Friday, 17 February 2017

A small step forward at General Synod

Could the Church of England be on the verge of embracing LGBT inclusion?
As decision-making bodies go, the General Synod of the Church of England is one of the more complex. Comprised of three houses - Bishops, Clergy and Laity -  and 467 individual members, this bureaucratic monster is responsible for overcoming the differences between the Church's warring factions and attempting to impose some form of coherent governance. Every kind of Anglican voice imaginable is represented; catholics and evangelicals, liberals and conservatives, and everything else in between. This makes consensual decision-making hard, a problem which is exacerbated by the fact that certain decisions can only be approved if they have the backing of a majority in all three houses. This makes progress painfully slow, as demonstrated a few years ago during the women bishops debate when the House of Laity vetoed the move to consecrate women despite the fact that over 70% of Synod members backed the measure. An instrument of revolutionary change, it is certainly not.

Nevertheless, the complexities of General Synod do sometimes work in favour of the Church's progressive voices. This week, as Anglicans gathered once again at London's Church House, the item at the top of the agenda was an old battleground that has pitted liberals and conservatives against each other for decades - LGBT rights. Last month, the House of Bishops produced a report on this issue in an attempt to clarify the Church's stance and provide some form of reconciliation between the factions, but ultimately the report turned out to be a classic Anglican fudge that pleased no one and left everyone feeling let down. Conservatives were concerned that the report recommended the provision of 'maximum freedom' to recognise same-sex relationships, whilst liberals were saddened that the bishops continued to rule out full equality; after all, what use is 'maximum freedom' when it must be exercised within boundaries that are hugely limiting?

For years, the Church of England has done a lot of talking on the subject of LGBT equality and a lot of apologising for its homophobic past, but time and again it has failed to recognise the homophobia that it continues to propagate today. LGBT Christians are made to feel like second-class citizens within the Church, and the bishops' report did not offer any real change to this situation beyond the usual shallow rhetoric; churches would still be prevented from hosting same-sex weddings, gay and lesbian priests would still be barred from getting married, and marriage would still be formally defined as being exclusively between a man and a woman. This thin gruel has never been enough for those who hunger for real change, and progressive Christians are no longer willing to swallow it.

The legal introduction of same-sex marriage in 2014 forced the Church to rethink its position on same-sex relationships, and in recent months the bishops have claimed to be listening to LGBT voices through the much-trumpeted 'shared conversations' that have occurred at diocesan level. Their report dashed any hopes of immediate reform, instead proving that the most intolerant voices continue to hold sway, but this week General Synod has rekindled the optimism of progressives by striking down the report. In a result which was a mirror image of the frustrating battles over women bishops, two of the three houses voted to 'take note' of the bishops' recommendations, but they were vetoed by the House of Clergy which voted 100 to 93 against. It is a result which highlights the deep divisions that exist within the Church on this issue, but it also provides fresh hope for a more inclusive future.

Speaking in response to the report's defeat, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called for a 'radical new Christian inclusion' centred on 'love, joy, and celebration of our humanity... without exception.' Such words are not particularly different from the usual language of inclusion that has proven to be so hollow when spoken by senior bishops, but maybe this time things will be different. After all, this was a decision that was made not by bishops, nor by the famously conservative House of Laity, but by the ordinary clergy who are sick and tired of being told that they cannot bless or marry same-sex couples. If Church leaders are serious about paving the way for greater inclusion, they must start by listening to their priests rather than continuing to issue edicts from above.

So what would this look like in practice? Well, the Church could start by giving clergy genuine freedom when it comes to celebrating same-sex relationships. Of course conservative congregations should not be forced to act against their beliefs, but those priests that do wish to bless or even marry same-sex couples should be allowed to do so. In the same way that incumbents can decide whether or not to marry divorcees, the matter of same-sex marriage ceremonies should be in the hands of individual clergy, a policy which would allow liberal churches and conservative churches to conduct themselves in accordance with their own beliefs.

Likewise, the Church needs to urgently rethink its approach to LGBT priests whilst acknowledging the pain that has been caused by the current policy. Although gay and lesbian clergy are allowed to enter into civil partnerships, they are officially barred from getting married to a same-sex partner and are obliged to make a formal vow of celibacy. Another half-hearted Anglican fudge drawn up to give the impression of being inclusive, this policy is insulting, degrading and inhumane, giving more zealously conservative bishops an excuse to poke their noses into the private lives of their clergy. Whilst we must accept that we are probably a long way off from full equality, we cannot be content with the hypocrisy of the existing system, a framework which propagates the view that sexual acts between two people of the same sex are somehow unnatural, ungodly or inappropriate.

