Monday, May 03, 2010

The Observer and Mrs Stroud

It was only going to be a matter of time before the press investigated Philippa Stroud.

An active Christian, whose charitable work over the years has seen her directly involved with some of the most vulnerable members of society, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Sutton and Cheam has been strongly criticised in Sunday's Observer. At the heart of the paper's criticism is the allegation that Phillipa Stroud, "founded a church that tried to "cure" homosexuals by driving out their "demons" through prayer."

In support of this allegation, the paper quotes three individuals who were involved in churches in Bedford and Birmingham in which Phillipa Stroud played a prominent role during the 1990s. All three express varying degrees of criticism of the input they claim to have received through the church(es). Further criticism comes from two quotations from Stroud's 1999 book God's Heart for the Poor.

The article has received over 900 comments on the Observer's web site, the vast majority hostile to Mrs Stroud, many aggressively so. The topic also trended on Twitter on Monday and has exercised opinion on the blogosphere from both supporters and opponents. Stroud herself declined to be interviewed by the Observer over the story but did release the following statement:

“I make no apology for being a committed Christian. However, it is categorically untrue that I believe homosexuality to be an illness and I am deeply offended that The Observer has suggested otherwise. I have spent 20 years working with disturbed people who society have turned their back on and are not often supported by state agencies; drug addicts, alcoholics, the mentally ill and the homeless that I and my charitable friends in the public sector have tried to help over the years. The idea that I am prejudiced against gay people is both false and insulting.”

In assessing the story, and the reaction to it, several points appear in order. I should mention that as this is the longest article I have ever written on this blog, those readers seeking lighter fare should click here now.

1. Perceived Homophobia has Become the Unforgivable Sin in C21 Britain

It is worth pausing to reflect that until 1967 in England and Wales, 1980 in Scotland and 1982 in Northern Ireland, it was a criminal offence to commit a sex act between two or more males. It was only in 2000 that the age of consent for homosexual acts was reduced to 16.

Against this backdrop, the fact that homosexuality is now widely portrayed as a mainstream lifestyle, that civil partnerships are now a fact of British law, that same-sex marriage is being actively canvassed across the political spectrum and that declining to offer commercial services to a same sex couple is now a dismissible offence, all represent a dramatic rate of cultural and legal change within a generation.

This unprecedented cultural shift has resulted in a new vocabulary (including the rarely-defined term "homophobia") and new attitudes in the public sphere. It is also notable that charges of being homophobic rarely need to be proved in order to inflict damage on the one accused. The claim that a person has spoken or acted in a homophobic fashion is often enough to ensure public censure.

2. The Gay Rights Narrative Has Yet to Find a Workable Solution to the Reality of Dissenters

In the context of the huge cultural changes that have taken place over sexual politics in recent years, it is paradoxical that developments aimed at reducing intolerance against gay people appear in some respects to have increased intolerance against those who may disagree with their lifestyle. This, of course, has considerable implications for the freedom of speech in Britain. Although it is rare to find advocates of the re-criminalisation of homosexuality, concern is regularly raised by those seeking to limit the extent to which gay rights should impinge upon the beliefs and practices of others.

Current areas of conflict, inside and outside of Parliament, have focused on whether a church or other religious body can apply a sexual orientation qualification for those it employs in leadership roles and, secondly, whether faith-based schools can teach sex education in ways consistent with their historic moral perspective, which emphasises marriage (defined heterosexually).

John Sentamu, archbishop of York, explains some of the pertinent legal and free speech issues here.

Cries from Observer readers that such individuals "have no place" in modern Britain do not really address this important free speech issue in any meaningful way, having more in common with the ideology of "oppress all oppressors."

The logic of this approach to radically different opinions, at a popular level, is expressed by Elton John who was quoted (by the Observer!) in 2007 saying: "From my point of view I would ban religion completely, even though there are some wonderful things about it."

Since free speech is the right to say things that people don't want to hear, we seem at present not to have found a workable solution to the reality that sections of the population perceive their own rights and freedoms to be under threat from aspects of the gay community as they assert theirs.

The question of how to resolve these two apparently competing assertions of rights has yet to be adequately resolved in ways that contribute to justice and to the common good, in my opinion.

