As the Archbishop of Canterbury has reminded us more than once, we are experiencing a cultural revolution in the area of public attitudes to sexual morality. The pace of change has been rapid. I am not yet 50 years old. When I was born, homosexual sex was illegal; now, in two weeks time, people of the same sex will marry, accompanied by celebrations all over the country here in the UK. The change has not evolved gradually, but has happened as part of a deliberate campaign. The change has been carefully controlled, by using media, the law and even science to promote the new ideas.
The changes have been rapidly accepted: importantly by people with power and influence, and then filtering down to the general population. The message has been imposed through a combination of relentless teaching and threats of punishment for resisting. And there is a real belief that the changes are wholly positive and part of the progress of civilisation.
In the face of this remarkably successful campaign, how has the church responded? By and large, we have seen targeting, analysis, paralysis, and division. After looking at each of these in turn, we’ll see if we can discern any signs of hope.
It is a paradox that though one of the tenets of the media narrative about the church is its irrelevance, it is deemed relevant enough to be relentlessly targeted in the campaign for full ‘gay rights’. Why should it matter to the majority of gay people and those who support the successful campaign for full ‘equality’ what the church believes or does? And yet it clearly does matter, as these articles in today’s Daily Telegraph and Guardian show, together with the stream of comments.
Why have the newspapers found space for these opinions? Because a church which conforms to secular humanism’s diktats remains usefully irrelevant and is a poodle rather than a lion. Would they print an article with the opposing view? A church which says “there is a higher authority than Caesar” is a counterrevolutionary threat, so if this view is given space, it is in order to ridicule and criticize it.
In the face of this, there has been a lot of analysis, including from this column. Much has been written, lots of coffee has been consumed in meetings. There has been hand wringing, petitions have been signed, letters to Bishops have been sent and statements have been made in response. But the short term future is ‘conversation’, of which the aim appears to be mutual respect and learning to live with difference. Of course analysis is useful in exposing wrong ideas, but talk must eventually result in decision and action. This is not happening, because of division (see below).
The focus on analysis has led to (or perhaps is because of?) paralysis among church leaders with traditional beliefs. Typically, there is no urgency. Marriage has been redefined with huge implications for the spiritual and moral health of the nation, and yet many otherwise biblically orthodox clergy are not sure there is a problem – especially since the Bishops have at least for the moment appeared to hold the line. There is little prayer, because of the influence of secularism which teaches us to rely on our management techniques rather than on God, because of the upsetting nature of the topic, and because of a lack of understanding about spiritual realities. “Oh yes, I will pray in general for the nation”, I have been told, “but not specifically about gay marriage”. There is no courage. Clergy tell me privately that they believe in what the Bible says about sex, but their priority is for hassle-free pastoral care, for unity in the congregation, and ultimately for their own livelihood. As a result there is a lack of good teaching in the congregations on this topic, and no action at local or national levels or support for others taking such action.
Of course not all churches in England have capitulated. Many are wanting to stand firm – and this brings division. The church is now irredeemably divided over homosexuality. The Gospel should be truth lived out in experience, but today ‘my story’ is ranged against propositional truth and right principles. Churches which should be based on the Word and oriented towards their communities are now choosing ‘community’ over against the Word. ‘Witness’ seen as cutting the cost of discipleship to get people into church is increasingly opposed to bearing witness to Christ at any cost. Words such as sin, the need for repentance and transformation are now applied more to people who do not approve of same gender sexual relationships, than to people in those relationships.
But also among those holding to a conservative position there are divisions. Should Christian sexual ethics be explained outside the community of faith? Should Anglicans protest against gay marriage outside registry offices, or the teaching of homosexual practice in schools? Could it ever be right (even if not canonically appropriate) to refuse sacraments to those who have entered a same sex marriage against pastoral advice? Should people with same sex attraction be enabled to seek skilled help to change if they so wish? What about the future of the Church – would it be a good thing to participate in facilitated conversations? Are there any circumstances in which it might be the best thing to form a separate Anglican administration, either linked to the Church of England or not? Is GAFCON the solution? All of these questions separate the confessing C of E Anglicans.
Is there any evidence for hope in all of this? Here are three examples of bucking the trend. One, a statement from the Committee of the Evangelical Group on General Synod was recently made public. Even though this does not represent a “position paper” endorsed by all the members, the statement is intended to give a firm steer to Anglican Evangelicals and is evidence of unity in urgency and courage if not plans for action (these may or may not be being discussed behind the scenes). Two, senior leaders of large churches and influential ministries are beginning to recognize privately that the strategy of just telling people about Jesus but not addressing sexual morality has led to the emergence of a new generation of young churchgoers who worship with hands in the air and pray passionately for social justice issues, but who are sexually immoral – and that this is dangerous for the church’s future. Three: teaching on gender and sexuality from a countercultural biblical perspective is taking place, notably in conservative evangelical churches with student congregations.
Admittedly these ‘signs of hope’ are pretty thin when ranged against the power of (and the ‘powers behind’) the revolutionary forces. But while the Church of England still officially says “no” to same sex marriage, the message of God’s plan for sexuality is being taught from pulpits, and communities of believers are looking to God and one another to help them live holy lives. Among English Anglicans there is still an authentic faithful people for God to work with.
The Rev. Andrews is Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream.