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Article No. 55

Drawing a line under . . .

This expression has been in the news recently. The Prime Minister has alluded several times to this ‘line’ that he would like drawn under recent events – and each time the subject has refused to be quiet, and has been resurrected into a live concern again. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to think about this line drawing and when it can be successful and when it cannot.

In the case of weapons of mass destruction it is highly unlikely that interest in the subject can be reduced – for that is what drawing a line really means. Discussion is halted and interest wanes – at least for the time being.

The WMD are a key issue in Britain because, while most people agree that Saddam Hussain deserved the attack and that his removal was a good thing, nevertheless, the methods used to persuade Parliament and the people that a pre-emptive war was necessary appeared to some, to say the least, a little dubious.

There is immense scope for argument and disputation about the matter but the details of the argument need not detain us here. Anyway, the PM wants to draw a line under the matter until the Inquiry reports back. That won’t be for some months. His hope that in the meantime the matter will be allowed to rest is, I am afraid, over optimistic! There is no way that his handling of the matter is going to be overlooked or held in abeyance by the press, by Parliament and by the population generally.

So here is one example where a line under something is attempted, but gets quickly rubbed out! The matter cannot be closed down either temporarily or permanently. It is just too live an issue.

We see therefore that the essence of line drawing like this is to attempt to close down discussion and to ‘move on’ in the hope that interest will wane, at least for the time being. Sometimes it is hoped to defer discussion until some report or other can be produced; sometimes it is deferred in the hope that the whole matter will simply go away.

This of course brings us to other examples of issues that some people would like to draw a line under.

As an Anglican, the one I immediately think of is the question in the Church of England of whether to accept that gay Christians are acceptable as members of the church and may be ordained into the priesthood. There are many who would dearly love to draw a line under that discussion and move on to other things.

It is a very hot potato – and it has been in the background for many years. The previous Archbishop tried to avoid the matter becoming centre stage but the subject would not go away.

In both instances – the WMD matter and the gay issue in the Church – the subject is far too important to be manipulated by senior people trying to draw a line underneath. In effect, by suggesting the drawing of a line, they are trying to deflect public discussion. In the case of WMD the issue is what exactly was the failure of the Prime Minister (if any), and in the case of the Church it is that there has been such a breakthrough in public understanding of the nature of homosexuality that all our views and attitudes need to be adjusted and conformed to facts. In both cases it is useless to try to draw a line until those basic issues are faced.

Maybe the previous Archbishop did not realise – as perhaps many other Christians still do not realise – how much society has radically changed in the last few decades. The old landmarks have gone - swept away by the new knowledge and the freedom of thought and the honesty of people generally today. Christians can no longer assume that such matters will not be mentioned. They are mentioned. People have their own opinions. These matters are far too important in people’s lives today to be swept under the carpet.

Some people in the hierarchy of the Church of England would love to draw a line under the present discussions and disputations about homosexuality. But it won’t happen. It cannot happen because the subject is no longer a subject exclusively for the Christians to examine – it is in the wider arena and has already been examined by the mass of people out there who have decided – by their own values - that being gay is acceptable.

It is perfectly possible – and right - for Christians to talk of not following society – of not slavishly adopting the ideas and values that society adopts. But the Church has to operate in the midst of society and if society has decided that being gay is normal and is neither exceptional nor sinful – then the church has to take that into account.

I am not saying that the church must be guided by what society thinks, or that it must adopt the ideas of society in order to attract congregations. What I am saying is that the church does not operate in a vacuum and therefore it has to have regard to the changing values and ideas in the society around it.

If society gravitates to the view that, for example, vivisection is morally wrong, or that the motorcar is anti-social or whatever, then the church has to have regard to that. It has to ask itself what its own views are. It may be that society has something to teach the church in a matter like sexuality. It could just be that society is ahead of the church in understanding that human sexuality is much more complex and acceptable in all its forms than the centuries old teaching that there are only two sexual states and all else is wrong.

So convinced is society in this matter of sexuality that even the law has been changed to accept that gay people have just the same rights as other people. That is a very significant fact. It betokens widespread acceptance of a subject that we all know something about – human sexuality. This view has not been forced on people, it has been accepted because there is a deep resonance in the general population to the changes now effected.

So how can the church maintain a position where it clings to the old ideas and the old ways? Church members must recognize that life has moved on since their forebear’s day.

The church cannot today draw a line under homosexuality and pretend that it won’t accept it. Nor can it only accept it grudgingly. You have to reckon with the society in which you live. In that society being gay is acceptable.

Of course society can be wrong. But it is a salutary thought that usually when society is wrong it is because it has held onto old attitudes, views, penalties. Now it is the Church - or some members of the Church – that is trying to hold on to old outdated views.

There are always elements in society that still cling to old-fashioned ideas. There are still some uneducated people who think they are tough and who target gays and try to hurt them. And from time to time they succeed. Sometimes they even hound gay people to death. But to imagine that that is a sensible approach is absurd. The only sensible approach is to accept that there are straights and there are gays, and both are equal in law.

This may present some Christians with a problem. They feel strongly about homosexuality – and they refuse to countenance it in their churches. But does this put them under the threat of being accused of homophobia? Are they, in fact, exercising a type of homophobia? Or are they purely disagreeing on theological grounds? To the outside public it may seem that they are prejudiced against gays. And in one sense they are. On the other hand there must be some Christians somewhere who are anti-gay on purely theological grounds.

It is decision time for the conservative evangelicals and those who want to refuse to fellowship with other Christians because they disagree with them about the acceptability of being gay. What is certain is that neither they nor anyone else can arbitrarily draw a line under the subject as if it were settled once for all. It is far too important a matter to be brought to a conclusion by closed minds. We must all help each other to discern the will of God over the coming months and years. Eventually the Holy Spirit will lead us to the right answer. Until then – we keep an open mind. And we stay in fellowship with one another. Don’t we?

Tony Cross

April 2004

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