Justin Welby interviewed on LBC radio

If I were the Archbishop of Canterbury I too would feel distinctly uncomfortable.

Speaking on a radio phone-in, Justin Welby said he had stood by a mass grave of 330 Christians murdered in Nigeria because of gay weddings in America. The murderers justified the massacre by saying

‘If we leave a Christian community here we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians’.

The story has been reported in the Anglican News Service and the Guardian; briefer comments are in the Huffington Post and Episcopal Café.

The commentators take the view that what we’re hearing is the real reason why the Archbishop is determined to forbid gay marriages in the Church of England. For the purpose of this post I put to one side the question of whether he disapproves of gay marriages anyway and focus on what is being said here. Given the threat to the lives of African Christians, Welby said,

We have to listen to that… The impact… on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world.

This is an ethical issue. I used to teach ethics, and would have used this as a good example of a clash between two ways of making decisions. Welby has taken a consequentialist view: he says the matter should be decided on the basis of consequences. The deaths of hundreds of Africans is a worse outcome than the non-marriage of British and American gay people. I agree with him about that. I’m not gay but I imagine that if I was, and if I had to choose between being denied a marriage and being killed, I’d opt for the former. So in theory, as a believer in the Golden Rule, if I had to choose between being denied a marriage and somebody else being killed, I ought to still choose the former.

It has similarities to the favourite question asked of conscientious objectors in the Second World War. ‘If a madman with a knife was about to kill your wife, and the only way you could stop him was by killing him, would you kill him?’ Looking back, it was a silly question. It presumed that the pacifists would have agreed with the consequentialist approach; but if they did, the whole point of consequentialism is that you judge what to do in the light of the situation – and madmen with knives killing wives wasn’t what the Second World War was all about.

Many pacifists – probably the overwhelming majority – argued that, whatever the consequences, their responsibility was for their actions, not somebody else’s. It was not their place to calculate the course of action which would produce the best possible outcome; their duty was to refrain from immoral acts.

I am trying to keep to the basic issue, so I’m simplifying. Either Welby approves of gay weddings as moral duty (assuming he does) and deplores the killings as other people’s crimes, or he considers himself responsible and uses his power to bring about the best possible consequences.

We all consider both rules and consequences. If you only ever consider the rules and ignore consequences, you’re a doormat. Others will manipulate you. Wartime pacifists were accused of purism, keeping their souls unsoiled at the expense of leaving the dirty work to others. At the other extreme if you only ever consider consequences and never submit to any rules, you’re a megalomaniac. I write this while Maria Miller, a British Member of Parliament, is under scrutiny for fiddling her expenses. I read somewhere (I can’t remember statistics) that the average British MP has a bigger criminal record than the average British person. MPs are responsible for creating the laws. They make consequentialist judgements to control other people’s behaviour. They get to think of themselves as above the law. So consequentialism, when not limited by a sense of personal moral duty, turns people into self-centred manipulators. In practice, when powerful people make consequentialist judgements, they usually overlook relevant factors which do not suit their interests.

In the circumstances it seems pretty hard on Welby to accuse him of this. I do however think that his judgement – that refusing gay marriages is better than mass murders – is selecting a few consequences while ignoring others.

The mass murders constitute a witch hunt. Irrational scapegoating. To accede to their wishes because of the murders also has consequences. When we look back on the past history of witch hunts we rarely sympathise with the people who put up no resistance for fear of making the situation worse.

What then should he do? When he considers consequences, he should not simply react to atrocities. He should work towards a vision of a better, more tolerant Anglicanism. Sooner or later it will be normal for Church of England clergy to perform gay weddings and Africans will get used to it. Church leaders should start preparing the way for an international Anglicanism where different provinces accept that they hold different views and treat differences of opinion as normal. Welby’s current response is a step in the wrong direction.

But Welby is not just a manipulator of consequences. He is also a human being with moral duties engaging with other humans who also have moral duties. When those murderers explained that they didn’t want to be forced into homosexuality, it was not Welby who gave them the idea or made it seem credible. At most he has some influence on their actions; he is not responsible for them.

They were being consequentialist. They broke the moral rule against murder because they feared the consequence of being forced into homosexuality. Welby wishes they had stuck to the rule. Ditto for Welby himself. In the final analysis it is not his job to manipulate other people’s behaviour as though only he had free will or only he knew what is best. He is one person with free will engaging with other people who also have free will.

Whether Church of England priests are allowed to perform gay weddings should be decided, not on the basis of how opponents will react, but on the basis of whether gay marriages are right.