3. Many Evangelicals Struggle to Understand the Media

Reading between the lines of the 900+ Observer comments (yes, I did skim read virtually all of them, I'm afraid!) it was possible to discern the occasional sympathetic remark, and even the odd one which had an implied Christian worldview. These were, however, very much in the minority, implying that (a) either Christians sympathetic to Mrs Stroud chose not to comment on the Observer web site or (b) the comments they made were removed by the paper's moderators for falling foul of rule 5 of the site's comments policy:

We will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia or other forms of hate-speech, or contributions that could be interpreted as such.

Outside of the Observer site, Christian comment - via blogs and twitter - have tended to fall into three main categories a) claims that the article was a politically motivated hatchet job aimed at damaging the Tories and/or Christians b) claims that the article was factually inaccurate and made selective use of information c) suggestions that Mrs Stroud got what she deserved for being a Tory.

My own view is that some of my fellow Christian readers reveal a measure of confusion about the function and limits of the press.
Although the story certainly sits comfortably within the Guardian/Observer's long-held anti-Conservative editorial bias, there is nothing inherently wrong about a story being consistent with such a bias. Indeed, it would be odd if it were not present. Partisan bias can be found in virtually all of Britain's national newspapers.

Furthermore, the article is triple sourced - three individuals (two named) are quoted. Uncomfortable reading though their testimony makes, it is surely unwarranted to automatically assume that they are lying about their experiences. Legal remedies exist if that should prove not to be the case.

The reality is that any local or national newspaper could find individuals who are unhappy with the pastoral care they claim to have received in virtually any church in the country - including the ones any readers of this blog may attend or even lead!
Evangelicals have to accept this reality, rather than automatically dismiss such claims as inherently impossible just because they "know" that such-and-such a church leader is well meaning. As my University chaplain once reminded me, "If all we had to do as Christians was demonstrate our sincerity, we'd have a very easy life!"

The tendency in some quarters to avoid rigorous and critical self-analysis about our beliefs and practices should hardly be considered a virtue. This defensiveness, which at its worst can come across as a kind of corporate brand protectionism, is sometimes confused with the Biblical mandate to "contend for the faith". It is even less consistent with the Biblical injunction to "test everything" - which I take to include our own beliefs and practices, not only those of others. Actually, if we must make a comparison between local churches and corporations, we might want to remind ourselves that the most successful business brands adopt a policy of positively welcoming criticism, seeking it as unpaid-for market research.

The Observer is under no obligation, furthermore, to write about all the positive things that may or may not have arisen from the Bedford church over the years. The press are not apologists for the faith. Every news article, especially a hard news piece such as this, requires an "angle" - a basic perspective on what the story is about. and is typically written under specific time pressures and deadlines In this case, the "angle" is limited to Phillipa Stroud's alleged involvement in prayer sessions aimed at "curing" gay people, and at her current campaign to be elected as an MP from a party that the paper despises.

4. Expelling Demons Remains a Controversial Area Both Inside and Outside the Church

In her brief response to the Observer article, Mrs Stroud does not discuss the substance of the accusations made concerning her involvement in prayer sessions. Rather she defends her motives ("not prejudiced against gay people") and her beliefs ("untrue that I believe homosexuality to be an illness").

Readers may make of this what they will. The fact remains that the expulsion of "demons" is a current practice among some sections of the evangelical, charismatic and pentecostal branches of the church in 2010.
Although less overt about the subject, the rite is also included in the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions.

On the one hand, this fact alone is enough to arouse fury among some secularists, and accusations that the language is appropriate only for the Dark Ages. On the other hand, we should take note of the fact that it is increasingly common to hear quite secular people talk openly about "battling with demons" of depression, alcoholism, self-harm or addiction. The language used is certainly emotionally charged; its value, however, is to express the idea that the sufferer feels themselves to be being harmed by malevolent forces. Considering the degree of distress suffered by many who use this language outside of a Christian context, we should be careful about denying such people the right to express in graphic terms what they perceive to be happening to and within them.

Having witnessed a number of prayer sessions in a Christian context over the years which have included the attempted expulsion of "demons", and without reference to any of the specific claims made by the Observer, I frankly confess that as a Bible believing Christian I am personally uncomfortable with some of the practices I have witnessed in these settings.

