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Article No. 110

The communion we once loved

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The Sunday Telegraph of 11th June reports one of the speeches given by Lord Carey in which he apparently accuses liberals of devastating the communion ‘that we once loved’. Apparently Lord Carey believes that after he retired as Archbishop the communion deteriorated, although he says it was in good heart when he retired. All the problems that we are struggling with now are down to Machiavellian influences - oh, yes, and a lack of leadership by his successor.

Such an attack - and it surely cannot be called anything less than an attack on the present Archbishop, not to mention the aforesaid liberals - is in my opinion shameful. For one thing it places the present Archbishop of Canterbury in an impossible position. There is no way he can enter into an argument with his predecessor in public. But more importantly, in the situation where there are already two completely distinct camps on each side of the debate, such stirring up of controversy by someone who is now yesterday’s man is, I think, deeply irresponsible and destructive. It is pandering to division and is a clear abandonment of any striving for unity. It is almost as if Lord Carey is angling for a renewed leadership role in one section of the church.

There is a deeper aspect which must be looked at, however. That is - in what degree is the present situation down to the mishandling of past difficult situations by Lord Carey? How much of the present situation is attributable to his period as archbishop?

There is no doubt that the policy of the leaders of the church over the last few decades was to put their head in the sand on this subject and to hope that the conflict, which has lain dormant for decades, would go away. Had the issue been faced in a different way ten or fifteen years ago the situation today might have been very different - although, of course, the conflict was never going to be avoided. The fundamentalists and the conservative evangelicals were never going to let go of their hold on a doctrinaire interpretation of the bible. They adhere to the bible more as a rule book and less as a guide to the development of God’s purposes throughout history.

I remember reading of Lord Carey’s role in the discussions at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. It is also commented on in ‘A Church at War’ by Stephen Bates which is a useful summary of where matters stand. It was reported that his contribution at a certain point swung the conference to make the resolution they did - the resolution for which an apology to gay people was subsequently sent out by various bishops who, being more sensitive as to what makes human beings tick, understood the widespread sadness and despair that resolution caused.

At an even deeper level can we not also hold Lord Carey - along with others - responsible for encouraging the ‘Global South’ churches to be so intransigent on this issue? Surely some of them have taken their lead from their Archbishop (as he then was)? It must be that the old literalist approach that now dominates many of those churches was encouraged by the stand against homosexuality of Lord Carey.

And what are we talking about here? It seems to me so clear that mostly we are not up against a rational argument about homosexuality. Why there should not be a similar attitude adopted towards homosexuality as is adopted by Christians everywhere regarding other rules in the Old Testament - for example, regarding the eating shellfish or pork. Over the centuries Christians have dropped a multitude of prohibitions from the old Jewish rules and laws. Perhaps one of the most significant has been our attitude to usury. Forbidden in the Old Testament, it became the basis on which modern Europe was built.

Furthermore I wonder whether these conservative evangelicals have really considered the implications of their beliefs. When pressed on the subject of homosexuality many say immediately that they are not against homosexuality as such but only against the practice of homosexuality. The article in question states that Lord Carey thinks the bible is unequivocal about the practice of homosexuality. It appears he is only against the expression of homosexuality between homosexuals. How absurd! Are these people really saying that God creates over a hundred million people each generation (two percent of seven billion people worldwide - a conservative estimate of the number of gay people) who are homosexual but that he expects them to completely shut off the sexual side of their being? Are they saying that over a hundred million people across the world should just forget sex - rule it out of their lives - should never allow themselves any expression of love for anyone of their own sex?

If they adopt that stance then surely it is obvious that they are not thinking rationally but are to some extent homophobic - using the word in the sense that they have an irrational bias against homosexuals and homosexuality?

Homophobia can be at two levels - it can be a deep aversion to all things and people who are homosexual or, at a more superficial level, it can be an attitude inherited from parents, school, church or culture.When it is a learned behaviour - and inherited attitude - they may or may not feel deeply homophobic themselves. Their inherited attitudes are from past generations who were deeply opposed to homosexuality - were, in fact, homophobic.

