Coffee House

It’s time for the Church of England to drop the culture wars

30 April 2013

3:14 PM

30 April 2013

3:14 PM

Almost three thousand years ago the Prophet Amos asked ‘can two walk together except they be agreed?’ How can the Church of England, pragmatic and volunteer-led but with complex legal and cultural structures, stay meshed with its culturally incompatible overseas churches? What is its future?

Theo Hobson argues in this week’s Spectator that the C of E needs to find a third way in order to survive, affirming gay partnerships whilst simultaneously rejecting equal marriage.

Can this be done? If the deadlock Hobson describes arose from a frail incoherent compromise, Some Issues in Human Sexuality, how can more hand-wringing duplicity solve it?

The world has moved radically on since 1991. Education, smartphones and social media are driving rapid ubiquitous change. All over the world younger generations are challenging their parents’ cultural assumptions. In Britain a social tsunami has swept through national life. In education, healthcare, media, politics, police, law, armed services, homosexuality is now largely seen as phenomenon of nature, not an offence against it. Almost everywhere conventional discrimination is seen as a moral problem not a virtue.

Officially, the Church plays King Canute. But even within the Church, life has changed. Hobson describes ‘the Evangelicals’ as a homogenous bloc, but increasingly they are not. Some do exhibit traditional tribalism, but many if not most do not. Leaders like Steve Chalke and Rob Bell are re-thinking conventional shibboleths in the light of contemporary realities. Increasingly, homosexuality is openly discussed by Evangelicals who want to be good news to real people, not just tolerantly patronising.


Similarly, terms like ‘Conservatism’ and ‘Liberalism’ are changing. Traditional cardboard cut-out positions are wearing thin. There are surprising permutations out there, like economic liberals who are social conservatives and theological conservatives who are social radicals.

Where will this process end?

The strength of Christianity, historically, has been its ability to cross frontiers, transcend different cultures and adapt. Truthfulness among Anglicans, however painful, and the will to understand others, may produce a partnership of equals. A Commonwealth style communion could thrive, recalling Edwin Markham’s poem:

‘He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In.’

Are there limits to inclusivity? Any body needs some coherence and boundaries. You can be a bit drunk but not a bit pregnant. Families can live with a teenager who spends all day in their bedroom, but not one who burns the house down. You cannot stand for race equality and retain a little enclave that bans ‘unnatural miscegenation’. The Church cannot simultaneously embody justice and injustice. It cannot expect people to believe its welcoming noises if they really mean no more than a resounding ‘yes, but…’

In its glory days, the Church of England captured and led the moral spirit of the age. Now it is, morally, at the trailing edge on equalities. If it wishes to play a significant part in the society it purports to serve, it needs to shed its institutional sexism and homophobia. Jesus mandates Christians to treat others as they would be treated. But it cannot simultaneously do this and not do this.

What about the traditional Anglican virtue of compromise? The Israeli ethicist Avishag Zahavi distinguishes between compromises and rotten compromises. The latter, like Munich 1938, mortgage the humanity of someone else. The dignity of gay people and women are not the C of E’s to give away. They cannot be compromised.

The best future for Anglicans is to shed the culture wars so artfully visited on them by cliques of zealots, not transpose them into a new key and drag things out. They need to major on the Sermon on the Mount, not 1950’s Janet-and-John biology or moralism. Doing that will yield honest unity, and a future.

Dr Alan Wilson is the Bishop of Buckingham.

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Show comments
  • windwheel

    ‘ culturally incompatible overseas churches’- I wonder about this. A few years back the National Council of Churches of India (Anglican and Syrian Orthodox) endorsed Homosexuality and even the Catholics indicated that it was only Gay Marriage where they’d draw the line.

    This took many older Indians by surprise because the feeling was that the traditional Churches had been put on the defensive by newer American origin Sects and, in any case, Religious zealotry had been on the rise for the previous three decades.
    It seems to me that Economic development in India has enabled the expression of more Liberal views and so ‘cultural incompatibility’ is decreasing rather than increasing.
    Some African Churches currently vehemently opposed to Gay Rights may well do a 180 degree turn as part of a generational shift in power. The fact is older men are out of touch and, what’s more, often considered corrupt and despotic in the manner in which they run things.
    I’ve noticed a great improvement in Church attendance and Community involvement both in India and here in London and one cause, it seems to me, is the pro-active nature and highly professional management of local Church initiatives. In this context, it becomes easier to accept a Gay or female priest- or married Gay deacons- because the Church is demonstrably involved in the daily lives of its parishioners. God, of course, is welcome to keep such people out of Heaven, but here on Earth, we have no reason to discriminate against them.

