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Ben Summerskill: ‘We don’t think religion is evil or wicked’

Ben Summerskill receiving an OBE in 2009 (Johnny Green/PA)

Even Stonewall’s fiercest critics would agree that it’s an enviably effective lobbying group. Founded in 1989 to oppose Section 28, the order banning local government agencies from “promoting homosexuality”, it has grown into a high-profile campaigning organisation, helping to set the Government’s agenda on sexual politics. It has successfully lobbied for a number of laws in recent years and, just as importantly, seems to shape the moral agenda too. At least, that’s how it sometimes seems to those of us on the other side of the culture war.

A registered charity, Stonewall is at the forefront of Government plans to change the definition of marriage (as we’d put it), or bring about marriage equality (as they would). Among Catholics, in particular, there is great concern – and, indeed, even bitterness – about Stonewall’s part in the passage of various equality laws, which many of the faithful see as a threat to religious liberty. Battlegrounds include the right of B&B owners to refuse gay couples a room and, most contentiously, the regulations that prevent Catholic adoption agencies from denying their services to same-sex couples.

What fuels the distrust among traditionally minded Christians is that Stonewall seems to have the ear of all the major parties and to be a firm fixture of the liberal metropolitan establishment. Catholics are now subject to what some see as new Test Acts – though, in this case, the faithful are penalised for failing to subscribe to Equality (the political ideology, not the basic concept), rather than the 39 Articles. Such feelings are aggravated by the recent disclosure that Stonewall has been invited into a number of Catholic schools to train teachers in preventing anti-gay bullying. Many Catholics are not, to put it mildly, happy about things like this because they are convinced there is an unbridgeable gulf between Stonewall’s sexual politics and Catholic moral teaching.

Under Benedict XVI, the Vatican launched a bold initiative called Courtyard of the Gentiles, which aimed to foster dialogue between Catholics and non-believers. In our very own Courtyard-style initiative, The Catholic Herald has decided to engage some of the Church’s most prominent critics. Our intention is to show Catholics what our political and cultural adversaries think of us, to find out more about what shapes their world views and, in turn, to present the Catholic point of view to them.

Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, is happy to be the first to talk to us. The group’s strategy has long been to build consensus and to avoid, or neutralise, conflict with religious groups wherever possible.

When I visit Summerskill at the charity’s headquarters in London my perception of the group is immediately unsettled. I thought Stonewall’s HQ would be state-of-the-art, all glass and Scandinavian furnishings, as befits our new post-1997 ruling class. Their offices are actually in a rather dilapidated tower block in Waterloo, with a modest corner entrance and lifts that unnervingly halt and jump. The headquarters, up on the 14th floor, is, if not grotty, then certainly bohemian (though nothing like as much as ours). Most of the staff are casually dressed, though Summerskill – all 6’3” of him – is in a smart suit. After our meeting he is off to Parliament to speak about same-sex marriage. I explain the purpose of the interview to him, but he expresses discomfort at being described as “a critic of the Church”.

“I wouldn’t want to be caricatured as an opponent,” he says. Rather, he suggests, we should think of him as “a critical friend”.

I confess that this surprises me. Does he really think of himself that way? He insists that he does, and explains that he has had meetings with several Christian leaders. “One of the most interesting meetings we had, five years ago, was with the Evangelical Alliance,” he says. “He and some of his colleagues regarded us as being on some sort of secularist mission. We were talking about protections in the commercial services, and he said: ‘You must have been very pleased because that’s one more nail in the coffin of Christianity.’ And it had never crossed either my or my colleague’s mind. When we got employment protections for the first time – quite properly because gay people were being sacked just for being gay – no one was thinking: ‘Hurrah, here’s another nail in the coffin of Christianity.’ They just went home thinking: ‘Isn’t it nice we’re not susceptible to being sacked?’”

That was a moment of realisation, Summerskill says, about how “some people of faith” saw Stonewall. But “it’s just not based on reality”, he insists.

