The part of Archbishop Justin Welby’s first presidential address to Synod that received the most media attention – sorry, that received any media attention – was, predictably, the bit where he announced a programme targeting homophobic bullying in Anglican schools. His desire to do something about homophobia and its effects is, of course, very welcome. But that whole section of his speech makes me uneasy, sitting as it does amidst thinly veiled bafflement at current attitudes towards sexuality.
Welby expresses surprise at how much the ‘cultural hinterland’ has changed, referring specifically to the Lords debate on gay marriage. ‘Predictable attitudes were no longer there’, he states – which I find strange, because to my mind the attitudes were entirely predictable. There was vast support for a move to give gay people the same rights as everyone else, countered by regretful resistance from Bishops and aging Tories, and Lords Carey and Tebbit claiming that gay marriage would pave the way to polygamy, incest, bestiality and lesbian artificially inseminated Monarchs. Entirely predictable.
What Welby obviously didn’t predict was the first bit – that a majority of people, even in the Lords, would support the bill. It’s strange that he didn’t anticipate that even a teensy bit, given his statement that ‘the majority of the population detests homophobic behaviour’ – but the problem is that his understanding of homophobic behaviour is demonstrably limited. He talks about bullying and shares his concern about homophobia-related suicide (though I notice that it only happens in the USA), and he shares his horror of gay people being executed in Iran, but those are the most explicit examples of the most explicit type of homophobic behaviour (and both explicitly Not Happening In This Country).
Homophobia has far subtler consequences for which I don’t believe there is a statistic, but I’ve seen enough examples to think it’s a big ’un: I’m thinking about people who end up in loveless heterosexual marriages because that is the expectation of the society they have been brought up in, or who end up estranged from their families because they can’t bring their own relationships into their own homes. I’m thinking about people who remain single, who remain celibate or only find the most fleeting approximation of love in brief sexual encounters, because they have been brought up to believe a ‘normal’ relationship is impossible between two people of the same gender. Ordinary people living miserable lives because of homophobia that is entrenched in institutions including (though not limited to) parts of the church.
By that reckoning, any behaviour which perpetuates the sense of homosexuality as incompatible with what-normal-people-with-normal-families-do is homophobic. Welby wouldn’t want to be tarred with that brush, but his speech to the Lords on the gay marriage bill aired that discomfort, first with the old equality-doesn’t-mean-we’re-all-the-same chestnut:
It assumes that the rightful desire for equality – to which I’ve referred supportively – must mean uniformity, failing to understand that two things may be equal but different.
…then by retreading historically and scripturally unsound ideas about ‘normal’ marriage and procreation:
The new marriage of the Bill is an awkward shape with same gender and different gender categories scrunched into it, neither fitting well. The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society – as we’ve already heard – is weakened.
It’s more artfully spun than the Coalition For Marriage campaign, but if you untangle the rhetoric and remove the semantic noodling, you’re left with the same impression: that gay marriage just doesn’t seem right. It suggests a profound unease at the very nature of homosexuality – homophobia in a sense that I would charitably consider to be culturally and sociologically understandable. But to stand up as leader of the Anglican church and vocalise it, to vote against a bill which gay people are pleading for: that is homophobic behaviour.
So, for all that he is gracious enough to acknowledge that ‘sometimes they look at us and see what they don’t like’, Welby has made no commitment to change the attitudes that lie at the heart of the problem. In fact, he states ‘I am not proposing new policy’ – in other words, he will remain eloquently perched on the fence, loving the sinner but still essentially-but-being-careful-not-to-say-it-in-so-many-words hating the sin. It’s a long way from stating that historical behaviour towards homosexuals has been deeply damaging, or apologising for the part the church has played in perpetuating it.
Worse still, it is implied that the main reason for making changes is because that’s the only way anyone is going to take the church seriously these days. ‘We may or may not like it,’ he says (implying, I think, that he doesn’t), ‘but we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality’. Which is tantamount to saying ‘now that a clear majority of the population have adopted this wishy-washy liberal approach to sexuality, we ought to bite the bullet and be seen to do the same.’
That is the aspect of the speech I like the least. The idea that the church must reluctantly drag itself into the 21st century to keep up with everyone else makes it seem both irrelevant and pathetic. It would be a nobler position for Welby to stand up and say ‘actually, we’re still just uncomfortable with homosexuality’, but that would be to put words to an attitude he has already admitted is wrong. What the church ought to be doing is leading the revolution, being relevant rather than desperately struggling to look it. Other Christian institutions have shown that it is possible to wholeheartedly embrace homosexuals and gay relationships into their ministry, a recent example being prominent Baptist minister Steve Chalke. Likewise, some of the most heartfelt and touching statements in the gay marriage debate were made by Christians, either in spite of their own beliefs, such as Lord Deben, or because of them, as in the case of Lord Jenkin (an aging Tory, no less), who brilliantly said:
I have come to the firm conclusion that there is nothing to fear in gay marriage and that, indeed, it will be a positive good not just for same-gender unions but for the institution of marriage generally. The effect will be to put right at the centre of marriage the concept of a stable, loving relationship. As a practising Christian, perhaps I may make the point to the Bishops’ Benches, including to the most reverend Primate, that there is every reason why, in time, the Anglican Church should come to accept that, although I recognise that it may take some time. The character of love which marriage reflects—that it is faithful, stable, tough, unselfish and unconditional—is the same character that most Christians see in the love of God. Marriage is therefore holy, not because it is ordained by God, but because it reflects that most important central truth of our religion: the love of God for all of us.
The pity is that such a positive, theologically profound statement did not come from the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. His speech to Synod shows that (in his own words) he has not fully heard this message: until he does, and until we see such unequivocal statements about homosexuality from the Anglican church, an initiative to counter homophobic bullying can only (at best) tackle a symptom of a far deeper problem.