  • JCF

    Yikes, the comments here are scary. God bless Bishop Wilson!

  • silvia

    I spent so many years hating the (Catholic) Church for being so backwards, hypocritical and anti-love. Then I moved to the UK and came across the CofE and people like Bishop Alan and understood the real meaning of Grace. Christianity should be about reaching out, not shunning. About understanding and not judging. Many (most) of my closest friends are gay, I love them to bits and I am sure that standing up and loving your friends is what Jesus would want me to do – not turn my back on them quoting ambiguous Bible verses. Justifying phobias and prejudices using the Lord is really not fair on him.

  • Man in a Shed

    The Bishop vs God – time to find a new job your grace.

  • The Aged P

    I’d have more time for these blathering bishops if they stopped agonising in public about sexuality and “cuts” and actually got out into the streets, knocked on doors, went into pubs, clubs and shopping malls and preached their message to the heathens (like me)…at the moment they are like salesmen who do not have confidence in the product they are trying to sell….

    • Fergus Pickering

      Since you are a heathen your opinion about Christian bishops and what they should do carries little weight.

  • Nele Schindler

    The church becomes irrelevant the minute it stops proclaiming the truth and gets enmeshed in the zeitgeist. There is no obligation on the church to change with the ‘times’ or ‘acknowledge’ stuff just because the world at large in their craziness and darkness asserts it.

    A relevant church is a church that doesn’t deserve survival. I’m not too worried about this – the truth will move underground for a while if necessary and emerge stronger and more virulent in other places.

  • Abhay

    The CoE is a repository of a set of traditions. Why should it not defend that? That is its core purpose. Why should it mimic some liberal, secular institutions – it will risk redundancy if it does that.

    Also, its not a bureaucratic institution but a transcendental one (or at least it should be), it cannot bother too much with holding fuzzy popular views.

    I also think its time for Europeans (including the British) to become start getting familiar with their ancient spiritual attitudes and sensibilities (Indo-European cultural traditions). There is an enormous amount of research and scholarship now on the subject.

  • Andy

    Why is it that all these bloody Bishops don’t want to defend Christian morality ? Gay marriage is a daft idea and flies in the face of what marriage actually is and is actually for. And the bishop should know: he has 5 children.

    Pound to a penny he is another of these trendy ‘Leftie’ Bishops and clergy.

    • Tom Tom

      Like everywhere else it is the Insiders who have rotted the Institutions thinking they are more important than their function as Trustees

  • David Webb

    So Alan Wilson is not a Christian, then? So what is he doing living off of church funds? I am sick of reading of bishops who don’t believe in the Bible. Time to close down the CofE by Act of Parliament and turn the churches into community halls for the English?

    • Fergus Pickering

      There is no call for Christians to believe in the Bible, at least not in its entirety. No Christian ought to care what it says in Leviticus or Numbers at all and the tale of Adam and Eve is no more true than the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. Chistians proclaim the teaching of Christ.

      • David Webb

        Fergus, you are totally wrong. The New Testament does show that the Old Mosaic law had been superceded, and to that extent parts of the Mosaic law were no longer applicable, but it is false to claim that that means Leviticus and Numbers were not the Word of God. Anyone who believes Adam and Eve were no more true than Theseus and the Minotaur is not a Christian. Because Jesus believed in Adam and Eve and referred to Adam/Eve during his discussion of marriage/divorce.
        What you are trying to say is that following the theory of evolution, few Christians believe in the Christian religion, as taught by the church for 2000 years, any more. I suspect that is the case – but Christians have to believe in the Bible – or not be Christians. Otherwise they water it all down, just as the bishop does here, to “just being a nice person” – which is what you mean by “proclaiming the teaching of Christ”, although you empty that teaching of all meaning.

        • Tom Tom

          Fergus seems to think Saul of Tarsus was the one true god and that his dominance of the New Testament is superior to the Old Testament. There are only 5 gospels where Jesus is mentioned and they are covering a period of 33 years whereas the old Testament covers 6000 years. He also ignores the fact that the Sabbath was Saturday until the Romans changed it to Sunday

          • Fergus Pickering

            I think Saul of Tarsus was an arsehole, actually. I’m sure Jesus would have concurred though he’s be too nice to say so. Lots of religions have damn fool books attached. Only Christianity has JC, their trump card.

