Head of Faithworks Speaks to Christian Today on Sexual Orientation Regulations

Malcolm Duncan is the head of Faithworks, a Christian organisation which works to boost the role that individual Christians and the local church play within the community.

He surprised many Christians last week speaking in active support of the Sexual Orientation Regulations, debated in the House of Lords last Tuesday as thousands of Christians rallied in opposition outside.

Mr Duncan said that many Christians had misunderstood the use of the word 'service' to include such ceremonies as blessings of same-sex unions. Against widespread opposition among Christians, he welcomed the regulations as "an attempt to ensure that goods and services are delivered inclusively and in non-discriminatory ways".

He addressed the fears of many Christians that churches may be forced under the regulations to hire out their rooms to pro-gay groups.

"A commitment to diversity through doing this does not mean losing your faith identity: it actually presents an opportunity to develop a dialogue and put the Gospel into action through demonstrating love and service," he said.

Mr Duncan went on to accuse Christians of double standards and said they were in danger of sounding homophobic for basing their opposition to the regulations on homosexual relationships while saying nothing about heterosexual relationships outside of marriage. He concluded by saying that the regulations were an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the love and grace of Christ.

Mr Duncan speaks to Christian Today further about his views.

You are very positive about the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which is surprising given the amount of opposition that has been expressed among Christians. In what way do you see the Sexual Orientation Regulations benefiting Christians?

I think the importance of the Sexual Orientation Regulations has to be seen by Christians and be understood within the context of the wider equalities legislation in the United Kingdom. They are not a piece of stand alone legislation and they protect the rights of human beings to equal and right service in terms of delivery of goods and services.

That is beneficial to Christians. We should welcome it because it enshrines a basic Christian commitment to unconditional service and love of people irrespective of whether we agree with or disagree with their lifestyle choices.

The other positive for us is that we need to remember that the Sexual Orientation Regulations work both ways. Not only do they protect the rights of same-sex or transgender couples in the delivery of goods and services, they protect the rights of heterosexual couples in the delivery of goods and services if they were to ask for those services. For example, a hotel run by a gay couple cannot deny Christian couples the opportunity to stay there. So there is a double edge to these regulations which some of the more vociferous Christian opposition has misunderstood and has not even mentioned.

Rev Ian Paisley dismissed attempts from the government to reassure Christians that the regulations were nothing to worry about.

I think Dr Paisley has to seriously consider his words and increasingly has to measure what he says in public because he himself could be in danger of being caught in an incitement to religious hatred accusation. He needs to realise, we need to realise as a Christian community that on the 13 December in the House of Lords there was an exchange around some of the concerns that Christians and other faith groups had regarding the Sexual Orientation Regulations. In this exchange the specific concerns of a hotel owner having to provide accommodation to a same-sex couple was addressed; the concern around a Christian print business having to print literature they didn't approve of was addressed; the concern around members of the emergency services having to deliver literature at events with which their consciences couldn't agree were addressed.

The challenge for Christians is not simply about how we treat homosexual couples but the challenge for us is to measure whether or not we are guilty of double standards and make sure that we apply the same principles to heterosexual relationships as we would to same-sex relationships.

There is a double standard where we are elevating sexual practice to a place of greater sinfulness and greater accountability than we are the rest of the content of the New Testament towards morality and ethical behaviour.

The Sexual Orientation Regulations apply only to goods, facilities and services and you have said Christians have misunderstood because they have interpreted this to mean that, for example, priests may be forced to marry gay couples. If we take that particular service out, do you not still think that the Sexual Orientation Regulations limit the areas in which Christians are free to live by their consciences?

No I don't. I don't at all. The Sexual Orientation Regulations demand that we treat people as whole human beings who are not simply defined by their sexuality. And I think the Sexual Orientation Regulations do demand of us that we provide a service which is egalitarian and non-discriminatory. That does not conflict with our ethos and our clear Christian distinctiveness. It simply does not. It is a misunderstanding of our purpose in the world.

As Christians we need to remember that the imposition of Christian morality and values cannot be from the Christian church upon the society we live in. We do not live in a Christianised society. We cannot impose our values. I have a very conservative view of homosexuality. But where I must apply that is within the context of the believing community and within my own family or within the context of how I conduct my household and my private affairs. I am not at liberty, the Bible does not give me the liberty, to impose my view of morality on the world.

You said the Sexual Orientation Regulations don't compromise our faith identity but do you not think it could compromise our faith values? If, for example, a church is forced to hire out its rooms to a pro-gay group would that not send out a mixed message about what the morals teachings of the Bible are, even if you do not explicitly impose your Christian beliefs on society?

