It's a matter of life - not sex

October 10, 2003

Homosexuality in the Anglican Church is a big issue, but the increasingly rancorous debate over it risks making religion the preserve of fundamentalists and obscuring Christian wisdom on the importance of love and relationships, argues Jeremy Caddick.

"We don't do God," Alastair Campbell is reported to have interjected when a US reporter tried to ask Tony Blair about his religious beliefs. The danger in the Anglican Church's travails over the issue of homosexuality is not so much the threat of splits or schisms but rather that God will become even more something that "we don't do" as a society, and that religion will increasingly become the preserve of inward-looking fundamentalists.

Even for those who are not religious partisans, this would be unfortunate.

In the UK, the number of participants in organised religion has declined in recent years. But when we look beyond that decline at the problems that we face globally, communally and individually, it is clear that we cannot grapple with them effectively without an appreciation of the religious dimension in them all.

Commentators often link the current tensions in the Anglican Church to the rise in the influence of evangelicals. There is some truth in this, but it is by no means the whole story. Evangelical influence is nothing new; and evangelicalism is not a single undifferentiated movement. In the Church of England, the evangelical party has been gaining ground since the end of the second world war, and recent decades have seen a marked increase in the numbers of evangelicals appointed to senior positions.

Over this period, the church's informal strategy with respect to homosexuality - "Don't ask. Don't tell" - has allowed those of differing views to rub along tolerably well and has enabled the church to accommodate significant numbers of gay clergy. Evangelical bishops have reportedly appointed clergy whom they knew to be gay on the understanding that they would be discreet.

Both sides of this uneasy balance have shifted in recent years. On the one hand, those who support gay clergy have become increasingly impatient with the church's implied hypocrisy. The House of Bishops' 1991 report Issues in Human Sexuality was widely criticised for trying to apply double standards: gay relationships were permissible for lay people but not for clergy. In 1998, the weight of numbers of Anglican bishops from the third world impelled the Lambeth Conference, the gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world, to pass an unsympathetic resolution on homosexuality that seemed painfully at variance with the experience of many, particularly young people, living in the developed world.

On the other hand, evangelicals and traditionalists have seen their influence increasing at the same time as they have felt threatened by changes in society. Homosexuality has become a "line in the sand" issue, a touchstone of traditionalist orthodoxy, just at the time when the shift in the consensus about the recognition and acceptance of gay relationships seems to be gathering pace.

What's more, the fact that homosexuality is such a defining issue for evangelicals means that the debate can serve to mask the diversity within evangelicalism. Evangelicalism does not represent a single, homogeneous current in Christianity. As it has gained in influence in this country, evangelicalism has become more diverse. Some of this variety is long established, such as the distinction between the charismatics (those who value the gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues) and the rest.

Recent years have seen the emergence of several evangelical groups that seek real participation in mainstream church life and thoughtful engagement with aspects of modern culture.

The changing role of women in the church provides parallels to the debate over homosexuality. A generation ago, evangelicals would generally have agreed that there were scriptural grounds for saying that women should not exercise leadership in the church, but now there are many churches in the evangelical tradition that welcome the ministry of female clergy. It may be that, given enough time and the space to listen to the experiences of gay people, a proportion of evangelicals might shift their views, just as they have over women.

The defining feature of evangelicalism is its claim to be based on what the Bible says. This raises complex questions about what the Bible actually does say and about whether, and how much, the church can adapt to changing circumstances. Parts of the Bible undoubtedly say some pretty stern things about homosexuals, but parts (often the same parts) say equally stern things about the place of women and also (to 21st-century ears) some alarmingly permissive things about subjects such as slavery that we regard as unacceptable and barbaric.

This complexity is recognised by thoughtful Christians, including thoughtful evangelicals. In the Church Times , one evangelical bishop recently wrote: "To quote a text from Leviticus as though that settled all questions - as I have heard more than one evangelical leader do recently - is not a responsible use of Holy Scripture." Yet there are many who do use scripture in precisely this way, and it is probably here that the real danger lies.

It is not true that all evangelicals are fundamentalists, nor is it the case that all those who oppose a more positive attitude to gay sexuality are evangelicals, but fundamentalism gives bite to the debate. Next week's meeting at Lambeth Palace of primates from across the Anglican community worldwide will be significant in deciding whether the church dances to the fundamentalist tune. An unfortunate fact about all this huffing and puffing over sexual ethics is that it detracts from the contributions that religious networks such as the Anglican Communion make to global issues such as Aids and HIV, trade and justice, and dialogue with Islam and other faiths. The world needs such networks, and we need them to work well.

For all its appeal to traditional belief, fundamentalism is in essence a modern phenomenon. It is a blinkered reaction to modern secularism, without which it would not exist. One marker of fundamentalism in all its guises is that it sanctions struggle (or even holy war) against the modern world. The issue of homosexuality provides a handy focus for resistance. It is precisely because society at large is becoming more understanding of gay people that fundamentalists are so vehement.

Opposites often come to resemble each other, and there are many points of similarity between fundamentalist Christianity and the secular atheism that it purports to reject. Although denied vehemently by both sides, there is an unholy alliance between fundamentalists and atheists that threatens to choke more humane forms of religious expression. This can be seen in the interest that both have in privatising religious belief. Like other forms of Christianity, fundamentalism will speak of a living, personal relationship with the Saviour. When this is emphasised to the exclusion of all else, it will be welcomed by the atheist, who is only too happy to see religion banished to the private, inner realm, where it can be safely ignored.

As the Anglican priest Angela Tilby has commented, fundamentalists and atheists even resemble each other in reading the Bible in a literalistic and one-dimensional way. The fundamentalist does this as a measure of his or her commitment, like the White Queen who boasted that she could believe six impossible things before breakfast. The atheist reads the Bible literally to hold it up to ridicule, the better to be able to deny its truth or relevance. Neither does justice to the richness of biblical literature, and neither does justice to the radical challenge that the Bible poses for human living in every age.

This is a tragedy. When it comes to such issues as marriage and relationships, the church has a rich vision of human flourishing. Marriage, relationships and family life are all sufficiently difficult that thoughtful people of all backgrounds recognise the need to accept help on such matters wherever we can find it. The Christian views such relationships as grounded in the love of the creator God. That we are beings who love is not just an accident of evolution, it is the most fundamental thing about us, and about existence as a whole.

In the debate over homosexuality, we are taking our eye off the ball. By diverting ourselves with squabbles over which relationships are acceptable, we forgo the opportunity to share the Christian community's accumulated wisdom as to why relationships are important at all.

Jeremy Caddick is dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and editor, with Duncan Dormor and Jack McDonald, of Anglicanism: The Answer to Modernity , published by Continuum.

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