            • Tom Tom

              So what is it about the Galilean you find so convincing Fergus ?

            • David Webb

              You’ve missed my point: the bishop of Buckingham is – in my eyes – embezzling church funds by picking up a salary and not being a Christian himself. Queen Anne’s Bounty and the various donations to the church over centuries form the basis of the monies stewarded by the Church Commissioners – and I would like to see the Church Commissioners imprisoned for fraud! Because handing this money round to pagans and heretics is certainly not what the money was built up for.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Do you know any Catholics? They really don’t bother with the Bible much. All this Bible-bashing is a Protestant thing designed to undermine the power of the priesthood. And do you NOT know any Christians who acept that Adam and Eve is just a tale? Your acquaintance must be strangely circumscribed.

          • Tom Tom

            Catholics are bound to The Church, Protestants are not

      • Tom Tom

        You are clearly not a Christian. Jesus was an Orthodox Jew who knew Leviticus and most of his words came from Leviticus. You are a pagan if you deny God, that was the whole message of Jesus Christ

        • Fergus Pickering

          Jesus wasn’t a Christian, as you say. He was a Jew. Educated Greeks knew great chunks of Homer. But they didn’t believe it.

  • GUBU

    ‘Dr Alan Wilson is the Bishop of Buckingham’.

    And there, in a nutshell, is the problem….

  • the viceroy’s gin

    How can the Church of England, pragmatic and volunteer-led but with
    complex legal and cultural structures, stay meshed with its culturally
    incompatible overseas churches



    You should get out more, parson.

    Yes, most of the Christian world is incompatible with you CoE squishes, but it isn’t for the reasons that you imply here. They reject you, but it sure ain’t because you’re moving too slow on homosexual marriage.

    Suggest you hew more to the word “heretic”, if you’re seeking explanation for what they think of you types.

  • DN

    Religion does not have an obligation to “smart phones, social media” or the “social tsunami” (I love how Bishop Wilson included “education” in this mix – as if this would confer legitimacy to the mercurial nature of the other criteria that have shaped his moral code).

    Religion has an obligation to the truth. For Christianity, the truth is that God rejects homosexuality (see Romans 1, 1 Timothy 1 – all New Testament books). As such, a Christian’s duty is to communicate that truth in a compassionate way, recognising that homosexuality is 1) just as serious as all the other sexual sins that heterosexual people commit; 2) another symptom of our rejection of God’s authority over our lives; and 3) meaningless as a sin, if we don’t see it in the larger context of people’s need for Christ.

    All very politically incorrect. But truth has no obligation to political correctness. Just truth. If people want to reject the Christian version of truth, and embrace something more palatable, so be it. But better for Christians – and especially church leaders – to communicate the truth of the gospel, than to be labelled a false teacher by God and be turned away at the gates.

  • Tom Tom

    Just a question. Is Alan Wilson the Bishop of Buckingham ?

  • tom w huxley

    The Church needs to find new things to obsess about rather than the narrow issues of state spending and sexual orientation. They need to return to what they used to be good at, namely giving guidance to ordinary people how best they can live their lives, and giving help, where needed, to those less fortunate in society (rather than praying the state would solve all these problems).

  • Kevin Thiessen

    It is subtle, but we see Godwin’s Law in effect here. Why can’t liberals resist comparing their opponents to Hitler.

  • HookesLaw

    Bigots of the world unite – in the coffeehouse.

    • Tom Tom

      Why don’t you go elsewhere you bigoted fool ?

  • Sigfridii

    Yet another Bishop who looks for the truth in the opinion polls rather than in the bible.

  • Jebediah

    The Church of England needs to make a decision and then stick to it. Stop whining and wibbling. Remember your core mission: Promote Christianity to the non-Christian and strengthen Christianity in the Christian community.
    I’m agnostic, but I can see a crap not fit for purpose institution when I see it.

  • Paul

    Bishops* in the Church of England ought to be less bothered about what wider society thinks of them and more concerned about what God thinks of them. They cry ‘peace, peace’ where there is no peace.

    *with a few exceptions

    • Clive Holland

      Perhaps there is no God to care what they think.

      • Nele Schindler

        Perhaps there is?

      • Tom Tom

        Perhaps you do not exist ?

