59 Archbishop Welby – the same-sex debate

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.

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 “59 Archbishop Welby – the same-sex debate

  1. This matter has been much discussed on the Guardian web sites. It seems that the Archbishop went to a mass grave where more than three hundred Christians had been massacred, because the local people believed that Christians are spreading homosexuality, and they didn’t want to be “forced” to be homosexual. Obviously the most idiotic superstition, but it caused the death of more than 300 innocent people. I think I would want to be careful what I said, too, if I thought people were going to be killed. It isn’t as simple as not paying the danegeld.

  2. Yes I was thinking about this too, and it’s not clear to me unfortunately what this means or what our responsibilities to our Christian brothers and sisters there are weighed with all the other factors.

    Like many people here my knowledge of African cultural traditions in this area is slim, but Stephen can you tell us more? Respecting people’s difference includes I think informing oneself about where they are coming from. In fact I know little more than the story of the Uganda Martyrs, which doesn’t seem a very encouraging starting point, but may be relevant.

  3. The point at issue is not whether the Anglican Church in Africa is right to hold these views (it is perhaps inevitable in view of their culture and history) but whether this belief about gays should be used as a means through which the Anglican Church as a whole can be manipulated by Right Wing Christians in the States. It is no coincidence that many of break-away groupings that are so powerful in the States are under Nigerian leadership while the actual missives written on their behalf have been traced back to Americans. The break-away bishop Martin Minns was shown to have written several of the papers that were supposed to have been written in Africa. There is an unholy alliance between the wealth of right wing foundations and African leaders in order to undermine the Anglican Communion as a whole. Colonial guilt prevents us challenging the African bishops and their wealthy backers but all we are asking them to do is to respect the fact we start in a different place when it comes to thinking about morality and in particular sexuality. Tolerance of difference works in both directions and I would like the Archbishop to ask the Africans, not to change their minds, but show a little understanding of difference rather than echoing the vicious attacks coming out of America.

  4. Yes I think we can all agree about not wanting to be manipulated by the American Right and that respect is a two way street. I think the question is about where the cost is going to fall. One place it falls is on gays here, and even more so in Africa. But it also seems there is a lot of fear with some reason that the cost falls on African Christians generally in situations of inter-faith tension. They might be likely to pay a cost in that situation anyway perhaps, but are they paying more, even with their lives, because of the inflammation of the gay issue, which is being deliberately stirred up. Then again as you point out, the cost is being paid by Western Christians generally, whose intention to order their lives and conduct their theology according to their (our) traditions is being undermined. No doubt more could be said by someone with a fuller view of it all than me.

    So it’s not just about pointing out who is doing the manipulating or being intolerant or playing on colonial guilt. Yes I agree, I think our Archbishops could and should be saying firmly to the African leaders that respect is a two-way street and they should understand our position. I am sure though that in some cases at least the situation is programmed so that some of them will turn deaf ears to that – even in the surprising situation that they were a bit sympathetic, they are anyway be in a position where it would be hard to take the risk of showing it. The archbishops should still be saying it anyway, but we have to think about what our response is beyond asking them to be nice, and one of the questions here is, is Welby correct in saying that ordinary innocent lives there are at risk as a direct result of what we do on this? How can we know? If they are, how should we weigh that against the costs people are paying here? Or is this the wrong approach altogether?

    I still think it would be helpful to understand where the African traditions on this are coming from, which doesn’t mean I am bound by colonial guilt, or unable to expect respect to come my way too, or can’t see that the Americans are muddying the waters; it means I think it would be helpful to me to have a better understanding of who they are and why they think and behave the way they do, which is not the same as wondering whether they are “right” or”wrong” to do so. It is saying that since it is apparently “perhaps inevitable in view of their culture and history”, and I am rather ignorant about that, I would like to know more.

  5. Having lived and worked in Africa, the attacks on Christians there, and indeed in other parts of the world, generally have more to do with the development of Wahabi beliefs and fundamentalist intolerance (including Christian fundamentalist intolerance) in the last 50 years, than it does to any change in Western attitudes to homsexuality. Where do the views about being careful not to say anything that might inflame tensions sit with our duty to talk out against the murder of innocents? Where does it put our responsibility to talk out against intolerance and the inflaming of hatred? Where does it put our duty to do unto others as we would have them do to us? Is our duty actually to shut up because we might make things worse? You don’t need to look back further than the 1930s to see where this leads.

  6. Are these real or rhetorical questions? I feel the latter, which doesn’t really do justice to genuine uncertainty and questions previously asked, but seems to imply you have inferred that the positives you are promoting are not things that others also value or have thought of.

    As for our duty to shut up because we might make things worse, it’s easy to see how bad or wrong that could be. But it’s too true in many, many varied types of situation that plain speaking of everything one thinks isn’t *always* the most productive way forward. So it’s not black or white, but considering what and why the best approach is with many factors to consider. So if you know how we should be responding (ie “we” both as what we expect from our senior church leaders, and we as lesser church members), then please tell us with your reasons instead of asking rhetorical questions.

    Tick, tick, tick in my view on the duty to speak out against the murder of innocents, intolerance and the inflaming of hatred. That can never be wrong and more of it always needs doing especially here. But I think also the original issue was not just about what we say, but about is there any justification for holding back on gay marriage in terms making it really happen in our churches, or at least accepting and allowing openly gay clergy whether or not in marriages, because of this situation, or indeed, for any other reason such as the divisions people in England and the CofE feel? How do we weigh that against the injustice to gay people and the damage to the church that is caused by holding back – for no path in this area is without costs, both to specific individuals and more widely to us all. My instinct is that, no, these compromises are wrong, we cannot continue to demand unjust sacrifices from gay people in the way that seemed acceptable decades ago, and it is damaging the whole church too. I personally, though not gay myself, feel dismayed if a young gay friend who is an excellent candidate is not accepted for ordination because he refuses to play games and put up with inappropriate treatment in the selection process. But as I said, I can see that no path is without cost of some kind, and I thought it worth asking what might be the cost to others far away of what we feel is right to do in our view of things and for our own benefit here.

  7. Let me illustrate my point about speaking out.

    It is potentially a waste of time trying to discuss with people who don’t take you seriously or read what you have written properly, and who respond with patronising guff rather than real thought. It is also irritating and challenging for the soul.

    It demonstrates that those who speak as experts against disrespectful and abusive attitudes and practices in the church have not necessarily entirely digested their own message.

    Now is this helpful or should I shut up? Or maybe it would have been better to have written some of the other things I think, as well or instead.

  8. Well said. And your friend who is honest and suffers thereby? Heteros should be virgins when they marry. Are they asked? (No) Could you tell if they were telling the truth? Isn’t there an incentive to say they were even if that’s not true? If you insist on ordaining only virgins, you will ordain only liars.
    As to the other matter, I still think if what I said, however true, might get someone killed, I would hesitate. And I think I would be right to do so.

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