I was reading the above news item from the church of Iceland and some of the online discussion around it today. The reactions that I was read mostly seemed to be from people who have serious theological objections to participation in same sex marriages. The tone of the comments was basically: “See, this is why we can’t give an inch on same sex marriage. If we give an inch, they’ll take a mile and take away our freedom of conscience to refuse.”
It was making me think a lot about what I believe about freedom of conscience.
I really do believe in freedom of conscience. I believe that, when people struggle in good faith with the meaning of the Biblical text and come to a conviction about how they should act, we ought to do what we can to give them the freedom to live out their faith according to their conscience.
There are, of course, some limits to that. We couldn’t possibly tolerate someone who sincerely believed, for example, that the Bible was telling them to commit genocide. So there are limits and some of those limits will be hard to work out, but I really do feel that freedom of conscience is a valuable thing and that we should do what we can to protect it.
But there is something that puzzles me in this discussion. People seem to be talking under the assumption that we have freedom of conscience now and we don’t – not by a long shot.
What about the many friends I have who have struggled with the scriptures and what they say about homosexuality, relationships and family and have come to the conclusion that there is no good scriptural reason for them to refuse to perform the marriage of a same sex couple – that it would be morally wrong, in fact, if they refused. Do they have the freedom to act according to their conscience? No, they don’t at this time.
Now, to be completely honest, I do largely agree with the reasoning and biblical interpretation of these friends of mine, but that is not the point. If I believe in freedom of conscience, it should not matter whether I agree with the conclusions of my sisters and brothers in Christ, I should be willing to do whatever I can to protect that freedom. (And if someone comes back to me and says that they are free to pursue their ministry in another denomination, I would ask, “Well, don’t the ministers in the Church of Iceland have that same freedom? So what are you complaining about?)
So, if people are arguing that we need to protect freedom of conscience for people who feel that they cannot participate in same sex marriages by denying freedom of conscience to those whose conscience tells them that they need to participate, we have a problem.
It makes me think that freedom of conscience is not the issue here.
I do hope that our church finds a way to allow people to act according to their conscience. That is important and valuable to me. That is not where we are now.