Sandi Toksvig is a patron of Humanists UK. She is also openly gay, and married to a psychotherapist called Debbie. Her relationship with the Church is strained at the best of times, but after the Archbishop of Canterbury stated perfectly factually that for a large majority of the Anglican Communion and the entire Church marriage is between one man and one woman, she wrote an open letter which has circled the world, not least because it is witty, eloquent, passionate and highly entertaining.
It’s also about gay sex, which the media just love:
All this, just because Justin Welby affirmed the reality of the existence of a 1998 resolution (known as Lambeth I.10) that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture. It has not been rescinded: it has not been voted on again. Nothing has changed, as he explained:
For the large majority of the Anglican Communion the traditional understanding of marriage is something that is understood, accepted and without question, not only by Bishops but their entire Church, and the societies in which they live. For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.
For a minority, we can say almost the same. They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.
All this is factually accurate, but it isn’t as witty, eloquent, passionate and highly entertaining as Sandi Toksvig’s letter, so the Archbishop’s reasoning isn’t quite attracting the same level of media coverage. But Ms Toksvig’s letter is factually wrong on a number of points. Setting aside the oft-repeated but erroneous assertion that “Jesus doesn’t mention sexuality at all” (he does: the Rev’d Sam Allberry preached on this very point only last Sunday), it’s hard to understand why she feels the need to misrepresent what the Church of England teaches, what the Worldwide Anglican Communion has agreed, and what the Church believes. Her caricature understanding (or crass presentation) has been helpfully summarised by the Very Rev’d Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of Glasgow Cathedral:
“You and your other religious pals got together at the Lambeth Conference and the main take away seems to be that gay sex is a sin.”
Well, no, Justin Welby hasn’t said that gay sex is a sin and neither has the Lambeth Conference. You can read his actual words and check: https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/speaking-writing/speeches/lambeth-call-human-dignity-read-archbishop-justins-remarks
“It was a sin in 1998 and you just wanted to make clear in 2022 that no-one in your finely frocked gang has moved on from that.”
Well, actually the Lambeth resolution in 1998 that gave cause to all this never mentioned sin. You can check that out here: https://www.anglicancommunion.org/resources/document-library/lambeth-conference/1998/section-i-called-to-full-humanity/section-i10-human-sexuality
The Guardian and some reports on the BBC suggested this week that the conference reaffirmed that gay sex was a sin. But it didn’t. It actually didn’t do that.
What’s more, the Archbishop’s actual words this week both in his letter to the bishops and in his remarks explicitly spoke of those who had moved on from the 1998 resolution. Indeed, he legitimised them (us!) within Anglicanism. Again, check his own words here: https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/speaking-writing/speeches/lambeth-call-human-dignity-read-archbishop-justins-remarks
Speaking of the churches which have moved to marry and/bless same sex couples, he said, “They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.”
What Sandi Toksvig says is demonstrably the opposite of what Justin Welby did.
“Seriously, with the state the world is in, that is what you wanted to focus on? You didn’t have other more pressing matters like, I don’t know, war or poverty?”
Actually the bishops spent just over an hour in a two week conference on this topic. The rest of the time has been spent on things like, oh, you know, war, poverty, climate change, safeguarding etc. Again, this is easily found out by reading the Lambeth Calls document – https://www.lambethconference.org/programme/lambeth-calls/
What Sandi Toksvig says is again demonstrably the opposite of what actually happened.
There’s lots to be cross about when it comes to the way the churches deal with sexuality. If it were me, I’d be cross with the C of E bishops staying silent, particularly those who are suspected of being supportive of same-sex couples being able to marry.
But attacking Justin Welby in this way this week seems grossly unfair, not least in that this week he has spoken of the validity of the churches which have started to marry same-sex couples and stood up to those who want such churches to be thrown out of the Anglican Communion or otherwise disciplined. Again, his own words are published. They are easily checked. https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/speaking-writing/speeches/lambeth-call-human-dignity-read-archbishop-justins-remarks
He actually said:
“I neither have, nor do I seek, the authority to discipline or exclude a church of the Anglican Communion. I will not do so. I may comment in public on occasions, but that is all. We are a Communion of Churches, not a single church.”
I’ve been the first to criticise Justin Welby when I’ve disagreed with him in the past. However, I suspect that Justin Welby’s words this week will pave the way, eventually, to new paths of inclusion within the Church of England when the Living in Love and Faith process that all their bishops are clutching to themselves like so many fig-leaves, fails.
The Anglican Communion has, witheringly slowly, moved a few steps in an inclusive direction this week.
Sandi Toksvig’s argument is a straw man.
She’s got things factually wrong.
As ever, “Falsehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth; whilst truth lags behind; her steps, though sure, are slow and solemn”; and, as ever, there is a certain epistemic distance between the reality of the Lambeth Conference and the reporting thereof.
The “horrible mistake” that Justin Welby is accused of making hasn’t actually been made. It’s easy to laud the “loving priests” who support same-sex marriage and berate those who sit “at the bigot’s table” of orthodox marriage, but Sandi Toksvig isn’t a Christian, doesn’t attend Church, and has an agenda to eradicate religion from the public sphere and disestablish the Church of England.
Of course she doesn’t like to talk about ‘sin’. Who does? Christians don’t like being confronted with the reality of their own, so non-believers are quite reasonably grievously offended by any suggestion of their moral depravity and the prospect of eternal damnation. In fact, they find it all a bit of a stumbling block, if not quite foolish, as St Paul said they might.
But it isn’t for humanists to demand that Christians change their millennia-old doctrines or traditional views of sexual morality any more than it is for Christians to demand that Humanists UK be more tolerant and welcoming of religious types who happen to believe in the sanctity of Holy Matrimony and the virtues of the Established Church.
With characteristic grace, and full understanding of the abuse and appalling threats Ms Toksvig has received from professing Christians, the Archbishop of Canterbury responded to Sandi Toksvig, and invited her in for a coffee:
And Ms Toksvig has accepted:
As she sups her Americano and nibbles on a piece of shortbread, one hopes she might apologise for misrepresenting the Archbishop’s views, for caricaturing the teachings of the Church of England, and for distorting the considered settlement of the Worldwide Anglican Communion.
And perhaps, as a patron of Humanists UK, Sandi Toksvig might persuade her fellow secularist-atheist/agnostics to be more loving and accepting of Christians who hold to the traditional moral teachings on human sexuality, and who support the existence of the Established Church, not least because Christian Humanists were the original humanists, and Erasmus was the greatest of all, believing devoutly, as he did, in the infinite human capacity for self-improvement; that good scholarship illuminates the mind, and that freedom of the will leads to truth. When did the Humanist table ever become so bigoted that those who sit around it must be sifted for their religious beliefs?