Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Leroy's Moral Maze...

I've been watching the progress of the action taken by Martyn Hall and Steve Preddy against Peter and Hazelmary Bull with interest.  I think that it's an important and intriguing case and the argument surrounding the conflict of religious versus civil liberties is a crucial one.  It is a topic that divides people in the Christian world and one that I often struggle with.

If you can't be bothered to read the previous link, or if you're not that interested, I shall sum up the situation briefly.  As usual, I refuse to be held accountable for my lack of research, understanding or accuracy; I'm just saying what I think rather than saying that what is written here is some kind of truth.  It is conjecture.  My whole life is conjecture!

The basic story is that Mr & Mrs Bull own and run a guest house in Penzance, Cornwall called the Chymorvah Hotel.  Mr Hall and Mr Preddy are a same-sex couple living in a civil partnership, an arrangement that is seen in law as having the same rights and responsibilities as civil marriage. (See the Civil Partnership Act 2004 for all the details or just go to good ol' Wikipedia for a potted version).  Mr Hall and Mr Preddy fancied a break in Penzance - they seem like a well travelled and outward looking couple - and they booked a room at the Chymorvah Hotel.  According to them, they checked if they could bring their dog, which caused no problem apparently, but when they asked for a double room they were refused by Mr and Mrs Bull who cited their Christian faith as being incompatible with allowing an 'unmarried' couple to share a room in their hotel.  Mr Hall and Mr Preddy were obviously quite upset by this and sought to take legal action, action which they yesterday won at Bristol County Court with Judge Rutherford finding that they were directly discriminated against, something that is against the law in the UK.

Simple enough, you may think.  But actually, the story doesn't end here.  Judge Rutherford acknowledged the sincerity of the Bulls' beliefs and that in actual fact many Christians (and people not of the Christian faith, come to that) share them:

"I am quite satisfied as to the genuineness of the defendants' beliefs and it is, I have no doubt, one which others also hold...It is a very clear example of how social attitudes have changed over the years for it is not so very long ago that these beliefs of the defendants would have been those accepted as normal by society at large.  Now it is the other way around."

