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20 March 2015

Bert and Ernie cake, anyone?

Bert and Ernie cake, anyone?

It’s a storm in a cake tin.  Or actually it’s not, because the cake in question wasn’t baked. A while ago a campaigner for same-sex marriage, Gareth Lee, asked a bakery in Northern Ireland to make him a cake to support his cause with an iced topping that featured a slogan in favour of gay marriage, along with a picture of the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie.  Confused about how a couple of puppets get dragged into this? Ask Google. 

Ashers, the bakery in question, is run by a family of Christians, and they declined the business. Mr Lee, supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, is taking legal action against the bakery, and the case will come before a Belfast court later this month. This week a lawyer acting for the bakery published a legal opinion warning that if the case goes against the bakery then in the future all sorts of people could be legally required to act against their conscience: a Muslim printer could be forced to print cartoons of Muhammed, an atheist web designer could be forced to build a website for six-day creationists. 

My, this is complicated. And because it involves individual conscience, it’s quite hard to make a comment without causing offence to someone somewhere. Of course, this case is simply the newsworthy tip of a very large everyday iceberg.  Many Christians will encounter related issues in their working life – a financial advisor, say, required to regard a same-sex couple as married. 

I just want to make two simple observations. The first is that the Bible tells us of a number of people who look like they’re in thoroughly morally compromised situations, but yet serve God faithfully.  Daniel was a senior civil servant in Babylon, an empire that had not exactly established a reputation for justice and moral probity. Joseph was second-in-command to Pharaoh in Egypt, and married to the daughter of a pagan priest. Both men must have constantly found themselves in positions that might be regarded as morally compromised. 

The second observation is that the world of Daniel and Joseph has been the norm in most places through history - except for Europe, North America and few other places, and that for just a few 100 years.  Those of us brought up in these cultures often have a knee-jerk reaction to think that something has recently gone horribly wrong – that something is happening that threatens the possibility of faithful Christian living, when the unconverted world around us decides rather suddenly to act in line with its principles and ditch the assumption that biblical morality is the norm for all. 

How do these observations help Christians?  They don’t immediately solve all the questions we’re suddenly faced with. They don’t automatically tell us whether the Ashers have any biblical basis for expecting the law of the land to protect their consciences in this matter. But I suspect that Daniel and Joseph are effectively telling us something pretty helpful: don’t panic. The world does what it does.  It will likely change its mind again one day. And while all that goes on, we can still be utterly faithful to God in the midst of what often feels like moral compromise. After all, even the son of God could take a human nature, be born, live and die in the mess of this world, without for a moment compromising who he was and is as the holy God.

Tim Ward is associate director of the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course 

For a different perspective on this topic see this short video from our Northern Ireland director who has been involved in the case.