Faith & Reason: God, sex and Europe: a conflict which may be irreconcilable

How can any European constitution - rooted in an ideology of freedom - cope with religions which cling to shameful traditions?

Share
Related Topics

Some years ago, at the end of the Major government, I visited the UK Representative in Brussels - effectively the Ambassador to the European Union. I suggested that Britain wasn't doing very well in Europe. "No, no!" he insisted, "there's much less French spoken here than there was!"

What he was speaking about, I came to realise, was not so much the language itself as what it symbolised - a fundamental clash between British and French visions of Europe. It is that discord which is the real issue beneath all the current wrangling over the proposed European Constitution.

That difference of view goes back at least half a century. In 1956, Harold Macmillan phoned the French Prime Minister, Guy Mollet, to tell him that the Americans would not support the Suez adventure. Mollet was having lunch with the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and they decided at that moment that Europe must create a foreign policy independent of America. Macmillan came to the opposite inclusion.

While Europe and the US had the Soviet Union as a common enemy, that difference went underground, but now, especially after Iraq, it is the big issue. Paris sees the central problem as US domination. London sees the problem as control from Brussels. The British have always seen an enlarged Europe as more diverse, where a union of 25 or more nations must clearly be freer from central control. So they press for a stronger sense of subsidiarity, where decisions really are taken at the lowest possible level. These are sharply contrasting visions.

But Europe's faith communities are anxious to claim another kind of subsidiarity - the right to conduct their affairs without heavy-handed interference from any government. This is where God and sex come together. The various Brussels offices of the European Churches have been working hard on the Constitution. They want a reasonable acknowledgement of Europe's religious traditions. There has been fierce opposition from the Enlightenment fundamentalists like the French and the Spanish, not least from the President of the European Convention, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. A compromise seems to have been reached. There will be no mention of anybody's God. But the current draft calls for "a regular dialogue" with faith communities, and it recognises that their practices are a matter for member states.

Well, maybe. The problem is that faith communities are already suffering from the clumsy attitudes of Brussels. Three years ago, the Commission initiated legislation on fairness in employment. It aimed to outlaw all discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability - and sexual orientation. And that's when the fun started. The proposal threatened the right of faith communities to choose employees who share their own ethos. Liberal European churches felt some anxiety about appearing illiberal - but the Irish had no such qualms. Catholics and Protestants, from Ulster and the Republic, descended on the Irish Prime Minister, and demanded action - which, incredibly, they got. Then the Irish Attorney-General fought the case alone in the Council of Europe, and for the first time in history, threatened a veto.

There is a sexual subtext here. Almost all faith communities have foundational objections to homosexuality. Some are happy with this; others find it shameful. Britain's smaller, more liberal faith communities, like the Methodists and the United Reformed Church, have tried to relax their rules, but have simply succeeded in making them more explicit. This is embarrassing, and deeply confusing, especially when so many practising Christians are also practising gays - including many clergy. And gay rights are increasingly a normal part of our institutional furniture, as suggested by one especially defining moment. The Labour MP Ben Bradshaw was the first to campaign openly as a homosexual. On his election, the Serjeant at Arms of the House of Commons presented him with a parliamentary pass for his partner. Mr Bradshaw is also a card-carrying Anglican.

Two conflicting issues arise here. First, faith communities are largely communities of obedience. But they find themselves confronted in Europe by an official ideology of freedom, which simply talks a different language. So it is with the Churches, and so it will be when European Islam finds its political voice. We in the Churches cannot make things up as we go along, nor change our traditions by a vote. We cannot subject ourselves to a liberal European regime that requires us to condemn ourselves as misogynist and homophobic, demanding that we sew those badges of dishonour onto our own coats. The European Union must allow its faith communities to be as diverse as they are, not as diverse as its governments wish we were.

Second point. It will not do for faith communities simply to insist that we are simply bound by tradition, and nothing can be done. Christians in particular must allow the Holy Spirit to enlarge their vision of what it means to be human. Already, in every corner of the European Union, from the Hebrides to the Cyclades, we pursue our God-given vision of the common good. We take our stand against poverty, racism, oppression and xenophobia. We now need to show that, despite the weight of our traditions, we can, in time, acknowledge more fully the true extent of human diversity.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
In this handout provided by NASA from the the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, weather system Arthur travels up the east coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida in space. The robotic arm of the Space Station Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 is seen at upper right. According to reports, Arthur has begun moving steadily northward at around 5 kt. and the tropical storm is expected to strike the North Carolina Outer Banks  

Thanks to government investment, commercial space travel is becoming a reality

Richard Branson
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week