility that depends upon ‘straight’ (presenting) people talking about us. What do I mean?

For all I know, all of the headline speakers are gay. (It perhaps seems unlikely!) However, in terms of the set-up of this conference, there is silence about who they are as sexual beings. In a society that still privileges ‘straightness’ it seems not unreasonable to read those people as either: a) actually straight (which they all might be) or b) presenting as ‘straight’ and making use of the privilege which comes from being perceived as straight.

My point is this: even if those speakers have a proven track record of speaking up for LGBT people (and I know many have, at real personal cost) there is the constant risk  in any conference of a variant of the ‘trans psych scenario’ outlined at the start of the blog – people who are not LGBT (or don’t want to be seen as LGBT/’too’(!) LGBT) speaking on behalf of and about LGBT people. In an extraordinarily homo- and trans-phobic institution like the church I will always be anxious about headline narratives that begin by deploying straight-privilege to create credibility.

One of the headline speakers Andrew Marin tweeted me off the back of my tweet to say:
@RevRachelMann @dave42w @vickybeeching @alantlwilson 1 can’t hv LGBT conf w/o LGBTs. Give @SteveChalke more credit. Still 1yr away/1st promo

He’s right that it is a year away and it’s the first promo. And I'm sure Vicky is right that there are gay speakers. But you know what? Like all people who are hungry for change, I still want more. If you read the profiles of the people currently signed up to speak, even the queer people’s status as LGBT people is not foregrounded. ‘But it doesn’t matter,’ I hear some of you shout in frustration. (Or, ‘We don’t want that fact to get in the way’ or even ‘That’s a private matter’.) And those reactions are the heart of the issue. Because it does matter - the visible presence of people who are out and proud and will not apologise for who they are, not even for the sake of being credible, is crucial. It has always been at the heart of cultural change.

And what about Andrew’s point? Yes, it is a year out and I know conferences need to sell – it’s good to have some big, well-respected hitters to promote your event. But the way that conference looked to me this morning is less about LGBT scholars, activists and voices being foregrounded and more like nice, liberal people talking about them. And, so, maybe my problem is a matter of perception rather than reality. As I said, perhaps all of the headliners are LGBT and will use this conference to come out. (It would almost be worth the straight speakers doing it just for the ‘lols’! Go on, Alan!) But I wish the way the conference ‘looks’ feels more like a place where LGBT voices were foregrounded. Imagine how that set up might look if a one of the headliners from the start was a noted queer scholar like Elizabeth Stuart or Nicola Slee. Imagine if priority was given to young LGBT voices who have been serially marginalized by the church. (Again, I acknowledged that I don’t know what’s been happening behind the scenes. Perhaps these are things to be sorted at a later date.)

Andrew says, ‘Give Steve Chalke more credit.’ I hear this. (Though I do feel a wee bit ‘told-off’; I’m sure that wasn’t Andrew’s intention! This morning I’m overly sensitized to straight-privileged voices knocking against my out-trans one!) I also hear the force of Vicky’s tweets. (See my timeline.) I am a loose cannon who often needs to be corrected, especially on that blunt instrument ‘Twitter’. I always want to work with allies, straight or gay (hell, even those in the closet who use straight privilege to do stuff. (I think!!)), but given my experience of being part of groups of people who get talked about rather than talked to, I will keep asking the questions.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Justin Welby, Homosexuality and Unintended Consequences

This morning on LBC the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that African Christians will be killed if the Church of England accepts same-gender marriage. Andrew Brown, writing for The Guardian, reports,

‘Speaking on an LBC phone in, Justin Welby said he had stood by a mass grave in Nigeria of 330 Christians who had been massacred by neighbours who had justified the atrocity by saying: "If we leave a Christian community here we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians."
"I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact," Welby said. If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, "the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world."

I do not doubt Justin Welby’s experience. As noted in a previous blog post I have lived in a country which criminalizes homosexuality. Changing Attitude and other organizations have consistently flagged up how very dangerous it is to be gay in the majority world.

In this blog post I want to examine the underlying logic of the Archbishop’s claims and question and  problematize them. I apologize if my reasoning seems blunt and crude. I am currently fasting as part of EndHungerFast and my mind is not working at full tilt. Equally, I am very open to comments which help sharpen up my thinking in this area.

As I read it, the Archbishop’s argument again the C of E accepting same-gender marriage follows the pattern below:

‘Organization/Institution A cannot commend /accept ‘x’ because to do so would necessarily and logically lead to ‘y’, which is both an unintended consequence and actually constitutes a much worse situation. And ‘y’ is such a terrible thing that it makes ‘x’ seem reckless, wanton and deeply unwise.’

I know that puts it starkly and dramatically, but I do this in order to reveal the clear consequentialist structure of the argument. When put in such stark terms and before adding any content to this logical structure, the consequentialist case can seem both plausible and beyond question.

