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The Archbishop of Canterbury finds himself between a rock and a hard place in regard to the current furore over sexual orientation and the meaning of marriage. Sadly, it is one in which we are all losers. Perhaps this is inevitable because, as the prophet Jeremiah might be saying of the Church right now, ‘they have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.’ (Jer.6:14)
Whichever way you look at this painful and deeply divisive subject, everyone’s wounds have been treated carelessly. Begin with those unhappy people who are prevented from feeling that they are full members of the Church, because they would like to marry their same sex partner, and then continue across the spectrum of opinion to those who feel equally wounded at having a core belief about the sanctity of marriage treated as irrelevant when it is an essential element of a tradition they hold dear.
The hardest thing for us all to come to terms with then, is that there is no right or wrong to any of these positions. There is only pain and suffering for everyone. Few people remain indifferent to these questions and those who claim that they are will, if they are honest with themselves, probably take a position one way or another when pressed, even if they do not feel very confident about doing this. I wonder at times if this is where the unfortunate ABC finds himself when he lies awake at night wondering what to do to hold the Church of England together. He is of course not the first leading Primate to be kept awake by these questions. He may not be the last. He perhaps wonders what God makes of it all, what having the mind of Christ might entail right now.
No one can know for sure which ‘side’ Jesus would come down on. His responses to such situations were often enigmatic, so it is probably safe to guess that he would do something along the lines of what he did when pressed to condemn a woman who had flagrantly broken the law. He would write something in the sand. He would write a word that could be understood in an acutely personal way by every individual present, as he did in the story of the woman taken in adultery. There was a ‘sin’ being named to each one of them, something shameful being exposed, something they were afraid of. What would he be writing in the sand to us right now?
It would probably be a word that can be read in a number of ways; as a question, as an angry exhortation, as a gentle prompting. I think we could hazard a guess that it would relate to the idea of fear, or to the fear of exposure, and, of course, to love. But love, written on its own, would not achieve very much. It is too open-ended and vague a notion. It can easily be dismissed as sentiment, a nice idea, but not something to build on, given the fragility of the Church in regard to this dispute. But if he were to write the word fear, and place a question mark at the end of it, it would unsettle just about everyone. He would be challenging every single person to get into the situation of the other, the person they disagree with and vaguely fear, to feel their pain, their hidden self-doubt, their confusion, their embarrassment. If we are too afraid to get into the shoes of the person we most disagree with, and feel their pain and their fear, are we really a Church at all?
We are treating each other’s wounds carelessly, as Jeremiah would have noted, and the wounds are not all the same. Those who feel excluded because the Church refuses to marry them to their same sex partner will feel the sharp sting of rejection, perhaps as a denial of God’s love, no matter how hard the Church tells them this is not the case. But they are, in this respect, being lied to, because the sentiment that underpins such platitudes is the idea that God ‘loves the sinner but hates the sin’, an even worse platitude which simply adds insult to injury. Those upholding the sanctity and inviolability of traditional marriage will, on the other hand, secretly fear that they have been left behind, that their righteousness is no longer the ‘righteousness of God’ to borrow briefly from St. Paul. Where are they to go? Who will welcome them and ease them into another way of being Church, of being Christian in today’s world? Who will reconcile them? Compassion is called for from everyone and a great deal of courage.
On the whole, our leaders have not led with the kind of compassionate courage that is called for in this situation. We are most of us good at compassion. We can even be good at speaking up for those we agree with in contexts where it is not always safe to do so. But how often do we speak with genuine compassion for those with whom we profoundly disagree? Genuine compassion takes us into deep water when it comes to human relationships, especially relationships that are related to religion and to sexuality.
If the Church is serious about unity, nice remarks and worn-out platitudes will not cut the mustard. But perhaps we’re not that serious about it after all, forgetting that once we have all gone our separate ways in anger and bitterness of soul, a different set of divisive issues will appear and those future generations will be no better able to deal with them than we are. Time to give the lead, perhaps.
Lorraine Cavanagh is a trustee of Modern Church and an Anglican priest and author. Her latest book ‘Re-Building The Ruined Places: A Journey Out Of Childhood Trauma’ is available on Amazon and in bookshops. Her online course on Ministering Through Trauma and Abuse is available at https://spiritual-soundings.teachable.com/courses