The Association of Christian Counsellors, at least, has
a rigorous code of ethics and professional practice and a comprehensive complaints procedure for those operating under its professional umbrella. I know of few local churches or denominational bodies, by contrast, especially among the new churches, that have any such objective instrument for ensuring best practice in counselling or pastoral care.

In a heavily secularised and, at times hostile cultural environment, it seems important for churches to reflect carefully on their pastoral practices, to remain self aware and self critical and to be unafraid of applying rigorous thought, care and oversight to their actions in the area of pastoral care, especially when working with vulnerable people.

I'm sure that in time, if they don't, the state will.

5. Bryn Jones's Vision is not Without its Challenges

In the early 1980's, a new brand of church began to emerge from Baptist, Pentecostal and Brethren backgrounds in the UK. These "house churches" as they were initially often described have gone on to form some of the more active and numerically successful expressions of church life in the UK in the subsequent decades (though few still meet in homes).

In the formative years of this movement, the late Bryn Jones (then a leading figure among these new churches) predicted the day when such "restored" churches would go to influence British society not only through evangelism and Bible teaching but through social action and direct political activity. Jones's vision, outlined in the influential Restoration magazine, was that in the coming decades, some members of these churches would go on to hold positions within national government and exert a Christian influence within the formation of social and political policy.

It should be noted that Jones did not regard such activity as finding expression in any specific political party. He was no advocate of a "new right" or "British moral majority." Indeed, to the extent that his views could be discerned, Jones, who before his death completed a PhD in Peace Studies from Bradford University, appeared to be more left of centre in his political instincts.

Philippa Stroud is one of a number of a new generation of Christian politicians scattered across the party spectrum in the UK. Although it is easy to pigeonhole her as part of right wing Christian upsurge, the reality is that British evangelical Christians are scattered across the party political spectrum at both local and national level.

Philippa Stroud's experience this week is a reminder that, whatever one's party affiliation, such activity on the part of Christian believers is unlikely to go unchallenged.

Post Script

The original story has been removed from the Observer web site in the week following the general election. Rumour within both the pink press and Christian blogs is that this action was taken following threatened legal action from senior figures within the Conservative Party over the accuracy / legality of the piece.

Since all I know about the story is what I read on the Observer's site, I am happy to stand by this blog post as a summary of the underlying issues that such a story raises, without commenting on the specific claims made in the original Observer article.

Post Post Script

And so it goes on.

Guido Fawkes reports today that Philippa Stroud has been appointed as Special Advser to Iain Duncan Smith.

Fawkes also quotes a source in the Department for Work and Pensions (where IDS is the Minister) as saying, "It's common for newspapers to get a story wrong when their source is ether wrong or lying, but it's pretty worrying when a front page story is based on a source that doesn't exist."

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Anonymous said...

This blogger, who has written the above considerations regarding Philippa Stroud, has made an extremely serious error.

Much of what he has written is predicated on the assertion that homosexuality is "a lifestyle".

Homosexuality is NOT a lifestyle.

Homosexuality is no more a lifestyle than heterosexuality is a lifestyle.

Some people ARE heterosexual and do not find members of the same sex sexually attractive.

Some people ARE homosexual and do not find members of the opposite sex sexually attractive.

Other people range on the spectrum that is in between heterosexaulity and homosexuality. In the centre of that spectrum are bisexual people. They have not chosen the bisexual lifestyle: they ARE bisexual. They simply ARE attracted to both sexes.

Heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals can do nothing about their sexuality.

So where does this term "lifestyle" spring from?

It springs from bigots and also from those people who are living as heterosexuals although they know that they are, in actuality, homosexuals - but they do not have the courage to live and be open as the people they actually are.

Homosexuality is NOT a lifestyle choice. It is only true to say that homosexuals have different lifestyles - and one of these lifestyles, for some homosexuals, involves a great deal of clubbing. That is a lifestyle. The homosexuality is not a lifestyle. Other homosexuals live in the countryside and participate in fox-hunts. That too is lifestyle. But their homosexuality is not a lifestyle.

I hope that blogger Al Shaw is not now hindred by personal homophobia and can now adjust his thinking and his future writings accordingly.

Anonymous said...

The blogger also doesn't seem to make a distinction between having a right to BELIEVE something or SAY something and having the right to legally deny other people rights based on one's personal beliefs.

