Equality and religious freedom discussed at Presbyterian conference

13.10.2014 |

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Union Theological College held their second joint conference under the theme ‘The Church in the Public Square’ on Thursday, 9th October 2014.

The aim of the conference was to bring together a number of leading thinkers in the UK to consider the role which Christians and the Church can play in wider community life. The theme for the event, a follow up from January’s first conference, was ‘Equality, freedom and religion’.

The subject of equality and its implications for freedom of conscience and action is highly contentious in an increasingly secularised society, and the conference speakers each brought a different perspective. Their presentations are available as audio files downloadable below.

Reflecting on the day, conference co-chair Very Rev. Dr. Norman Hamilton said, “In making the main addresses available to a wider audience through the website, it is our hope that they will encourage thoughtful, gracious and yet rigorous discussion about how Biblical faith should relate to equality legislation.  

“There are some big unanswered questions such as, is it actually desirable or possible for the law to allow for the exercise of conscience, without this becoming a ‘let out’ clause for anyone who simply doesn’t like the law in question? How can we ensure that freedom of religion is not confined largely to the freedom to worship with only very limited acceptance of or opportunity to practice faith in the public square?

“What do we understand a coherent and compelling theology of ‘equality’ to look like?  Does it even exist – and if so, are there not other more important issues to address? How do Christian people understand and value religious freedom in a society where there are many other faiths seeking freedom of expression as well? How should we decide what is to be ‘tolerated’ (or encouraged), and what is to be ‘confronted’ in the realm of religion and faith?

“The very fact that we are able to run such a conference and debate the issues in such an open way is a great freedom in itself and a great blessing from God to us all.  Few will need reminding that such freedom and opportunity are most certainly not available to all Christians in all countries across the globe, and so we should not lapse into using the language of pressure or persecution too quickly. Equally of course, long standing freedoms can be eroded quite quickly, and so there is an urgent need to think through what a God honouring and Biblically faithful approach to equality, human rights and freedom should look like in our ever changing society.

“We invite you to listen to the talks, think about what you have heard, and, provided that your contribution is both thoughtful and gracious, you can email me via nhamilton@presbyterianireland.org with your reflections on any of the issues raised by the speakers – or indeed not addressed by them.”


Professor Roger Trigg, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Warwick University, argued that there ought to be much more scope to exercise freedom of conscience, and that we should strive for “reasonable accommodation” in situations where there was a genuine conscientious problem.


Professor Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen’s University in Belfast, was explicit in saying that human rights law was founded on centuries of Christian theology, and that the churches should be fully engaged in the debates that are still very much “work in progress” as the law develops.

Dr. Michael Wardlow, the Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission NI, used a great deal of Biblical material to under gird his conviction that strong Christian faith and a commitment to human rights and equality are entirely compatible.



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