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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 67

Discrimination? Don’t mention the word.

In one of this weeks religious weeklies (16th July) there is a comment by one writer that in a recent interview, Dr Williams was pressed to say that discrimination against gays was wrong, but instead of a straight answer was heard to say the following:

‘The voices in the developing world, people who regularly feel marginal in pretty well every respect – this is another turn of the screw for them. I’m, serious about the international dimension here. That is probably what weighs with me most, personally and emotionally.’

This is hardly the straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ sought after by the interviewer, although of course we have to allow that the answer has been quoted out of context, and that is always dangerous. It is fairly obvious that the Archbishop was attempting to avoid giving any answer that could be fastened on by evangelical or liberal or third world Christians as an example of his inclinations one way or the other. He framed his answer in such a way to avoid what he said being taken out of context and used wrongly. That is a perfectly valid thing to try to do.

However, what he actually said provides us with a starting point for our thoughts in this article.

If we take the quote at face value, the apparent reasoning behind the refusal to give a directly affirmative or negative answer, is that he wished to avoid ‘turning the screw’ another turn (or half turn!) on third world churches by agreeing that discrimination against gays is wrong.

Apparently he thought that third world churches would find it difficult to agree that discrimination against gays was wrong. He must therefore have envisaged third world churches as wanting to discriminate against gays. The only possible reason to agree with discrimination against gays is because you consider them to be evil and dangerous. He did not want to contradict the opinion of Christians in third world countries in this respect.

This does then begin to make sense, because we have heard severe and even bloodthirsty opinions from various church figures in the third world about what should be the fate of gay people. Hanging drawing and quartering might be deemed too soft by some Christians in third world churches! Indeed, even one of the Bishops here in England recently indicated that he thought that gay people should get medical help!

So Dr Williams is trying to avoid hurting the sensibilities of Christians in third world countries by refusing to assert that discrimination against gays is wrong. He thinks some of them want to discriminate against gays, if not actually tear them in pieces, and so he is avoiding coming into conflict with their ideas. He is being kind to the Christians in third world countries by not offending their sensibilities. He thinks they feel marginalized in many respects – and possibly also largely ignored by the affluent churches of the West, and he wants to minimize this impression – so he does not want to challenge their belief that there should be discrimination against gays.

I can see no other explanation for this extraordinary statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury – it only makes sense if he is trying to avoid offending third world Christians.

One immediately asks – well, what is Dr Williams own view on discrimination against gays? Surely we can assume that Dr Williams is against discrimination being used against anyone, whatever their race, colour or creed? That is not a view which is much challenged here in this country. We generally believe that everyone should be equal under the law and free from discrimination.

But then the subsidiary question also arises: How far is Dr Williams prepared to go (now and in the future) in not offending third world Christians by what he says – and by what he does? How far is he willing to leave unacceptable views (about discrimination for example) unchallenged? And that applies both now and, crucially, later when the Eames Commission has reported.

Would he, for instance, be prepared to see a higher level of discrimination against gays in this country, rather than offend third world Christians by speaking out against such discrimination? Would he oppose discriminators against gays being taken to Court? After all, the Law in this country states that discrimination against gays is not permitted. Would he wish to remain silent if asked again what the Christian view is about discrimination against gays? All for the sake of our brethren in third world countries?

Would he speak out in defence of gay people in any action here? Suppose, for example, that gays were fighting some act of discrimination against them, and the Archbishop had to decide whether to speak out for them? What would this do for third world Christians? Might it offend them that the Archbishop of the Anglican Church supported gays in their fight against discrimination?

The more one thinks of it the more unfortunate does Dr William’s remark to the Press seem. Although he managed to avoid saying something that could be used by extremists on either side of the debate, what he did say had unfortunate implications about the views of the third world churches. They come out of this rather badly – being seen as wanting to discriminate against gays.

In response he might say ‘Well, it was not a matter of actual harm to gays, but merely a discussion about gays and I did not want to be reported as being in favour of gays in the Press.’ To which, of course, one has to ask ‘Why ever not?’ If Dr Williams is against discrimination against gays – as he surely is - then he is against discrimination against gays. That does not make him pro-gay, but merely anti-discrimination. The fact that an Archbishop in Africa or somewhere else speaks out vehemently against gays and wants them done away with – does that make any difference to the views of Dr Williams?

So we have to put the best gloss on the whole little episode that we can. We have to say that, when asked an off the cuff question about discrimination against gays, the Archbishop opted for not giving ammunition to anti-gay Christians in third world countries and elsewhere instead of giving his true view that discrimination against any group is wrong, whoever they are.

That brings us to the point where we must restate what we feel the Christian view to be. Surely we must hold, after Christ, that to denigrate, discriminate against or demonise any individual or group is wrong and directly against the attitude that Christ exemplified and taught his disciples. Is that not also what democracy and the Law are all about in our country? Are those not Christian values?

We must be understanding of the delicate position in the Anglican Communion at the present time. We are nearing the report time of the Eames Commission, when we shall hear whether they have found some way forward to allow the two disagreeing groups in the Anglican Church to continue to live side by side as they have heretofore.

The commission is reported to be stuck and likely to report in the form of a fudge. Those who are knowledgeable seem to be pessimistic about the outcome. If no way is found for the various sides of the Anglican Church to live in peace with each other, then it really is going to be ‘all change’ for both the world-wide Communion and for the Church of England.

I suppose this little incident raises a question in all our minds, not so much where Dr Williams stands on the gay issue (after all, he has said enough previously to give us some guide, the Jeffrey John incident notwithstanding), but because we do not know how far he is prepared to tolerate things going badly wrong. The Archbishop needs to make clear that he is totally against discrimination against anyone – even gays. One can bend over too far backwards to avoid giving offence – in which case there is the danger of falling flat on one’s back!

When it comes to the crunch, will the Archbishop forgo principles for the sake of unity? Does he rate his own reputation, both now and down the decades ahead, more highly than leading the Church of England along the right road, no matter how unpopular that is with one section or another of the Church? Surely not.

How on earth does an Archbishop find the right way forward in such situations? One can only say that we are very fortunate to have this particular Archbishop in place at this time. At least we can be absolutely sure that the whole of his life and his thinking are bathed in personal prayer, and that finally he will follow with integrity what, at the deepest level of his thought and being that he is capable of, seems best in the circumstances when the time comes to make a decision.

Tony Cross

July 2004


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