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.