Mary Dejevsky: Why I support the churches on gay adoption

In this clash of rights, it is the churches that occupy the moral, and judicial, high ground

My late, never-married, Aunt Mary went as an Anglican missionary to Persia. She became headmistress - she would have recognised no other word - of a girls' school, and died at a good age in what was by then the Islamic Republic of Iran. In her forties, she took into her home - and later adopted - a young girl who had been abandoned by her parents. And while my aunt remained a Christian to her dying day, she brought up her daughter as a Muslim.

Her reasoning - truer than maybe she knew at the time - was that the girl would have to find her place in a Muslim society. To my mind, it was a decision born of wisdom and tolerance that was far ahead of its time.

The point of this introduction is to underline that I have no qualms about inter-ethnic, inter-cultural or inter-anything adoption. It matters not the slightest to me who provides a home for a child who would not otherwise have one. Single, married, gay, straight, believer, non-believer, of whatever ethnic group - these individuals and families are volunteering for a lifetime of responsibility. Where a child is concerned there should be no contest between the merits of a home and an institution.

All that said, my sympathies in the controversy of the moment - the objections of Catholic and Anglican leaders to legislation that would require church adoption charities to treat gay couples equally - lie squarely with the churches. It may seem harsh in this day and age to exclude one group of would-be adoptive parents from one source of children who need a home, but in this clash of rights, it is the churches that occupy the moral, and judicial, high ground.

For centuries the churches have provided the last refuge for the unwanted and the destitute. Even in this secular age of the state social safety-net, the churches and their charities continue to rescue those who fall through the cracks. The Roman Catholic church can be taken to task for its ban on so-called artificial contraception and abortion, but it cannot be accused of inconsistency. It backs its stance with practical support for pregnant women who decide against abortion and its agencies then find adoptive families.

Nor, contrary to the impression created in recent days, are its adoption agencies inflexible: they do not exclude non-conventional families. What the church leaders will not sign up to is a statutory requirement on adoption rights for gay couples - which would remove all discretion and expose their adoption agencies to lawsuits.

If those seeking to adopt had no alternative to church-run adoption agencies, state-decreed equal rights of access might be justified. But there are other agencies - to which the Catholic agencies say they refer gay couples wishing to adopt. That seems a reasonable compromise.

The point here is that churches are rather like private clubs. They are self-governing communities of the likeminded. Their members voluntarily subscribe to an established set of beliefs and structures. If, as a member, you do not like this, you have a choice: you can leave or you can work for change from within. This is how women won the right to be ordained as priests in the Anglican church.

There are times when the state has the right - indeed the obligation - to intervene in what might once have been regarded as church affairs. The prosecution of paedophile priests is an example. A crime has been committed; vulnerable individuals need protection; defrocking is no longer enough.

But such intervention has limits. It is quite wrong for the state to seek to impose its values on religious belief. A state law requiring church adoption charities to recognise the statutory rights of gay couples oversteps that mark: it slides from the secular into the sacred. This is why the inclusion of church charities in the proposed law is so ill-conceived.

But there is another reason why it is not just ill-conceived, but could seriously rebound against this, and any future, government. Both the Home Secretary, John Reid, and the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, would like so-called "faith-based" organisations to play a far greater role in social provision. They see such groups, which include Christian charities, as a source of more innovative ideas, more dedicated workers and more flexible approaches than the hierarchical and cash-strapped state agencies can provide. They would like to shovel some of the state's most intractable problems in their direction, along with a modest allocation of taxpayers' money.

Anti-social behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse, problem families and the like are just some of the areas in which Mr Reid and Mr Cameron believe faith-based organisations could be more effective than they already are. But the stand-off over adoption rights for gay couples illustrates the conundrum that is in the making.

Church agencies are admired for their efficiency and sensitivity. But the faith elements - the shared values and shared purpose - are an integral part of their character. Take the values away, or hobble them with a restrictive law, and the agencies will lose the very assets that made them so effective in the first place. In reality, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster hardly needs to threaten the disbanding of Catholic adoption charities. Coralled by the secular state, they - and their Anglican and other equivalents - would soon fall apart of their own accord.

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