Judge Rutherford left the door open for the Bulls to appeal based on the fact that religious freedom is also a legal right in this country.  I find the Judge's dilemma very interesting indeed, and I think that this is a crucial argument that the church and secular world in the UK need to engage with.  The question in itself is intrinsically problematic: Should discrimination against a religion's freedom to discriminate be allowed?  Phew.
Let's look at the back story here.  It is a commonly held belief that Christians don't like gay people.  Usually, one of the first questions people ask me when they discover that I am a Christian is "Do you hate gay people?".  I've seen the change in expression on a gay guy's face when he found out I went to church.  How did this preconception come about?  To answer that, we need to read the famous verse in Leviticus 18 (verse 22 to be precise):
"Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."
Unlike a lot of the Bible, it's quite hard to read around that and find an alternate meaning that isn't quite as controversial to the sensibilities of a 21st century middle class Westerner.  I'd say that was pretty explicit.  The sexual actions of gay people are detestable; that's what it says.  The way it is written even puts those exact words into the mouth of God Himself.  Blimey.
(Fortunately, we don't have to deal with such a moral maze with the commandment in the previous verse that says "Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God."  I think we can all agree that sacrificing anything to Molek is a bad thing, and I will defend to the death the rights of hoteliers to prevent people from sacrificing children to Molek in their establishments; it's just not cricket.)
I struggle with this stuff.  The truth is that I don't agree with it and probably never will.  I don't agree with vilifying and condemning people because of their choices.  I don't see how we can pick and choose what we get in a huff about and what we choose to ignore.  I also get confused about the amount of apparent contradiction in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament.  You only have to read on a couple of pages in Leviticus to find yourself reading "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.", which seems to be in altogether a different spirit from Leviticus 18.  
In fact, the more I read Leviticus, the more confused I get; which commandments here are definitive and which do we take with a pinch of salt as we view them through the smug-tinted glasses we view everything from our vantage point in the 21st century?  
For example, Leviticus 19:26: "Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it". Whoops.  So anyone that likes a stake medium rare or rare has broken that one.  
OK, what about Leviticus 19:27:  "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard".  If you wear a short back and sides, you've broken that one (a style Mr Bull seems to sport, along with most men in England) and it seems that a goatee is out of the question.  
The next verse says that you can't have tattoos, which is surprising if you look at the fashion amongst trendy church types at the moment; it is almost de rigueur for a trendy youth pastor to be inked up somehow, along with some blonde highlights and some age inappropriate clothing.  Check this out:
I'd love to chat with that dude about the book of Leviticus.  I'm guessing that he didn't read it all.  I doubt (but I can't be certain) that he is a mainstream Christian, but it kind of sums the problem of Leviticus up for me.
In fact, come to think of it, I might go and get a cool tattoo of Leviticus 19:28 as a symbol of my wrestle with faith.  That would be an interesting conversation point at church.
But, to be fair to Leviticus, lots of the directives make sense. 
“Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness". Fair enough.  
"Do not defraud or rob your neighbor".  Jolly good.  
"Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God". Hear hear.  
"Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material."  Eh?!  Dammit!  My clothes are all filled with sin! NO!
My point is that it is very hard to know when to stop and start following commandments in Leviticus; some of them make perfect sense and are in fact what a large proportion of our laws and human rights are modelled on.  Don't kill people.  Don't steal.  Don't slander.  Don't be an arse.
But how come we get to pick and choose?  How come we can shave our sideburns without fear of persecution but we can't allow a gay couple to stay in the same room in a guest house?  Who decides that it's probably OK for a Christian to get a cool tattoo as long as it's about how gay people are bad?  
It's an unfathomably difficult subject; according to the Bible, all of these commandments were issued by God Himself - the last verse of Leviticus 19 says "Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD." - and yet, thousands of years having passed, for some of them we seem to be able to exercise discretion based on changed standards and progress in society since the times of Moses.  
But not all of them.  Many Christians believe that gay marriage is wrong, but society as a whole believes it to be acceptable - it is protected by law in our country and the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 was supported by all the democratically elected parties in the Commons.  In the New Testament, in Romans chapter 13, it says "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God".  I think that throws yet another massive and confusing spanner in the already confounding works.  Should the Bulls even be challenging the court's decision on this?  If they do, are they going against the beliefs they are fighting for the right to have?
Man alive!  My head hurts.
I am nowhere near learned or theologically savvy enough to unpick this stuff and offer an even halfway satisfying answer to any of it.  I think what I want to say is that it is really confusing, and there is nothing more annoying to me than a Christian standing resolutely in a camp as though they are sure that they are right, that the whole, mighty weight of the Bible's righteous teaching is behind their stance.  How can one do that?  How can one cite Leviticus as a reason to turn away a gay couple from a hotel, yet have a hair cut and eat a rare steak in the same chapter of the book that says we should follow all of the commandments in the same way?
Of course I sympathise with Mr & Mrs Bull and the dilemmas they face as Christians in a secular world, but I also sympathise with the rights of Mr Hall and Mr Preddy to live their lives as they see fit and to be respected as equals by others.  At the end of the day, I consider myself to be a Christian, a follower of the teachings of Jesus.  The Sermon on the Mount (See Matthew 5 to 7 if you're interested) is the cornerstone of my faith and is how I try to live my life.  A lot of what Jesus says here is in my eyes incompatible with some of the stuff that I hear Christians saying about a lot of controversial issues (homosexuality, Islam, crime and punishment, etc.) and doesn't fit with the secular stereotype of the intolerant and judgemental Terry Jones type Christian.  
Intolerance is a no-no.  Judgement isn't allowed.  Revenge and point scoring is not good.  Showing off your piety and holiness as if it makes you better than others, well that's not on.  
But forgiveness, charity, generosity of spirit and - above all else - love are good and what God is all about.  I'm paraphrasing the Sermon with incredible ineptitude, but I hope you get the drift.  All I can hope to do, as an ignorant and fallible follower of Jesus, is hold on to His words as they're reported in Matthew and hope the rest of the stuff that I don't understand will fall together and make sense at some point.  All of which sounds wishy-washy and unsatisfying, but I think that it's important that as Christians we admit this fallibility and discuss it with each other and with non-Christians.  Not to do so will result in extremism, intolerance and a blinkered vision that history has proven over and over again to be very, very dangerous.  
I don't mean to dilute what we believe in, but I do think that we have to admit we don't always know exactly what it is we believe.  We know we follow Jesus and we believe Him to be the son of God, but after that almost everything is down to debate and discussion and is not up to us here on Earth to decide on definitively.  It's hard to look at the fragmented and split church as it stands today and even harder to read its history and then argue that we all as Christians know exactly what we're on about and what God wants us to do. The beauty of Christianity is that there is room to argue and to disagree with each other.  In the meantime, we have all to look after our own shop and try to be good.  Whatever that means.
And, finally, I would suggest if you're the kind of person who doesn't like people getting up to stuff in your house you probably shouldn't be running a hotel; if you're a vegan you probably wouldn't be advised to work in a butchers.
As Christians, we need to know that “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven".
Which, beyond giving some stuff to Oxfam from time to time, I'm clearly not going to do.


