bed

Not so much a divorce, more ‘moving into separate bedrooms’ was how Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, described the latest proposals for the international Anglican Communion, suggesting that the different provinces could be in communion with Canterbury but not necessarily with each other.

Once again Canterbury has invited all the primates from around the world to a meeting, and once again hardliners have replied, as they did to his predecessor Rowan Williams, that they would not attend if the Americans were there. Thinking Anglicans lists many public responses. Personally I’m thinking not so much divorce, more school playground.

But let’s stick with the metaphor of the bedroom. Who is on top? The dissenters of GAFCON insist that tolerating same-sex partnerships is outside the range of acceptable Anglican teaching. Homosexuality is contrary to Scripture, they tell us, but the debate isn’t about how to interpret Scripture. Scripture is on top, Anglicanism should respond to Scripture’s requirements, and if it doesn’t Anglicanism may as well fall apart.

Meanwhile the central leadership of the Anglican Communion sees things differently. When Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury I felt I understood his angle, though I didn’t agree with it. As an Anglo-Catholic he saw the Church as a theological entity in its own right, imposing on its members the duty of maintaining unity. That aside, people who run an institution rarely want to see it falling apart while they are in charge. So maintenance of the institution turns out to be on top. The ethics of same-sex partnerships then gets treated as decidable by the need to hold Anglicanism together. I am not claiming that any particular archbishop really believes it is morally correct to subordinate the lives of gay and lesbian people to ecclesiastical politics in this way, but this is the way the decision-making is proceeding. It was quite clear in the case of the proposed Anglican Covenant, and it is still there in the new ‘separate bedrooms’ proposal, albeit in a weaker form.

Historically there is no doubt which comes first. Christianity began at a time when the focus was on God and Jesus, and the Church developed to express the beliefs and practices of Christians. As theologians denounced opponents, different churches developed, defining themselves according to their different theologies: the Cathars by their dualistic beliefs, Lutherans by the teaching of Luther. So in formative times, theology shapes churches. In my book Liberal Faith in a Divided Church I argued that there is an important difference between inclusive and exclusive churches, but in either case you decide what you believe and join up accordingly.

So what makes a church Anglican? Surely not the ethics of gay sex, say those with a knowledge of church history: until the Jeffrey John and Gene Robinson affairs of 2003 no church defined itself in those terms. The nearest we have ever got to a definition is the nineteenth-century Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. This gives Anglicanism four features: the Bible, the Creeds, the sacraments and bishops. But how much authority should the Quadrilateral have anyway? Are these four items just a previous age’s equivalent of today’s controversies over gay marriage?

In my experience most churchgoers don’t choose their church out of commitment to any Anglican principle. I know of people who choose their church because of what they consider biblical teaching, or because they want a daily mass, or because they like the music, or because they want children’s groups suitable for their own family, or because they support same-sex partnerships, but not because of any definition of Anglicanism.

So the Archbishop’s proposals are irrelevant to most churchgoers. They don’t ask themselves whether their beliefs, or baptism, or confirmation, put them in communion with this church or that; even Roman Catholic bishops struggle to hold the line there.

Worse still, when the questions do get asked they do more harm than good. I have many times witnessed how they can mess up local ecumenical meetings. An Anglican says the Church of England believes in bishops and a Baptist replies that Baptists don’t. Oh dear. Where do we go from here? We can’t agree. They both feel constrained by a sense of denominational duty not to state the obvious fact: that neither of them really cares whether their church has bishops or not.

The same applies to receiving Communion. At a local level there may still be some who still insist that receiving it is a waste of time unless it was validly consecrated by a validly ordained priest, but most people do not take that too seriously.

This leaves me feeling that, although I disagree with GAFCON about a great deal, I agree with them that our beliefs about God, and how we should live for God, should determine the nature of churches, not the other way round. If you were to ask me my views on the ethics of gay marriage, I would respond in terms of how God has designed us to live, and what this means for gay people. If instead I thought we should first decide which is the true Church and then see what it teaches, I would be deifying the Church and failing to take gay people seriously enough.

So when archbishops fly around the world for meetings to debate who is in communion with whom, what they are arguing about is only of concern to a tiny number of people. For the overwhelming number of Anglicans, let alone anybody else, whatever they decide will not make the slightest difference.

Churches offer opportunities for Christians to offer worship and explore their beliefs. Church leaders can describe what their members believe. But these should remain descriptions, not prescriptions.