In Alastair Campbell’s interview with him in GQ Magazine, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, admits ‘copping out’ on the question of whether gay sex is sinful – his Tim Farron moment.
Archbishop Justin also admitted that reconciling the views of those in liberal Anglican Churches with those of churches such as Uganda and other ‘GAFCON’ Churches for whom the issue of same-sex relationships is a ‘red line’ matter, is impossible: ‘It is irreconcilable’. When challenged by Campbell on whether his response to same-sex relationships (however faithful, stable and loving they are) was ‘morally a cop-out’, the Archbishop responded: ‘Yes. I am copping out because I am struggling with the issue’.
The interview took place a couple of days before the Primates of the Anglican Communion gathered in Canterbury on Monday 2nd October. It is expected that the Scottish Episcopal Church will be given ‘consequences’ for allowing same-sex weddings in Church. The divisions that lead to these irreconcilable differences will only deepen at this meeting; the gulf will not be bridged, no matter how much they might talk of wanting to ‘walk together’.
This could lead to a council of despair. It doesn’t need to. It might just be that barking up the tree of ‘unity’ might be the wrong tree after all. Christians have always come to Christ in the context of division between Christians who understand things differently. Christians have always borne witness to the love of God in Christ through acts of kindness, through working for social justice, through preaching the Gospel of God’s love in Christ, through trying to ensure that all people can have the abundant life Jesus promised, in the context of division. None of this should be surprising since it is simply true (which I realise is a bold claim in an era of ‘fake news’).
Now I’m going to get a little more theological.
The late Stephen Sykes, in his deep and detailed study The Identity of Christianity (SPCK, 1984) feels comfortable not only talking about ‘the inherent variety of forms of Christianity’ (p.240, my italics), but with describing the Christian faith (in-so-far as one can talk about the Christian faith at all) as an ‘essentially contested concept’ (pp.251ff). Not only that Christianity is an essentially contested concept, but that it ought to be an essentially contested concept. It is too important and matters too much not to be. Reductionist Christians just don’t take seriously their own limitations.
There is not now nor has there ever been a single universal understanding of the Christian faith. That is not only a simple fact, it’s how it’s supposed to be. Of course there are lots of things that Christians, in most respects, agree about, and those are important things that enable the discussion between us to continue in a meaningful way. But we cannot, this side of the trump of doom, expect to agree on everything, even on those things that we think are essential.
So, what’s an Archbishop to do? He could start by getting everyone to calm down and work together at what it might mean to love each other in the context of the fact of inherent variety. He could work towards getting people to understand that the debate is more important than the outcome (for it, too, will be contested and is only ever penultimate). He could try to help people see that it’s neither surprising nor a ‘bad thing’ that the Christian faith looks different in different contexts; in fact, it would be more surprising if it looked the same. The mission win would be that Christians might stop hating each other in publicly appalling ways and be taken more seriously by those (the vast majority of this country) who stand outside any version of the Christian faith.