Our Lady of the Apologetic Commentariat

In the Independent, Mary Dejevsky is happily professing her support for the churches on ‘gay adoption’.

My late, never-married, Aunt Mary went as an Anglican missionary to Persia. She became headmistress – she would have recognised no other word – of a girls’ school, and died at a good age in what was by then the Islamic Republic of Iran. In her forties, she took into her home – and later adopted – a young girl who had been abandoned by her parents. And while my aunt remained a Christian to her dying day, she brought up her daughter as a Muslim.

Her reasoning – truer than maybe she knew at the time – was that the girl would have to find her place in a Muslim society. To my mind, it was a decision born of wisdom and tolerance that was far ahead of its time.

Translation: I used to have a Christian spinster aunt who was a nice woman…

All completely irrelvant but it fills up a couple of paragraphs – do you think Mary gets paid by the word?

The point of this introduction is to underline that I have no qualms about inter-ethnic, inter-cultural or inter-anything adoption. It matters not the slightest to me who provides a home for a child who would not otherwise have one. Single, married, gay, straight, believer, non-believer, of whatever ethnic group – these individuals and families are volunteering for a lifetime of responsibility. Where a child is concerned there should be no contest between the merits of a home and an institution.

Whenever I read something like this is always makes me wonder if there isn’t, somewhere, a standard textbook for would be liberal columnists that includes the advice:

“When called upon to express an illiberal opinion, it is always considered good practice to preface your article with a whimsical personal anecdote that will alow you to move straight on to a statement that establishes your unimpeachable liberal credentials. Then, and only then, can you go to state your illiberal opinion’.

And as might be expected, what follows is a pretty much ‘by the numbers’ apologia for religious homophobia.

All that said, my sympathies in the controversy of the moment – the objections of Catholic and Anglican leaders to legislation that would require church adoption charities to treat gay couples equally – lie squarely with the churches. It may seem harsh in this day and age to exclude one group of would-be adoptive parents from one source of children who need a home, but in this clash of rights, it is the churches that occupy the moral, and judicial, high ground.

Oooh, Mary is raising my expectations here, because it seems she intends to explain how and why the discrimnatory views of the church are morally and judicially superior to the view that everyone should be treated equally.

This I’ve just got to see, in fact I think I’ll get a cup of coffee to go with this, as I’ve no doubt I’ll find it entertaining.

For centuries the churches have provided the last refuge for the unwanted and the destitute. Even in this secular age of the state social safety-net, the churches and their charities continue to rescue those who fall through the cracks. The Roman Catholic church can be taken to task for its ban on so-called artificial contraception and abortion, but it cannot be accused of inconsistency. It backs its stance with practical support for pregnant women who decide against abortion and its agencies then find adoptive families.

Ah, its the ‘caring for the poor unfortunates’ argument. Churches and the charities certainly do care for people who ‘fall through the cracks’, and so do plenty of secular charities and voluntary organisations as well. The main difference in approach between the two is, however, worth noting.

Secular charities provide services that are, in the main, ‘value free’. In other words, they only agenda is to provide help and assistance where its needed.

For all their high-minded talk of ‘Christian charity’ and good works, services provided by religious organisations are frequently far from being ‘value free’ – they may help to satisfy biblical injunctions that require them to be charitable towards others but that charity also often includes a hefty dose of proselytising to go with it. To use a marketing analogy, charity and ‘public service’ is often a loss-leader used by religious organisations to bring people into situations where they can be recruited into the ‘faith’, something akin to a religious timeshare presentation.

Nor, contrary to the impression created in recent days, are its adoption agencies inflexible: they do not exclude non-conventional families. What the church leaders will not sign up to is a statutory requirement on adoption rights for gay couples – which would remove all discretion and expose their adoption agencies to lawsuits.