The Church of England has a long way to go, and the rejection of the bishops' report is just a tentative step towards a more progressive and inclusive future. However, it was an important step nonetheless, and hopefully it will send a clear message to senior Anglicans who have falsely assumed that the status quo is sufficient to hold the Church together. Justin Welby and others can talk the talk when it comes to LGBT equality, indicating that they are willing to open the doors of the Church to everyone regardless of sexuality, but the time has now come for them to put those words into action and push for real change after years of meagre half-measures. The LGBT community, and indeed all progressive Christians, deserve much more than they are currently getting from their Church.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Fighting religious extremism in the age of Trump

All religions are prone to violence, something which can only be overcome through dialogue
In a nation as diverse and multicultural as Britain, dialogue and understanding between religions is surely something to be encouraged. Nevertheless, last month saw two British cathedrals become the target of a bitter backlash over elements of their interfaith work. In Gloucester Cathedral, a local imam kicked off the city's Faith Exhibition by performing the Muslim call to prayer within the chancel of this ancient Christian church, whilst 300 miles away in Glasgow, an Epiphany service in the city's Anglican cathedral attracted attention for containing a reading from the Qur'an. Indeed, the latter incident caused such controversy that the leader of the Scottish Anglican Church issued a statement claiming to be 'deeply distressed at the widespread offence which has been caused.' Are such episodes further proof of a dangerous liberalism that is eroding the central tenets of Western Christianity, or do they in fact point towards the possibility a more inclusive position for people of all religions and none?

I wholeheartedly take the latter view, and find it hard to understand why anyone would complain about people of different religions coming together and focusing on what they have in common rather than that which divides them. Too often we view interfaith work as a necessary evil, something that we as people of faith have to do in order to at least look like we care about promoting understanding and cohesion, but this lukewarm approach just will not cut it anymore. With each year that goes by, Britain is becoming a more diverse and pluralistic country, yet hostilities and prejudices between religious communities are rising; if we are to lead the way in promoting partnership and friendship between different religions, then we must engage in interfaith programmes which are bold and ambitious, even if we do ruffle a few feathers in the process.

Despite our diversity, Britain is not a good place to be a person of a minority faith. Islamophobia is a real phenomenon as people offload their rightful disgust at Islamic extremism onto the vast majority of British Muslims who are peaceful patriots, whilst British Jews face a staggering increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the country. The careless use of language by many on the political left when discussing Israel has served to legitimise such hostility towards the Jewish community, with anti-Semitism being renamed 'anti-Zionism' in an attempt to give it some kind of academic credence, and the result has been a recreation of the problems which plague the Middle East on the streets of Britain's largest cities. Instead of recognising one another as people of faith and fellow worshipers of the Abrahamic God, Christians, Muslims and Jews are too often locked in a seemingly endless cycle of distrust, suspicion and hatred. This is what really poses the greatest threat to the moral fabric of our pluralistic society.

As the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his wonderful book Not In God's Name, religious violence is not limited to one particular faith or creed. In the age of Trump, it is popular to assume that the problem lies solely with radical Islam, and a glance at the headlines would seem to vindicate that view. One cannot merely dismiss the actions of ISIS and other militant groups as being unrelated to Islamic thinking; after all, this was the approach of Barack Obama, who refused to publicly refer to radical Islam in the naive hope that doing so would reduce anti-Muslim sentiment. Instead, eight years of Obama's passivity produced President Donald Trump, a man who came to power by promising a 'total and complete shutdown' of Muslims entering the United States. We cannot ignore the relationship between radical and mainstream Islam - the two are not so far apart as many Western liberals would like to believe - but neither can we pretend that Islam is the only religion with a violence problem. All religions are prone to acts of unspeakable cruelty, a fact which is an inevitable by-product of belief in a higher power.

Just as every human is capable of performing acts of great love and altruism and acts of hatred and selfishness, the same is true with every major religion. At its best, faith inspires us to replicate the love of God, to become more fully human and to strive for justice here on earth, whilst also calling us towards lives of service and humility as we seek the divine and recognise the sacred in each other. These overwhelmingly positive aspects of religion represent what is good about belief in the supernatural, and they stand in stark contrast with the harshness of secular materialism which judges human life by how much one can accumulate rather than how much can be given away in the service of others. Nevertheless, there is a flip-side to religious belief, and as Rabbi Sacks points out it is one which is particularly prevalent within those monotheistic faiths that make exclusive claims about God. Instead of emphasising the common good and that shared humanity which cuts across sectarian lines, religion too often creates a divisive 'us and them' mentality, pitting a cleansed people against an 'unsaved' world whereby only the adherents of the correct doctrines will be allowed to enter the kingdom of Heaven. This is what fuels the brutal actions of ISIS, but it is also the same mindset that infects much of modern Christian discourse, grossly devaluing the sanctity of human life in the process. An exclusively Muslim phenomenon, it is certainly not.

If religion is to be a force for peace and understanding, transforming the world through the power of the sacred, we must follow the lead of Jonathan Sacks and other similarly enlightened thinkers within all of the great faiths by binning this theological dualism which creates suspicion and hatred just as much as the inflammatory rhetoric of the likes of Donald Trump. That isn't to say that we must turn our backs on the beliefs and principles which make up the core of our faith traditions, but we must reject any attempts to define God along narrow partisan lines. One of the ways we can start this process is by engaging with people of other faiths and discovering the sacred in those traditions which are alien to us; in other words, by continuing in the steps of those cathedrals in Glasgow and Gloucester. All creeds, holy books and theological doctrines have the potential to make people turn inwards, forming closed and exclusive communities, but the God of Love calls us to a life marked by radical friendship, limitless grace and extravagant generosity. By accepting this call, we have the potential to transform our divided world and to promote a sacred unity whereby all humans are recognised as the children of God.