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Article No. 182

The Shepherd waves his crook

The Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) made an important statement a few days ago. It is strong meat! Bloggers on both sides of the divide have taken exception to it and, as usual, criticized it for obtuseness and generally for the viewpoints expressed  - no surprise there, then! In my opinion it was very clear and much more definite than usual. Both sides of the present dispute have reacted strongly - the conservatives have sounded off about how it is all words, words, words and no action!  And the liberals have felt the cold draught of world wide condemnation - and realised that the ABC believes that a majority is needed to validate their continued existence! And so, as usual, the ABC has satisfied no one - as befits someone who sets out to straddle the exact central point in the dispute.

I liken his role to that of a Cumbrian Shepherd who is doing a televised sheepdog trial. He has the flock of sheep handed over to his control and he has his dog or dogs - I leave it to the reader to assign identity to them!.  He has been very much ‘on trial’ since he was first appointed! And he has had the television cameras watching his every move.

This shepherd is however a master tactician. He whistles his dog to pick up the sheep up from the collection point (at his appointment as ABC) and, instructs his loyal sheepdog to bring them along the field. At first they tend to separate and scatter as they move along. They take fright at things along the way, like large trees - but soon the watchful dog has them trotting along nicely on the desired path through the field.

Sheep tend to string out and split up as they trot along, but with a few whistles to the dog they are herded into a tight group as they travel along. They continually want to go off on their own and it takes some skill to keep them all together on the track. Sometimes the dog has to give a little growl to bunch them together again.

One particular little group of sheep tends to break away from the main group and go off on their own. They are not a united bunch with one mind! But the shepherd is up to the task and he sends the dog running around to head off any complete breakaway. He anticipates their every move - he knows his sheep! Slowly, inexorably, he manoeuvres them down the field to the little wooden bridge over the stream at the bottom. Will the sheepdog manage to get them all over in one attempt? Directed by  anticipatory whistles the dog funnels them over the small wooden bridge and up the incline the other side.

After they cross the gully one group goes left and the other to the right. This is a difficult moment - the sheepdog makes a wide circle and ushers them towards the hedge at the side of the field and slowly works them along the perimeter hedge. The shepherd is much too wily to try to get them directly into the pen. He knows the dog must bring them round the edge of the field in a circular route until they come to the approach to the pen with its five bar gate standing in the middle of the field.

Finally matters draw to a climax - this is the really testing time - the sheepdog and the sheep draw near to the central pen. The shepherd is beside the gate which he opens gently. He holds it wide open with one hand and with the other stretches out his crook, thus making himself a kind of barrier past which the sheep cannot not pass. Slowly the dog - ever obedient to the whistles - edges the sheep towards the sheep pen.

The sheep are doubtful. They stand there looking around - perhaps weighing up which way to run. Shall they break away again? It is a moment of indecision  for them. Ahead of them is this apparently inviting opening - and to the left is this large figure with his crook outstretched. Behind there is the ever present dog, with his teeth bared.  Should they back away from the pen - or from the dog?  But where to go? Could they go off and live a life without a shepherd and his dog? All they want is grass!  Or should they opt for the safety of the pen - after all, no wolf can get into the pen to ravage them.

The dog edges forward on his belly. He growls occasionally - just enough to let them know that he is coming. The sheep become more and more undecided - but eventually the fear aroused in them by the dog pushes them towards the pen. One sheep breaks into a trot towards the pen and goes, with a sense of relief, into where he is intended to go. Home at last! They all follow and then can go no further - and the shepherd quickly swings the five barred gate to and fastens the catch. He feels a sense of satisfaction. Mission accomplished. He pats his trusty dog and walks towards the crowd of onlookers. The television cameras focus on the successful shepherd - the crowd of onlookers clap his achievement. It took great skill and courage - and it is lonely out there trying to get all the sheep into the pen of safely, with his every move being watched by a world wide audience. But his skill was sufficient to manage the various crises along the way, and he always had both the final purpose and his plan in mind.  

So where are we now in the process? Clearly, the American Church has stepped back for the time being from its headlong dash for freedom - or at least they have paused before going forward. So this is the moment for reality. And the ABC provides it in his usual complete and erudite way. He unveils the dark picture of a radically broken Communion. This is the reality we face, he says.

The scenario painted is as one would see if one leant over a wall and looked into hell. The American Church is already ensnared in various legal actions about property claimed by departing congregations. Prestigious church building threaten to lie empty or occupied by just a handful of residual congregation. The assets are there, but not the people.

The sheep need to feel the chill of a complete break. The ABC provides the scenario. He is asking whether they really want this. What he adumbrates is a world wide majority of Christians who disagree - or at least don’t yet agree - with the full acceptance of lesbian, bisexual and gay Christians into the church. He says quite plainly - the majority are not with you - and the majority opinion matters - in fact it is vital. Because on this subject you step away from the mainstream, at your peril. That is his argument.

And of course in one sense he is right. Homosexuality is a subject about which most societies around the world have very definite views. Views which have been set in stone in their tribes, groups, city states, regional areas and eventually countries since time immemorial. Homosexuality is wrong! It has been written into law in some countries - and is certainly written into the thinking, customs and attitudes everywhere.

