Same-sex marriage and Christian conscience

PrinciplesThe Queen gave royal assent to same-sex marriage yesterday and the first such marriages are likely to take place next summer. The aspect of the bill that concerns me is that ‘religious organisations will have to “opt in” to offering weddings, with the Church of England and Church in Wales being banned in law from doing so.’ Even before the passing of bill there were already instances of religious individuals declining services to same-sex couples, including a Christian registrar who refused to conduct a civil ceremony on grounds of conscience.

Remarkably, given the tenuous nature of everything they believe, Christians insist they have the right to ‘live according to conscience’. What this means in practice is that in circumstances where they feel their God-given principles might be compromised, they are compelled to withhold their services from others, denying the rights of fellow human-beings.

By the same principle, however, everyone else must also have the right to live according to their own consciences. If we arrange society so that we don’t have to help, provide a service or care for those whose lifestyles or beliefs are contrary to our own, we end up with a society that operates only on exclusion. The hotel owners who exclude homosexual couples will be matched by gay hotel owners who don’t like Christians; Muslim shopkeepers who object to non-Muslims won’t have to serve them; vegan restaurateurs will, on principle, bar meat-eaters; atheist surgeons will be able to deny treatment to the religious. Such a society could not function because we would all, at some point, be excluded, while at others we would be those doing the excluding. Conscience-based rejection of others, taken to its logical conclusion, could only lead to the breakdown of civilised living, which is reliant on interdependency and mutual cooperation.

A comment posted on the Guardian’s web-site following the case of a Relate counsellor who refused to help homosexual couples neatly summarises the issue:

Gay men and women have been giving good service to bigots for years. We’ve been nursing you through your illnesses, clipping your tickets, treating your diseases, teaching your kids, entertaining you on telly, delivering your mail, waiting on your table, shooting your enemies and cooking your dinner; all this time without ever claiming the “right” not to serve you if you don’t happen to approve of us. It’s time some straights grew up and stopped whining.

There is nothing biblical about living according to ‘principles’ that demand others be ostracised. On the contrary, Jesus demands that his followers give unconditionally to anyone and everyone who asks and treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated (Luke 6.30, 31, 35).

Christians who claim they have a right to reject and exclude others ‘according to conscience’ would do well to consider how they would react if ‘principled’ gays, Muslims and atheists refused them the services they sometimes feel ‘conscience bound’ to refuse others.  What cries of ‘persecution’ there would be then!

Oh wait! There already are…

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