  1. Mighty fine blog Mr Owen.

    Please do take a look at one of my favourite moments from recent televisual history that seems very apt:

  2. Excellent article again Liam.

    So many thoughts to process!

  3. The law was impossible to keep - it was supposed to point us to Jesus. He was God in skin. He came for sinners (that's all of us, by the way...those who would have no chance of keeping the law) and he came to give us freedom. Freedom from the chains which bind us - hypocracy, lies, theft, lust, greed...sexual imorality. It is amongst a multitude of sin, which engulfed mankind. UNTIL....He came. He died. He rose. Now we can stand spotless and free. If I ran a gust house, I like to think I would offer my rooms to whoever wanted them, and that I would love and cherish them as people made in the image of God. I would hope to introduce them to Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Father - who is desperate for a passionate love affair with them. Just one glance from me, takes His breath away!

  4. Goalkeepers' Union19 January 2011 at 15:03

    Top blog Liam, Some excellent thoughts and points.

    Tim D would be an interesting person to put this to I think. When I was doing the Muller's training on the year team I was always unbelievably impressed with the depth to which he's studied and thought about questions like this. I didn't always agree with his answers, but as I remember he always had one.

    One of his phrases was 'Cultural practice, eternal principle', which is a short way of saying that some things in the bible that appear at first glance to be absolute instructions for all time are actually speaking into a specific time/situation. The instruction they contain is born out of a Godly eternal principle and is usually intended to promote or uphold that principle, but the instruction itself is not one that has to be doggedly obeyed to the end of time. (e.g. Corinthians - 'women should be silent in church'. Laying down a leadership framework for all time, or addressing the specific problems in a disorderly church?)

    For the moment, my tentative conclusion is that I haven't the foggiest whether homosexuality is 'right' or 'wrong' (there's another can of worms!), but either way Christ mixed with and accepted hospitality from those who the smug brigade regarded as 'sinners', without ever compromising his standards, his beliefs or his divinity. He also said we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. The law currently says we should let gay people into hotels, so we should let them in. (I actually think the law is wrong, but that's another discussion!).

  5. Hurrah! A discussion is happening. I love it!

    @Will - Spot on! Never seen that clip before but it is certainly appropriate and goes brilliantly with the discussion. You rock.

    @anonymous - that sounds like a brilliant guest house! Where do I sign for that? More importantly, do you get free tea and coffee facilities? Seriously though, your comment made me think about one of the most famous families ever to have been refused a place in a guest house because they were deemed amoral and didn't fit into the owners' social parameters. I bet you know the family I'm talking about too! Ironic, isn't it?!

    @goalkeepers' union - I don't know who you are, but that artfully correct possessive apostrophe kinda gives the game away! I've heard Tim Dobson chatting about this kind of thing before and you're right - he is very interesting and considered on the subject. Which is what this needs - frank and honest, considerate debate.

    I think it's a shame that the media pick up on this kind of thing, but I'm glad that they do in a way. We moan that they portray Christianity in a -ve light, but if they did loads of stories about how brilliant we were that would be bad for us because of all the Matthew 6 stuff.

    I'd love to hear from people who aren't Christians about what they think of all this stuff.

  6. Yes, a big conundrum. Leviticus does get quoted by both sides, including mixing the many types of rules, from the Messianic (pointing towards Christ eg.sacrificial), common sence for the time (not eating shellfish when you're in the desert) and the permenant (do not murder). It is also worth looking elsewhere in the Bible to get context too. I recall the West Wing clip and seen variations, which highlight knowing what it is all about, although still leaving some head scratching. The OT can be hard work, but we need to engage with it as that is what the NT is built upon.

    I think most Christians are hot on agreeing with what they agree with, and mitigating their own vices which are named. Hence many are vocal on this whilst being more understanding of other issues. Human nature. Although we do need to be challenged. But we are also tempted into being one side or another, especially by the media, which is why it is assumed that either you hate homosexuals or are fully pro-homosexual rights. One minister said he thought this was a trick of the devil.

    Some big name Christian writer (whose name escapes me - I think I got it from twitter) said that he's come across countless articles/blogs/talks on what music and style of service is appropriate in Church, but that every one, despite having some attempt at Biblical background) was more to do with what their own personal preference was.

    "And, finally, I would suggest if you're the kind of person who doesn't like people getting up to stuff in your house you probably shouldn't be running a hotel; if you're a vegan you probably wouldn't be advised to work in a butchers."
    When the law came in there was a TV feature which went to Northern Ireland, and there were a number of B&B owners who said that they were considering giving up if it meant they couldn't have the right to say who could and couldn't come in. I can sort of see their point, but as you say it is the sort of vocation where you'd think they'd welcome most people.

