Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Ins and Outs and Same-Sex Marriage

Thanks to those who have told me they have missed this blog. Now that same sex marriage is a reality in this country, I have been off writing a book to help resource a Christian response to its challenges and possibiities. It's an attempt to work out some scientific, moral, Biblical, legal, historical, cultural and missional positives now that gay people can marry.

The church has arrived at another round of shared conversations. In my optimistic moments I'd like to think that after thirty years of going round and round in circles about sexuality we could be getting somewhere. I wanted to produce something grounded in Scripture, tradition and reason, to capture the possibilities as they appear right now.

In my less optimistic moments I wonder why we are so uniquely hung up about sexuality. When I was ordained the Church was a comparatively compassionate and safe place for all. The end of “Don't Ask Don't Tell” has got us to a place where things are actually worse for gay clergy. Every ten years or so of the 35 I have been ordained we have held portentous conversations and listening exercises but nobody seems to heard anything and as the pattern repeats, everyone else has moved on. One wag recently quoted me Proverbs 26:11 about this — "As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools return to their folly." We really do have to punch our way out of this paper bag this time.

Meanwhile, in publication week I experience a phenomenon all preachers do — In the course of your killer sermon on the Trinity you tell a joke about something that happened to you in Croydon high street and all anyone wants to talk to you about afterwards is Croydon. In the book I articulated the drearily obvious and well known fact that a fair number of bishops in the past and present have been, in fact, gay. These people have particular vulnerabilities. This has inaugurated a furious spat on twitter with Peter Ould I have no integrity if I don't report all names to him forthwith. Curiously he's also written a piece pointing out the wrongness and futility of outing bishops, so I've no idea why he's so angry with me for not doing it. So here, for the record, is why I don't and won't out people.

What matters to me is the fact that bishops have a range of sexual orientations including gay, not which bishops have what. Which particular bishops are Saggitarian, left-handed or red-haired? I know not in detail, neither do I care. I can, however, understand that curiosity about this is greater than it would be for a group of people who did not set themselves up as professionally straight whilst behaving in discriminatory ways towards gay people. Why not, someone asked me, just put everyone out of their misery and name names?

(1) Me no expert. I have not undertaken detailed postgraduate research about bishops' sexuality. I have had all kinds of conversations with all kinds of people, including bishops, often on terms that exclude leaking personal information about this or anything else. There are journalists out there with far better and more accurate information than mine which is anecdotal and incidental. But I long for the day we are grown up enough for this to be a non-subject. Let's make it now.

(2) On a Meta level, Outing legitimates assumptions I believe are profoundly wrong. It assumes there's something wrong with being gay. It belongs to the world in which I grew up, of shame and guilt. If being gay is not an objective disorder and there's nothing to be ashamed of, its rationale collapses, inviting the response "your point being..."

(3) Peoples' Sexual identity and orientation is a significant part of who they are — that's the basis for my argument that the Church needs to stop being ambiguous about the full human dignity of gay people. If this is true it is always abusive to disrespect anyone's right to hold their own identity. In a world where people take responsibility for their own feelings and identities, outing is out.

(4) Time was a story about a high court judge, military officer or MP who was gay would have been big potatoes, but those days are gone except for bishops. We set ourselves up for this kind of prurience. The remedy lies in our own hands. As long as the House of Bishops continues to victimise gay clergy and ordinands, we have a problem.

People have asked about the process of shared conversations last week. We were encouraged the share the experience, but of course, to respect the confidences of others by not attributing anything.

The facilitation was excellent and the bishops, individually and in threes, as honest and engaging as any people you might hope to meet. Facilitation was state-of-the-art. En masse, however, the story was different. The oddest part was where four professionally gay (but not in too angular a way) people were lined up to present their stories to 110 professionally un-gay people, as though the human beings involved were some kind of other species. That geometry felt ultimately dishonest and degrading to everyone involved. It doesn't matter the slightest who is who, but the professional pretence that no bishop is gay reproduces in the room the reason the Church, almost alone among public institutions these days, is so stuck about this.

Many drew attention to the cognitive dissonance between pastoral practice and theory right now. One or two even used the obvious "H" word. The Church must be do better if we are to fulfil our overriding mission to bring the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and make him known to those in our care. Right now what's on offer is rather like one of those time share or bank adverts where the small print at the bottom says “Terms and restrictions Apply.” The love of God is bigger than this. You may say it was ever thus. Jesus walked into the room and outcasts were healed, whilst the scribes and pharisees sat at the back being snide about his disregard of the small print and plotting how to get rid of him. I know where I belong in that scene, and where the Church should be. Right now we've got this wrong, and we have to change. We have to follow Christ, not Caiaphas.

If shared conversations are to bear fruit we bishops require a higher degree of corporate truthfulness than we have achieved yet. But if we did achieve it, and the individual truthfulness I experienced at times in Market Bosworth was a great sign of hope, what other good results might come for the Church and, perhaps, the peace and salvation of the world?

Friday, 28 February 2014

Who's fooling who about history?

I wrote today to fellow bishops, along with many academic colleagues more skilled in the field than me, to see if they might care to correct a foolish historical howler in the understanding that informed their recent letter on same-sex marriage.
It seems to me vastly unfair on those who struggled against Deceased Wife's Sister marriages between 1842 and 1907 to suggest that a marriage setup that potentially breaches Leviticus 18:18 should be a minor matter of “accidents” whilst one that potentially breaches Leviticus 18:24 should be a fundamental matter of “substance.”
What really intrigues me about the whole rhetoric of "redefinition" (as developed by the Moral Majority on the West Coast in the 1990's) is how appealing it is to those who don't want to allow gay people to marry, but how completely foolish and ineffective it has been with everyone else. 
 Not only did it pancake seriously in both houses of the UK parliament, but all the right wing websites that swore to carry on the struggle for ever, even lie down in the road in front of the bulldozers, after the legislation went through last year seem to have packed up and gone home. I wonder why?

