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.