FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

GAFCON: Schism and the Repudiation of Homosexuality 29 June 2008

How significant are differences in belief about openly gay clergy and church blessings of gay unions? Very significant if you consider that such things are said to form part of a “false gospel”, and have contributed to the formation of an alternative episcopal hierarchy in the Anglican Communion at the GAFCON conference, which ended in Jerusalem today.

The gay issue has naturally dominated much of the press coverage of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference). However, this movement is about much more than mere disagreements about marriage and sexuality, important though they are. It’s also about evangelical Anglicans, and those from developing countries (particularly Africa), finally making a break from a church whose compromises between evangelicalism, liberalism and catholicism are rooted in a long history (including the history of British imperialism) and in the moral uncertainties of modern Western society. These compromises and ambiguities are no longer perceived to be necessary or relevant to a confident African Christianity and a militant evangelicalism who base their certainties in Scripture and the traditional cornerstones of Anglican doctrine: the four Ecumenical Councils, the three Creeds, the Church Fathers, the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.

The first thing to be noted is that GAFCON is a schismatic movement. It tries to make out that it will be able to co-exist with the ‘official’ Anglican hierarchy, and that it is just a movement and alternative discipline within the Anglican Communion. However, it is taking the classic form of a schism: seeing itself as the representative of true Anglican-Christian orthodoxy, tradition and liturgy; and setting itself up as able to command authority over all the Anglican faithful by virtue of its claim to uphold the ‘true’ Gospel over against the ‘false’ Gospel that the official hierarchy is unable to confound. It is hard to see how a single Church could survive with two organisations and groupings of bishops competing against each other to be accepted as the very basis for unity, and of coherence of belief and practice, within the Church. The truth of the matter is GAFCON really seeks to supplant the established Church hierarchy and, in a sense, re-launch the Anglican Church as a whole – and not just one movement within it – on its own foundations. It will doubtless take many millions with it, who will believe that it is the ‘true’ Anglican Communion. Many millions will not follow, however, and will retain their allegiance to the established church that has the Archbishop of Canterbury loosely as its head.

The question I would wish to ask is this: will such a schism strengthen or weaken the Church’s witness on homosexuality? Is it more powerful for people to have radically differing views on sexuality within the same community of believers, or to take a stand on the issue to the extent of breaking up over it and forming separate churches? I ask this because I think that gay clergy and blessings are a bit of a straw man. Or should I say they’re being made out to be the ‘last straw’, the final outrage, that’s forcing the hand of the dissidents. But this is really a pretext, and it isn’t necessary to risk splitting up the Communion for the so-called conservatives to express their concerns and their opposition to what is being done in certain parts of the Communion, particularly in North America. This is a matter of discipline not of fundamental Church doctrine: the common Anglican teaching remains that gay clergy should not be in actively sexual relationships, that marriage is an exclusively heterosexual thing and that there is no such thing as an ‘official’ blessing ceremony for gay unions, although these may be carried out by clergy as private occasions.

Admittedly, there are many in the liberal wing of the Communion – and not just in Canada and the USA – who have more affirming views on homosexuality, and consider that loving gay relationships are a positive thing, indeed a gift from God. And such people might even go so far as to sanction gay marriage. However, these views are not the mainstream; and in any case, the traditional Anglican way has been to accept that there is a diversity of beliefs within the Church, reflecting the plurality of beliefs within society at large. The fact that in some churches, they preach that it’s all right for two male or female clergy to share each other’s bed has never up to now been thought to prevent other Anglican churches from believing and preaching diametrically opposing views and still to consider each other as Christian brothers, united in their search for God and for truth. But now, the new organisation is saying that people who advocate and practice such a “false gospel” can no longer be in communion with them: effectively, they would exclude them from their version of the Anglican Communion – they would be excommunicated, meaning they had put themselves beyond the redemption won for us by Christ.

It’s the fact that it isn’t really necessary to set up a dissident church within a church in order to disagree fundamentally with the liberals on these points, and continue teaching the opposite, that makes me think that the gay issue is merely a pretext for a split that the evangelicals and African churches involved have wanted for some time. In reality, it’s the only issue of substance that divides the new proto-church from the old. The statement of belief issued by GAFCON, the Jerusalem Declaration (see above link), is essentially no more than standard traditional Anglicanism that most Anglican believers would have no difficulty in embracing – deliberately so, as the new movement seeks to impose itself as the true Church. The gay issue is being made out to be more extreme and threatening than it really is (because, as I say, the majority of believers do not follow the ultra-liberal line) to justify a split that is ultimately about re-centring the Communion on evangelical principles: Scripture and a specifically conservative-Anglican acception of Tradition; as opposed to the Trinity of (evangelical) Scripture, (Catholic) Tradition and (liberal) Reason that has provided the foundation for the co-existence of multiple interpretations of the faith within the Anglican Communion hitherto.