The power of Welby’s consequentialist thinking lies in our tendency to focus on what might be called a ‘narrow range’ of ‘defined’ consequences. Let me see if I can explain.

Let us suppose for a moment that Welby’s claim is incontestable. That is to say, let’s accept Welby’s claim that if the C of E accepted equal marriage, Christians in Nigeria etc would be killed in great numbers. (Let us be clear, no one actually knows if that would happen.)

The logic of the argument is that even if action/activity ‘x’ has good consequences (e.g. social justice for some, improvement in church’s standing eamong some communities) those consequences will be outweighed by a further consequence ‘y’,’ which is the unnecessary death of large numbers of people.
The deaths of large numbers of people, on this argument, surely has a greater hold over our sense of moral responsibility than the social goods that might be generated by adopting ‘x’. 

I suspect that if this reasoning is appealing it is so only because of assumptions that are dangerously sloppy.

One of the problems created by consequentialism is how we assign value to the terms involved. It sets up the argument on competitive grounds – that is to say, the referent terms of the argument are assigned competing values and a calculation is then made on the basis of those terms. So, in the current case, ‘the social and cultural (positive) value of equal marriage’ is set in competition with the ‘the (negative) value of the deaths of Christians.’ We are then invited to calculate the competing moral worth of the referents.

Again, at first glance, various reactions might be called forth – firstly, that when put in such stark terms, it only adds weight to Welby’s claim. Why? Because surely human beings are always worth more than a ‘social value’ or ‘social good’. Secondly, it invites a troubling question: By what criteria can one ‘measure’ the value of a social good against that of a human life?

‘Human beings are always worth more than a social/cultural/religious practice or value.’

I am suspicious of what is called ‘common sense’.  Yet many will share the instinct that, even if we cannot and indeed should not ‘quantify’ the value of a human life, there is a profound sense in which the lives of human beings are more significant than any social and cultural values or law, even if that value or law seeks to add to the human good. However, there are a number of considerations which problematize this claim.

It is tempting to present ‘social goods’ like freedom or justice as abstracts, but they are also part of our lived reality. If someone claims that ‘equal marriage’ might be a social good, but it is not as significant in value as the lives of [x] numbers of human beings/Christians it ignores the reality that equal marriage is part of a social nexus which affirms and celebrates human lives and changes actual societies and cultures. That is to say, something like ‘equal marriage’ is not an abstraction, but something which (keeping with the logic of consequentialism) has actual positive human effects and may (consequently) lead to less prejudice, less violence and greater human flourishing. Quite how one might reductively ‘quantify’ them is open to serious question.

The argument above indicates that it may not be possible, under the logic of consequentialism, to provide a precise and comparable measure between something presented as a social good and what is presented as a human tragedy. Consequentialism is predicated on the idea that a situation/event/act etc can be measured/assigned a value according to controlled circumstances. Yet, it is not clear by what criteria one might assign a definitive value to ‘x’ or ‘y’. Equally, the very notion of ‘unintended consequences’ suggests that it may not be possible to undertake an analysis that is sufficiently controlled.

The problem of unintended consequences.

One aspect of Welby’s claim concerns what might be called the problem of ‘unintended consequences.’

The logic works like this:
Group A think that Action/Practice ‘x’ will have the following positive
consequences ‘y’, but (because consequences cannot be controlled) ‘x’ may also have the following unintended consequences ‘z’. ‘z’ is so terrible as to make ‘x’ and its positive consequences ‘y’ anathema.

+Justin might acknowledge that ‘accepting gay marriage’ would (in broad terms) have good consequences for the church, for UK society and even send out a positive message against homophobia’ Etc.
BUT, these positive consequences are nothing compared to the unintended negative consequences – the deaths of hundreds and possibly thousands of Christians at the hands of those who conclude that the Church of England’s support for gay marriage makes all Christians anathema.

Can the consequences of any action/policy/process be controlled? Crudely, I suggest, ‘No.’ That – alas - is the nature of consequences.  When the Archbishop makes a statement on LBC can he control the reaction and effects of that statement? Not in any obvious way. One of the reasons most sensible people give some thought to both their intentions and their actions is that we recognize that actions have consequences, many of which may be quite unintended. (It should be noted that this consideration of consequences is not of itself a reason for not acting. Indeed, it is impossible not to act.)

To give a very humble example, the House of Bishops (HoB) made a Pastoral Statement on equal marriage. One assumes they intended that statement to be received with grace and love and understanding. They would not have intended it to lead to anger and conscientization among many previously inactive congregations and clergy; Nor would they have intended the further consequence that clergy and congregations have, in reaction to the Statement, become proactively in favour of becoming inclusive congregations, started to examine the possibilities of blessing gay unions and become active dissidents. The Bishops’ statement might lead to expressions of dissent among gay and straight clergy that were never intended. These could (who knows? One can’t completely control consequences…) lead to face offs and legal challenges etc etc.

