40 Power and Politics in the Church

The latest round of a debate concerning ethics within the Anglican Church in England has taken a new twist.  After the ‘agreement to disagree’ on the subject of gay sex, which I reported a few posts back, the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England have now forbidden Anglican clergy to enter into the married state if their partner is of the same sex.  This becomes legally possible for everyone else after March 29th in Britain.  It will be possible for lay people in the same situation to remain in good standing as far as communicant status is concerned.  Lay people who enter into a same sex marriage can also accept office within the congregation, such as the post of churchwarden or Reader.  It would seem that the clergy may not do something that has become more or less acceptable to most Church people and possible in a legal sense for 99% of them.

In commenting on this situation we can see that a situation of absurdity has arisen which will in the medium and long term do damage to the Church.  In the first place we can see that if a clergyperson defies the ban, the law and most public opinion would be on their side.  It is unlikely that the Bishops would have any real power to discipline him or her.  The attitudes of people have changed very fast in this area and it is strikingly clear that even in the past twenty years opinions have shifted dramatically.  It would be tempting to say, as some do, that standards of morality have collapsed and there are some things that should never be allowed to change.  But it could be argued that the acceptance of gay marriage has come about, not through some ghastly descent into loose and corrupt morals but because individuals who are gay want it to be possible to live openly and decently in society.  To ask for marriage is to make a request for the possibility of stability and permanence in their relationships rather than the pattern of promiscuity that many people thought was inevitable in gay sex. Gay marriage is, if you like, a demand for a better more wholesome morality rather than the opposite.

Why are the Anglican bishops rowing against the tide, even though they suspect, many of them, that their stand can only be short-lived at best?  It is because of politics.  The political reality of the Anglican Communion at present  is the recognition of the enormous power and numbers of Anglican Christians in Africa.  For various reasons, the Anglican Church in Africa and in various other parts of the world has come out clearly against any expression of gay sex.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the leaders of these churches have actively campaigned for the imprisonment of gay individuals.  A further point is that the African bishops are, for cultural reasons, able effectively to articulate the thinking of their people.  If the Archbishop of Nigeria decides that the entire province believes something then he has the means to enforce it as official policy.  Whether or not ordinary Christians in the pew care in the slightest about these and other, for them, remote moral issues is probably beside the point.  The African Bishops speak and in doing so they speak on behalf of their people in a way that is not possible in Britain.

In previous posts I have discussed the way in which the African Church has become indebted to and entangled with the politics and theology of conservative America.  Right Wing Foundations have bought influence and power in Africa and elsewhere and it can be seen that the disputes between American conservatives and liberals are being fought overseas where comparatively small amounts of money buy a lot of power and influence.  Taking a strong line on these issues is the way that African Christians can play their part in extending the power of the Right Wing in America across the world.

When the Anglican bishops in this country worry about the pressure that spills over into Britain from Africa, they are effectively surrendering, not to African opinion, but to the Religious Right in the States.  Nigerian and Ugandan Anglicans vastly outnumber Anglicans in Britain and so the Archbishop and his advisers fear that the Anglican Communion will collapse unless African opinion can be appeased.  This latest sop to African opinion will not do the trick as the African bishops already realise that the battle to outlaw gay marriage is a lost cause in Britain and our Bishops are no longer fighting it.  When the ban on Anglican  gay clergy marrying collapses as unworkable, the African church will want to walk apart from the formal Anglican structures  in this country, while retaining links to theologically conservative groups who hold the line on ‘biblical’ values.

The Church of England may yet get the leadership it deserves and be able to clearly state that it is not, and never has been a sectarian body of people who can only live with one set of ‘correct’ opinions.  Traditionally, liberals, catholics and evangelicals have coexisted together in the same church and have been able to respect each other and tolerate their differences.  If we live in a church which has to declare a political and theological position which is favourable to a conservative/fundamentalist stance, then the Anglican church will be considerably poorer.

How does all this relate to our topic of abuse?  It is because abuse will always be experienced in a church, an institution or a family where only one position is tolerated.  In politics we call the imposition of one ideology, totalitarianism and it is the same if only one position is tolerated in the church.  Totalitarianism will eventually involve the suppression of alternative viewpoints and that clearly involves abuse and the abandonment of democratic values. When these traditions of democracy are abandoned, people will suffer pressure, not only to abandon their existing opinions, but also to adopt ideas which are alien and hostile to their inner integrity.  There is an old saying about good debate and the rules governing it which the democrat will always agree with. The saying goes:  ‘I may disagree with your position passionately, but I will defend just as passionately your right to hold these views.’   If the Anglican Church surrenders its integrity in order to try to appease a Right Wing non-negotiable ideology that comes to us from America via Africa, then my church is descending away from its old tolerant inclusive roots.  This blog cares passionately about the way the Bishops speak to their clergy on these matters of justice and freedom. The alternative path towards strict conformity and exclusive patterns of belief will take away from us sooner or later the right to think freely and to believe that Christianity possesses a rainbow of possibilities as to how it is practised and believed.  That would be a tragic outcome.


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “40 Power and Politics in the Church

  1. Once again I find myself agreeing strongly with most of what you say. And yet still having awkward questions which are real questions, and not contrariness. I’m very glad that being gay has now generally moved from an unacceptable position to an acceptable one, and wish our church would catch up. I also see what you’re saying about the need to accommodate differing positions within the church, freedom of thought and expression and so on. Very important.

