Thursday, 27 July 2017

50 years legal: what the Archbishops should have said

The Archbishops' statement on the legalisation of homosexuality was incredible in its insensitivity
The last few months have been very promising indeed for the state of the Church of England. Back in February, General Synod rejected a House of Bishops report on human sexuality that affirmed a status quo position on LGBT rights, and earlier this month a whole slate of progressive motions were passed by Synod, committing the Church to a more inclusive stance on transgender issues, licensing the creation of liturgies to welcome people after their transition, and backing a ban on gay conversion therapies. Finally, liberal voices appear to be winning the arguments of the day, and the Church hierarchy is responding. Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool and one of the more progressive figures in the House of Bishops, has become a patron of his city's Pride festival, and in the Synod debate on banning gay conversion treatments, one of the most powerful speeches in favour of a ban came from the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, a man who is hardly known for his liberalism.

The Church is certainly moving in the right direction, and with the Scottish Episcopal Church recently voting to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies to be held in its churches, it is not inconceivable that the Church of England may follow the lead of their more progressive cousins north of the border. Despite his evangelical background, Justin Welby has proven to be a leader who is willing to move the Church in the right direction, and although he remains formally opposed to same-sex marriage one wonders whether he holds a more inclusive view in private. However, none of this progress was on display today, as the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement to mark the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality in England.

In almost every conceivable way, this was a statement that was utterly tone deaf and insensitive. I will examine the statement paragraph by paragraph, and lay out what the Archbishops should have said:

"Today is the 50th Anniversary of the Act of Parliament passed in 1967 which decriminalised homosexual acts in our Country. The Church of England, led by Archbishop Ramsey, was supportive of the Sexual Offences Act."

The opening paragraph of the statement, this is perhaps the most insulting part; not for what it says, but for what it neglects to mention. The Church of England may have supported the legalisation of homosexuality, but by putting this at the front and centre of the statement the Archbishops immediately attempt to position the Church on the right side of the debate, rather than acknowledge the incredible amount of pain that the Church has caused (and continues to cause) in its rejection of full LGBT equality. A bit of humility, and even an apology for using Scripture to deny every subsequent step forwards - on everything from gay adoption to civil partnerships and same-sex marriage - would have been nice.

"In January 2016 the majority of the leading Archbishops of the whole global Anglican Communion - almost 80 million people in 165 countries - confirmed the longstanding view of the Communion that diminishing and criminalising homosexual people is wrong."

The second paragraph makes the same mistake as the first, using one fairly limited example of progressive thinking to whitewash the Church's stance. The Archbishops would have been better off apologising for the fact that, at that same 2016 meeting of Church leaders, the Anglican Communion took the decision to suspend their most progressive member - the US Episcopal Church - for its acceptance of same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy. This was a decision that was greatly influenced by pressure from Anglican bishops in Africa, Asia and elsewhere who have worked with their governments to craft draconian laws prohibiting homosexuality.

"The Church, not just the Church of England, but all those who follow Jesus Christ and whose lives are committed to his worship and service, has very often been defined by what it is against. It has condemned many things, and continues to do so, very often correctly, for example when they involve the abuse of the poor, or the weak, or the marginalised. The Church is called more to be identified by what it loves, most of all by its pointing to Jesus Christ, not merely by what it condemns. Many people who have nothing to do with the institutional church and who seldom, if ever, attend it, nevertheless see in Jesus Christ someone of startling and extraordinary attraction. Many homosexual people follow Christ, drawn to him by his love and his outstretched arms welcoming all those who turn to him."

This is the most acceptable paragraph; indeed, the sentiments it expresses are very welcome. However, whilst acknowledging the presence of LGBT Christians within the Church, it offers them little in terms of active acceptance and still falls short of recognising and apologising for the pain that the Church's positions have caused.

"One of the things he said has been much on our minds recently: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). There is no human being to whom this does not apply. Every single one of us needs to lay our burdens on Jesus. For every single one of us, the burden that is most onerous, most difficult to bear, is the burden of what the Bible calls our sin, our failure to live as we ought, our continued falling short of the mark. It is the universal characteristic of being human that we are sinners."

This is where things get particularly unpleasant, with the statement moving from naivety and a somewhat arrogant lack of humility to the overt use of the language of sin. Having read and re-read these words several times, I still cannot understand why the Archbishops felt the need to talk about sinful behaviour and 'our failure to live as we ought.' Surely they're not implying that the LGBT community are sinners because of their sexuality or gender identity? This language - the language that we are all sinners, and homosexuality is just one of many sinful practices - is the exact language used by conservatives to appear accepting whilst continuing to preach that same-sex relationships 'fall short of the mark.'

"Sin is not a characteristic of a particular group of people. Sin is the same for all of us. And the challenge to take onto ourselves the obligation to be yoked with Christ, to bear the load he gives us, is the same for all of us. This day of anniversary of the 1967 Act is one when the Church in this land should be conscious of the need to turn away from condemnation of people as its first response. When we rightly celebrate what happened 50 years ago today, we do so best by turning to him and saying, 'Yes, we take your yoke on our shoulders with you.'"

This final paragraph reinforces the idea that homosexuality is one of many sins, and that whilst it shouldn't be singled out for criticism it should be recognised as such.

This statement was a great opportunity for the Archbishops to demonstrate just how far they were moving the Church. It could have reflected the words of Bishop Paul Bayes at Synod, who categorically stated that homosexuality is not a sin to be cured. It could have gone on to state that homosexuality should never have been a crime in this country, whilst recognising that over the past half-century the Church has consistently lagged behind society in its acceptance (or lack thereof) towards LGBT people. It could have even been used to put forward a radical and bold announcement of support for same-sex marriage in church, a tactile and practical expression of remorse for the homophobia that has plagued the Church. Instead it doubled down on the outdated bigotries of the past, incorporating the language of sin that has been used to ostracise LGBT Christians for so long.

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