The Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed his sincerest wish, if not profoundest hope, and quite possibly his most earnest prayer that this summer’s Lambeth Conference won’t be dominated (again) by debates around human sexuality. It’s an interesting plea, not least because even in its making it raises the profile of issues of human sexuality to a plane of concern which transcends all others, and thereby becomes self-defeating. The heading of this blog post is, in faithfulness to the sincerity of the Archbishop’s desire, unavoidable.
In the Primates’ Communiqué this week, they wrote: “Our hope and prayer is that our time in Canterbury will produce fruit that will enable the Anglican Communion to live as ‘God’s church for God’s world’.”
You could spend a doctoral thesis expounding that slogan: it means whatever you want it to mean. It is little better than Keir Starmer’s latest slogan, ‘On your side’, which is little better than Ed Miliband’s, ‘Better Plan for a Better Future’, or Gordon Brown’s ‘A future fair for all’. The Conservative ones are no more meaningful, of course, but Keir Starmer’s latest rebrand (his sixth in two years) is at least current and topical.
‘God’s church for God’s world’ is a statement on a children’s crepe paper collage, surrounded by yellow-painted egg-box daffodils and cotton wool lambs with bendy pipe-cleaner legs. It is situated and static, rather than visionary and dynamic. Preceding it with ‘Living as..’ would have been a slight improvement, but we already know that the Church is God’s and the world belongs to God, so this isn’t going to inspire anyone to action: it is a banal unifying statement of basic ecclesiological purpose rather than an urgent and prophetic focus of mission. But perhaps banal unity is the primary mission of this year’s Lambeth Conference.
In making the plea that this year’s Lambeth Conference won’t be dominated by issue of human sexuality, the 37 Primates who attended this week’s conference write:
6. We continue to lament the absence from our meetings of three primates who choose to stay away. Our reflections, deliberations and fellowship are diminished by their absence. We miss them and their prayerful wisdom, and we long for the time when we will all meet together.
The three Primates who absented themselves were those of Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda, and you can guess why. The heading of this blog post offers a clue. The Church Times (note the headline) probed a little to discover if they had given any specific reasons for not attending. The Archbishop responded: “Not that I’m aware of. I think they we know very well that they feel, for one reason or another, that they don’t want to be in the room with those who changed their teaching on the nature of marriage and human identity.”
It was rather naughty of Ed Thornton to ask such a question, knowing full well that the sincerest desire of the Archbishop is for the Lambeth Conference to focus on “those things which are destroying tens and hundreds of millions of lives”, rather than be mired (again) in issues of human sexuality and same-sex marriage. No doubt in the summer, Mr Thornton will be looking to see if these same three are absent again, and, if they are, doubtless asking the Archbishop if he’s heard anything from them.
And if they aren’t, doubtless probing them about issues of human sexuality and same-sex marriage.
It’s unavoidable, isn’t it, not to remark on a room with empty chairs? The schism is the elephant. Mr Thornton pressed the point, asking whether the spouses of bishops in same-sex marriages had been excluded from such conversations. The Archbishop replied: “I’m not 100 per cent sure, but I think very probably.”
There’s another headline waiting right there. But the Archbishop (and other Primates) want to look outwards:
7. The prime purpose of our meeting was to pray and reflect together on our identity in Christ in an attitude of pilgrimage. The Archbishop of Canterbury offered us biblical reflections on leadership from John’s Gospel and we reflected on the capacity and ability of our global Communion, working together, to meet the many challenges facing the world at this time.
And those challenges are legion. They specify wars and conflicts, of course in Ukraine, but also in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Mali, Congo, the Holy Land, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Central America, and South Sudan. And then there’s the terrorism in Mozambique, and the plight of refugees, migrants, and displaced people around the world.
The mission of ‘God’s church for God’s world’ at this time is to bring about justice, sanctuary, and reconciliation. They can all agree on that.
And then there are the effects of climate change, in particular in Madagascar and Mozambique, where four cyclones in two months have resulted in thousands of people being made homeless, and infrastructures and crops destroyed.
The mission of ‘God’s church for God’s world’ at this time is provide shelter, food, medical assistance and spiritual support. They can all agree on that.
And then there is the continuing misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which target religious minorities, including Christians, meting out malicious prosecutions, beatings, forced conversions and forced marriages.
They can all agree that the mission of ‘God’s church for God’s world’ at this time is to remember that they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to live as if we were in prison with them. It is to appeal to the government of Pakistan to bring about legislative change to outlaw these abuses, and with the UK making overseas aid contingent on religious liberty, if necessary.
The Archbishop clearly set out his focus of mission beyond issues of human sexuality: “..the way we treat people on the edge, food, insecurity, whether it’s rising sea levels, whether it’s war, persecution, freedom of religion and belief, torture, unfair trade practices, and a million other things. Those are things which come under the heading of God’s call to the Church to speak for justice in every area, and not about human sexuality alone.”
But the problem with talking about human sexuality is that ears prick up. A schism about sex is more titillating than feeding the poor and healing the sick. Sorry, but it’s a fact. We live in a consumer society, and there is little that is marketed without a glance, a wink, a flirt, a breast, or allusions to sexual intercourse because ‘sex sells’. If one were to judge by the media (which is more frequently a mirror to society than a catalyst for change), the fascination with people’s sex lives is now more important than politics, religion, philosophy or even Mammon. That bishops are divided about it is interesting, if not titillating, and a reflection of the divisions in the world.
The only way for issues of human sexuality not to dominate this summer’s Lambeth Conference would be for the gathered bishops not to discuss issues of human sexuality at all. They can spend a few weeks discussing “the way we treat people on the edge, food, insecurity, whether it’s rising sea levels, whether it’s war, persecution, freedom of religion and belief, torture, unfair trade practices, and a million other things”, and then just one hour discussing issues of human sexuality, and you can guarantee that all the reporting will be dominated by the sexuality schism.
Jesus addressed Mammon as the dominating idol of his era, and his ultimate judgement was that one may not serve both God and Mammon (Mt 6:24). He did not enter into discussion on the fiscal minutiae of cash, credit, bonds, shares, loans or interest: a macro-warning not to be obsessed with Mammon was sufficient. If one were to apply the same principle to the modern idol – let us call it ‘Eros’ – it is doubtful that Jesus would address its sub-divisions (gay, bi, straight, etc); he would most likely directly challenge society’s obsessive fixation with Eros, and by so doing confront both those who prioritise or obsess about issues of sexuality and also those in the Church who presume to judge them. In this, the Archbishop is undoubtedly close to Jesus in his desire. By devoting so much time and effort to issues in human sexuality, instead of challenging society by deconstructing the question or focusing on poverty, insecurity, persecution, “and a million other things”, the church is simply showing itself to share the same obsessions as the world.
The issue for the Church of England (and the Worldwide Anglican Communion) is that this debate has been blown out of all proportion: it is neither a battle for the soul of the church, nor an issue worthy of schism, as in previous eras were the doctrine of God, the authority of the Church, and the nature of salvation. It is a human moral question utterly peculiar to this era, and those on both sides of the divide might consider toning down the rhetoric and the apologetics, and instead preaching a message that, contrary to society’s thinking, sexual expression is neither a necessary line of inquiry in every human interaction, nor an essential component in human fulfilment.