There is a rather complex answer to that question. It depends on how the terms and rights of a building being hired are constructed. My understanding is that it is possible for a set of requirements around a building and its use to be set out by the trustees which would not contradict the Sexual Orientation Regulations. But it needs to be done and thoughtfully done.

What we must not do, what we cannot do, is apply one set of standards to homosexual practice and another set of standards to others. That's the challenge in the use of our public buildings.

Is that what bothers you the most about the Christian response to the Sexual Orientation Regulations?

It is one of the things that bother me. I am concerned about some of the virulent and aggressive style of campaigning that has taken place, I am concerned about some of the banners that were waved last night, I am concerned about the introduction of children who could not possibly understand the issues being brought to the rally [outside the House of Lords]. I am concerned about some of the language that was used because I was present and heard some of the things that were said.

But I don't think Christians need to feel threatened. There are a number of Christian positions on sexuality. Mine happens to be a conservative one. The Faithworks movement is not an evangelical movement. We are a broad Christian coalition. The movement doesn't have a view on human sexuality. The members of the movement have different views. But as a movement we would encourage our members to adopt a holistic and integrated and joined up approach to sexuality. If they are saying something about the use of their buildings within the context of same-sex relationships they must apply the same standards and principles to the use of their buildings by heterosexuals.

For example, if they would hire their hall to a couple who have been living together and want to celebrate their 25th anniversary but would not hire their hall to a same-sex couple then whether they like it or not they are guilty of double standards. And that question must be addressed and the tenor and tone of our engagement in this debate is making us sound as if actually the big issue is gay people rather than the issue of a joined up a morality.

A lot of opponents are concerned the Sexual Orientation Regulations limit the ability to live by freedom of conscience and that whether that is directed towards a heterosexual couple or a homosexual couple that is your freedom of conscience.

That is where the misunderstanding of the regulations is most evident. If you have a consistent approach to the delivery of goods and services within the context of your religious services then you are safe. If you don't then you are not.

You said earlier that you are not in the position to impose your Christian values on society. Where do you see the line for Christians between commitment to inclusiveness and living according to Christian beliefs? Are you concerned that faith is being pushed into the private sphere?

The pushing of religious conviction to the edge of the debate should be a concern to anybody. But I don't think my private convictions are for private interpretation and application only. I think my private convictions lead to a public position on a number of key issues including issues like sexuality.

But I do not think we can impose a Christian morality on the British legislative process. I think that's a reinvention of Christendom. I think that's a reinvention of the idea that the church should tell the political powers in this country how to legislate. We must not. What we must do is be vocal and clear and honest in our engagement in public policy and debate but we must then recognise that the British political system as it exists does not exist as a theocracy. It doesn't exist as an extension of the church or an extension of our morality. My view on sexuality is not changed one bit by whether the Sexual Orientation Regulations are law or not.

How I approach the delivery of goods and services must be interpreted in light of the legislative process. My view of faith education is not changed by whether faith education is permitted or not permitted in this country. We as Christians have to learn that we are on the edge of society speaking into it, that we are in the middle of the world but not of it and we need to learn an approach to engagement and lobbying and advocacy and campaigning which protects our distinctiveness but actually recognises that our rights are no more important than the rights of other people in this country and our rights go along with responsibilities. And the reason for that is that if we demand that Christian rights are pre-eminent here in the United Kingdom then we must demand that in Islamic countries Islamic rights are pre-eminent and they are perfectly entitled to legislate against Christian practices while we are trying to legislate Christian practices into the statute book in this country.

But Christians should still try their hardest to bring in laws that work in their favour?

That's what we are doing. That's why we are lobbying, campaigning and that's why I welcome an honest and open and Christ-like engagement in the debate around the Sexual Orientation Regulations.

Do you think this debate has been open enough? One concern was that the government was trying to push the legislation through as secondary legislation which would not be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.

I think the debate about the parliamentary process is a different debate to the content of the Bill and I think we should constantly take the position of being critical friends of any government. We must scrutinise the legislative process. And I have concerns about the legislative process around the Sexual Orientation Regulations. I have concerns about the legislative process full stop, like the lack of accountability between the executive and parliament i.e. the cabinet and parliament. That is a separate although connected issue.

I am not saying, Faithworks is not saying, that engagement in public life or engagement in public policy is wrong. We welcome engagement in public policy. It's what we do all the time. But Christians engaging in the public policy debate must recognise that they do so as a voice, not the voice of conscience in Britain.

To read Mr Duncan's statement in support of the Sexual Orientation Regulations in full please go to: Rev Malcolm Duncan - Sexual Orientation Regulations An Alternative Christian Perspective