Some of you, I’m sure, will have been following the case of Peter and Hazelmary Bull, a Christian couple who own the Chymorvah Hotel near Penzance. When they refused to let a room to a gay couple, they were taken to court on grounds of discrimination. The couple won their case, and the Bulls have been fined. You can read the BBC report here.
There has been commentary, as you might imagine, from gay rights groups and Christian conservatives, either praising or condemning the court ruling. Although it was never intended to be such, this blog has become as much about my Christian perspective on things as anything else, and I thought it was worth discussing the story. Apart from anything else, I have been giving the matter some thought, and I thought it best to explain my reasons for thinking what I do in as coherent a manner as possible – I am one of those people who make most sense when written down. I am somewhat less eloquent in the flesh!
So let me begin with where I stand, before I ‘take you through my working’. I agree with the Court’s decision. I think the Bulls acted illegally and were rightly punished for doing so. I also think that the law, in this instance, is fair, and that they do not have a faith-based argument justifying their decision to disregard it. This position will, I know, not endear me to certain people. I understand their perspective. I hope they will come to understand mine.
At the heart of the matter, as I see it, is a simple principle that has been (I think completely) overlooked. It is this: it is not possible to compel someone to virtue.
This is important. Just as the physical universe has certain ‘fundamental constants’ – the speed of light, Planck’s constant, the temperature of absolute zero – so too does the moral and spiritual universe, and I think this is one of them. Nor is it, as might be argued, a matter of philology, or mere cleverness with words. These terms have real weight. You see, ‘virtue’ is not the same thing as simply ‘doing right’. You can compel someone to do the right thing: you cannot, as I said, compel someone to virtue. This is because ‘Virtue’ is not only doing what is right but it is wanting to do right before one does it. This is why it is said that virtue is its own reward: the reward is in the fulfilment of the desire.
The Bulls’ defence in court was that they considered the couples’ marriage invalid in light of their religious position, and that, in keeping with their policy on all unmarried couples regardless of gender, they would not make available a twin room.
This is the point at which the principle must be invoked. By attempting to keep the couple separated for a weekend, did the Bulls think they were preventing sinful conduct? They may have prevented physical congress, but that occurs after the sin, as Christ made quite clear in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:28). The Bulls’ actions prevented no sin, and made no one any more righteous in the eyes of God. I wonder too if the couple is rigorous and consistent in their belief. Did they throw out those who over-ate at breakfast? Who took the Lord’s name in vain? Who were uncharitable, or selfish, or lost their temper?
Which leads me to my second point. There needs to be a contract drawn up between people so that they know what they can and cannot do. There is such a thing. It is the law of the land, the legislation passed by the government that determines acceptable standards of behaviour for everyone under their authority. And let us not be mistaken – the Bulls are under that authority, and submitted to it totally as soon as they took, or were prepared to accept, payment for the room.
This is why the canard about ‘the hotel is their own home’ is such a red herring, and ought to be dismissed as such. If I invite someone into my home as my guest, I am entitled to ask for certain standards of behaviour from them. If, however, I accept payment, then my requests must be subordinate to the law of the land. To do so is simply to render unto Caesar that which is legitimately Caesar’s. If we put the shoe on the other foot for a moment, can you imagine the outcry if couples staying in a (nominally secular) hotel run by a devout Muslim couple were required by the owner to have the women dress in full burqua?
Civil partnerships are equal in law to heterosexual marriages. To treat them as though this is not the case is legally unacceptable.
There is a further point to be made here. My friend Russell makes it in his blog, but it bears repeating. It cannot, it must not, be the business of Christians to turn sinners away from the doors. Every church would be empty immediately as a direct result. All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God – Christians and non-Christians alike. Christians are, as the phrase has it, saved. They are rescued. They are salvaged from a fate quite literally worse than death. And this is the case because Christ, in infinite mercy and grace and love, does not turn away those who come to Him in all humility.
I know the situation is not directly comparable. But it still bothers me to see Christians say “I do not approve of your lifestyle. You will find no love here. Go from this place, because unless you allow us to moderate your behaviour for you, you must fester in your sin far from me, since I have no interest in showing you what the God of Compassion looks like”.
I have phrased that deliberately strongly. I may be doing the Bulls a grave injustice in applying it to their situation, and if I have overstepped the mark, I apologise. But I have seen that attitude, or something very like it, markedly increase in recent years, and I do not think I am alone in finding it abhorrent.
There needs to be reasoned debate and discussion on this and other topics, and so far the Christian church is doing a pretty woeful job of facilitating it. I do not know why we fall down on the job so badly on this. Is it the same as the political debate in America, where the 80% of perfectly normal, well-mannered, considerate people are drowned out by the 20% out-and-out crazies? I hope not, and fear it might be.
I mentioned earlier that this blog post was unlikely to endear me to certain people. Some of them, like the reliably uninformed and faithfully unconsidered Christian Voice, I could care less about. Others, who shall remain nameless, I care about a great deal, because I respect their opinions a great deal. The difference is that I know the opinions of these latter individuals to have come about after due consideration and genuine thought. This, I think, rather sums up my position on the nature of the broader debate: I don’t care what you think, I just want to you have done the thinking required to form an informed opinion on the matter.
I don’t do New Years’ Resolutions, by and large, but here is one that I hope will stick not just in 2011 but for the rest of the life of this blog, however long that might be. My resolution is that I will not post hastily-formed opinions on here, but that I will instead endeavour to maintain a level of rational discourse and debate that is sustained by cool contemplation, rather than heated invective.
Except for when I talk about the Twilight series, obviously. In every way, and in every format, it’s just dreadful.
And instead of finishing with a pictorial moment of zen, I offer you a recent Starlingford youtube video in its stead. Enjoy!