THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 124
(please go to tonycross column.org.uk for archived material)
So far I have only read scrappy reports of the deliberations in Dar Es Salaam, together with an excellent article by Libby Purvis in the Times of 20th February.
The latter goes under the intriguing title ‘Pray lift your eyes above the belt’ with the sub heading ‘The churches’ sexual obsession makes me despair’. Both are sentiments I heartily agree with!
Libby Purvis makes the very valid point that the evil in adultery is not the sexual act but the betrayal of trust, the cruelty and the endangering of children’s happiness. And that the deep wickedness of rape and paedophilia, she says, is not about desire but the misuse of power. And she goes on to say that the sinfulness of promiscuity and prostitution is not about sex but about using another human being for transient pleasure without caring for the physical and emotional damage you do.
Although this argument may strike some theologians as inadequate - there can be, after all, a basic transgressing of God’s commandments without depending on harm done to another person - nevertheless it will appeal to all contemporary Christians. This is because we are in an era when all the old certainties are being tested and, often, discarded. The process has been going on for a long time but has speeded up in the last fifty years and has reached the point where old truth is almost thought by many to be tantamount to obsolescence.
What Libby Purvis is saying is that the attitude of those Christians who are ‘obsessed’ with sex (in particular, homosexuality) is not acceptable. I agree. I completely believe in their right to hold their own opinions, but enough is enough and surely the time has come for those in leadership to separate themselves from such views so that the church can be liberated to move forward in a new inclusive way. The reply to those who say that it is all about biblical authority is that the issue of biblical authority has been fully expounded over the years and we have all agreed to differ on the issue - it is the sexual obsession that is the engine in the present dispute.
That brings us to the second article in the Times 0f 20th February. This is a initial report at the end of the conference in Dar Es Salaam. No doubt when we have looked at the full detail of the communiqués that will come out there will be fresh ideas to pursue - but for now I just want to look at one sentence of the report in the Times.
This particular sentence perhaps sums up where the Anglican Communion is in these days: ‘The Episcopal ministry of a person living in a same-sex relationship is not acceptable to the majority of the Communion.’
This I think is the crunch point. Here is the outcome of the struggle between the obsessives, to use the name given them by Libby Purvis, (by definition - those who obsessively refuse to accept that God made gay people gay and that they are entitled to have relationships with other gay people) and the liberals - or perhaps we should label them the inclusives (those who believe that God loves and includes gay people just like heterosexual people, and wants them to have full relationships).
It appears that the inexorable process has gone through another full cycle in the Anglican Communion - the American Church is to be required to come into line before the end of this year or it will suffer the consequences. And meantime it seems that the foreign Anglican churches that have invaded the USA - against all the stipulations of the Windsor Report - are not penalised. So whatever the hype is about the conservatives being miffed following the Dar Es Salaam conference, the fact is that they have again forced through the inexorable process that requires those who are gay friendly to step back again.
The obsessives - largely the Global South Churches - are presently exercising a majority pressure to stop gay bishops from being actively gay. This is saying in effect that you can be a gay bishop but you must not live a normal sexual life - you must be celibate.
The point that has to be grasped - and which many Christians do not seem able to grasp - is that this is only step one. The next step that the obsessives will say is that even a celibate gay person is unfit to be a bishop. It follows as night follows day from what they believe. They believe that homosexuality is sick, disordered, sinful, evil, demonic - any or all of these things! With such beliefs how can they be satisfied to have fellowship with churches where there are still gay bishops?
Now the important point to grasp here is that the Dar Es Salaam decision has happened because the inclusives again failed to face up to the obsessives. Indeed this has been the story all the way up to this point. The rest of the Anglican Communion (that is those who do not think that being Christian and gay is a contradiction in terms) did not say to the obsessives - you are wrong and you must stop. Instead they gave way so that the American Church must now face an intense turmoil - do they stop having any more gay bishops or not? Do they stop blessing gay couples or not?
The whole point is that whatever the decision by the American Church - whether they accede or whether they say no and opt out of the game - the obsessives have won another victory.
Does anyone really imagine that the obsessives will be satisfied with the position then reached? Does any one really think that the obsessives will stop at the point of prohibiting gay bishops from being sexually active? No! Of course they won’t. They cannot - because for them homosexuality is an abomination. It is an offence against God. They have clearly said that they cannot walk with any other Christians who allow and tolerate it.
So the next step for the obsessives must be that they will prohibit gay bishops altogether. It will be similarly promulgated - by majority vote. And the next step after that will be a prohibition on gay priests. First they will have to swear that they are celibate. But in the next phase they will be barred from the priesthood altogether - what gay priests are doing and, indeed, what they are is abhorrent to Global South Churches.
