These were some of the questions addressed at today’s The Church in the Public Square conference organised by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
Today’s event focussed on Equality, Freedom and Religion. It was curiously appropriate that as delegates arrived the music wafting up from the Spires shopping arcade underneath the conference venue was “I can’t get no satisfaction”!
Three speakers each addressed the audience of a hundred in Assembly Buildings for thirty minutes, before being
Roger Trigg is the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Warwick. Speaking under the title of “Religious Freedom in a Secular Society”, he began by suggesting that religion is on the defensive as Europe becomes more aggressively secular. He argued that the act of saying someone is immoral doesn’t necessarily equate to saying someone is of lesser worth.
In what came across to me as quite a defensive talk, Roger commented that people desire respect for the right to do things (that some Christians may disagree with) and then also want respect for doing them. He saw conflict between religion and an emerging egalitarian orthodoxy. Later in his presentation, Roger asserted that “just because you believe something doesn’t mean you should impose it on other people … we’re given freedom [by God]” adding that Jesus didn’t use his power to make people believe.
Roger also highlighted the use of phrases “freedom of worship” and “freedom of religion”, the former supporting “going to church on a Sunday but keeping quiet about it for the rest of the week”. He criticised attempts “to make the state neutral” and to privatise religion, concluding that a neutral state stands for nothing.
“What I do not mean by equality is that all beliefs are equal. That would be relativism and “the path to nihilism”.Roger's comments on the need for "conscience clauses" in legislation triggered a reaction from the National Secular Society!
Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen’s University of Belfast.
“Human rights are intrinsically relational and social … If I engage in the public square and I argue for human rights, surely I am not in the public square simply arguing that only Colin Harvey has human rights. At the core of the argument for human rights is that all human persons should have these rights as well. It’s an awful tragedy in much of the modern portrayal of human rights that that social and relational, understanding of human rights belonging to all human beings universally is neglected and underplayed in favour of a more individualistic discourse of human rights.”
Colin recognised that locally some people struggle for human rights and equality because of their faith. But he called the church to reclaim engagement and participation in the language of and discourse in human rights. They shouldn’t walk away from the debate.
“Healing conversations” were required by society around complicated and difficult issues and areas. It would help if a Bill of Rights was seen for the benefit of everyone rather than any particular group or section of society promoting its introduction. Arguing for the right of religious expression and the right not to be discriminated against would by its very nature also support religious pluralism.
If the only time I hear my voice out loud in the public square is talking about me, I worry about that. I think human rights for me starts with the human rights of the other, how we can better serve the other and a recognition of the humanity of the other … a recognition of who is my neighbour.
Colin then widened the scope and asked delegates to stand up for the rights and welfare of refugees, asylum seekers and the millions forcibly displaced across the world. He dared the delegates (and implicitly the church) to go beyond food banks and to find out how human rights could challenge the economic structures that make foodbanks a reality today.
Michael Wardlow, the Chief Commissioner at the Equality Commission for NI. Michael was addressed the not-exclusively Presbyterian audience as a practicing Christian holding the public appointment. Prior to this role (and a number of others be holds/pursues in parallel) he spent fifteen years working to promote and support the integrated education sector, and worked in Uganda and the Eastern European. Fixing broken things is a career trend.
Time doesn’t allow me to transcribe Michael’s every word, but you can pick up the gist of his fast-paced talk by flicking through the slides.
He outlined the Bible’s call to equality, suggesting:
What we have from the Bible is not a bland, levelling equality: rather we have an equality that is the by-product of love – the seeking of an imbalance in favour of the other according to his or her needs. [emphasis added]Reminding the audience that discrimination is not necessarily unlawful, Michael highlighted examples of mass discrimination throughout history and explained the Equality Commission’s scope and framework.
Legislation is like scaffolding built up around a building until it becomes stable.
Two case studies looked at religion and gender, with legislation assisting a big improvement in the Catholic workforce, though a more patchy increase in female representation in different jobs.
Michael finished his prepared address with a call for a generosity:
If we’re people enthused with grace, our grace needs to be imbued with generosity.Responding to questions after his talk, Michael rejected the suggestion that the Equality Commission was targeting Christians. Due to the stage in the process that has been reached, he was limited in what he could say about the Ashers Bakery “cake” complaint, but he explained the process that the Equality Commission follows and the questions that are asked:
- Is there a point of law that hasn’t been tested?
- Is it an unrepresented group?
- The commission doesn’t go out looking for complaints: they wait for people to get in touch.
- Their legal funding committee considers applications.
- Every year ECNI supports about 80 cases of which about 10 end up in court.
While numbers were down on the first Public Square conference earlier this year, there was representation in the room from many political parties and public bodies like the PSNI.
Converting PCI to a position of using the language of human rights and equality – never mind engaging with the concepts and willingly applying them to others – will be a long process. However, with a many assistant ministers (“licentiates”) in attendance along with a range of ordained clergy (as well as elders and general laity) at least the conversation, if not the conversion, has started.
While not explicit in the programme or the on-stage introductions, the conference implicitly limited itself to the Public Square in Northern Ireland. It would be good to see the Presbyterian Church of Ireland finding imaginative ways of exploring its situation on both sides of the border. While the format avoided confrontation, there were people and opinions present in the room whose views were limited to their table discussions and were not aired to the full audience. At some point, the ‘Freedom’ in the title will have to extend to hiding fewer elephants under the rug and facilitating dialogue across the breadth of belief.