‘We all know that love is the answer’, opined Woody Allen, ‘but while you're waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions’ (Interview, New York Times, December 1, 1975). Indeed. And none more so than for Anglican Primates, meeting in London next week.
I wrote Sex, Sense and Non-Sense for Anglicans – which was published on the Modern Church website in mid-December – as a primer intended for the gathering of Anglican Primates. The essay was due to be published this week, but the treatment of clergy in same-sex marriages, and most recently Canon Jeremy Davies in Winchester, brought the publication date forward.
What I sought to argue for was a more aesthetic approach to sexuality. Specifically poetry, which takes seemingly simple words, terms or expressions – like ‘sex’, ‘gay’, ‘issues in sexuality’, and even ‘church’ – and turns this into an utterly different language. Poems are tongues of desire; of longing, lament and laughter. Poetry transforms ordinary words into new shapes and ideas that enhance our existences. Poetry creates something new out of seemingly nothing. It finds wisdom and words of resolution where texts and talking have previously failed.
I had some hesitations about debating the essay with Canon Chris Sugden from Anglican Mainstream on Radio 4’s Sunday Programme (December 20th). But I was genuinely stunned at his implication that homosexuality is linked with paedophilia, and his claim that being lesbian or gay was merely a ‘lifestyle choice’. (He has subsequently stated that these comments don’t represent his own views – and that he was only passing on the views of others he is in close touch with).
However, what also began to emerge in the course of the Radio 4 interview was something I have sensed for some while, namely the semi-Pelagianism of this Conservative Evangelical worldview. So let me explain this.
The Modern Church essay maintains that lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians are weary of being treated as second class Christians. As baptised members of their churches, living their Christian lives faithfully, and love lives lawfully, they will have full citizenship in heaven with their fellow Christians. As I said in the Radio 4 interview, ‘they will not be stopped at the pearly gates and made to sit on a naughty step outside’. Or made to sit in a dark corner inside, and subjected to further vetting – or worse.
They will be welcomed in as redeemed sisters and brothers – as equals. Indeed, all Christians pray this prayer: ‘…thy kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven’. If lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians are going to be treated as equal in heaven, we, as Christians, had better do this on earth, and in the church – now. This is a theological matter, and not simply about ecclesial polity or ethical niceties.
Yet a minority of Conservative Evangelicals appear to believe that lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians can only be in heaven if they are celibate on earth. The reasoning being that you might forfeit your salvation if you haven’t repented of your behaviour (rather than orientation). In other words, you do have to (partly) earn your salvation. It is not by grace alone. God’s love is re-cast as conditional; dependent upon good behaviour.
This inclines towards semi-Pelagianism (a heresy condemned by the Church in 529). In this thinking, lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians are not behaving well, so they can’t be ‘real’ Christians – or are Second Class, at best. Indeed, some may regard the very idea of lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians who are in active, faithful loving relationships as an oxymoron. Yet those same Conservative Evangelicals usually have little to say about those working in banking or finance industries, or any affluent fellow-Christians also hoping for eternal bliss. Which is a pity, as Jesus had more to say about mammon than almost any other subject. Including sex.
The global Anglican Communion will only stop discriminating against lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians when it acknowledges that they will be full and equal citizens in heaven. That same epiphany has already transformed our church on race and gender. It is no accident that when the point of origin for a theology of race or gender begins with what awaits us in the kingdom of heaven, one quickly realises how fallen the church is.
The letters I received after the publication of the essay and the Radio 4 interview were mixed. Some condemned. Some cheered. But the largest number of messages came from the parents of lesbian, gay and bisexual children – especially evangelical parents. Most wrote in to say that their children no longer came to church, and they couldn’t see how this would change whilst the church continued with its ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ antics. I fear for a generation of lost youth who do not understand, or no longer believe in, a church that clearly practices discrimination, but now honours such viewpoints as legitimate theologies.
