Thanks to the internet we are able to see and hear the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking at St Edmundsbury Cathedral on the subject of same sex marriage. It is clear that he is enormously exercised by the question and he seems aware that there are traps for him whatever side he takes. On the video clip that I watched from the Bury Free Press, he emphasised how the church has found itself under pressure to make decisions with a far greater speed than is usual. Changes in an understanding of what marriage is, are not normally effected in such a short space of time, and this is what seems to be happening today in the rest of society.
I have some sympathy with the Archbishop up to this point. He wants to carry everyone with him and the Church is like an ocean liner which is not used to turning round in such a short time. But it is some other arguments that he raises (not on the video) that I do find myself at odds with him. Apparently, according to another report, he brought up the issue of what the Anglican world thinks outside the UK, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The argument seemed to run as follows. We in England have some half million members while the Anglican churches of Africa have some eighty million souls. They are against the very idea of same sex marriage, so we have to more than cautious in what we say on the subject. They look to us for guidance and leadership on this so we must be careful so that they do not feel betrayed by an apparent shift in our stance.
Before we attempt to answer this argument, it must be said that the Archbishop has personal links with many Christians in Nigeria and so feels his role as Anglican leader very acutely. No doubt he is under pressure to say the things that they want him to say, loudly and unambiguously. But it is a pressure that has to be resisted. Why? In the first place we need to examine why the Nigerians and other sub-Saharan Anglican are so set against the possibility of any compromise on the topic of gay sex. The stand they are taking is not without cost for their churches and their links with other churches and sponsoring groups. A short article like this will only scratch the surface of the deeper reasons for this visceral abhorrence of gay relationships. But I suggest that the opposition is rooted in two areas, cultural and theological. On the cultural side there are traditions peculiar to Africa which make this issue of far more significance than for the West. The theological resistance is, on the other hand, not an African issue at all but one largely exported from the States. In summary (and I have written about this on an earlier post) same sex marriage is the chosen battle ground for conservative Christians in America to fight the forces of modernism and change, the so-called culture wars.
It is obvious that the point I have just made is one that can be debated as to its truth and accuracy. But the other point I want to make is less contentious and it concerns the differences between the outlook of us in Britain and those who live in Africa. We are different in our outlook and to say otherwise, I would suggest, betrays an extreme cultural blindness. Every culture is defined to some extent by its history. I indicated the other week the way the Orthodox think quite differently on theological matters because they never experienced the Reformation. This in no way is a put-down but simply a statement of fact. I would argue that, in fact, the theological perspective of the Orthodox is in some ways richer than ours precisely because of this. But to return to the differences that are apparent when looking at Western Christians and those who live in Africa. Those of us who reflect on the cultural history of our country will be aware that we live within a developing cultural framework. This is a huge subject and not one on which I would claim any particular expertise. But I would think it a commonplace to suggest that our political and intellectual history arises out of developments that took place in previous centuries. The system of government we have did not arise overnight but evolved out of the developments that took place after the bloody Civil War of the 1640s. Similar things can be said about out theological traditions. These look back to debates in the 19th century and before. The liberal-conservative debate has to be set in an intellectual setting that goes back at least 150 years in this country.
One of the things that belongs to modern theologians working in Britain in the 21st century is the right to work in a post-Enlightenment way, questioning and challenging assumptions as they feel necessary. This right to question and challenge is what has allowed science and technology also to move forward with rapid speed over the past 250 years. The thought that theology works in a different way here in Britain from the way it does in Africa is thus hardly controversial. Any fair minded person will recognise that an attempt to suggest that African theological reflection might have some veto over the work done by theologians in the West would be an intolerable state of affairs. Obviously African traditions in theology, politics and culture generally have a right to be heard in the wider world but never in a way that accords them special privileges.
The strong anti-gay rhetoric coming out of Africa is the business of the West as we see actual harm caused to individuals in the way of mob violence and imprisonment. Beyond that we may have to accept that African societies will always have deeply conservative social attitudes in these area. But if we are to work with such a differing perspective we need to insist that our history and traditions are also respected. Just as African perspectives on morality come out of their particular history, so do our own.
The Anglican Communion faces a crossroads. Can we tolerate a situation where one side is allowed to deny to the other the right to think and reflect in accordance with traditions developed over decades? If African Churches really find our debates on the gay issue so viscerally offensive that they deny us the right to even air these debates, can we really walk together in any meaningful sense? Archbishop Welby is asking us to moderate the expressions of opinion on the gay issue in this country. Is it not time that he demanded from the African primates a level of rational courtesy in this discussion? Without basic courtesy, it is hard to see that the Anglican Communion can or should survive in its present form.