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Where will it all end?

a plea for a sense of proportion

The Church of England is so immersed in controversy at the moment, it is unclear whether it can survive in its present form. Both establishment and episcopacy are brought into question by current debates, all of which seem to focus on the issue of homosexuality.

One recent issue is that of discrimination against gay and lesbian workers. New regulations due to come into force later this year would have made this illegal. But in response to pressure from the Church of England, the government has been forced to agree that churches and religious organisations should be exempt from this legislation. This has provoked indignation on many sides. Secular humanists, trade-unionists and of course gay Christians have all expressed anger and disappointment. Normally one expects the church to occupy the moral high ground. But in this case it seems as though the desire of the state to enact an advance in social justice has been resisted ecclesiastically.

An even more troublesome argument has erupted as a result of the decision of a Canadian bishop to permit the blessing of same-sex relationships. Dissident elements in his diocese have demanded the right to alternative episcopal oversight, and conservative bishops, especially in African, South American and Asian dioceses, have warned of a major rift within the international Anglican communion.

The situation is rendered additionally complex because it is a matter of public record that the new Archbishop of Canterbury believes that the church’s position on homosexuality should be revised. He has even admitted ordaining a practising homosexual to the priesthood. This caused considerable opposition to his appointment, with evangelicals questioning both his spiritual and doctrinal credentials. Some are still demanding that he "repent" or resign.

The root of the problem is the speed with which the public understanding of homosexuality has changed. Half a century ago it was a shameful crime. Today the majority of people see it as an innocuous idiosyncrasy. The church, however, being an inherently conservative institution, lags behind in this transformation of social attitudes. Many evangelicals, in particular, continue to believe that the homosexual acts are heinous sins that are incompatible with Christian commitment.

If the controversy over homosexuality follows the pattern of previous issues like slavery and divorce, eventually mainstream opinion within the church will fall into line with society generally. Already one detects a noticeable difference in attitude between those who grew up before and after the mid 1960's. In the post-Stonewall era, most young people have gay friends, they admire openly gay celebrities in the media and, most important of all, they accept that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. The irrational and prejudiced nature of much anti-gay feeling has been recognised by the coining of the word "homophobia". Like many other minorities, the gay community has won recognition of its human rights. The closet has emptied. Gay men and women are not afraid to acknowledge their identity anymore. In such a situation, it is impossible to imagine that the church will cling to its outdated attitudes indefinitely.

However, in the short-term the intensity of the controversy could catalyse other changes.

Should an institution, for instance, which is seriously out-of-step with society as whole in its ethical opinion be regarded as the "established" church? Would it not be more appropriate for Christians who wish to express dissent from the common view on homosexuality to do so from an independent ecclesiastical base?

Again, can episcopacy continue to represent meaningful unity and authority in a church community as culturally and theologically diverse as Anglicanism? Would it not make more sense to recognise that different congregations wish to order themselves in different ways in regard to homosexual partnerships and ordination, and give them the freedom to do so?

Those of us in the non-conformist tradition long ago came to the conclusion that, within a democratic secular society, only dis-established congregationalist independent local churches could really work. In practice, this is in fact how local Anglican churches already do work. On a whole raft of matters, diversity of opinion and practice is accepted and even welcomed. Within a five mile radius of my home there are high, low and liberal Anglican churches. Some have women ministers and others refuse them. Some go to monastic retreats and others to Reform conferences. It is only on this vexed issue of homosexuality that Anglicans, for some reason, are threatening schism.

Perhaps then the best way to restore peace would be to stop defending notions of church polity which are completely out of touch with reality. Why not just accept that conformity and establishment are lost causes, and that the quest to maintain them is generating more heat than light?

If a congregation wishes to make its opposition to homosexual practice a "defining issue" why not let it? Equally, if a congregation wishes to ask divine blessing on a same-sex couple, why not let it? Time will tell which stance is honoured by God.

If a missionary society sacks a secretary because her lesbian lifestyle is contrary to their ethos, then the European Court of Human Rights will decide whether she should be compensated—whether bishops can wheedle exemptions from UK regulations out of Tony Blair or not.

In short, why must we turn every issue that has a "gay" dimension to it turn into a battle? Maybe, if Christians on all sides of the homosexuality debate got things into some sense of proportion, some of us could get on with the job of evangelising the world, which our Master said should be our first concern?


For a relevant sermon go to: A prophet and the establishment: 

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