And after that? Well - will the ‘cleansed’ church allow laypeople to be homosexual? They will hold to the same belief and issue the same statement they have hitherto used: there is nothing wrong in being homosexual, but homosexuals must remain celibate. So practising homosexual laypeople, male and female, will be required - if they want communion - to assure their priest that they are living a pure and wholesome life and not indulging in homosexual sex.
That is the logical end of the long road that starts with the concrete decision at Dar Es Salaam to require the American Church to not appoint any more gay bishops. It is as ultimately certain as that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning. It may take years - even decades - but it is the inevitable end of the road that condemns homosexuality as evil and sinful.
This situation was entirely predicable. The error - if error there was - consisted in underestimating the strength of the opposition to homosexuality by the obsessives. The fundamentalists and some of the conservative evangelicals have a rooted objection to homosexuality. It is quite simple. There is no way they can accommodate homosexuality into their religious horizons. It is anathema in others and to be condemned anywhere in the church fellowship.
The choice early on was whether the leaders of the church should stand on what they felt was right or whether they should stand on their desire for unity. I said as much in an earlier article some time ago. Please note that I am not saying that, initially, the wrong decision was made. All I am saying is that the present situation was predictable, and it is now possible to predict that the fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals will eventually progress to banishing any trace of tolerance of homosexuality anywhere in the People of God - that is, the Anglican Communion.
So what is to be done?
It is almost irrelevant what happens in the American Church. Either they will or they won’t cooperate. That still leaves the rest of the church grappling with the obsessives about homosexuality. And, as I have suggested, that struggle only has one possible outcome - the obsessives have already declared all homosexuality wrong and evil and sick etc. and they will continue down that road until it is suppressed totally.
There is, perhaps, another possible outcome. At some stage the leaders of the church may stand and fight. They may decide to say to the fundamentalists and the conservative evangelicals ‘thus far and no further’ - but will they ever do that?
If they don’t do that at some stage then it will mean the Anglican church will slide into the extreme position taken by the Global South. It will mean that the major part of the Anglican Communion - which is increasing at an exponential rate in the poor countries of the world - becomes ever more dominant and that means that the whole Communion will be pushed into a more literal, fundamentalist and rigid position with regard not only with homosexuality but in a myriad of other ways.
It is obvious that if we work on the basis that the majority is always right, then we shall shift towards the fundamentalist area. At some point we surely must say ‘enough is enough’! We are going to have to say ‘Not acceptable’ at some point. Unity at the price of one’s intellectual, theological and moral integrity is not worth having. That is the direction of the road on which Dar Es Salaam was a decisive step.
The interesting fact is that if that point is reached we (that is the Church of England) may well be expelled (as a minority member) or the churches of the Global South may break away at that point and have their own Communion. The obsessives are not going to change. It is the western churches that have to preserve for themselves what they see as the deeper truths of the gospel.
That is the position now facing the leadership of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Lambeth 2008 is now scheduled as possibly the scene of the final showdown. That is unless the leadership decides again to temporise and to fudge the issue so that a final decision is not taken. But surely there must come a time when everybody is so heartily tired of the irresistible force meeting the immoveable object that a final decision has to be made. No one can ever say that the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) didn’t try. The whole world must acknowledge that he has practically moved heaven and earth to hold the unity. It looks as though that unity will have to break - the alternative is that the Church of England will be drawn sooner or later into an utterly literalistic approach and into the artificial situation of going along with the Global South.
If you question my prognosis, look at the case of Jeffrey John. When Jeffrey John was put forward for bishop he gave an assurance that he was celibate - yet he was hounded from that office by pressure from obsessives! The conservative evangelicals banded together to influence the ABC to influence Jeffrey John to resign his bishopric. If that is not the clearest example of what lies ahead I do not know what is.
Unity ? What unity! The ways of the Church of England and other churches in the Anglican Communion are not acceptable to the Global South churches. If, as a Communion of National Churches, we are to abide by majority decisions then we are in for a very troubled few years.
I wonder how long it will be before the majority decision in the Communion of national churches is that the Church of England must stop having gay priests - and, in due course, declaring that homosexuality is wrong and that homosexually active christian laypeople cannot take communion? It will be voted on democratically of course - decided by proper voting powers - those having the most members having the greatest strength.
In my opinion the Windsor Report took a secular rather than a spiritual approach, devoting itself wholly to preserving unity at any cost. It put in place a thoroughly workmanlike secular mechanism that is now the only show in town in view of the intractability of the Global South. Its benefit is to buy time - that is all. The price paid however is the sacrifice of the integrity of the Western Churches - sacrificed for the principle of one person one vote, and a spurious unity. ‘Most votes’ wins. How did we manage to go so far wrong!