Joyce McMillan: We need to have faith in practical morality

Tim Farron quit as Liberal Democrats leader because he said he felt conflicted over his views as a Christian. Picture: Getty ImagesTim Farron quit as Liberal Democrats leader because he said he felt conflicted over his views as a Christian. Picture: Getty Images
Tim Farron quit as Liberal Democrats leader because he said he felt conflicted over his views as a Christian. Picture: Getty Images
Making a difference to people's lives should be more imporant than questionable theology says Joyce McMillan, as she reflects on Tim Farron's resignation as Liberal Democrat party leader.

Amid all the pain and horror of this week’s news, there was one political event that attracted surprisingly little media attention. On Wednesday afternoon, Tim Farron, MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale, announced his resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, after less than two years in the job. He said, in his resignation statement, that he had found it impossible to reconcile the job of leading a modern, liberal political party with his wish to live as a faithful Christian; and he added a slightly bitter suggestion that our liberal society is apparently not liberal enough to accept other people’s religious convictions.

Yet as the news of Tim Farron’s departure began to sink in, the manner of his going was met with increasing puzzlement. Politics, after all, is a profession full of people of strong religious faith, many of them in leadership positions; Tony Blair was one, Theresa May is another.

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Yet somehow, Tim Farron apparently felt that his faith obliged him to adopt views incompatible with his position; he refused to give a categorical answer, famously, when first asked by interviewers whether he thought gay sex was wrong. What was troubling him, in other words, was not “Christian faith” as such - there are now plenty of Christian churches that heartily welcome gay partnerships, and some that welcome gay marriage - but the particular kind of evangelical Christianity he embraces, which presumably involves more traditional views on sexual morality.

And it seems, when we consider the world’s great religious traditions, that it has always been this way, at least with the monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. On one hand, at the heart of the faith, there is a pure impulse of peace, love and charity, seen at its strongest in the aftermath of tragedies like the Manchester bombing or the Grenfell Tower fire, when churches and mosques - and other places of worship - throw open their doors to those in need of shelter, and stand at the centre of a whole web of compassion and care woven by believers and unbelievers alike.

At this end of the spectrum, religion is usually too busy dealing with people in need, to bother much about any adult’s consensual sexual behaviour; as someone tweeted yesterday, “being a Christian makes me angry about food banks, not about who other people fall in love with”.

Yet on the other hand, in all three traditions, there is this second aspect of faith, the one that is all about heavy-handed patriarchy, and outright sexual neurosis. Margaret Attwood’s great novel The Handmaid’s Tale, now a powerful BBC drama, is a dystopian vision of a world in which that patriarchal aspect of the Christian faith revives with great force; we in Scotland are no strangers to religious traditions that spent more time policing women’s behaviour, and ranting about Jezebels and harlots, than preaching the gospel of love. The same virulent impulse to control and subdue women, and to crush the very idea of homosexual love, can still be seen in many parts of the Islamic world, and in other faiths; and it’s a Christianity still touched by this kind of thinking that seems - perhaps sadly - to have won the allegiance of Tim Farron, an otherwise kind and generous-minded man.

And there are three further things worth saying this week, about this strange incident. The first is that in an increasingly irreligious age, when many people in the west know nothing of any faith tradition, the more strident and lurid kinds of faith make better copy than the gentle and patient sort, and are more easily stereotyped as being in some way typical; this is unfortunate at best, and downright dangerous when it insults and misrepresents a whole large minority in a nation.

The second is that the bullying form of patriarchal Christianity may be about to achieve unusual prominence in 21st century Britain, when Theresa May rolls out her planned deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, founded by the Rev. Ian Paisley to represent the old-time religion of the Protestant people of Northern Ireland, in all its illiberal notoriety. It’s true that the Rev. Paisley and his old Sinn Fein rival Martin McGuinness learned to walk the path of peace together in the end; but the current generation of DUP politicians still seem to embrace some pretty unreconstructed attitudes, not only on social issues, but also on the peace process itself.

And then finally, there is the force of what is happening on the ground, in Britain’s cities, as communities come together to deal either with the full-frontal assault of terrorism, or with the tragic consequences of social neglect and injustice. It was a year ago this week that the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in her Yorkshire constituency by a right-wing extremist; and since then, her family have been developing a movement known as More In Common, based on a quotation from one of her speeches.

And what seems to me to be happening now, in those communities faced by tragedy, is that people are simply getting on with discovering for themselves the truth of Jo Cox’s view; that in moments of crisis, Christians and Muslims and Hindus, and people of no faith at all, simply open their hearts and their front doors and find their own common ground - a sense of street-level charity and solidarity embodied in all their traditions, and not wholly owned by any of them.

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In that sense, the practical experience of the people in Britain’s multi-cultural cities is perhaps beginning to outstrip the laborious theology of multi-faith dialogue, and to find its own answers in a practical morality that can embrace us all. And we can be sure of this: that if that sense of community and shared values continues to strengthen, in coming years, then its main interest will not be in banning gay weddings or telling women how to dress, but in ridding those communities of the food banks and other signs of economic desperation that currently disfigure them; and in making sure that the people there have homes that are decent, secure, and built to last, rather than to turn a quick buck in rental income, regardless of the human cost.