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Do justice

A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

The Past Year

The Past Year

by Rowan Williams

The past year has been a wintry one for the Church of England; a time in which it has often been difficult to believe that it is possible to be an Anglican with integrity. We have shown ourselves to be self-destructive in our inner conflicts, in some very dramatic ways: above all, we have shown a degree of collective neurosis on the subject of sexuality that is really quite astounding in this century and this culture. We have, it seems, been happy to collude with the paranoia of populist homophobia, fuelled by the AIDS epidemic and by myths of gay 'propaganda' in schools -- fuelled, that is, by tragedy on the one hand and lies on the other. Last November, the General Synod passed a resolution whose force remains ambiguous, declaring the undesirability of gay clergy being allowed to express and experience their sexual identity in the way most people do. Even the most superficial analysis of the debate shows how the Synod was simultaneously cajoled and panicked into this move: well-meaning 'liberals', equally afraid of the harshness of the original motion (about which the less said the better) and of getting involved in a genuinely theological debate on sexuality, joined hands with some of the most disturbing elements in the contemporary Church of England, those who are determined to make it an ideologically monolithic body, to produce a vote which has, in practice, delivered much of what the original motion aimed at. This shabby compromise has been held up by bishops as representing the 'mind' of the Church, and accorded something like legislative force. Bishops have appealed to it in justifying their actions against gay clergy and ordinands. It is becoming harder all the time for a gay person to be honest in the Church. We have helped to build a climate in which concealment is rewarded -while at the same time conniving with the hysteria of the gutter press, and effectively giving into their hands as victims all those who do not manage successful concealment. And the lowest point has come with the vendetta conducted by the Diocese of London through its legal officers against the parish of St. Botolph's, Aldgate, and the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

What, as a church, do we think we are doing? It is time we heard and applied to ourselves the woes addressed by Jesus to those who put stumbling blocks before those who believe -or seek to believe, or understand what it is to believe -'or seek to believe, or understand what it is to believe. For whom are the actions of the past few months good news? Perhaps for the moralists who seem to think that discipleship is primarily about rule-keeping in a restricted field of behaviour (but who are not above collaborating with a segment of the Press that is openly pornographic); or for those who cannot cope with the rapidity of change in sexual mores, especially the new habit of talking with confidence and self-trust about sexuality. It is possible to feel some real sympathy for people who are bewildered and even hurt by such changes, and it is crucial not to forget that they too have pastoral needs. But as the New Testament makes plain, to go at the pace of the slowest, to respect the human needs of those whose vision is less clear, is not to compromise on the substantive point of what liberty in Christ means. The Church of England has indeed been giving an uncertain moral lead, just as it has been accused of doing -but the uncertainty has been over the moral and spiritual importance of truthfulness, truth to one's own nature, truth in relations with other believers. The more we make such truthfulness impossible, the more we quench the Spirit.

As the debate amply shows, 'liberalism' is not enough. It is hopelessly inadequate now to think that we can go back to the comfortably discreet situation in which sexual orientation was known and tacitly accepted, but never discussed, let alone affirmed. Such a situation too helps to nourish just that coyIness, adqlescent naughtiness and irresponsibility which many, gay and straight, I have found so tiresome a feature of the ecclesiastical gay scene: no-one holds you responsible for an adult sexuality, or suggests that you might need to share and reflect as much as anyone else, and there is little help in working out a tough and consistent morality. To argue for the need for gay liberation in the Church is not to commend a policy of letting everyone go their way in a bland situationist paradise, but to ask that this issue become part of the collective and public reflection of the Church, something on which experience can be shared and supportive and challenging patterns evolved. But aren't there, frankly, a great many more important matters for the Church in general and Catholic Socialists in particular, to get involved in at the moment? This is the voice of the contemporary wisdom of the Labour Party, in other terms, and, there as here, it assumes that justice is divisible. If we have no integrity here, we cannot expect to carry conviction elsewhere, because the issues of victimisation and disempowering are the same here as with the questions of race, sex and class. Even more importantly, for the Christian, we, as a church, make the claim that we show something of that order of human relationships in which God is the final creative authority ('the Kingdom of God'). When we produce a situation of repression and dishonesty, we at the very least put that claim in question for many of those in need of the good news of Christ. This is not an optional extra for us. The present collection of essays is an attempt to acknowledge the mess we are ') in; to express some of the hurt and anger that has been generated (not least among those who feel that their pastors in the Church, especially those in 'leadership' positions, have let them down); and to move the necessary theological discussion a little bit further forward. But it will have made its point if it communicates why so many people currently feel ashamed of our Church's public voice on this issue. Not all of us are fully agreed on the tactics or the theology of where we go next; but we share the sense that our Church has not done well in these matters, and that we are in urgent need of plain speaking and clear thinking, recognising that there is a debate to be conducted (which has already begun long since, if the truth be told) about theology and spirituality, one that is not to be sidetracked either by the trading of texts or by a tactful but fmally corrupting liberal discretion.

[Excerpted from: Speaking Love's Name; Homosexuality: Some Catholic and Socialist Perspectives, ed, by Ashley Beck and Ros Hunt. London, The Jubilee Group, 1988.]

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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