|Tim needed to talk about Brexit ...|
As leader of the Liberal Democrats for the 2017 election, Tim Farron needed to talk about the party’s offer to anti-Brexit ‘Remainers’ – a second referendum - and how income tax was the fair and realistic way to pay for better healthcare.
Instead, he was relentlessly pressed for his analysis of Leviticus. You work on the Sabbath (yes), you eat shellfish (no, actually) so why won’t you say if gay sex is a sin? Eleven times in four minutes, LBC radio’s Vincent McAviney demanded this instant, on-air exegesis of the third book of Moses.
|...but Vince had other ideas|
Tim Farron’s commitment to equality is unquestionable – he voted in favour of same-sex marriage, and Pink News found him ‘outspoken and consistent’ in backing equal rights as party leader. To Vincent of LBC, he tried to explain the principles of church-state separation, and the consequent inappropriateness of politicians issuing judgements on matters of faith, but it all seemed futile. What sex does Tim bless? He doesn’t answer! He won’t say! Eventually, like a broken hostage dragged from his cell to face the video recorder, Tim uttered the words his tormentors demanded: Gay sex is not a sin.
One attacker was David Laws, the former Liberal Democrat minister and MP suspended from the House of Commons in 2011 for ‘a series of substantial breaches’ of expenses rules when he claimed ‘rent’ paid to a ‘landlord’ who was, in fact, his partner. The reason for the deception, he said, was being ‘very keen not to reveal information about my sexuality - not least to MPs from other parties.’ Now he accuses his leader of merely ‘tolerating’ and ‘forgiving’ him while promoting ‘the dangerous myth that our society can respect and embrace people in same sex relationships, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral’. But if Laws wields the bludgeon, a more subtle thrust comes from the rapier of Vince Cable, now back in Parliament and Farron’s likely successor as leader of the Liberal Democrats. He gave Sky TV this analysis of Tim’s position:
The problem he has as an individual, and it’s true of a lot of evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics, is that their religious faith has a certain approach to these problems but they are also public figures who have to represent their constituencies, which are much more diverse.
Tim Farron does not say that he ‘tolerates’ or ‘forgives’ gay colleagues or that he advocates any public sexual morality. He says that his liberalism means all are equal; as a Christian he does not judge anyone. Vince Cable suggests that he is not being truthful about his position: that actually he wants to enforce a ‘certain approach’ but cannot do so because of social diversity.
What is going on? The Liberal Democrats won 57 seats in the 2010 general election, then lost all but 8 of them in 2015. In between, they sat in Coalition government with the Conservatives. Tim Farron was not a Coalition minister, and voted in Parliament against his leadership on two controversial Coalition policies: increased student fees (a policy directly contradicting the party’s election promise) and the ‘bedroom tax’ (reduced benefit for tenants with ‘spare’ bedrooms). He won the leadership in 2015 against Norman Lamb, a former Coalition minister. Free of Coalition baggage, Tim Farron could purge the party of its stain while big-hitting former ministers like Vince Cable served time outside Parliament. Theresa May’s snap election promised an early return, but a strong showing by Farron’s Liberal Democrats would have been a rebuke to big-name ex-ministers. The outcome – the party still standing, but Farron dead and buried – is ideal. Leviticus was just the weapon.
But, when all is said and done … IS gay sex a sin? Why is this so hard to answer? ‘Sin’ in the bible means ‘missing the mark’ or falling short of God’s standards. Jesus faced, and denounced, a dominant religious elite holding that the Law of Moses defines a series of actions as ‘sins’, so conforming to a set of rules is the way to avoid it. Christians deny this. Sin is an intrinsic condition of humanity, basically consisting in rejecting the true God and making false gods (idols); it is not possible to live free of sin but it is possible to be forgiven through faith in Christ. The idea that a particular sexual practice is ‘a sin’ is meaningless: sin, at root, is disbelief, and things flow from that. But the New Testament also says that when people become Christians, they join free associations of believers known as churches. There are standards of conduct that distinguish those groups, and sexual behaviour is part of those. Here the question ‘is gay sex a sin?’ acquires meaning, more precisely as: ‘is a faithful sexual relationship with someone of the same gender compatible with a Christian profession of faith?’ Asking the leader of a Parliamentary party to comment implies that it is the job of the state to arbitrate on theological matters – as in the times of Emperor Constantine or King Henry VIII.
This is what Tim Farron means when he says that he is not a theologian, and that as a liberal he believes in church-state separation and equality. Vincent’s on-air question is an internal matter for churches, and the correct position for a church member when acting in the capacity of a public office holder is ‘no comment.’ He expects a liberal society to uphold his own, and others’, right to maintain this view. The demand that he answer is a violation of his rights, of liberal principles, and of religious freedom.