THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 24
Not a question of morality . . .
Stephen Norris on radio today said something to the effect that the Conservative Party had to reform itself and he mentioned Clause 28 – the famous (or notorious) clause enacted to prevent Local Authorities promoting homosexuality in schools. He said that they had to recognize that homosexuality is not a question of morality, and that Section 28 should be repealed.
Of course, I agree with him – but how can people who act as guardians of public morality recognize the fact and get their sticky fingers off the Clause? On the other hand – morality is relevant and important for everyone – whether they are Christian or not.
One response I have noticed in church and in politics is that some people want to say that there are far more important things than clause 28 and homosexuality and that we need to move on to .. evangelism or social policies or whatever. This suggestion that the time has come to move on is a red herring. It sounds so plausible and yet it is an attempt to deflect attention from the important to the urgent.
In church this week I heard an evangelical preacher say that the church had important things to do – to evangelize, feed the hungry, etc. All very correct. But his argument was then that therefore we ought to put the homosexual debate behind us and forget it.
Likewise Ann Widdecombe said on the radio that the Conservative Part should stop examining itself (on the same issue) and get on with policies of which the electorate would approve.
Both these speakers miss the point. Unless the Church and the Conservative Part recognize that anti-gay attitudes are like a canker, poisoning the body, they will only come another cropper.
There needs to be a recognition that being gay, in itself, is not a question of morality, and therefore as acceptable as heterosexuality – then they can move on as quickly as they like. Leaving homophobia in place (because it seems too difficult to shift) will not do. It must be tackled and shifted. Then health is restored and the body, be it religious or political, can move forward in a positive way.
Of course morality applies. For every person, straight and gay, morality matters It is a question of personal morality all the time. What Stephen Norris – and a whole lot of other people - is saying is that the argument about gayness is basically over – it is not a question of morality but of nature and/or nurture.
We are at a point of time in this situation which must have recurred over and over again previously in other similar situations - for example in the great slavery debate in the nineteenth century. In all these matters the point arrives where those arguing on one side suddenly see that they are not prevailing. They see that perhaps – just perhaps – they are wrong. That maybe they are going to lose the public argument. The great temptation for them at that point is to attempt to get out of their difficult situation by suggesting that other things are more important, that we are all tired of this subject anyway, that we should ‘move on’. As if, suddenly, the importance of the subject had diminished. That priorities had changed.
Such a suggestion – offered by those who suddenly see pending failure of their cause – is unfortunately offered at the time that the general public has got tired of the endless back and forth of the debate. Who can blame them! The general public do not have zeal in the matter – either for or against. They are open minded – open to change their view if convinced. They cannot see why religious zealots are so passionate, but neither are they particularly enamoured of the other side either.
The arguments against homosexuality by religious zealots has been bombinating around for years now – slowly growing in volume. Then Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop Elect and that really set them off ! They have been calling for his resignation before he had even taken up the job!
But now, the general public, while not being particularly friendly towards gay people, has seen through the arguments and is asking – but why? Why are these anti-gay religious people so set against what seems reasonable to us? And the anti-gay brigade are sensing that they may, after all, be wrong, may be on the ‘losing’ side.
There is no reason why the diehards should not cling to their beliefs. It is a free country. They can believe what they like. But now that they are beginning to see that they are swimming against a growing tide of opinion – even against the law - they are beginning to look for ways out.
So now they are beginning to say – some of them – lets move on, lets not quarrel anymore. After all, there is evangelization and feeding the poor, and the homeless and the illiterate. Lets concentrate on important matters and not get sidetracked into these sterile arguments about homosexuality.
What is the dangers in the present position ?
It seem to me that there are three possibilities :
1 that Rowan Williams withdraws from the job, or changes his views to conciliate the fundamentalists
2 that those disagreeing with him so radically leave the church
3 that those disagreeing with him so radically stay in the church but obstruct the smooth working of the Church wherever possible. They will call this ‘withdrawing their support’, but really this is simply an attempt to pressgang the church into their pattern of belief.
Of the three possibilities the first – Rowan Williams capitulating - is the most unlikely. It is also the worst possible scenario. The reasons I suggest this are twofold :
A It would mean that the forthcoming evangelical avalanche on the subject of homosexuality from African and Eastern countries would be unstoppable, thus hindering the development of the Church for the next few decades.
B It would mean that a fudge had been accepted as the way out. The only really Christian way out of this impasse is either to split into different churches (not unknown in the Christian world!) or to find a way of living together in the same church even though neither side changes its view - in other words, all of us holding unity as more important than correctness.
The second of these three possibilities – that those disagreeing leave the church – is a real possibility, especially if no way of compromise is found. This is however a negative view and we can have every hope that schism would only be the very last step on a long road.
Whether of not schism would be a bad thing is not entirely certain. Whilst there are many points against it, there is the fact that a church can be too broad for any progress to be made at all. It all depends on what your view is of the church. Maybe those evangelicals who are fundamentalist enough not to want to fellowship with Rowan Williams would be better off in pursuing things their way. It would leave a significant hole in the Church of England – but such things have happened before – indeed, at the inception of the Church.
The third possibility is a very unattractive option. Churches that wanted to be awkward could certainly make things very difficult. At least for a time. Eventually the church would adapt – in the same way that it has adapted to flying bishops. But it is a sad way forward. And a very bad witness to the rest of the country/world. Not something any of us want.
Is there any alternative way forward? Well there is always the well known sidestepping routine already referred to. In this case it would be for those who are trying to find a way through saying ‘this is not so important a matter that we should enter schism over it’. As many heterosexual people are heartily sick of the subject anyway, there is likely to be some support for closing the debate down and putting it into mothballs.
But can you do that with such an explosive issue as sexuality? And if you do will it not be apparent to everyone in the country/world that you have avoided the issue at the expense of those who are most affected i.e. the homosexuals – whether Christian or not? And would not such a course be tantamount to saying that our Church will continue to exclude, vilify and condemn homosexual Christians as deluded, sick or evil? Could Archbishops and Bishops live with that on their consciences? Would they pay that heavy a price in order to preserve ‘unity’? What sort of unity would that preserve?
And all of that leaves aside the other issues that a fundamentalist approach will inevitably produce in due course, such as women priests/bishops et al.
It can be seen that the Church is indeed at a crossroads. It is a time for decision in the Church of England. What is being decided is actually far more than issues of sexuality (important though those are). What is being decided for the next decade or so is how the Church of England is going to cope with divergent groups who hold opinions utterly unacceptable to each other. That is a very important issue.
The ramifications of the decision that will be worked out in the next weeks and months are wide ranging. As the influence of the African and Eastern evangelical churches increases – as it certainly will – how will such diverse views be contained in the creaking structure of the present worldwide Anglican Communion? By all accounts we are in for a bumpy ride – best get back on your knees for we are going to need all the grace and patience we can get.