Can we really get past the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ mantra? We really should, and for four simple reasons. First, the statement is not the equivalent of 'loving the criminal but hating the crime'. Because second, homosexuality is not a crime – so not a 'sin' in the eyes of the law. Third, our sexuality is part of our identity, not something you choose freely. Fourth, you cannot say 'I love you as a person’ and then add, ‘it’s just your gender or ethnicity I can’t abide’ – or any other aspect of your identity that is a given. It wouldn’t make any sense.
In his closing remarks on the Radio 4 debate, Canon Sugden defended continuing criminalisation of same-sex relations in developing countries and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion. He said that economically disadvantaged people only have their family, so ‘they (are) concerned about the protection of children from grooming’ and ‘protect(ing) them from those from those who would prey on their children’. He thinks we should all be concerned about this.
I agree. I too am concerned about our children. But I include lesbian, gay and bisexual children here, many of whom may already feel that by being patronized, pathologized and problematized in the church, they are the ones who are being spiritually preyed upon.
So what’s to be done about this? How might the Primates lead the Anglican Communion when they gather this month? In a recent interview for The Spectator (12/12/15), Michael Gove asked the Archbishop how he might react if one of his own children were gay. The extract is worth quoting in full:
Evangelicals in the Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) mould tend to have traditional views, not just on theological issues, but also on sexual morality.
Few questions have so preoccupied the Anglican communion recently as the morality of sexuality — homosexuality in particular. Traditional Anglicans — whether in Nigeria or Nottingham — have been wary, at best, of the acceptance and welcome given to gay men and women and their sexual choices by secular society. It would be a challenge for any Archbishop of Canterbury to accommodate both the concerns of the traditionalists and the evolving views of the rest of British society.
But when I ask this of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he doesn’t prevaricate. If one of his own children were to be gay and fell in love with another person of the same sex, and asked his blessing, how would he react?
‘Would I pray for them together? You bet I would, absolutely. Would I pray with them together? If they wanted me to. If they had a civil service of marriage, would I attend? Of course I would.’
But, I challenged him, conscious of what many evangelicals believe, wouldn’t you say to them that while you love them, their relationship was sinful or inappropriate?
‘I would say, “I will always love you, full stop. End of sentence, end of paragraph.” Whatever they say, I will say I always love them.’
Now on the face of it, this looks like unequivocal support for lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians. But scratch below the surface, and it isn’t what it seems. We have no insight in to how the Archbishop might value the union of one of his children with a same-sex partner. Would he regard them as ‘married’? Would he offer to somehow be involved in the marriage service, given that his own denomination makes no provision either for blessing same-sex civil partnerships, or for a same-sex wedding? Suppose the child in question then went on to say that they had a vocation to ordained ministry? Does the Archbishop wish them well, but add his regrets that he cannot be party to any such ordination? What does the Archbishop think of gay clergy? Are they a problem to be solved? Or valid ministers of the church?
The Michael Gove interview in The Spectator is a strange article, for the interviewer seems to have been wholly hexed by the notion that a father would continue to love his lesbian, gay, or bisexual son or daughter. But this is something that the gospels assume all Christians will do for their kith and kin, friends and neighbours; and their enemies (Lk. 10: 25-37). Can it really be ‘breaking news’ that the Archbishop would continue to love one of his children, despite their sexuality? The more penetrating issues to question are, surely, how might he regard their marriage, and perhaps their ordained ministry? Lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians don’t just want love; they want equality and justice too.
Of course, the Archbishop is continuing with the long-established HTB-line, which rarely comments directly on sexuality. There is only a fleeting explicit reference to the subject in one of Nicky Gumbel’s books (Challenging Lifestyles, 1996). For the most part, HTB, Alpha and the Archbishop have steered away from ethical debates on sexuality wherever possible.
