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Sunday, October 19, 2003

QUO VADIS C OF E? It’s Sunday, so it must be time to think about the church - the obvious alternative if you are not actually going to go there. David Aaronovitch, whose entire personal experience of organised religion consists of being inside a synagogue no more than three times in his life while coincidentally a service was being conducted, is not a man I would instinctively turn to for analysis of the Church’s current predicament over gay bishops, but he’s spot on anyway:

So, just as the Catholic legacy leaves them today with a half-dead pontiff, the legacy of schism finds this nation with an established church founded on expedience. The Church of England is pleasant and safe and concerned to remain pleasant and safe.
Left to itself, the Church in England would probably get round to ordaining actively gay bishops over the next 10 years or so. It might even sanction sex before marriage, within the context of loving relationships. That's the way things are going in this country. Women have become priests and the result has not been hell-fire, but rather The Vicar of Dibley and the balancing departure of Ann Widdecombe.
This, Rowan Williams surely knows. The problem is all these offshoots to the Church of England that arose out of a third legacy, that of Empire. The Episcopalians of New Hampshire now want an openly gay bishop. They are, however, quite prepared to live with those parts of the Church who prefer their ordained homosexuals either to suffer or to lie. The African bishops and their allies, itseems, are not prepared to take such a traditional Anglican position, and have pressed for the Americans to retract or to be declared 'out of communion'. Although they hail from a continent ravaged by heterosexual Aids, they are jetting round the world to ensure that there isn't a gay bishop in New Hampshire.

On balance I probably share Aaronovitch’s conclusion:

And yet I wonder whether he [Rowan Williams] would not command more respect by stating his own convictions and arguing for them. He will, after all, eventually have to tell the African bishops the truth. Which is that, as he surveys the world, the greatest problems are not those caused by having gay vicars.

The risk is of course a schism. Ok, so you could easily argue for taking that risk to let the Church progress, but the Observer’s leader gives a few good reasons why liberals should be a little more patient (after all, we will get there eventually):

. . . traditional Anglican liberal pragmatists, of whom the Archbishop is one, countenance reform for good Anglican reasons - including that the Church should stay connected to the mores of the civil society it spiritually represents.
But the Church has a greater vocation; it is to faith, God and to spreading the word of God - a vocation that secular critics cannot really understand. This is why it recruits clergy and why it functions as an institution at all. Unity and sharing the same interpretation of scriptures are institutional imperatives. The Church's priority therefore has to be to prevent schism, rather than accommodate society's tolerance of homosexuality.
This is the dilemma with which Rowan Williams wrestles, even though he knows hostility to homosexuality is fundamentally unChristian. . . . If the African and Latin-American Anglican bishops warn darkly of being unable to share the same communion as Hampshire's Canon Gene Robinson if he is made a bishop, that is because they represent more intolerant traditions of faith.
Ultimately sexual tolerance must spread to the less developed world. The issue, therefore, is of time. It follows that the best outcome is to maintain the union of the Church while it painfully moves towards accepting homosexual bishops. This is the desirable ultimate outcome, even if it takes a generation to accomplish, as Archbishop Williams knows. It is also in the long-term interests of gay priests to look towards a time when they can represent a unified Anglican Communion, rather than a fragment of it.

Not to be outdone the Torygraph gave a voice to otherwise abominable A N Wilson, who also counsels against schism:

This is very far from being the first time that Christians have decided to split over some matter of supreme importance to themselves and of only marginal interest to everyone else. Many of us will feel sad because we think of Anglicanism as a force for good in the world. In the overcrowded cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was Anglicansim which brought decent schools to the poor and which in the persons of such figures as Father Jellicoe, the brother of the admiral, housing for thousands. It was the Anglican Christianity of the Mirfield fathers in Southern Africa that began the great fight against apartheid. Trevor Huddleston's Naught for your Comfort was a book which alerted millions round the world to the evil of what was happening in South Africa. Only Anglicanism could have nourished T S Eliot or John Betjeman.
Anglicanism's gentleness, its intellectual seriousness, its passionate decency, its sense of beauty and order, both liturgical and social, are rare qualities which the world needs.

. . .

There are certain things you try not to do, if you are religious, because they are forbidden rather than because you believe them to be morally wrong. No Jew thinks it is sinful to eat a bacon sandwich, though many Jews believe it is forbidden by covenant. It is sinful to commit a murder or to grind the faces of the poor. Sexual conduct is surely on the same level of seriousness as eating a bacon sandwich, and we might have hoped that nowadays, given the diversity of human life, the Church would have chosen to shut up about sex.

On the other hand, if you really want something serious to think about religious-morals-wise, give this a try, though be warned it’s quite depressing.

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