  • tele_machus

    If this is the best leadership the Church of England can manage then it does not deserve to be the Church of England any more. The sooner the liberal elite at the top of this organisation are replaced by those with a traditional Christian Faith the better. What next will this pseudo-Church support? Polygamy? Incest? If the measure of morality is whether or not people accept something then there is no need for the Church of England at all and it has no moral authority.

  • James

    I’m far more concerned about the religion of peace and their culture war against civilisation as we know it, but I guess those worries must be swept under the carpet.

    • Abhay

      Good point. ‘Religion of Peace’ and its radical machinations against civilisation should be centre-stage. It cannot be allowed to win at all. But it won’t happen unless its dealt a blow at the level of ideas. In that CoE should play a role rather than yield ground.

      I have also said in my other post that its time for Europeans (including the British) to start getting familiar with their ancient spiritual attitudes and sensibilities (Indo-European cultural traditions). There is an enormous amount of research and scholarship now on the subject.

      That would be needed in the clash of civilisations.

      • James

        The problem is that our leaders have no interest in religion and the only faith they have is greed. Therefore, they sell out to the Middle East and Asia who do trade deals on the basis of Islamic education that undermines christianity.

        • Abhay

          James, in the battle of ideas the West will need allies. Not all of Asia is anti-West and Islamic and can be very useful allies of the West. I can think of several Asian countries – Japan, Thailand, Korea, India. These are not minor geopolitical players.

          • James

            Agreed. But it hasn’t stopped us selling ourselves out to the Saudi’s or other geopolitical giants.

            • Abhay

              I agree with you. I am quite depressed about some western leaders’ love for Wahabist thug-princes from Saudi Arabia. That ‘love’ cuts across right and left.

              • James

                Greed, oil and money motivate our western leaders to abandon human values to help achieve Wahhabism.

                • Abhay

                  Wahabist tendencies should be resisted at all levels – cultural, ideological, political and, if need be, military.

                • James

                  This is the problem – they own our military. Unless someone discovers an alternative to oil it will be the case.

                • DaisyDaisyNotSoLazy

                  Including the tendency by publications like this, to delete popular messages at the demand of religious lunatics. The price of hard-won, precious freedom of speech appears to be very low in Britain these days. Farage for PM!

                • Abhay

                  Did they delete your message?

                • DaisyDaisyNotSoLazy

                  Every single one of my messages when I was lazier than I am now, has been deleted. Obviously, some of us are more equal than others.

              • Tom Tom

                Love of Money is the root of all evil

          • Tom Tom

            China will be the largest Christian nation on earth

            • Abhay

              Still unlikely to be a friend of West

              • Chris Marker

                Just woo WIlhelm and you shall a menage a trois. 😀
                Also, with Abhay, you’ll have the added benefit of a more multicultural identity.
                A spicy indian.

                • Abhay

                  The spice is alright!
                  But I am absolutely opposed to multi-culti. I want no part of it.

      • DaisyDaisyNotSoLazy

        Absolutely. The Religion of Peace – backed by the twittering supporters of a ideology which was even considered by it’s founder to be so anti-populist that it could only ever be introduced by force and sustained by oppression – is long overdue an overthrowing. Of course, we all believed that religion had long been separated from the state but apparently, we are once again supposed to accept and be controlled by the insane ravings of people who believe – rather in the manner of the Yorkshire Ripper – that they receive instruction directly from their Imaginary Friend. The C of E, which is, I believe, a genuinely benign organisation (in as much as any can be) follows the teachings of a young Jewish existentialist whose logic on the subject of religious oppression and love for our fellow man can hardly be faulted. With that influence, together with a recognition and understanding of our deeper spiritual roots, which reflect a more ancient and heartfelt native culture than that which was imposed by Rome, we would be far more able to keep Islam in the Loony’s Corner where it belongs.
        PS – I wonder how long it will be before an Islamist throws a hissy fit and insists that all my comments are deleted – again?

  • Tom Tom

    The Church of England needs Schism so a real Protestant Church can develop. this Erastian Church needs consigning to the scrap-heap. It is devoid of the principles of BCP1662 and is not really in any sense a Christian Church, more an adjunct of The Home Office and Rotary. in essence, it is little more than Rotarians

    • the viceroy’s gin

      It more resembles a quango than a service organization like Rotary.

      But yes, it needs to be paid off and consigned.

    • dalai guevara

      Bingo, Henry 8’s conceptual model has finally been outlived.