Mmm… that’s a lovely little bit of doublethink, don’t you think.
Because, these days, we will accept lone parents are adoptees, you shouldn’t be so hard on us about our refusal to accept gay couples. That’s the essence of Mary’s argument, its not as bad as its made out to be because we don’t restrict our services only to married Roman Catholic families, even if we do discriminate against gay couples, plus she throws in the canard about them being exposed to lawsuits – here’s a hint for you Mary, you’re at no real risk of being sued for discrimination if you don’t practice discrimination, it really is that simple.
I suppose we should be greatful, however, that as Mary’s already gone to great pains to establish her liberal credentials, that precludes her following up this canard with the usual harangue about barbarian hoards of militant gays massing on the borders, with their lawyers in tow, just itching for the chance to launch their legal ‘missles’ at the faithful nor suggested whether these ‘missiles’ might be ready to go in a mere 45 minutes.

If those seeking to adopt had no alternative to church-run adoption agencies, state-decreed equal rights of access might be justified. But there are other agencies – to which the Catholic agencies say they refer gay couples wishing to adopt. That seems a reasonable compromise.

And in an alternate reality, a youthful analogue of Mary Dejevsky published this editorial in the Montgomery Herald on 2nd December 1995.

“Quite why this uppity negro woman, Rosa Parks, should make such a fuss frankly escapes me. Its not, after all, as if there weren’t plenty of untaken seats at the back of bus.”

The point here is that churches are rather like private clubs. They are self-governing communities of the likeminded. Their members voluntarily subscribe to an established set of beliefs and structures. If, as a member, you do not like this, you have a choice: you can leave or you can work for change from within. This is how women won the right to be ordained as priests in the Anglican church.

This is true… but irrelevant because the adoption services we’re talking about here are provided to the public and paid for with public money – they’re not private services that are made available only to members of the ‘club’ nor are the funded only by the club’s members. They are a public service.

There are times when the state has the right – indeed the obligation – to intervene in what might once have been regarded as church affairs. The prosecution of paedophile priests is an example. A crime has been committed; vulnerable individuals need protection; defrocking is no longer enough.

And situations in which religious organisation provide public services and receive state funding for providing those services are exactly the kind of sitution in which the state has a right to intervene.

But such intervention has limits. It is quite wrong for the state to seek to impose its values on religious belief. A state law requiring church adoption charities to recognise the statutory rights of gay couples oversteps that mark: it slides from the secular into the sacred. This is why the inclusion of church charities in the proposed law is so ill-conceived.

As has been repeated to the point of tedium – although it still seems necessary to go on repeating it – these regulations do not interfere with religious belief. Catholics will still be perfectly free to believe that homosexuality is a one-way ticket to hell – that is not illegal, merely stupid, ignorant and prejudiced. This is merely a non-sequiteur and should be treated as such, with complete disregard.

But there is another reason why it is not just ill-conceived, but could seriously rebound against this, and any future, government. Both the Home Secretary, John Reid, and the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, would like so-called “faith-based” organisations to play a far greater role in social provision. They see such groups, which include Christian charities, as a source of more innovative ideas, more dedicated workers and more flexible approaches than the hierarchical and cash-strapped state agencies can provide. They would like to shovel some of the state’s most intractable problems in their direction, along with a modest allocation of taxpayers’ money.

Right. It’s time for a few harsh but necessary truths. The statement that…
“They [Reid and Cameron] see such groups, which include Christian charities, as a source of more innovative ideas, more dedicated workers and more flexible approaches than the hierarchical and cash-strapped state agencies can provide.”

…is complete and utter rubbish from start to finish.

What they (including Tony Blair) see, first and foremost, is that the voluntary sector is the acceptable face of privatisation of public services. That’s the real deal here, shifting public services into charities equals privatisation minus all the complaints about profiteering.

Charities are no more inclined to be innovative than the public sector, nor ar the any less prone to having the life squeezed out of what little innovation they can muster by layer after layer of government imposed regulations, targets and bureacracy.

‘More dedicated workers’ is nothing more than a euphemism for ‘will work for less pay’. Charities, in general, pay their workers much less than they could earn in the public sector for the equivalent duties and responsibility and, crucially, spend far less money on training their workforce than the public sector. Why?

Because the low rates of pay in the voluntary sector, as against those of their public sector counterparts, results in a high rate of staff turnover. Training is wasted investment because, more often then not, the staff you invest in by way of training will use their enhanced skills to secure a better paid job in the public sector, making the whole exercise a false economy.

