In a recent essay published by the progressive church website Modern Church, The Very Rev’d Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, has offered a broad critique of the Church of England and the leadership of current the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He opens by exploring the possibilities open to the CoE and the Anglican Communion on issues of human sexuality and marriage equality, offering a pretty good analogy to aid in understanding his point.
other churches have faced the divisive issue of sexuality with a bit more nuance. The Church of Scotland, for example, deemed that same-sex relationships were a ‘matter of liberty of conscience, guaranteed by the Church, on matters that do not enter into the substance of faith’. Here, the question of same-sex relationships was left to the liberty of conscience of individuals, congregations and their ministers.
Thus, a few might say that they cannot support same-sex relationships, and never will. But a quieter majority of others might think otherwise, and therefore affirm such relationships. The liberty of conscience applied here is still a matter of beliefs and practice, but not one that ultimately divides members of the church, who are all mutually affirmed as still ascribing to the core substance of Christian faith.
That carefully worded phrase, which was supposed to bring peace to the Church of Scotland, almost succeeded. Almost. The intention in the drafting of the ‘liberty of conscience’ clause was to accommodate revisionists and traditionalists alike, liberals and conservatives. In many ways, it aped that beloved Anglican ideal – an ‘ecclesial DNA’ of inclusive dynamic conservatism that characterises the polity of the church.
Unfortunately for the Kirk, however, when the debate on sexuality took place at the General Assembly in 2014, the ‘traditionalist’ line was reaffirmed as the normative-default position. Although the Kirk subsequently permitted congregations and ministers to opt out if they wanted to affirm civil partnerships. This was done to ‘keep the peace of the church’, of course – and avoid an unholy row.
That was a pity, because there are two problems with this compromise, and they are ones that the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Anglican Primates, would do well to avoid next month. First, the concession maintains discrimination and perpetuates an injustice against lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and so runs contrary to the spirit of the 2010 Equality Act in the UK. Second, and despite initial appearances, the two interpretations of ‘liberty of conscience’ are not in fact symmetrical. They appear to be chiral, so to speak; but there is one crucial difference to note.
And here, an allegory may be helpful. There is a world of difference between going to an ordinary restaurant and requesting a vegetarian option, and going to a vegetarian restaurant and asking for a steak, medium-rare. The first scenario is fine and has sense – no decent restaurant menu is without vegetarian options. But we would rightly regard the second scenario as non-sense. Indeed, potentially rather offensive to vegetarians – and entirely against the spirit of the restaurant.
Yet by making heterosexual relationships the exclusive and traditional default position, the Kirk effectively chose this second scenario. The relatively small numbers of traditionalists and conservatives who reject same-sex unions and gay marriage in churches, are, in effect, dictating the menu for everyone else.
In this allegory gay people are fully part of the mainstream of the population. The majority are usually quite happy to eat vegetarian food; just not all the time. But that same majority would not think of insisting vegetarians occasionally ate meat. That would be non-sense.
He also calls upon the CoE to take some responsibility for spreading homophobia across the globe during Britain’s era of imperialist expansion.
Here, it might be time for some home truths. In 41 of the 53 countries within the British Commonwealth, homosexual conduct is still regarded as a serious crime. This categorisation and legal stigmatisation of homosexuality was largely ‘made in England’ in the nineteenth century, and imposed on cultures and emerging countries and that had not been, hitherto, homophobic. This is one of England’s less wholesome exports. The Archbishop of Canterbury could begin the Primates’ meeting by accepting responsibility for the part the Church of England has played in perpetrating this discrimination and the subsequent injustices – and publicly repenting of them.
He also calls into question, the idea that conservative Christianity is thriving, especially in the global south; also calling into question the perceived “clout” that many conservatives claim following from that idea,
But a new study by the Spanish Anglican academic, Daniel Munoz, suggests that in the geography of worldwide Anglicanism, the evidence claimed for the number of Anglicans is questionable. The Church of England counts 25 million members; in Nigeria, the figure is 18 million. But in both cases, actual numbers attending every Sunday are a small fraction of this. The claimed numbers are unreliable – perhaps deliberately exaggerated to acquire leverage in debates.
The actual asserted ‘core membership’ of Anglicans in many African countries may be no more dependable than it is for the Church of England. In contrast, figures for the USA and Canada may be more robust. So the received wisdom – that the future lies with the majority, growing, surging churches of the global south – may not be as trustworthy as some assume. The Church of England has plenty of recent cause to be suspicious of spurious statistics that are used to shape policy and polity. Conservative Christianity is not the only brand of faith capable of withstanding the onslaught of modernity.
The rather expansive essay touches on several other points, and includes some thoughts on the future of the Communion. You can find the original post here where there is a download (pdf) of the entire essay. It has also drawn a thoughtful response from Peter Carrell at Anglicans Down Under here and here.