However some conservative evangelicals do not adopt the ‘homosexuality is all right but all gay sex is wrong’ attitude. But what are they then suggesting? Are they saying that anything is acceptable except anal sex? Is that what they are really objecting to? Are they saying that it is all right for two gay Christian men to love each other, to hold each other’s hand, perhaps to fondle each other? Or are they drawing the line somewhere else? Perhaps they are saying that two people of the same sex should never kiss?

Just to ask these questions shows up the absurdity of their views. What we are dealing with in these Christians is either a deep emotional rejection of gay love, or else it is an attitude of rejection they have absorbed from school, family or church, or the culture around them. This is perfectly understandable - it is the end result of centuries of teaching and deeply embedded views in church and state. A teaching that has finally been overtaken by new understanding of human beings and their sexuality. What is really important is to recognise that these forms of homophobia are what is at the root of their objection.

Lets deal now with another aspect of homophobia. Conservative evangelicals made strong representations to the Archbishop of Canterbury that it was perfectly possible for someone to object to homosexuality without necessarily being homophobic. They objected to being labelled homophobic and insisted that all opposition to homosexuality was not homophobic. This is correct, of course. It is perfectly possible to object to homosexuality on any of a number of grounds. But I believe what is happening is that the vast majority of conservative evangelicals who object to homosexuality are doing so from a base of either inherited objections (from school, home, church) or from a deep disquiet about it in the depths of their own being. In either case it is homophobia we are talking about, not rational argument.

There is a simple test to see whether people are homophobic and which level they are on. The question to address is simply: how deeply do they feel about the issue? If they feel deeply then it is at least relevant to enquire more closely to see whether their feelings are ruling their heads or whether they are genuinely arguing from an inherited or rational base. It is fairly certain that many of those in the Global South - Africa for example, which received its religion from evangelical missionaries - are tinged with cultural homophobia.

Lord Carey says that bitterness, hostility, misunderstanding and strife now separate provinces from one another and divide individual provinces. He seems to attribute that to a failure of leadership by his successor. Yet, when opinions are deeply divided - as they certainly are right across the Christian world - surely the art of leadership is to preserve a neutral stance at the centre thus allowing those at each extreme to pursue their arguments and to see what results. This is what Archbishop Williams has done. He has actually stated his position by letting it be known that he does not see himself as a leader in this situation. That does not mean that he does not have leadership qualities, or that he is not giving leadership by his neutral stance in the middle. He has said that in a polarized and deeply divided church he considers it particularly important not to be seen as someone who is pursuing an agenda.

Lord Carey obviously would continue, and actually is continuing, to pursue his agenda of blanket opposition to any form of accommodation to those who would accept gay people into church membership and into holy orders. He pursued that agenda when he was in office. He found that he couldn’t bury the subject so he attempted to have it condemned and banished. In that aim he failed - and he failed because the matter is just too important to be manipulated by clerics who hold opinionated views and wish to impose them on the rest of the church.

Archbishop Williams is not the bungling academic that Lord Carey seems to want to portray. Nor is he a faceless non-leader who is somehow failing to ‘lead’ the various sections of the church. Instead he is an extremely able and deeply spiritual man who sees his role as the pivot around which the whole argument revolves. He refuses to take sides. He follows what he believes is right, whatever it costs in terms of misunderstanding by one side or the other - or even by both sides!. He will go on seeking ways to hold the Anglican Communion together and, if he succeeds in that task, people in years to come will thank God that he came to his position at the time he did. If he fails - and given the extreme views held by some of the provinces it would seem extremely likely that there will be some form of formal split in the fabric of worldwide Anglicanism - then he will work to repair the damage and reconcile the opposing parties as, hopefully, they listen to the Spirit in their state of disunity.

We are very fortunate to have Archbishop Rowan Williams at the helm. The helm on the Anglican ship doesn’t work very well because it has been little used previously. The ship’s crew are divided and are fighting each other. The course ahead seems shrouded in mystery. The map is useless because no one has ever been here before. But the stars in the sky are the same as ever they were. We look for the Morning Star. We steer by the star of Christ - his life and his death, resurrection and presence with us. We don’t steer by what past generations of mariners thought - they believed that if they sailed too far they would fall off the edge of the world. We know now that the world is round and that when we follow the star faithfully, we do eventually reach landfall.

Tony Cross

June 2006

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