Ultimately, the new movement is not interested in the gay issue: they simply want out, and want it out of the church. No actively gay person will be welcomed within their Anglican Communion. And it’s in this refusal to exercise the Church’s pastoral mission to its gay followers, as much as in the schism GAFCON is bringing about, that the bishops behind the new movement are failing in their duty to act as a focus for unity in the Church and a witness of God’s love to the world.


Gay Clergy Wedding: A Storm In a Vicarage Teacup? 17 June 2008

Is all the fuss that erupted yesterday over last month’s blessing of the gay civil partnership of two Church of England vicars just a storm in a teacup? Clearly not from the point of view of the many furious reactions from senior conservative figures in the Church. Some of these have called the ceremony blasphemous and have claimed it breaks church rules, which prohibit formal blessings of gay unions. The blessing service in question did apparently use many of the forms and words of a traditional, heterosexual marriage ceremony, while adapting it to the gay context. So, to all intents and purposes, it looked like a wedding even though it did not formally claim to be one, or even to be an official blessing.

I have quite a lot of sympathy with the conservatives, based on the fact that I believe in the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and regard it as something sacred, mysterious and revealed. And heterosexual. Marriage has been handed down to us as such in Scripture and Tradition, and – in Catholic belief – through the teaching Authority of the Church. And we cannot change holy matrimony, and expand it to encompass gay unions, just because we wish it to do so. True marriage is a sacred thing that needs to be upheld; above all, modern, secular society needs the Church’s witness to the sacred character of marriage in a world where marriages and families are constantly being torn apart through personal failings and social pressures. The ceremony that is at the centre of the present controversy went too far in reproducing a traditional marriage service, which could indeed undermine some people’s faith in and understanding of the uniquely sacred character of the union in marriage of a man and a woman. And it is highly disingenuous of the vicar who conducted the ceremony to claim that it wasn’t a marriage or a formal blessing, and that he has technically not broken any rules; because it’s clear that the ceremony was making a strong implicit statement that the gay union at its heart was in many ways morally and spiritually equivalent to a traditional marriage.

Yet, at the same time, are not many of the objectors also going too far? To me, the whole thing appears trivial on one level, and it’s futile to waste so much time and energy over it. How does the Church think that the secular world it is trying to bear witness to will react to all this indignation over a ‘marriage’ that no one is technically claiming to be a marriage anyway while, at the same time, many – perhaps most – people would now accept that gay couples should have the right to get married, albeit in a civil ceremony? The whole thing does a huge discredit to the Church in the eyes of many who might otherwise be sympathetic towards its defence of marriage and other traditional moral values. As if the Church didn’t have other far more important and urgent things it should be concerning itself with, such as the social and spiritual deprivation of so many in our society, and the elimination of wars, famine and disease, and their causes and effects. Obsessing so much about the gay issue just makes many people dismiss the Church as a quaint, outmoded irrelevance – more interested in ceremony and petty rules than substance.

So the ‘gay clergy marriage’ story is important, in that the integrity and sanctity of marriage needs to be defended; but not that important that we should lose sight of the Church’s primary mission: to witness to and enact God’s compassionate love in the world. So how should the matter be dealt with? Well, if the policy of the Church is that there can be no formal services of blessing for gay unions, then church premises and property should not have been used in such a public ceremony: any blessing that was given should have been done properly in private, consistent with the claims of the vicar who led the service that it was just a personal response to a request from friends. The vicar should have been quietly reprimanded and informed that if he carried out another blessing for a gay marriage in church premises again, tougher action would be taken. Meanwhile, private blessings, held in non-ecclesiastical surroundings, should be tolerated, just as the fact of clergy entering into civil partnerships themselves is tolerated on the condition that the couple remain celibate. The gay vicar couple at the centre of the dispute are both still exercising their ministry in the church; and, to be honest, if they are truly expected to remain celibate while living together as civil partners, then they really need the blessing of the Church and any grace that that might bring!

After all, it’s not as if the church is sanctioning any gross immorality by giving its blessing to faithful, monogamous gay relationships. If anything, surely, they are to be encouraged in preference to a life of promiscuity. Indeed, does it really discredit – or does it not in fact honour – the tenets of Christian marriage if gay couples wish to place their relationship within the framework of the exclusive lifelong fidelity that marriage demands? At the end of the day – or at the end of life – I feel sure that gay persons will be judged more on the extent to which they lived up to their commitments to one another than by the fact of making those commitments in the first place. And so long as the commitment that remains in the first place for all Christians, gay or straight, is the commitment to Christ, then we need not have any fear. And that includes the misplaced fear of conservative, straight opinion that is worrying more about these issues than about bringing God’s love to a world that is starving for it.

A storm in a teacup, maybe; but one with a ripple effect that diminishes the Church’s stature and impact beyond the vicarage walls.