Much of what former PM Tony Blair had to say in yesterday's Observer was welcome to those who have despaired at the bland predictability of commentary on the recent riots in England:
The left says they're victims of social deprivation, the right says they need to take personal responsibility for their actions; both just miss the point. A conventional social programme won't help them; neither – on its own – will tougher penalties. [...]
This is a hard thing to say, and I am of course aware that this too is generalisation. But the truth is that many of these people are from families that are profoundly dysfunctional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society, either middle class or poor.
This is a phenomenon of the late 20th century. You find it in virtually every developed nation. Breaking it down isn't about general policy or traditional programmes of investment or treatment.
This sounds about right to me. Yet, in an example of the sleight of hand Blair made his trademark, he goes on to explain that he attempted to address these problems while in office:
The agenda that came out of this was conceived in my last years of office, but it had to be attempted against a constant backdrop of opposition, left and right, on civil liberty grounds and on the basis we were 'stigmatising' young people.
Blair speaks as if the riots somehow deliver a logical defeat to his opponents. This is specious reasoning, and he must know it. That there exists a social class "operating on [...] different terms from the rest of society" does not entail that Blair's proposed "solutions" (such as ASBOs, etc.) were the right ones. Indeed, the kind of opposition that we liberals made to Blair's authoritarian policies was often based precisely on a conviction that disaffected people will not be brought back into mainstream society by curtailing their civil liberties, particularly when it is only theirs that are curtailed. Neither does the conviction he mentions -- that Labour policies stigmatised young people -- prove him "right" now that a few stigmatised young people are causing trouble. Indeed, that evidence would lead many people to reach a quite contrasting conclusion about Blair's record on social cohesion.
There is a slightly odd article in today's Graun by Andrew Brown, editor of the newspaper's belief section. It seems to have been transcribed from the back of an envelope. Nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong with this plaintive inquiry:
Defenders of the present situation would claim that it is enormously unwise and tyrannical for a government to presume to override the conscience of any individual. We allow conscientious objectors in war; why not in peacetime? Opponents will surely claim that we can't allow just anything to be claimed as a conscientious right. There are people who believe it is their religious duty to smoke immense quantities of marijuana. The law dismisses this opinion. Why should it take more account of the opinions of Roman Catholics?
And he just leaves it at that. But there really is much more clarity to be had than the "on the one hand this, on the other hand that" formulation Brown provides. We all routinely accept that the state can legitimately curtail individual conscience where individual conscience would violate the rights of others. The classic example is the case of Fred Blog's "conscientious" belief that slavery is divinely ordered. The law legitimately prevents Fred Blog from acting according to his conscience, because to do so would violate the negative rights of whomever he might enslave.
While current controversies about religious liberty are more nuanced than the slavery example now seems (though it was not ever thus), the same principle still holds. If, as a society, we assert in law that everyone has a negative right against discrimination on grounds of sex, sexuality, race, etc., then the state acts legitimately in curtailing conscientious acts which would violate that negative right. So it is with the abortion question.
When co-workers told me that a woman should not be an engineer I either suggested that they judge me on my work rather than on my gender, or encouraged them to talk to the managing director, knowing that he would give them short shrift.
The Church of England is different, because the sexism is institutionalised, and that makes it more oppressive. Parishes can vote to opt out of discrimination legislation, and this compromises the whole church, as sexism is seen as tolerable. In fact, we aren't meant to call prejudice against women "sexism" at all: it is meant to be called "legitimate theological difference". For me, if it walks, swims and quacks like prejudice, then it is prejudice.
Sometimes people think that religion grants us a "get out of jail free" card when it comes to unethical practices. It allows us to shift the blame – "I'm not sexist – God is: read your Bible" or "I'm not sexist – the Catholic church is, but we can't change until it does". I see this as a perversion of the radical equality that we find in the gospel of Christ. I am grieved that the church, of all institutions, is the one that compromises justice and equality.
When people say that they don't want a female priest, because it makes them "feel odd", I can't respond by saying that the institution of the church supports the equality of women. It is also difficult to say "judge female priests on what we do, not on our gender", because "being" rather than "doing" is a large part of priesthood. Fortunately, the vast majority of churchgoers are not sexist and my own bishop couldn't be more supportive of equality.
In fact, I notice institutional sexism much more frequently than sexist attitudes among individuals. Other than the obvious bar on women being bishops, there are day-to-day events. For example, in some places, if a woman presides at the Eucharist, her name is published so that those who wish to avoid her "taint" can do so. Another example is in appointments: when I was interviewed for a post, some of the interviewers panicked because they hadn't foreseen the possibility that a woman might interview well. My experience of secular life is that these things would be utterly unacceptable – illegal, in fact.
A depressing statement that I heard on this topic recently was at the press conference announcing the appointment of the two new "flying bishops" (bishops who oversee those who will not accept the priestly ministry of women).
Rowan Williams said the flying bishops would be a permanent fixture in the Church of England, even though the draft law on women bishops does away with the positions.
Williams said: "I have two new suffragans and General Synod can't simply take them away. The pastoral need will not go away."
Imagine if we were talking about black priests and Williams had said: "Racism is a permanent fixture of the Church of England. The pastoral need to care for priests who do not accept the ministry of black people will not go away." Not cool. We need to see sexual discrimination in the same light as racial discrimination – they are both unjust and dehumanising.
I'm afraid sexism runs deep in the Church of England, but I hope it won't be permanent.
On 4Thought last week, Peter Crawford explained why we need openly gay bishops as role models in the Anglican church. (Ironically, Peter and I once sang together in a group called "The Bishop's Consort"; I'd be rather more hesitant about going by that name these days, given the conduct of Anglican bishops in recent years...)
The denial of homosexual love, and condemning of relationships... I see that as sinful, because God is love, and in order to live with God, you have to live with the love that you experience in your everyday life. And the love that gay people experience for one another... God is part of that love.