But the problem we now face, as an Anglican Communion, is the eliding of ‘lazy’ labels that no longer do justice to the complexity of the issues and debates. ‘Inclusive’ has come to mean ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’; ‘exclusive’ has come to mean ‘conservative’ and ‘traditionalist’; and ‘orthodoxy’ now claimed by all. So there is no escaping the need for some serious theological work in moving the Communion forward.
It simply won’t do to try and re-organise the Communion on an ‘Orthodox’ model, in the hope that this will somehow give Anglican Provinces more space to continue to be un-resolved and un-reconciled. Such a proposal may be politically expedient in the short term. But the longer term consequences – planting churches in one another’s Provinces to promote ‘traditionalist’ or ‘progressive’ causes, for example – would spell the end for worldwide Anglicanism in all but name. Episcopal oversight – to be authentically catholic – needs to be local and provincial for the care and cure of souls. We cannot have Archbishops presiding over congregations several continents away, planting at will. It would result in an ecclesial and legal catastrophe.
In some respects, the current proposals being touted – namely loosening our ‘bonds of Communion’ – are a collapse of confidence in the internationalism of Anglicanism. The so-called ‘Orthodox’ model of polity being propositioned for the Communion represents a failure of theological vision, ecclesial comprehension and moral leadership. Adopting the proposed ‘Orthodox’ model would be a disaster of epic proportions for the church.
As such, it is has some equivalence to the Munich Agreement of 1938, where Neville Chamberlain secured an armistice, with his famous piece of paper. But this was a ‘peace at any price’ – and the fee, ultimately, too costly. Chamberlain’s championing of his ‘concord’ transpired to be a weak political fix, born out of fear. It did nothing to challenge the cruelty and coercion that stalked Europe. Chamberlain’s ‘fix’ just gave the oppressors and aggressors further licence to act with impunity.
We really need a more nuanced Churchill-ian stance here – one that is unafraid of the long hard road needed to achieve a lasting, deeper theological concord and ecclesial peace. We simply cannot afford an ‘armistice’ in the Anglican Communion that allows lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians to continue to be oppressed and harassed in other Provinces – and indeed in our own. The proposals from the Archbishop of Canterbury would still permit this – indeed, grant such treatment fresh licence. Granted, such an armistice would be acclaimed as a success by some; but it would in fact be an act of appeasement that failed to stand up for the victims of homophobia across the Communion. Any deal the Primates reach should be rooted in a theology of mutuality and kingdom justice, and in our inclusive Anglican identity. No short-term ecclesial-political fix should be entertained that bypasses the long and deep theological vocation we have to travel together as a Communion.
So, no amount of well-intentioned epistemological Pelagianism (i.e., ‘we can fix this ourselves’) will be able to replace the need for some serious theological deliberation on the nature of humanity, grace and redemption. What was once a quiet, slightly suppressed ethical debate about alterity (i.e., sexuality) – a group of people somewhere out there, so to speak – has now become a much louder debate about the justice and integrity within our Communion, and concerns our own people. The key question just won’t go away. How exactly are we to regard and treat people who are not like us – in terms of their sexuality and gender identity – yet fully part of this body of Christ?
Jesus tells us that gender and sexuality won’t matter in heaven – we shall be like the angels (Mt. 22.30). Paul tell us that our equality in Christ transcends our labelled identities (Gal. 3: 28), and that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10.13). So a gentle reminder that Christ died for all, receives all who receive him (Jn. 1: 12 & 3: 16), of his full atonement on the cross, his love, grace and mercy for us all – yes, even for lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians – might be a sound note on which to commence these Primatial proceedings.
What lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians are asking for is bread, not stones (LK. 11:11). And many of us now long to see this bread freely given; not at a price, or with conditions attached. So, what I hope and pray for from the Primates’ gathering next week is an unequivocal ‘yes’ to lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians’ full and equal membership of the church, holding up a mirror to the full love and cherishing that God has already poured upon them, and also awaits them in heaven. So, not a ‘yes, but…’; just a ‘yes’, please.