Melanie McDonagh

Justine Greening should keep out of the Church of England’s business

Justine Greening should keep out of the Church of England's business
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God, she’s on a bit of a run, Justine Greening, isn’t she? A day after it turns out she wants to let people change gender merely on their say so, without regard to their possession of wombs or gonads or XX chromosomes, she’s set her sights on the CofE and its retrograde attitude to gender – actually, come to think of it, she’s probably got the entire Christian communion in her sights. All in her capacity of Education Secretary and Women and Equalities Minister.

She observed in an interview on Sky:

'I think it is important that the church in a way keeps up and is part of a modern country. I wouldn’t prescribe to them how they should deal with that. But I do think we are living in a county where people broadly recognise that attitudes are in a different place now to where they were many, many years ago. We have allowed same sex marriage, that’s a massive step forward for the better. For me, I think people do want to see our major faiths keep up with modern attitudes in our country.'

Right…that’s telling ‘em. The CofE must get with the programme, presumably on the lines of the episcopal church of Scotland, a tiny outfit which recently voted to allow gay marriage in church.

There’s no nice way of saying this: Miss Greening should mind her own business. When parliament legislated for gay marriage the then Equalities minister, Maria Miller, went out of her way to make clear that the CofE would not be obliged to conduct gay marriages; indeed just to prove it, she went out of her way to bar it from doing so. End of, people thought at the time, though some wondered why they would need a safeguard. Which didn’t, I have to say, stop some blessings of gay marriage in various CofE churches turning into something indistinguishable from a trad, heterosexual kind of wedding.

It turns out that Anglicans were wrong to think that this was the end of the story. For it’s a short step from Miss Greening’s assertion that 'people do want to see our major faiths keep up with modern attitudes' to enabling the church to conduct those marriages and then obliging them to do so. It’s the authoritarian aspect of modern liberalism, outside the church and in it. I remember Yvette Cooper, at the Home Office, saying when civil partnerships were introduced that there was no possibility that this would end up turning into marriage for gay people - but it did. When Harriet Harman introduced the Equality Act it turned out that non-discrimination in the provision of goods and services ended up driving Catholic adoption agencies (which did a manifestly good job) out of business because they were obliged to treat homosexual couples the same as married heterosexuals. They refused, closed up shop, and children needing homes are the poorer for it.

That’s the inevitable progression in liberalism: first toleration, within strict limits, followed swiftly by the marginalisation or proscription of the opposition. When the CofE legislated for women bishops, it was all about inclusivity – in fact, as recent appointments have showed, it’s now impossible for a cleric who doesn’t accept women’s ordination to get into the mainstream episcopate. But at least that’s the church dealing with its own.

It’s a very different matter for the Government to be telling the churches how to think and behave, which is exactly what Greening is doing. The CofE may be the national church, established by law, but we’ve moved on, have we not, from the days when the state and monarch could dictate to the church about doctrine and practice?

Maybe not. The Tories have, plainly, acquired a taste for culture wars, pitting themselves against the church in a bid to prove its social liberalism. In fact, the CofE is hospitable to gay people – what it does do is maintain a position that holds that marriage is inherently heterosexual, which is what practically everyone in Britain thought until about five minutes ago. And it obliges gay clergy to be celibate, which is entirely of a piece with orthodox Christianity, even if there’s a manifest gap between theory and practice in some bits of the church. Actually, come to think of it, Christianity has long been at home with the intersex phenomenon – the very first person that the apostle Philip converted was, you recall, a distinguished Ethiopian eunuch – Queen Candace’s treasurer. That’s not going to be enough though, for liberals.

Still, the situation isn’t without its amusing side. Miss Greening says that 'people do want to see our major faiths keep up with modern attitudes in our country.' Which includes Islam, doesn’t it? Good luck with that.