I ask if he’s also met Catholic leaders. “We’ve had similar dialogue with Catholics, but senior Catholics have been reluctant,” he says. “We didn’t get any response.”

He continues: “I think that one thing the Roman Catholic Church has not been good at is wrestling with these sorts of issues in a constructive and supportive way. Lesbians and gay people in the Church of England might be dissatisfied with what it’s done, but it’s a church that wrestled with these issues. For a gay Roman Catholic, there is no acknowledgment that there is a community of interest within the Church.

“The only thing that gay Roman Catholics have seen in recent monthsis what appeared to be a fairly spiteful and vindictive insistence that they stop a weekly service that was attended not just by gay people but also by some gay people of pretty devout religious conviction who don’t treat it as a superficial thing at all. I can’t imagine that happening in the Church of England.”

He is, of course, referring to the Archdiocese of Westminster’s decision in January to transfer the so-called Soho Masses to another central London church. I explain that many Catholics felt the Soho Masses had become politicised, with gestures such as draping the rainbow flag over the lectern.

“The only way it was politicised was by people drawing attention and making a fuss about it,” he says. “There were people going to the Mass hoping to get outraged or upset. It was politicised by virtue of the Archbishop of Westminster rather cruelly saying that he didn’t think it should take place.”

Yet it’s worth noting here that Archbishop Vincent Nichols did, in fact, robustly defend the Soho Masses several times, has been to visit the Soho Mass community at their new home in Mayfair and seems to be well regarded by most people involved in the Masses.

So does Summerskill blame the churches for the prejudice and hostility he experienced growing up? “I think it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that many denominations have been insufficiently energetic in addressing some of the hatred and prejudice,” he says. “Well, there’s no doubt some of them have encouraged it. But I’m wary of caricaturing a whole denomination. Of course there are good things [in the Catholic Church]. There are good things in all churches that bring people together. We now work directly with 500 schools, with a third of local authorities, on dealing with homophobic bullying. And those include Roman Catholic faith schools, which take the issue incredibly seriously. They are exemplary in the way they deal with these issues.”

I ask him what single change he would most like to see in the Catholic Church. “It could start talking in more temperate terms,” he says. “The problem is, if you cling to a vision of the world that’s 200 years old you don’t deal with the reality. And it’s borne out through the various other crises played out within the Church. I think that’s what happened with child abuse.”

I ask Summerskill if he considers himself religious. “I don’t talk about that in public,” he replies. “It’s one part of me I’d like to keep private, though you would be able to surmise from that vague response that I’m obviously not an evangelical. Religious denominations have been – and are – hugely powerful forces for good.

We don’t take the view that somehow religion is evil or wicked. It’s how you manifest it.

“The thing that makes a lot of gay people anxious is that increasingly some denominations, some Catholics, are fighting their culture wars on gay people’s modestly sized lawns. The number of [gay] people getting married is infinitesimal compared to the number of children growing up in single-parent households, and the Roman Catholic Church and others have had far more to say about [gay marriage] than single-parent households.

“Roman Catholics may say ‘this is not for us to get exercised about’, but many of the active campaigners, especially in the Church of England, where it is material, have had very little to say publicly about the fact that the next but one supreme governor of the Church of England was living in sin for several years. It’s not that they have had little to say, but nothing to say. And that leads some people to say it may be more to do with homosexuality than anything else.”

I don’t think the implication that Christian leaders are obsessed with homosexuality is really fair. Catholic bishops, in particular, speak out about an array of public issues, and homosexuality is rarely among them. The few mentions, however, are pounced on by the media. When the Church talks about poverty, rather than sexual ethics, the secular press just doesn’t seem interested.

“But,” Summerskill replies, “I’m not aware that any senior cleric has said anything about William and Kate, or Charles and Camilla. There is an unhealthy obsession with homosexuality.”

I ask him if he felt vindicated by Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s downfall earlier this year, given the Scottish leader’s strongly worded criticisms of same-sex marriage.