One supposes that the HoB did not intend these consequences.

And, of course, consequences breed consequences. Perhaps one unintended consequence of the HOB statement is to signal to both our government and, more terrifyingly, to governments like the one in Uganda that the C of E is prepared to make sacrifices of LGBT people in countries that already were exploring the greater penalization of homosexuality ahead of the HoB Statement.

Yet, one assumes that the HoB came to their mind and decision to publish because they believed that to make the Statement was right and was required by their faithfulness to Christ and God. The unintended consequences, which at the same time might reasonably have been anticipated, were not seem as sufficient reason not to do what they thought was right. In that circumstance 'unintended consequences' as and of themselves were not considered sufficient to prevent them from acting for what they believed was right.

A consideration of consequences will always be a factor in decision making at a human and corporate level, but given our inability to actually define the nature and extent of the consequences of human decision making, it cannot be the only one.

Consequentialism as non-Christian

Consequentialism – in the form of utilitarianism – has always been attractive to the economic and commercial mind, because it seeks to remove decision making from the question of human judgment and character and assign a scientific value to any problem.

It would be cheap to suggest that this kind of thinking is at the heart of what Justin Welby is saying. The man is very smart, sensitive and loving. I am sure he would want to stand up for a Christianity that is not beholden to utilitarian or consequentialist logic.

At the same time, I sense +Justin ought to be cautious of the logic of consequentialism. For ethics – Christian or otherwise – is hamstrung if reduced to a consequentialist (so-called) ‘evidence-based’ analysis. Considerations of conscience, intention and character as well as duty and principle will surely always significant to any rich conception of ethics. The instinct that humans are of fundamental value – a Christian conclusion for sure – is not based on a consequentialist analysis, but (I suggest) on an onto-theo-logical claim.

Given that no reasonable person would welcome the death of anyone as a consequence of ‘our’ actions, even when those actions are presented as good, it is very difficult for a reasonable person to commend an action or set of practices that would make a situation worse. Yet a community of character and love is invited, I suspect, to demonstrate how the reductive consequentialist way of thinking is a red herring and relies on a failure to appreciate how human ethical reasoning works.

Welby is seemingly saying that if the CofE commended equal marriage it would have blood on its hands, by proxy. We – the church - would be cited as the reason why a group like Boko Harem would justify killing others. That this would be the excuse for their repulsive behaviour.

Yet as +Justin indicated in his interview, people are already being killed by the likes of Boko Harem on utterly spurious grounds.  And surely just because someone cites ‘x’ as a reason for their actions does not mean that ‘x’ is either a reasonable and justified basis for their action. A man might say that he commits atrocities because his religious book/tradition/beliefs requires it, but that doesn’t mean we treat it as a reasonable or justified reason for doing so. (It may not even be the operative reason, that is, it may be the reason being cited but the actual motivation for doing ‘x’ lies at a deeper level.) Nor – if we are careful – do we blame the book/deity or tradition for the person or group’s actions. The person or group is responsible.

Let us for the moment rework the logic of the claim under consideration.
Justin Welby strikes me as saying:
We will not support or adopt ‘x’ because it will enrage/upset/lead to yet more morally reprehensible behavior by group/person ‘a’ whose actions have already been morally reprehensible.

In Real Politik this happens a lot. Some governments and institutions, for example, chose not to criticize Russia ahead of the Sochi Olympics because they didn’t want to make things worse. Perhaps some of the same situation applies around Russia and the Ukraine at the moment. Our own government and the EU do not adopt certain sanctions and actions against Russia for fear of losing Russian oligarch money or having gas disrupted.
The intended consequence of this runs as follows: by not standing up publicly for what is ‘right’/morally correct means we can control and manage a group/organization/nation or individual we disapprove of, but are frightened of.

There is something seemingly irenic about this approach. Haven’t we all sought to be cautious in complex, threatening situations in order to reduce harm? Haven’t we done so in the hope of achieving something more reasonable in the longer term?

I shall not bore you by outlining the questions raised by this approach. At various levels we’ve all adopted this logic – whether with a work colleague, a PCC, Etc. Etc. Yet this approach can lead both to paralysis and also, sticking now with consequentialism, to some awful unintended consequences.

Our ‘policy’ of seeking not to make things worse runs the constant danger of ignoring the facts of reality: that, yes, we might be trying not to make a situation worse, but that situation may already be intolerable for those being persecuted by a morally reprehensible government or group. We seek to control the morally reprehensible by not giving them one more reason to be morally reprehensible. Meanwhile the moral reprehensibility continues. All we have deprived group A or person B of is another spurious reason to destroy people’s lives.  All we have sought to do is keep our hands clean. Yet, as we have seen again and again, through history, culture and literature and indeed in the Christian faith itself, there is no such thing as a clean pair of hands.