You cannot change in ten minutes. And half a century of pro-gay activity is like ten minutes in the history of humanity. Think of it - in places across the world - including Africa, Asia, China, India, Palestine and Israel, The Middle East. Greenland - most human societies on earth have forbidden homosexuality and condemned it with varying degrees of censure. Some countries still execute homosexuals!  

And now, suddenly in the twentieth century, along come these men from Stonewall and start congregating as homosexuals, openly. More - they talk of their rights! The mainstream opinion in countless places is against men loving men and women loving women. In the past men refrained from even touching each other in case they were thought to have homosexual tendencies. Homosexuality was a universal no-no. And it still is in the minds of thousands of millions of people. Many, many millions! Make no mistake about that!

So the fact that gay people are not only accepted but accepted to the point where the law of a country is changed to accommodate them, is an absolutely huge turn around. It is a reversal of what seemed totally impossible just a few short decades ago. It is a reversal of many centuries of human behaviour. But it has happened in a handful of countries.

Why this acceptance, and why now? Not just because a gang of homosexuals revolted against police victimization in a New York Street several decades ago! It has happened because deep down it reflects reality. It has happened because scientists have investigated and now understand the human body better.

The nearest and most recent other example of a similar reality is slavery. When the anti-slavery movement got under way it was vehemently opposed. Yet, over a few short decades, it not only became accepted but it, too, brought a change in the law. How did that happen?  It was because, once the truth was spoken out loud,  people saw in their hearts that it was wrong to enslave another human being. Reality kicked in. Without that essential basic human response it would have taken centuries to effect the change that then happened quite quickly.

And so it is with homosexuality. As soon as the reality of homosexuality is proclaimed (and lived openly) - that  a man may love another man and a woman lay love another woman so much that they might wish to live together for life, committed to each other - then people accepted it as a reality. And in an incredibly short time (as in the case of slavery) public opinion in important countries like America and Britain changed - and the law was changed too.

In other words - human beings are capable of realising that they have been misinformed and mis-taught, and that persecuting homosexuals was ignorant, wrong and unchristian. A deeper reality concerning homosexuality came into the light and so people have altered their attitudes and their laws to adjust.

However there is another characteristic of human beings that has to be recognised and taken into account - and that is resistance to change.  We all know and experience it to some degree. The older we get the more of a danger it becomes! When the innate clinging to the known and the familiar becomes allied with religion, then the opposition to change can become quite fierce.

And that is where we are today. Millions are awakening to the fact that the inherited prejudice against homosexuality is perhaps wrong. They are seeing that, perhaps, there really are people who are homosexual by nature - maybe it is not an evil choice - a degradation of humanity. Maybe some people would be better off linking their lives to another person of the same sex whom they love.

But it will take time for the new understanding of homosexuality - backed by science - to percolate all human societies. And always there will be some who fight a rearguard action against the new thinking.

Slavery still exists today, hundreds of years since it was legislated against in England. It has not been eradicated from the world. And opposition will persist that a man loving another man and a woman loving another woman is wrong. People will become evangelical about resisting the new understanding about homosexuality.  There will be battle lines drawn up for decades, if not for centuries. It will be a ‘cause’ taken up by those who need a cause.

But there is one tremendously important fact that should eventually ensure general acceptance of homosexuality. It is that a proportion - many experts put it at ten per cent - of the entire world’s population knows, in varying degree, attraction (sexual and otherwise) to their own sex.  Many millions of people only enter marriage with someone of the opposite sex because they don’t realise that they are gay.  Many millions of these gay people try hard to be a good husband or a good wife - and may often succeed - when the true cast of their inner being is towards someone of the same sex.

For these millions the blossoming of the gay movement - the spreading of the news that gay people are acceptable - will be a great blessing. At last they will understand their own nature better! At last there is another way to go than into heterosexual marriage. They can open out as people when they admit to themselves their own sexual ambivalence - or their homosexual tendencies - their attraction to others of their own sex.

Eventually human beings will find the right way forward in sexual matters. And they will realise that God loves them just as they are now. They don’t have to pretend to be heterosexual. They can be as God created them - offering their sexuality, along with the rest of themselves - to God. A God who loves and accepts them just as they are. A God who called forth a Christ to die on the cross for us. A God who leads us and who fills us with his Spirit so that we too are empowered to live the life Christ showed us when he dwelt among us on earth.

Where are the leaders who will stand up to declare that homosexuality needs to be viewed in this new light?  Thank God for those who have spoken out already and are speaking out today. The ABC cannot - his role is piggy-in-the-middle. He cannot fulfil that role and take sides. So who will eventually carry the witness? Eventually it will be the ordinary gay men and women who will, by force of numbers and normality convince the people around them that there is nothing heinous or evil about homosexuality. They will carry far more weight than arguments - arguments only raise up opposition and cause more arguing. It is the lives of gay people - and especially gay Christians - who will carry the vote eventually. But it is going to take some time!  By God’s good grace we will get there.

Tony Cross
July 2009

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