“I think it’s profoundly sad,” he says. “We are not celebrating. There is a difference between being pleased and vindicated.”

Does he stands by Stonewall’s decision to name Cardinal O’Brien “Bigot of the Year” at their annual awards event last year, something that rankled with a great many Catholics.

“There is a difference between being outspoken and wholly abusive,” he responds. “We’re very crossbench in our political approach. Our success has been with building bridges. The issue with Cardinal O’Brien was that he actually compared gay people to slave owners and child abusers.”

Was he personally hurt by this? “Oh yes. It was an absolutely disgusting observation to make. In retrospect, our view is that when people make that kind of caricature to refer to them as a ‘bigot’ is actually quite temperate.”

It’s noticeable how much part of the establishment the Stonewall awards have become. They are supported by politicians of all hues, prominent businesses, leading charities and even the Queen’s bank, Coutts.

Summerskill insists he “doesn’t have a political bone” in his body, but acknowledges his family has a long political tradition. His paternal grandmother and aunt were Labour MPs. Edith Summerskill was a doctor and feminist who had advocated birth control – “she was being attacked by Catholic priests three quarters of a century ago”, he says – and Shirley Summerskill introduced Britain’s sex discrimination Act in 1975 when she was a Home Office minister. His maternal grandfather, Sydney Elliot, was a Labour man from the Clyde and editor of the Evening Standard when it was a radical paper, before helping to mastermind the Labour election victory in 1945.

Summerskill won an exhibition to Merton College but left after two years to become a restaurateur. He then followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, working for the Daily Express, and he later served as a Labour councillor in Westminster for four years before joining Stonewall in 2003. He guided the charity away from its traditional Labour roots (some gay Tories felt it was too partisan) to a more politically neutral position.

Meanwhile, the Tory Party’s move towards Stonewall’s consensus has not gone entirely to its advantage. Large numbers of MPs have rebelled against the same-sex marriage Bill and the party has been haemorrhaging support to UKIP. Some supporters of gay marriage, on the other hand, have given David Cameron little credit for the move, seeing it as being driven by political strategy rather than conviction.

“I don’t think it’s cynical at all,” Summerskill says of the Prime Minister’s stance. “They’re reading the way the world is changing. They recognise their stewardship of the party isn’t just a responsibility until 2015, but 2050. They realise there are risks in being disconnected from 21st-century life, and certainly recognising, which I think is an issue for religious denominations, that if you start twitching every time homosexuality is mentioned to anyone under the age of 40 now that looks a bit odd.”

That’s certainly true. But there’s also a counter argument, frequently used by older people who didn’t grow up in such a sexualised society, that the media cover gay rights issues obsessively.

“Our view is that these issues don’t get widely enough reported,” Summerskill says. “News and media have made strides, and we’re pleased. But these things only get reported when people use inflammatory language, whereas if you just issue calm policy stuff and hard evidence people find it dull.”

One of the things I find troubling about the same-sex marriage debate is the level of vitriol people spout against their opponents. This has created an unpleasant atmosphere. Those who describe supporters of traditional marriage as “haters” seem to be no strangers to hatred themselves. I ask Summerskill if he has similar concerns.

“It’s completely true, but that’s on both sides of the argument,” he says. “And quite often in the public space, not just around our issues, you do almost have this playground thing: I’ll make a rude face at you and you’ll make one at me. And you get more heat than light.”

Summerskill has expanded Stonewall to include not just lobbying in Parliament, but also work with schools and businesses. The charity has a turnover of £3.8m (as of 2010) and employs 60 people. Part of its work comes from government contracts, though the level of state involvement has long been in decline as private sector opportunities increase.

Businesses are eager to win Stonewall’s approval as they see good diversity credentials as key to recruiting the best workers. Britain’s extensive Equality laws – including the 2010 Equality Act, which protects nine characteristics (including both sexuality and religious belief) – may also encourage companies to be seen as sound on this issue. There is also some evidence showing that a gay-friendly environment is more likely to be a happier and friendlier one.

