During the last month a row has blown up in the Anglican Diocese of Oxford here in England. The diocesan newsletter published a book review in December by Dr Martyn Percy, the newly appointed Dean of Christ Church. Martyn is personally known to me and was a help to me in the 90s when I was gathering material for my book on fundamentalist Christianity, Ungodly Fear. His speciality is the sociology of the Church and his doctoral studies were on the topic of the theology of revival, especially the ideas and practice of the late John Wimber. As an academic his published writings have covered numerous topics, particularly in the area of the Church and its ministry. He was for ten years the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, an establishment for ordination training in the Anglican Church.
The December issue of ‘The Door’, the diocesan newsletter, contains a review by Martyn of two works on the topic of same-sex marriage. The first book, receives a favourable review and is one that takes a accommodating line on the issue. It is written by the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, a suffragan bishop in the Oxford diocese. The other by Sam Allberry is, as Martyn puts it, a ‘discussion closer’ because it lays down the law and says firmly what the author believes Scripture has to say in not in any way countenancing the possibility of same sex marriage. This blog post is not going to discuss further the content of the books, or even whether these reviews are fair. What is of concern is the furore that has broken out in the diocese over the new Dean’s words. A letter has been written to the ‘The Door’ with the signatures of some 24 mostly well-known and influential conservative evangelical clergyman in the Diocese of Oxford. Presumably the letter, containing all these signatures, has been tweaked and edited so we can take it to be a statement of conservative Anglican opinion, not only in the Diocese of Oxford, but also throughout the country. It is the tone of this letter and the assumptions of its theology that raise for me considerable concern.
Why do I make an issue of the letter of these 24 conservative clergy in another diocese? The reason for this post is that the letter is an important reflection of the up-to-date thinking of conservative clergy in the Church of England. Two particular issues stand out. First the theological position they are taking ungenerously claims that there is only one stance on the gay marriage issue possible for members of the Church of England. They are no doubt depending for this claim on resolution 1:10 from the 1998 Lambeth Conference. This ‘correct’ Christian position on gay marriage stated there seems to allow conservative Anglicans to argue that they are right to seek to close down all further discussion on the topic and pretend that this Lambeth resolution is the last word on the subject. In fact to suggest that the Lambeth resolution is the final verdict by Anglicans on the gay issue is palpable nonsense. The defeat of the so-called Covenant proposals right across the Anglican world in the last five years put an end to the pretence that ordinary Anglicans were prepared to tolerate doctrinal and moral issues being decided centrally. The letter writers also seem to have forgotten that we are in the middle of a ‘conversation’ process where the supporters and opponents of gay marriage have promised to listen to each other with respect and care.
The second somewhat unpleasant part of the letter is the way that the author of the ‘liberal’ book under review, Bishop Alan Wilson, is attacked. The letter says: ‘It is extraordinary that a serving Bishop can attack the basic values of the organisation he works for …. in any other walk of life, it would result in suspension followed by an investigation.’ In short the clergy writers are implying that the whole church should not only embrace a single point of view on the gay marriage issue but also anyone who does not agree with the conservative position should be forthwith expelled.
This letter is an indication that intolerance, bullying of others and a refusal to listen is alive and well in the Church of England. It is also un-Anglican, in the sense that I understand the meaning of the word. Anglicanism has always stood for the holding together of different theological positions and perspectives together with the encouraging of mutual respect. There is no respect here of any kind on the part of the letter writers towards their opponents. There is only the desire to demand total control of the institution in the name of a single perspective – the conservative one. Of course the Dean of Christ Church is also in their sights and the writers of the letter further imply that, by publishing his liberal opinions, the ‘Door’ newspaper is somehow favouring the liberal side of the argument in the debate. As the Church of England embarks on the so-called ‘conversations’, this review is thought to be undermining the possibility of even-handedness on the part of the hierarchy in the Diocese.
My reading of the letter by the 24 conservative clergymen of the Diocese of Oxford, who probably speak for clergy of their background right across the country, indicates that the future for the church, with this kind of polarisation, is somewhat bleak. The tone of the letter lacks charity, tolerance or any kind of openness towards their perceived enemies. Let me repeat the point – the issue at stake here is not about the gay issue itself. It is about the creation of an environment where true dialogue between people of convinced but differing opinions can take place. Such conversation cannot be easily conducted in the kind of atmosphere that is created by the vindictive tone of this letter. For me also the real discussion should be, not about the gay marriage issue itself, but whether it is ever right to allow a particular way of reading scripture to close down discussion and dialogue. In a human relationship between two people, we would consider it abusive and overbearing if one side in the relationship alone was allowed to speak and have an opinion. Sally’s story which is being serialised in this blog, is a clear example of the way a powerful coercive system or ‘truth’ is imposed on an individual who is denied a proper voice. In conclusion I would suggest that the apparent overbearing confidence and intolerance of the conservative lobby is a sign, not of strength, but of massive insecurity and defensiveness. Also the failure of conservatives actually to talk to gay individuals, to understand their world and their experience, is a failure of love and a sign of profound inhumanity. The dialogue I look for is a dialogue that can change both sides. Both sides in any dialogue have to admit that they may be wrong. Certainly they need to see that there is always another way of looking at things. Certainty will always involve a denial of faith and love.