27th February 2014 
Dear Bishop, 
Error in the Bishops Guidance on Same Sex Marriages 
We write to alert you to the fact that an important statement in the Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriages issued on 14th February is wrong.The guidance claims that: "There will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer." - House of Bishops, 14th Feb 2014, Appendix, para 9. 
This is inaccurate. Civil law and church teaching have diverged before, on at least two occasions. The first was in relation to the marriage to a deceased wife's sister, the second in relation to the remarriage of divorcees.There has been a robust discussion of this topic between experts on ecclesiastical history, law and sociology which Dr Scot Peterson summarises hereWe are all in agreement that the statement in the Bishops Guidance is mistaken and misleading. Since it forms an important part of the case which is being made, we felt it was right to draw the mistake to your attention. We respectfully ask that it be corrected. 
Our attempts to resolve this matter by writing to Mr Arora and Mr Fittall have failed. There is growing concern amongst the academic community about the situation. 
Looking to the future, some of us are anxious to improve channels of communication with the Church, so that our research and scholarship can be used constructively. If you would be interested in a meeting to discuss this issue, we would be very grateful if you would reply to Professor Woodhead. 
Yours truly, 
Professor Callum Brown FRSE, University of Glasgow  
Professor Arthur Burns, King’s College London 
The Revd Dr Mark Chapman, Ripon College Cuddesdon 
Professor Grace Davie, University of Exeter 
The Revd Duncan Dormor, St John's College, University of Cambridge 
Professor Kenneth Fincham, University of Kent 
Professor Sarah Foot, Christ Church, University of Oxford
Dr Matthew Guest, University of Durham 
The Revd Dr Carolyn Hammond, Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge (member of FAOC) 
Professor Gerard Loughlin, University of Durham 
Elizabeth MacFarlane, St John's College, University of Oxford  
The Revd Dr Judith Maltby, Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford 
Professor Iain McLean FBA, Nuffield College, Oxford  
Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA, Saint Cross College, University of Oxford 
The Revd Professor David Martin  FBA, London School of Economics 
Dr Charlotte Methuen, University of Glasgow (member FAOC)  
The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, King’s College, University of Cambridge 
Dr Scot Peterson, Balliol College, University of Oxford  
Professor Alec Ryrie, University of Durham 
The Revd Dr Robert Tobin, Oriel College, University of Oxford 
Revd Dr William Whyte, St John’s College Oxford 
The Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham  
Professor John Wolffe, The Open University, President of the Ecclesiastical History Society  
Professor Linda Woodhead, University of Lancaster 

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Structure of Moral Revolutions

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a Ghanaian Cambridge / Princeton historian who has examined how moral revolutions happen. He studied practices like duelling, slavery, and footbinding in China. Moral practice does not develop in straight lines, but by a process of subterranean build up followed by swift surface disruption. What seemed unthinkable suddenly, over a single generation, becomes the social norm.

Appiah’s key concept is Honour. In 1790’s England, the traditional honourable thing to do when gentlemen fell out seriously was to fight a duel. Very soon after 1800, all of a sudden, it wasn’t any more — the honourable thing became not to fight a duel.

Such changes are always led by small groups living out their beliefs. They survive and flourish, like eighteenth century Quakers and Evangelicals, by aligning their ideals and their lives. The more their powerful opponents try to bolster the status quo by pleading what “everybody knows” the more they make it plain that everybody does not know what their small group does any more. All others see is ambiguity, defensiveness and hypocrisy. From then on in, reiterating anti- arguments actually backfires and promotes change.

A moral revolution throughout the developed world fits professor Appiah’s schema perfectly. It has normalised gay people, entitling them to respect and equal treatment.  Narrow changes in social attitudes to homosexuals are only a small part of a far broader mellowing in the way people see others, partly in reaction to the barbarities, cheapening of life and suffering experienced in the total wars of the twentieth century. These privilege respect, and the cherishing of human dignity.

Like every a moral revolution the process has deep roots. It touches many aspects of life, including capital punishment, child beating, sweated labour, racism, discrimination and violence against women. The assumption that gay people have a stunted capacity to give and receive love and to structure their households around permanent commitment, has collapsed for most people under 50. Articulations of the old morality suddenly appear outrageous, for moral reasons.

Tragically, churches too often position themselves on the trailing edge of moral change — 1950's C of E bishops railed against the abolition of hanging, quoting the Bible and warning of social collapse. Now it's this. Often they are comfortable people with an enhanced sense of their own virtue who do not know personally the harshness that necessitates change. Jesus pointed out Pharisees can change, and longed for them to be born again, but it's a harder process. They have more face to lose.

So what should everyone do? Professor Appiah:
Create organizations which commit themselves to implementing the norm, not just as a norm of morality, but as a norm, as a convention of everyday life, as it were, as something you are going to live by, then you can be one of the key figures in... if you create such institutions, you can begin one of these revolutions.  And I think that in all of these sorts of cases—there was an anti-dueling society in England—in all of these cases it is very important to get people organized around the new norm and it’s kind of exciting to be in those societies because of the thing I said earlier, which is that you can see that you’re on the right side because other people, the people who are engaging in the old norm, the norm you’re challenging, already know in their hearts, in part of their hearts at least, that what they’re doing is objectionable in some way, that it’s causing unnecessary pain, that It’s denying people things they are entitled to.
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