Summerskill says it makes economic sense for firms to be seen as gay-friendly. “I don’t think our relationship with any other organisation is based on anything else than their self-interest, in a perfectly proper way,” he says. “It’s easy economics. Why are 350 major companies employing us for advice? They’re asking for particular advice in a global market. Gay people are alive to those issues.”

To the best of my knowledge, most Catholic institutions are fairly welcoming of gay people and certainly don’t offer a hostile environment. But unfortunately, from the Church’s point of view, there is simply no squaring Catholic moral theology with the new orthodoxy of Equality. “They have not been incapable of accommodating change and understanding of the way the world is and always has been,” Summerskill concedes.

But what about the law which effectively ended the Church’s work in the field of adoption? Surely offering caring homes to children in need was far more important than ensuring that all agencies considered same-sex couples as adopters. Wasn’t it wrong that children’s lives became caught up in a game of political football?

Summerskill suggests that those claiming that a single adoption agency was forced to close down as a result of the changes are “in clear breach of the Ninth Commandment”: thou shalt not bear false witness. “They’ve had to comply with the law of the land. If you look at the adoption agencies, most of them were agencies that did all sorts of other things. Most of the trouble has been because most local authorities want to put out contracts with large providers, rather than micro-providers. My knowledge of this only comes because I have two sisters who are adopted.

“There is no evidence that a single agency has had to close as a result of legislation. If that were true – but I’m not sure that was the case – in the end you have to be clear how Christian it is for a small number of priests to be insisting that a large number of Roman Catholics should not do what they want to do. The only case of an adoption agency closing in Boston [in the United States] was where every single person involved did not want to not provide for gay adopters or adoptees.

“If, like me, you have adopted siblings, you have a sense that no agency should turn away anyone who makes a good parent to a child in need. The reality of adoption – and it’s nothing to do with a “health and safety, politically correct” approach – is that it’s an incredibly sensitive matrix of fitting children with their parents. And to diminish in any way the chance of getting that fit right, which is what you do when you start turning away whole cohorts of parents, damages a child somewhere.”

Ultimately, these arguments come down to the fragile balance between freedom and Equality. The danger, as far as many Catholics are concerned, is that these laws – democratically made and well-meaning though they may be – could end up excluding socially conservative religious people from public life, from running businesses and working in certain areas.

Summerskill dismisses what he calls the “language of religious persecution”. “To be frank,” he says, “except in a small part of Scotland where my grandparents come from, the amount of religious persecution in this country is infinitesimal.” To “discriminate because of your religion is stretching it” he adds. “I think it’s an argument for which we’ve reached some traction in Government.”

They certainly have. Sometimes it feels as if those in power today are seeking some kind “revenge” on Christians for what they believe were centuries of oppressing minorities. “Any group that has had disproportionate power over the centuries always feel aggrieved when the balance of power is evened up,” Summerskill says laconically.

I ask him what he thinks about the prospect of state-aided Catholic schools being forced to teach about same-sex marriage, assuming it becomes law. Will they still be permitted to convey the Church’s teaching on marriage?

“Yes, but we’ve seen this every time: these melodramatic claims that people are going to be hanged, drawn and quartered. It’s the same as Creationism: schools are obliged to teach matters of fact. If it’s a matter of fact that all people can get married, children will realise that some people marry people of the same sex, but most people marry people of the opposite sex. Schools will be completely free to say lifelong marriage is a beautiful thing.

“The only area where you get in slightly dodgy territory is where you start suggesting that somehow what you say or don’t say about heterosexual or same-sex marriage will somehow encourage children. This is a nonsense. If a teacher says, as a matter of Catholic doctrine, ‘we don’t approve of this but this is available’, that is a matter of fact.”

Well, let’s hope it will be that simple. But with Summerskill, Stonewall, most businesses and the three main parties on the ascendant side of the culture wars, Catholics are likely to find it increasingly difficult to negotiate the pitfalls of a rapidly changing public landscape.

The next interviewee in this series will be Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association.