THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 115
Welcome or inclusion?
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The Archbishop of Canterbury chose, last week, to give an interview to an Evangelical Daily Newspaper in which he commented on the current position in the ongoing dispute about homosexuality. One might think that such an interview would be more or less routine, but what the Archbishop has said has stirred up a hornet’s nest of comment and criticism. Naturally any Archbishop is very careful what he says in any interview, even ones to a newspaper called the Nederlands Dagblad - a newspaper largely unknown in England. So what was said cannot be lightly dismissed on the basis that he was having a bad day!
So what did he say? The Sunday Telegraph reported that what he said was, they thought, significant. He appears to have made the following points:
He confirmed that gays should be welcomed in church
He rebutted the idea that homosexuals should be included in the church unconditionally
He said that conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions.
He said that ethics was a matter of living the mind of Christ, not a set of abstract rules.
He said he had backed the resolution passed at Lambeth in 1998 that homosexuality was incompatible with the bible.
Obviously these comments raise some questions but the adverse effect created is not just about the points made but rather in the fact that everyone is now assuming that the Archbishop has changed course and thrown his personal weight behind the conservative camp in the struggle.
Once the dust has settled and we have read the transcript of the interview we shall be able to see more clearly what the Archbishop is saying. It is worth noting that in the past months he has repeatedly said that both sides of the dispute will have to give ground. Both sides will have to change. These comments to a newspaper abroad appear to be the moment when he spells out where the liberal camp has to change. Naturally some conservative churches are delighted!
The points that he makes are actually nothing extraordinary. Of course gay people should be welcomed in church. Everyone should be welcomed in church! That is what the love of Christ means! This is perhaps important to stress, though, because gay people are not always welcome in any real sense in evangelical churches - they are often considered as either sinful or sick. Some conservative evangelicals want to exorcise them. Hardly a demonstration of welcoming love!
His second point about people having to change when they meet Christ is of course entirely right. After the welcome one imagines a gay person listening to the sermon and, perhaps, being moved enough to recognise that we are all sinners and need the salvation that Christ offers. Conversion means just that - a new life in Christ that makes all things new in one’s life. One’s sexual outlook and activities are of course impacted by that event. If it were not so then I would doubt whether the conversion was genuine. However, one should not prejudge what the Holy Spirit will do in the person’s life. He may or may not call his sexual activities sinful - that can only be decided between the person and his God. The new believer will find much that has to be changed in his life - but no one has the right to tell him what those changes should be. That is between the believer and his God. Look instead at the fruit of his life - is he showing the spirit of Christ?
It is therefore correct that no one should be included in the membership of the church unconditionally. The new convert will wish to make changes in his life and meanwhile, before going forward to membership, he will be held warmly in love by the other members of the church. You will understand I am talking about an idealised church here - not all churches will match this description! Eventually when he and the other members think he is ready he will be received into full membership.
The Archbishop is not saying anything that we would not agree with as Christians. Membership of a church is not granted unconditionally to all comers. Conversion means change of habits, behaviours, ideas and emotions - and thinking! The new Christian is on a long pilgrimage.
The Archbishop cannot be faulted, either, on the statement that ethics is a matter of living the mind of Christ not following a set of rules of behaviour. Who can disagree with that?
As to whether homosexuality is incompatible with the bible - this statement leaves so much unexplained that I hesitate to even start to comment on it! The meaning of the very few references to homosexuality in the bible are contested by biblical scholars. The new understanding of human sexuality in the last hundred years has fundamentally changed our view of sexuality. Adopting a more literalist approach to the bible (as frequently adopted by fundamentalists and conservative evangelical Christians) is outdated and will have to be replaced by a more realistic attitude of study and interpretation.
I accept that the Archbishop has backed the Lambeth 1998 Resolution which stated that homosexual practice was incompatible with scripture. If he thinks that promiscuous gay sex is incompatible with the bible no Christian could disagree. If he thinks that the current orthodox interpretation of some of the verses in the bible is that gay sex is wrong, again, no one could disagree with him. If he thinks that gay sex is wrong whenever and under whatever circumstances it takes place, then of course there would be many gay (and other) Christians who would totally disagree with him. We must await further clarification of his views on this point.