And ‘More flexible’ is just another euphemism for ‘will work long hours without being paid overtime’.

Most of the supposed benefits and advantages of the voluntary sector are largely mythical – a fiction that’s actively promoted by a small number of London-based national ‘super-charities’ and NGOs who maintain a close relationship with government and provide a relatively safe ‘breeding ground’ for young would-be careerist Labour politicians – its an alternative to coming up in the party through the trade union movement, and one that carries with is fewer overt political connotations.

Out here in the real world outside the M25, very few charities are capable of delivering even the simplest of public services to the standards demanded by government, other than local branches of the big name national charities – those local charities that are capable of taking on such venture are, admittedly, very good at what they do and even innovative in their approach, but they are also few and far between.

That’s the truth, spoken by someone who’s been on the inside of this particular system for more than ten years. The Voluntary Sector is not all its cracked up to be – there’s too little wheat and too much chaff to rely on it as a dumping ground for the social problems that the government doesn’t want to tackle.

Anti-social behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse, problem families and the like are just some of the areas in which Mr Reid and Mr Cameron believe faith-based organisations could be more effective than they already are. But the stand-off over adoption rights for gay couples illustrates the conundrum that is in the making.

Church agencies are admired for their efficiency and sensitivity. But the faith elements – the shared values and shared purpose – are an integral part of their character. Take the values away, or hobble them with a restrictive law, and the agencies will lose the very assets that made them so effective in the first place. In reality, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster hardly needs to threaten the disbanding of Catholic adoption charities. Coralled by the secular state, they – and their Anglican and other equivalents – would soon fall apart of their own accord.

This is less a problem and more a cause of serious ethical concerns.

As I noted earlier, services provided by religious organisations are rarely, if ever, value free in their delivery – like the cafe in Monty Python’s classic spam sketch, god is always on the menu and in every meal, whether you want it or not.

I well recall, for example, a small community self-help group for ex-mental health service use that I did some work with a few year back; one that started out by holding its regular meetings at a local Christian-run community centre simply because that was the most convenient venue for their members. Less than a year after starting the group, its organisers took the decision to move the group’s meetings to a different (and much less convenient) venue and when I asked them why they’d move I was told that it was because they were sick of members complaining about being approached by other centre users and members of staff, who would try to talk to them about god and persuade them to attend religious activities at the centre.

That’s the elephant in the room when it comes to transferring public services to religious organisations, the subject that no one seems prepared to discuss openly unless the service in question is so obviously and egregiously ill-conceived that one cannot avoid noting this issue, as is the case in Africa with those religious-based initiatives that stupidly and dangerous advocate abstinence only and tell lies about the use of condoms.

The majority of public services that government wants to dump into the Voluntary Sector are those that work with the most vulnerable members of our society and, by their very definition, those who most vulnerable are very often the same people who are most susceptible to religious indoctrination, something that religious organisations know perfectly well.

Which is why, unlike Mary, not only do I not accept the idea that religious organisations should be given an opt-out on anti-discrimination legislation but, as with so-called ‘faith schools’ I don’t agree with giving state-funding to religious organisations at all, unless they can clearly demonstrate that they have the ability to deliver services without proselytising to the ‘customers’.

5 thoughts on “Our Lady of the Apologetic Commentariat

  1. Absolutely spot on.

    I work for a local government-nhs mental health partnership (Health Act (1999) Section 31) in the north east.

    Our most vulnerable clients are those with severe and enduring psychosis combined with substance misuse (generally alcohol, cannabis, smack, crack and ecstacy.) We are in the middle of ‘restructuring’ and ‘concentrating on core services’ and are about to ‘procure’ ‘provision’ for these most vulnerable citizens from ‘the third sector’ – ie not private and not public.

    God (if I believed in him) save us all.

    Regards, Dan

  2. Following on from the post I commented on before:

    You will have to excuse me, I don’t really know what the ettiquette is for posting on blogs, but I got this in an email today and signed up, if you are in agreement or even half sympathetic to letting others decide, would you post?

    http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/kellyweu/

    Regards (again), Dan

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