As Gary McFarlane’s appeal bid was thrown out of court, I couldn’t help noticing the irony that Relate and one of its counsellors – who specialise in resolving relationship conflict - had been unable to find a solution to their own conflict without ending up in court.
When I watched Gary McFarlane interviewed on television a couple of weeks ago, I felt here was a man whose advice and counsel I would appreciate if ever my marriage was in difficulty. Yet he has just been in court fighting one of the most respected counselling agencies in the country. There has to be a better way to work out our differences.
It feels to me as though Christians are finding themselves in court far too often these days. Whether it is to keep our job, wear religious symbols or over freedom to preach and pray, the role of Christianity in public life is no longer straightforward, though I doubt it ever was. It also seems we think the solution to these challenges lies in legal precedents and court judgements. But as I reflect on the history of Northern Ireland I realise that the courts can never enforce stability and you cannot legislate for tolerance. All we are left with are recriminations and counter recriminations and a wedge is driven between plaintiff and defendant until it is a chasm that cannot be bridged.
When so many of society’s disagreements end up in court we show a lack of imagination in dealing with conflict. Because it’s not just in religious cases that the law is used a blunt instrument to solve all our disputes. The courtroom seems sadly to have replaced conversation as our first port of call.
Christians do not need to pick a fight with the society they inhabit. Every court case builds the wall a little higher and the disconnect between Church and society grows greater. There needs to be a way for those who disagree to work through their differences, to be open to change but not forced to change - to look to mediation and accommodation before filing amicus briefs. If only common sense could have prevailed, surely a solution could have been found with sufficient flexibility to ensure that Mr McFarlane could still provide the service that he was trained to do without being sacked.
Calls for special panels of judges, as Lord Carey unsuccessfully advocated in this case, suggest that Christians should be treated differently. Such calls both encourage Christians to view their environment with suspicion and discredit the role the Church can and does play in society, of caring and serving, of working for the good of all.
Because when Christians paint a portrait of persecution, not only do we diminish the very real suffering that our fellow believers across the world experience, but we force ourselves to the margins. If Christians are marginalised in the UK, then we have to take at least some of the blame.
Steve Clifford is the general director of the Evangelical Alliance