    I just can’t see that we have ever or ever will have a situation where we will always passionately defend anyone’s right to hold absolutely any views. I just don’t see it. In the past advocating gay marriage would have been beyond the pale, and now it isn’t. It has been recategorised from unacceptable to acceptable for the majority now, though not all agree – and we have to cope with that area of disagreement.

    But isn’t there always *something* that is unacceptable? What about sex with children for example? Is that not the prime example of something that it it not acceptable to advocate? ….Actually it too has changed, in so far as there was a period in the 70s when some paedophiles were actually trying to convince people that children should be allowed to give free expression to their sexual desires with adults…. My point is though, we do not and actually never will always passionately defend anyone’s right to hold absolutely any views. It’s clear with cut and dried things – no one will ever defend anyone’s passionately held belief in the rightness of rape and murder (I hope). But there will then always be grey areas on the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable, and also things that get recategorised – who nowadays would defend anyone’s right to advocate their passionately held belief in slavery – which was perfectly normal for Christians only 200+ years ago, less in some parts of the world? It feels as though just sometimes, squaring a circle isn’t a conjuring trick that can be done.

  2. At one level, or one remove, we do have slaves. Those in foreign parts who work for less than a living wage, and/or in dangerous or insanitary conditions to feed our desires.
    Total change of subject. Are you sure about Readers, Stephen? When I looked at the previous guidelines, “lay” was about the person in the pew, and “minister” was synonymous with “ordained” and it was perfectly obvious that absolutely no-one had remembered the oxymoron of “lay minister”. I have a friend who was drummed out of Reader ministry for just this reason. And an ordained person was drummed out for supporting him. And the man who did it is now a Bishop. Are we sure about this?

    1. Yes, we’re not very consistent about what exploitation we acknowledge or find acceptable. But the point still stands that chattel slavery is marked off now as completely unacceptable, and we’ve moved on to arguing about what other forms of exploitation might be unacceptable too. That’s a change – and of course an advance. But what hasn’t changed is that there exist some things which it isn’t acceptable to advocate. The boundary has moved, and the grey area is in a different place, but there is still a boundary and a grey area.

  3. I will check up on the Reader question. I got the impression that they were not too worried. As for the point about the view that another person should be be allowed to have a point of view different from one’s own, I can see that there are going to be limits. The quote I gave was to do with normal political debate rather ethical matters. But the church sometimes encourages the feeling that everyone must think alike. I am planning a piece on a notable American evangelical Edward Carnell who was driven to suicide by being sniped at on the one side by extreme fundamentalists and more moderate evangelicals who wanted him to be less conservative. The relaxed position would be just to say let everyone debate in the context of respect. That is something that is sometimes absent..

  4. Part of the problem here is the long shadow that the old testament leaves on ‘cradle evangelicals’. Indeed I still live under that ghosting shadow! It is the cradle evangelical that will see the homosexual issue as fulfilling the NT prophecy “In the last days some shall depart from the faith” (Who is to say they are wrong?)
    The worrying thing for me is that when an issue becomes ‘politically correct’ people retreat back into the comforts of their shell if, they disagree! What a Hell of a mess it all is? And who is it that gets us out of that “MESS’ with theoretically correct scripture quotes?

    Chris Pitts

  5. Further to my last comments,I would add, that the whole question about ‘Rights’ can lead to vast confusion. Where do we draw the line? Who’s line is it? How do we discern the will of God, what and who’s mechanics of logic do we use?
    I can here the voice of an old preacher saying “People have all the time in the world for a god that says; “OK, do your own thing” but no time at all for a God that says; “Thou shalt not” . Our biased personal interpretation can lead us up the garden path picking the flowers we like to see on the shelf. I like Primroses!

    Chris Pitts

  6. I want to reiterate the point that I use the word ‘politics’ in a distinctive way. The American Right want to do an ideological take-over in the Christian Church so their particular world view can dominate. The bishops of the C of E by trying to appeasing the African bishops have allowed themselves to be drawn into a political game. I would rather that they had shown much more understanding of what is at stake rather than pretending that is about legitimate debate over ethics and sexuality. It is not; it is about whether Right Wing ideology should take over the churches world-wide. We need to be led by those who are prepared to ‘name and shame’ this shocking pressure. GAFCON and ACNA and other conservative groups belong to this juggernaut and they need to be resisted. We also need good leadership for this task of resistance.

  7. It is not like me to sound revolutionary but I firmly believe that the discussion is only about gay marriage because the Conservative Right have chosen to make it the cause celebre. It is really about the life and soul of church congregation in the future. The battle could equally have been about the sanctity of marriage but there are too many broken marriages among conservative Christians for that to have worked. What can ordinary Christians in the pew do? They can start to be proud for promoting the values of tolerance, compassion, understanding and inclusivity among themselves and resist the incursion of narrow, mean and judgmental attitudes creeping in. The problem, as I have said before, is that conservative Christians are organised, wealthy and powerful. Non conservatives are intelligent but not particularly organised. I am worried about the future of the church. I would hate to see the conservative intolerant faction take over just to keep conservatives happy elsewhere in the world. At a synodical level in the Anglican dioceses the conservatives do get defeated – see the defeat of the Covenant proposals – but there is still a strong lobby going the other way and we must be vigilant. Tell me someone if I am paranoid!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.