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?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.