So what does it all add up to?
In addition to throwing cold water on some gay people who might have thought that soon they would be able to walk into any church and assume the Christian mantle without a thought about what being a Christian really means, the Archbishop also made some comments that have been taken as straws in the wind. And the direction of the wind seems uninviting!
For example he said that something he had written years ago - an article on the basis of which a lot of people became convinced that he was very sympathetic to the gay point of view - was written to ‘stimulate discussion’. This has been taken as a clear signal that he is resiling from his previous views. That, in fact, he now sides much more with the conservative camp.
All of this present episode is a salutary lesson about reality. At the end of the day what the Archbishop thinks is not going to decide everything. In fact it may not decide anything! He himself has said that he sees his role as someone in the middle. The reality is that eventually either the Anglican Communion will split into two or else everyone will have to go along with the ideas of the Southern Cone (those churches that are against homosexuality) who are in the majority. Those who disagree with homosexuality and can no longer agree to disagree with the rest are insisting on their own way. That is what majority rule means. Majority rule is the price we pay for a policy of unity at any price.
The Windsor Report is simply a device to resolve an administrative difficulty - its recommendation is that if the parties cannot agree then get them all to vote on it and then let the majority view prevail. But in this case it means that seventeen million Nigerian Christians - along with other Southern Cone countries - will overrule what many senior and deeply Christian clerics and laypeople, both in this country and in Canada and in the United States, believe to be the right way forward. Until now of course we also thought that the Archbishop thought that way too!
There is much disquiet about following the idea of majority rule - one reason is that if things don’t go the way that conservative churches want at any time in the future then they will no doubt threaten the rest of the Communion again with breaking away.
If the decision finally is to go the way of rejecting gay Christians then this will have wide consequences. Some people may think that this is all about a storm in an Anglican teacup, but the ramifications are far wider than the Church of England or even the Anglican Communion. Churches all over the world will take note of the direction taken. If it is to exclude Christian gay people (laity and clergy) from full membership of church (as apparently implied in what the Archbishop said last week) then that will set the Christian cause back at least several decades. If on the other hand it is to include Christian gays - perhaps refraining from ordaining gay clergy for the time being - then people all over the world will be encouraged to have a better attitude towards gay people, and some of the prejudice will be abated.
Effects will be felt in this country also. The Church of England and the Archbishop are looked to not only by churchgoers. Many of those who only darken the doors of a church a few times in their lifetime also look to see what the attitude of the church is. These are people who may have gay sons or daughters, gay relations, gay friends, and who watch gay celebrities and politicians on their television every evening. They too will recognise that the Archbishop and the Church will have opted for unity instead of following the truth about homosexuality that the society around them has already discerned.
It is not surprising that people who have little or no Christian belief think that, following his interview, the Archbishop has turned his coat. That may be in part because they do not understand what becoming a Christian in the New Testament sense really means. To them it is just another case of prejudice against gays. The deeper analysis reveals that what is happening is that the Church is succumbing to a severely dangerous pressure from those who are clinging to orthodoxy and traditional ways of looking at the bible. Instead of being open to the latest understanding of human sexuality they are letting inbuilt prejudice and traditional antipathy to homosexuality affect their judgement. Instead of recognising that we now need a new non-literal approach to the bible, they are clinging to old and well worn paths. They are walking backwards at the very time that the church needs to be fully responsive to what is happening in the world.
We must all applaud an Archbishop who set course to hold the church together at whatever cost, but if that means opting out of taking a moral stance himself one way or the other maybe the price is too high. The dire long term effects of letting a majority rule the progress of the gospel in this day and age are already becoming apparent - just read the newspaper comment. Much worse is to come - irrelevance to society and fewer and fewer young people in our ranks are just two of the lesser problems! Unless those in the church who recognise the dangers we are entering upon stand up and fight for the right outcome we shall see a diminished Church of England and an Anglican Communion that is going as fast as it can backwards down history lane. That would be a tragedy.