The overwhelming majority of gay people support anti-gay people's right to BELIEVE that gay people are wrong, or even evil. We support a person's right to say so. We don't support a person's right to deny us goods or services or access to CIVIL institutions based on THEIR beliefs and opinions.

I believe that a lot of religious people are foolish, even dangerous, but I have NEVER advocated taking away their right to a public accommodation (even at a bed a breakfast or their right to shop at a certain store or eat at a certain restaurant and CERTAINLY not their right to access to ANY civil institution, such as marriage.

That's the difference between having a freedom of opinion, belief, speech and believing that because of one's beliefs it is a violation of his rights to allow a person to have a CIVIL right that his personal opinion or religious beliefs don't support.

Why is this discussion about freedom of religion and violation of freedom of speech NEVER brought up when discussing racism and other forms of discrimination against entire communities? Why is it that this discussion only seems to take place when discussing the rights of and respect for LGBT people? People have religious objections to black people's equal rights and women's equal rights but yet you NEVER hear people defending racist and misogynists as victims of religious oppression by blacks and women?

Why would that be?


Al Shaw said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for visiting and taking the time to comment.

I think you're right about my potentally confusing use of vocabulary.

I do recognise that homosexuality (like heterosexuality) is an orientation. Lifestyle is a summary of the choices that individuals make arising from that orientation. Apologies for any confusion there.

Where I think we may differ, is over the statement that "people can do nothing about their sexuality" (which I understand as their orientation.)

A few friends over the years, male and female, have told me that they have experienced a significant degree of change in their sexual orientation during the course of their lives. I'm inclined to accept what they tell me.

Thanks for commenting.

Al Shaw said...

Hello Ezekiel,

Thanks for your comments.

I think that's a helpful distinction between freedom of speech and the denial of goods and services.

My own views are as follows:

1. Like most people (I assume) I would affirm the right of people to recieve goods and generic services regardless of their sexual orientation.

2. I do see a difference between the provision of a generic service (eg a drink in a bar) and a service which is sexually specific. The recent example of a Relate counsellor in Bristol who declined to give sexual counselling to same sex couples would be an example of the latter, in my opinion.

The difference between the two types of provison, it seems to me, is that in the latter, the individual is required to actively facilitate the sexual acts which he or she believes to be wrong in themselves, thus violating some of their basic beliefs and values.

The court has given its verdict on this speciic issue. The reality, however, is that the judgemet is widely seen by Christians as a denial of their rights to work within the remits of their own conscience. My article seeks to highlight this as a social and legal problem which at present is unresolved.

3. Marriage is given a particular prominence in the Christian faith and has virtually always been defined hetrosexually, both within the churches and in wider society.

The universality of heterosexual marriage, including in regions of the world untouched by Christian faith, might lead us to consider whether it is an institution that is far more embedded into the human psyche than we might realise.

It is against this backdrop that I am personlly opposed to the redefinig of marriage to describe homosexual as well as heterosexual unions. In the end, I do not see marriage as merely a socially constructed institution but as a God-given arrangement.

My own view is that the existence of civil partnerships is a pragmatic and workable solution to the issue, guaranteeing equal rights with married couples under the law.

4. You say that "The overwhelming majority of gay people support anti-gay people's right to BELIEVE that gay people are wrong, or even evil. We support a person's right to say so."

I am glad to hear that, because in saying so you are out of step with much current equality legislation on the issue.

If in the course of going about one's job, a stright employee told a gay colleage that he/she were evil, the straight worker would be disciplined, possibly suspended. If such a statement were made in a school classroom, the teacher would be dismissed.

Beyond these examples, there is clear pressure being bought to bear on faith-based schools to deliver their sex education programmes in ways that affirm gay sex even though many Christian teachers do not believe such acts as moral.

These (and other) developments are real problem areas for the issue of free speech and suggest that the arguement which says "free speech, yes; denial of service, no" is easier to say than it is to implement at the level of social policy.

Thanks again for commenting.

Steve Smith said...

You may find an introduction to an aspect of queer theory interesting, which I just came across here
Particularly interesting is Foucault on 'A history of sexuality' Vol 1 (which I read in my first year). Pertinent for your blog's respondents is how for some queer theorists, sexuality is not essential to the self, contra some gay/lesbian theorists.

Al Shaw said...

Thanks Steve.

I'll check it out.