    "As Christians, we need to know that “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven"."
    Interestingly that wasn't said to everyone, just the rich young ruler, and only after he pressed Jesus. one commentator wondered what would have happened if he left it at being told to keep the commandements? And plenty of people have tried to argue that the 'Eye of the Needle' is a gate in the wall of jerusalem, or a mountain pass, in order to just say it is difficult not impossible, possibly to make it easier to keep money...

  7. @RockBadger Thanks for your very considered and thoughtful comments! I think that if one runs a hotel, it isn't really one's home; it is a business and as such you have to abide by the laws governing businesses. Could we accept people not being allowed to stay in a Christian hotel because they are Muslims? Or atheists? Or because they swear? Or because they are sinners? (That would narrow potential business quite a lot!)

    I think what worries me most about this issue is not necessarily the debate on homosexuality and the Christian vs. Secular standpoint on it. The couple involved and the Christian organisations that have supported them seem more intent on preserving their right to refuse people from staying at their hotel. I just don't get that; I don't understand how a Christian could think in such a negative way. As I said to a previous comment, this gay couple are not the first people to have been refused entry at an inn because they were considered to be morally unacceptable to the owners. That really bothers me, and that is how it is seen by the media and secular people. I'm sure a lot of you guys that are Christians will have experienced the "So you hate gays?" conversation when an acquaintance discovers you are a Christian. If this issue were a simple discussion about sexuality I think it would be much more simple. This is more a discussion about whether we can discriminate because of our beliefs. And as you said, you'd think they'd like to welcome people. I wonder what a hotel run by Jesus would do?!

    I was just chatting about this with some friends and they bought up the fact that society decides where the boundaries are with sexuality. Christians say - and I believe - that there is a natural order and paradigm created by God and that homosexuality isn't it, in the same way that polygamy and infidelity isn't it. But it is not our place to condemn or judge; our job is to love like Jesus loved.

    Secular society says that certain things are acceptable, and gay relationships are fine in that context. But obviously, we draw the line at incest, say. But why society draws the lines where we do is intriguing to me. Perhaps in some cultures and eras, incest would be considered a brilliant and natural idea! Is it an arbitrary thing specific to the moral fashions of the culture and time? We Christians also seem to draw these arbitrary lines too, and they change for various reasons as you pointed out. So if we can change what we believe - and many people argue these things as if they are sure that they are irrefutable fact - perhaps sometimes we are wrong. Just a thought.

    Good news about the possessions! I get out of that one then and can keep all my lovely stuff. Phew!

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Our job IS to love like Jesus loved, as you say. He gave His life for all - the ultimate sacrifice - so that we could be made sinless and have access to His kingdom. That is full on, full throttle love! Lets start as Christians by making what we are know for being love, love, love...Lets announce the sinner sinless and invite them into relationship with the Father....lets not be known for turning those who don't conform to our OR Kingdom values away. Lets be known as radical followers of Jesus, who declare forgiveness, heal sickness and raise the dead...lets step up!

  10. B&B's are also people's homes as well as businesses, and must be really strange letting strangers in. As an aside, there is the good old British tradition of the unfriendly landlady!

    It is true that to many they know what Christians are against and not what they are for. Our minister was challenged by friends over this after a campaign against sponsored signs on roundabouts by a local nightclib called sin (slogans included 'Sin loves students', and 'Sin - the biggest party in town'). Interestingly the council employee who had to come out and defend this policy of accepting their money was a Christian - no idea of his personal views. Very often we are known by what we don't like, so we are being encouraged to get involved with positive things in the community, or more accurately continue to be involved as lots of people are out there making a difference quietly and stepping up like anonymous says.

    PS At the risk of being pedantic they didn't have 'The Shepherd's Arms' or any other inns in Judea in 6BC. The word is more likely to refer to a general room. Near Eastern women get annoyed at the Nativity story because they are offended at the thought they'd not help a pregnant woman regardless of circumstance. I find this amusing as maybe it says a lot about us British men and our world view!

  11. Do not judge!

    Jesus said “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

    There is a story about Abraham where he would only eat when he could share a meal with a traveller.

    He fasted for 3 days and finally a traveller arrived and he offerd to share his meal. However when he asked the old man to join him in blessing god before the meal. The man refused.

    Abraham was affronted and threw the man out for not worshipping good.

    God then sent a message to Abraham "I have been feeding this man for 70 years and you can not even share one meal with him"

    Abraham sent servants after the man and begged him to come back and share the meal. They had a nice meal together ...


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