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Epitaph for an Archbishop? For fear of sailing over the edge of the world, he never put out to sea April 7, 2014

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church, Current Affairs.
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NO, THE ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY hasn’t died; but he does seem to be doing a remarkably good job at digging his own grave, at least insofar as establishing good relations with the LGBTI community is concerned. In February — on St Valentine’s Day, to be precise — together with the Archbishop of York he signed off the House of Bishops’ now notorious Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage; last month he appeared to signal an end to the Church of England’s opposition to same sex marriage but offered no lessening or withdrawal of the restrictions placed upon clergy in that Pastoral Guidance; and now this month, in a phone-in on LBC radio (full transcript), he has outlined some of the thinking behind his own resistance to change: if the Church of England recognises same sex marriage, Christians in Africa will die.

This is flat earth thinking at its worst (or best, depending on your point of view), refusing to put out to sea for fear of sailing off the edge of the world — in this case, the refusal to put out to sea being the Archbishop’s resistance to same sex marriage in the Church of England and the edge of the world being Africa and the fear of further atrocities by extremist homophobes.

It’s the kind of slippery slope reasoning typified by the so-called Coalition for Marriage, C4M, driven by their fear of unintended consequences, and the moral equivalent of refusing to offer sanctuary to Jews during the Second World War for fear of Nazi reprisals; of refusing to take a stand against racism in apartheid South Africa for fear of worse oppression; of arguing that women ought not to be educated in the UK for fear of Taliban reprisals in India; or refusing to speak out for Palestinian land rights for fear of Israeli bulldozers demolishing homes — the list could go on and on, as the atrocities surely will, for those whose hearts are full of hate will always find reasons to justify their evil.

The dangers are real: all of these fears have at least some validity, but allowing them to hold sway over our decisions is not the way of Christ, who gave his own life rather than capitulate to prejudice and hate; more than that, who called his followers to take up their cross and follow him. That Christians will die is a given, given by Christ himself, but that does not make the scenes the Archbishop has witnessed any less a tragedy.

Archbishop Justin Welby is a man with a massive heart, a heart for the poor, for the oppressed and the underdog, evidenced most recently by the launch of the Listen to God: Hear the Poor initiative with Cardinal Vincent Nichols. As I noted with reference to the House of Bishops, he is right in what he affirms, but wrong in what he denies: he is right to be appalled and he is right to call us to awareness of possible global consequences; but he is wrong to allow fear of those consequences to counter right action. Refusing to do what is right for fear of others doing what is wrong paves the way for evildoers to continue with their evil and it can never be the way of Christian thinking or living: to quote Kes (aka Rebel Rev), the priest who asked the question that led to the Archbishop’s remarks, “What Justin said put the power in the hands of the oppressors and those who wield violence.” (Rebel Rev lives up to her name).

But here in the Church of England in England, this leaves us with a deep seated problem: we have an Archbishop who has publicly stated his belief that sexual relations are for marriage and that marriage is between a man and a woman, but who also says that there must be no predetermined outcomes to the Church’s ongoing conversations about human sexuality; who has signed off a document — the Pastoral Guidance — that denies his fellow priests the right to follow their conscience but which caters specifically to his own; and the reason the conservative conscience must take priority over the progressive conscience is fear.

Thus we have an Archbishop who perceives himself not as refusing to do what is right for fear of others doing what is wrong but as refusing to sanction what he believes to be wrong and backing up that refusal for fear of possible consequences elsewhere, exacerbated further by a failure to recognise his attitude as homophobic: homophobia kills; he and the House of Bishops merely hold reservations. He most likely would not recognise this statement, but it is as if he has said, “Let us show solidarity with Africa’s homophobes in the hope that they will see that our homophobia is nicer and moderate their behaviour accordingly.” And that, of course, will never work: instead, Africa’s homophobes will — indeed, do — perceive the Church of England’s position as weakness whilst theirs is strength. Thus holding back on full equality here in England has the very opposite effect to that which ++Justin hopes for: rather than moderate their behaviour, Africa’s homophobes dig in their heels, turn up the heat and expect us to follow their lead.

There can only be one way through such a brick wall and that is enlightenment by God. That enlightenment will come, as it came for me, when those opposed to equal marriage see that their fear and prejudice are groundless. It will come not by our screaming, shouting, denouncements and ad hominem attacks against a man caught between the cliff of conservative resistance and the tide of progressive opinion but rather by our willingness to follow Christ regardless of personal cost, by our willingness to show love, to show the better way.

It will come not by calling for ++Justin Welby’s resignation but by prayerful engagement; by those in favour of equal marriage demonstrating that God is, indeed, with us; that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of LGBTI believers in exactly the same way as in the lives of all other Christians; by showing that God does not condemn but accepts all of us just the way we are, regardless of sexual orientation; and further, that God does not curse but blesses those committed to loving, faithful marital relationships, regardless of gender difference or identity.

Christ’s message is twofold: first of all, he bids us trust in God, fear not, for he is in the boat and it won’t go down; but then comes another storm and another challenge: suddenly he is not in the boat but out there in the storm, inviting us, like Peter, to risk all, to step out of the boat and walk with him among the wind and the waves of uncertainty. It is as if he says, Who dares wins — but not so, for Jesus says, Who loves wins; it is love that conquers fear, it is love that brings courage, it is love that wins.

Pray, then, with me for Archbishop Justin’s eyes to be opened. Pray that he will discover that love which drives out all fear, and in particular drives out his fear of where it might all end, his fear of sailing over the edge of the world — for the world is not flat, as some suppose, and the answer to that question of where it will all end is this: back at home, when we have circumnavigated the globe (not without some adventure, danger and yes, even death, along the way) and returned to safe harbour, to Jesus himself, the one who is Lord of the Church and who is able, more than able, to keep his Church from falling.

And pray too for our brothers and sisters in Africa…

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