27 July 2008 at :00 am
In the last few months running up the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops I suppose it has been inevitable that the discussion in the Church on the vexed question of homosexuality has been seen in the context of the need to try to maintain some sort of fellowship and unity within the Anglican Communion. And I suspect I am far from being the only person here who has felt a great deal of sympathy for the almost impossible position in which the Archbishop of Canterbury has been put on this matter. Part of the problem is, of course, that this is not a wholly rational debate. In some parts of the world homosexuality is subject to a social taboo, and the reactions to a more sympathetic approach to it there are akin to what would happen here if someone were foolish enough in this country to advocate necrophilia or paedophilia. Of course the parallels are not exact, but it is a measure of the emotional complexity of the issue that faces the Anglican Communion.
But as the end of the Lambeth Conference begins to come in sight I believe the Church of England now needs to think carefully about the matter not just in the context of preserving church unity, but in its wider responsibility of serving this nation. How should we respond to this issue given the nature of England today?
There is one statistic I came across recently that I believe should make the church pause for thought. British Social Trends is a report published annually that gives the most authoritative review of public opinion on a wide variety of matters. In 1987 it said that almost 64% of the British public thought all homosexual acts were wrong. That was quite a high figure given that the decriminalisation of such acts had been made 20 years before in 1967. But in the latest review of public opinion it seems that the 64% of the population believing all such acts were wrong in 1987 has now reduced to 18%. That is an enormous shift in public opinion over a relatively short period.
Now no doubt some of those 18% who are still opposed will see the shift simply as one more example of national moral decline, and they will no doubt also say that the church’s ethical teaching should not be determined by public opinion. But I suspect lying behind the change there are factors other than moral indifference at work, one of which is simply a widespread recognition that at least for many homosexuals their orientation is not something freely chosen; that it is simply how they are, whether it be by genetic make up or a consequence of their upbringing that is so firm that it might as well be genetic. Possibly some of those 18% who are still opposed to such acts might acknowledge that, but they may still say that the homosexual person should simply remain celibate. But again I suspect that lying behind that huge shift in public opinion is a belief that while celibacy can, of course, always be a freely chosen and respected option, it is simply unreasonable to demand that of everyone of homosexual orientation.
What we have in effect witnessed over the last few years in this country is the collapse and almost disintegration of a social taboo. It is partly generational; my daughter’s generation simply cannot understand the obsession of the church on this matter. But I suspect I am far from being the only person in my own age group here who has experienced a major personal change of view on the matter over the years.
I also strongly suspect that within the church there have been developments in opinion as well. As far as I know there is little statistical confirmation of that, although I did see quoted in the Church Times in October 2003 a report from the Daily Telegraph of that year saying that 52% of all churchgoers then thought that actively homosexual men should be allowed to be ordained. I do not know what the figure is today, though I suspect, but cannot prove, that figure is now probably higher.
There will, of course, still be some who will say that the Bible is opposed to homosexual acts and that there can therefore be no change. But I think it is now acknowledged by many in the church that some of the Biblical passages that are quoted in support of that are talking about things that any right minded person would oppose, homosexual rape for example as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the widespread pederasty of Greek society in the case of some of St Paul’s comments. But it is not at all clear that the biblical passages about homosexuality, which are in any case quite few in number, are talking about loving and stable relationships between two people of the same sex. And of course many Christians would hold that biblical teaching must always be seen in the context of its age and that the responsibility now is to translate the principles into sensible practical moral teaching for today.
Of course some will nonetheless say that moral standards do not, and cannot change. But one significant and major change in church opinion at least related to all of this did happen in 1930, when the Lambeth conference modified the very strong stand it had taken ten years earlier against any form of contraception. In 1920 the Lambeth bishops were utterly opposed to all forms of contraception and offered strong moral warnings against their use. By 1930 that had changed and, much later, we even had the spectacle in the 1990s of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, going to Rome to try to persuade the Pope to change his view on the matter. So much for unchanging moral principles! And it is interesting to note that one of the Bishops opposed to the 1930s change, Charles Gore, a former Canon of this Abbey and Bishop of Oxford, opposed it on the grounds that he thought it would change the whole approach to sex if you allowed it to have a role in relationships independent of the possibility of procreation. The majority of Lambeth Bishops then did not mind making that change. Personally I believe they were right and I suggest that change also has implications for homosexual relationships. Once it is acknowledged that sex has a role independent of procreation it does modify the whole question.
In the fuss that followed the celebration of the Civil Partnership of two male priests in St Bartholomew the Great Church in the City earlier this year the Archbishops issued a joint statement saying that while individual priests were certainly free to campaign for a change in the regulations concerning the celebration of civil partnerships they were not at liberty simply to ignore them. I certainly have no disagreement with the Archbishops over either part of that statement.
But it did make me go back to read again the Bishops’ statement on Civil Partnerships issued in July 2005, and it is an extraordinary document. It says, rightly in my view, that ‘marriage is a creation ordinance, a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace. ‘Marriage,’ it says, ‘defined as a faithful, committed and permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman, is central to the stability and health of human society.’ Amen to that. But is also says ‘Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively’. It seems from the British Social Trends report that 82 % of the population disagree in the case of homosexuals, and that ought to make the Bishops of an Established Church pause.
The Bishops’ report also makes much of the fact that the Government noted that the civil partnership legislation leaves ‘entirely open the nature of the commitment that members of a couple choose to make to each other when forming a civil partnership. In particular, it is not predicated on the intention to engage in a sexual relationship.’ This enabled the Bishops to say that it would not be right as a normal practice to encourage services of blessings for those entering civil partnerships’ and it also allowed them to say of clergy entering such partnerships that ‘it does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality’ which presumably means that it should be a relationship in which sexual activity plays no part.
That seems to me an extraordinarily convoluted way of approaching the matter. If some people are exclusively homosexual by orientation, and if they do not feel themselves to be called to celibacy, it must be healthier for them to live in a stable, publicly recognised relationship, and, if they want it, for that relationship to be acknowledged and blessed by the church with honesty. Fidelity rather than celibacy should surely be what the church encourages and advocates. And in their statement the Bishops also appear to be demanding that otherwise honourable and effective priests should lie. When I see such emotional, intellectual and human dishonesty perpetrated in an Episcopal document I cannot say how pleased I am to work in this Abbey, in which no Bishop has any authority whatsoever.
If this address can be one small step in encouraging the House of Bishops to revise their view then I hope I will have used this pulpit constructively. Because if we could become less obsessed by preserving the unity of the church, and more concerned with what I believe we should be concerned about, serving the people of this nation, it would be to the good; it is a shift urgently needed.
I would be very interested to know as you leave the Abbey whether you agree or not.