As a Christian, news that owners of a B&B have been sued for refusing to offer a double room to a gay couple left me with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I am a great believer in freedom of speech, conscience and thought. There are many things that many people believe that I find blatantly offensive. "Jerry Springer: Opera" is a very good example of theatre that makes me queasy just thinking about - and I wouldn't dream of actually buying a ticket to go and see it - but if the principles of liberty mean anything at all, I should defend the freedoms of those behind such productions.
Some of the strongest defenders of religious liberty were the staunchly conservative New England Puritans, whose ancestors, having escaped persecution in Europe, went on to establish Brown University. This university's founders stated that "into this liberal and catholic institution shall never be admitted any religious tests, but on the contrary, all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience." Quakers, Congregationalists, Baptists, Anglicans, Catholics and Jews could study alongside each other – a radically liberal concept in its day.
Of course, the question is: where does religious liberty end and human rights begin? No human being should be treated as second class whoever they are or denied services because of it. Actually this is a biblical principle. St Paul in his letter to the Galatians says
"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
It's really important to remember that, contrary to popular belief, the bible doesn't treat homosexual people as second class citizens. It is not the people who are the problem – and all Christians except extremists such as Westboro Baptist Church – would be quick to emphasise this. No Christian hotelier should deny a bedroom to a homosexual person simply on the grounds of that person's sexual orientation.
Quite the contrary: Christians have a strong biblical mandate to offer hospitality.
The writer to the Hebrews says:
"Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it"
Entertain strangers – and one might add that we would not normally know the sexual orientation of those who we have never met. And I've met more than my fair share of LGBT orientated angels in my time!
There is then the account of Rahab the Prostitute from the Old Testament Book of Joshua.. The Israelites are about to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Joshua sends two spies as an "advance party". These spies find refuge with a hospitable prostitute called Rahab. When the King of Jericho finds out, he sends a message to Rahab to hand over the spies. Rahab responds by pretending the spies had already left. Rahab tells the spies that she will protect them as long as they show kindness to her family and spare their lives.
So here we have a woman who is a) a prostitute b) lied to the king and c) feared for her life and that of her family by offering hospitality to spies from a foreign country. Many people throughout history have been tried, convicted and put to death for much less obvious examples of high treason. Yet, this woman is revered in the New Testament as both a biological and legal ancestor of Jesus – and as a great hero of the faith who provides an example to Christians of how to live the Christian life! In this context, how should Christians respond when people with a homosexual orientation come looking for hospitality?
The issue for some - but not all – Christians is not the person but the sexual act. By offering a double room to a homosexual couple, are they not condoning behaviour that the bible condemns? They might also add that they'd feel the same way about heterosexual sex if it happens outside of a marriage relationship (I note that the gay couple in this case were in a civil partnership). Indeed, some Christian groups have ground rules for heterosexual relationships that would seem almost medieval to those outside of the church. A lovely Christian lady who I adore, and who has offered me a great deal of hospitality over the years, once said to me
“I appreciate this will sound like it comes from the time of Noah but I really don't think a couple should hold hands until they are at least engaged.”
Her son recently contacted me to ask if I could offer hospitality to his fiancé who was coming to stay. This engaged couple in their mid-twenties wouldn't dream of sharing a building let alone a room or – God forbid – a bed before the wedding day. It reminded me of just how counter-cultural Christian relationships can be.
But all sorts of things can happen in a bedroom that a host wouldn't necessarily know about. Most hotel rooms have "No Smoking" signs but that doesn't cover the injection of heroin. The woman who has signed in as "Mrs Smith" may in fact be a mistress, and with the aide of a laptop and WIP all manner of evil can be plotted – and I'm not just talking about pornography.
I once lived in a parish where the vicar was a single, unmarried man who lived in the rectory alone. It would have been inappropriate for him to offer hospitality to either a single woman or a single man – and certainly not to anyone under 18 - for fear of creating scandal – yet this meant that he was often unable to help people in serious need. Nevertheless, people respected his position – and his office.
It is in THIS context that I think the LGBT community could help their cause immeasurably if they were to think about perhaps acting more sensitively towards those who may well be discomforted by their sexual behaviour. When my university flatmates were "at it" every night, it didn't really matter whether I thought it was immoral: the fact was, it was discourteous. Similarly, if a Christian couple asks me for hospitality, I would always ask them if they wanted one bedroom or two. If we are hosts, we should be good hosts; if we are guests we should be good guests.
Neither do we help our cause when we make unfair generalisations about those with whom we disagree. While I have sympathy with many of Ben Summerskill's sentiments, he is wrong to say that Mr and Mrs Bull know nothing about persecution. Barely a week goes by in any church when the persecution of Christians around the world is not mentioned or prayed for. Many of us wish it was more newsworthy. Yet precious few countries have anti-Christian laws that would seem unreasonable to the outside world. In Islamic countries, many Christians who are persecuted have fallen foul of seemingly innocuous anti-blasphemy laws. It is precisely BECAUSE Christian persecution is so talked about in Church circles that laws inhibiting Christian freedoms in this country cause so much fear amongst Christians. People are genuinely terrified that we're on a slippery slope to a situation where Christians WILL be murdered in this country for their faith.
Neither is it fair for Ben Summerskill to say:
The Bulls' shadowy supporter, the Christian Legal Centre, suggests it may turn to the law again. If so, it might reflect that, for the estimated £30,000 this court case has cost it, Oxfam or Save the Children could have vaccinated 100,000 people against meningitis in sub-Saharan Africa. Now that would have been a genuinely Christian way to spend its money.
It wasn't Mr and Mrs Bull who brought this matter to court: it was the gay couple, Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy. Should they and Stonewall consider how many children could have been vaccinated against meningitis had they chosen to take their custom – and their money - to another hotel instead of taking the matter to court?
Perhaps we could all do with spending some time studying at the feet of Rahab.