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by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times, No. 42 - Jul 2011
'Church of England tied in knots over allowing gay men to become bishops', said the Guardian a few weeks ago. The late Colin Slee's leaked memo made national news, accusing archbishops of 'behaving badly' with temper tantrums and steamrollering decisions to prevent a gay bishop being appointed.
What concerns me most is not the finer details about how angry the archbishops got, or which decisions were made in the gents' toilet - which on their own hardly merit national news - but the fact that church leaders ever got themselves into this absurd situation where they are desperately struggling to retain discriminatory practices in the teeth of opposition from both the law and public opinion.
It was not always like this. Older people remember the 1960s, when Church of England bishops were ahead of popular opinion in their support for liberalising legislation to decriminalise homosexuality and abolish capital punishment, and their votes in the House of Lords were crucial. It did not seem odd that church leaders should do such things.
We at Modern Church look forward to recovering a more forward-looking stance. We describe our work as 'promoting liberal theology'. There are different kinds of liberalism; ours is the sort that expects religious faith to develop over time, much as science does. We take seriously the insights of modern knowledge and aim to judge new ideas on their merits. Instead of treating church dogmas as eternal certainties we hope for new insights into what God is calling us to become and how we should respond.
From a liberal perspective it should not be a big deal for church leaders to recognise that even though they discriminated against gays and women in the past, they should do so no longer. Complaining that the anti-discrimination lobby comes from secular society is irrelevant: God is under no obligation to seek approval from archbishops before inspiring people with moral guidance. Never in its history has Christianity been a self-contained tradition blocking its ears to the world around it, even though some think it should have been.
Why are some so keen to defend the right to discriminate against women and gays, even at the cost of widespread condemnation and ridicule?
When Christian leaders defend their beliefs against critics, they produce definitions and thereby draw lines. In the English-speaking world it was the nineteenth century that first produced an articulate lobby opposing all religious belief, a time when modern knowledge and the sciences seemed to favour atheism. As church leaders defended belief they often, understandably but unfortunately, adopted an anti-intellectual spirit and treated the church doctrines of their day as dogmas transcending all reason.
Since then many programmes of mission and evangelism have shared that anti-intellectual spirit. Evangelists have often sought converts not by convincing people that Christianity is true, but by inducing an emotional conversion experience. Converts brought into Christianity like this are likely to see their conversion as a sudden jump from one self-identity to another, rather than shades of grey, and therefore to expect clear and immovable dividing lines between Christians and non-Christians.
Many churches and organisations encourage this black-and-white, either-you-are-in-or-you-are-out interpretation. This inclines them to emphasise simple, clearly defined issues on which Christians reject the values of society. It happens that, at the moment, equality for women and gays fits this role quite well. 20 years ago other issues fitted it better, and in 20 years' time (less, I suspect) the focus of attention will have moved on to something else again.
In reality Christianity is bigger than one or two topical issues: it offers a wide-ranging tradition helping people and societies to understand their spiritual calling. Those parts of the tradition which are despised in one age are often rediscovered in another.
Liberals are therefore more content with fuzzy boundaries. We tend to think everybody has some spiritual awareness but some have more than others. We expect Christians to differ about which Christian teachings they accept or how strongly they identify with Christianity.
Modern Church, now in its third century (it was founded in 1898), has always aimed to promote this kind of liberalism: a better informed, more confident and more open account of Christian believing. There is no one version of Christianity to which all should subscribe: on the contrary, we accept differences of opinion and lifestyle as normal. Instead of expecting everyone to believe the same things we welcome open and honest debate about the issues of the day, free from threats of expulsion. We see Christianity not as an unchanging, dogmatic belief system but as a diverse and open-ended tradition through which we can explore the deepest questions facing humanity.
Once it seemed obvious that women should not be priests and gay sex was wicked. Similarly, our great-grandchildren will no doubt be shocked at some of the things we are doing and thinking today. A healthy liberal Christianity will be confident enough to change in the light of new insights, and humble enough to know that we are not always right.
Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.