Homophobia has split the Anglican Communion, says Andrew Linzey. Isn't it time for academics to speak out?
"Warning! Gospel preaching ahead" are the words that greet you if you visit the website www.godhatesfags.com. Just below, is an article titled "Thank God for the bombing of London's subway... wherein dozens were killed and hundreds seriously injured. Wish it was many more". And then comes the strapline: "England: Island of the Sodomite Damned". Even the hardiest among us may have difficulty in reading further without stomach tablets.
Doubtless the site is extreme, even for its type, but its hatred of homosexuals is echoed in conservative chatrooms on the web.
Difficult though it is for secularists to understand, many "orthodox", "conservative" and "evangelical" Christians exhibit a deep, visceral aversion to gays.
The words of the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot be gainsaid: there is "an awful lot of prejudice and bigotry" in the Church. But it isn't just a question of feeling. Attitudes to gays are fast becoming the litmus test of orthodoxy itself.
Until now, theologians have been noticeable for their lack of engagement in the debate, but with the publication of Gays and the Future of Anglicanism next week, the tide may at last be turning. In it, 22 theologians variously expose the authoritarian theology of the Windsor Report, commissioned by the Archbishop last year, which tries to impose one line on sexuality.
University departments of theology have hardly been robust in combating Christian homophobia. There are disturbing signs that some theological centres are embracing the orthodox anti-gay line to the point of excluding liberal teaching.
The Anglican Communion is in a mess. The consecration of one openly gay man as a bishop has caused a battle line to be drawn across the entire Communion. Those who support justice for gays are virtually deemed excommunicate; two provinces, Episcopal Church USA (Ecusa) and the Diocese of New Westminster, Canada, are suffering public suspension.
Some secularists may say that this is fair enough: "Don't join the club if you can't abide by the rules." But that overlooks the fact that Jesus said nothing about gay sex. There are no Anglican credal statements on sex, let alone same-sex relationships. The great ecumenical statements of Nicaea and Chalcedon make no reference to sexual behaviour. Even the comprehensive Thirty-Nine Articles do not touch on homosexuality, likewise The Book of Common Prayer .
The elevation of one view of sexual behaviour to the status of incontrovertible teaching so that it becomes the criterion of being in communion is without parallel, historical precedent, theological and moral justification - it is so preposterous that unless it had happened, it would scarcely be credible.
It goes without saying that Christians, Anglicans in particular, need to step back and take a long cool look at themselves. We need critical theology more than ever.
Why is it that the religion of the incarnation has such difficulty living with the flesh? Why is it that Augustinian notions of sex as unworthy, impure or even evil have been allowed to dominate Christian thinking for centuries? How is it that a triune God who delights in created diversity is apparently incapable of tolerating more than one expression of sexuality?
It is no use saying that the anti-sex line is "historic Christian teaching", like it or lump it. Historic teaching has also emphasised the subordination of women and the absolute rights of parents over children. It is tragic that a tradition that contains at its heart the notion of a teaching God should have become the captive of fundamentalists.
Will other academic theologians follow the example of the 22 and rise to the challenge of confronting homophobia? It is often said that theologians must attend more to the Gospel message. But the "Gospel" that inclines www.godhatesfags.com to hate gays has no connection with the Gospel preached by Jesus. Jesus identifies himself, and the cause of God, with suffering, disadvantaged, marginal humanity. "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matthew xxv, 35-36).
Jesus does not just commend charitable works, rather he makes care for the outcast the test of religiosity, and therefore righteousness. Once grasped, the persecution of gays is seen for what it is: a sub-Christian activity inimical to the teaching of Jesus.
Andrew Linzey is senior research fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University. Gays and the Future of Anglicanism: Responses to the Windsor Report , edited by Andrew Linzey and Richard Kirker, is published by O Books.