Theo Hobson, with whose contributions to the Guardian I do not often agree, has a new column this morning entitled: Can Liberal Christians stop banging on about gayness? He’s afraid that liberal Anglicanism is becoming a one pony show, and that liberal Anglicanism is becoming identified as the gay party at prayer (though this is not the way he puts it), thus distracting from so many other things that liberalism should represent. Basically, Hobson thinks that this is just poor communication:
Dwelling on the issue is a bad form of Christian communication. The point of Christian communication, or “proclamation”, is to interest people in Christianity, to make it seem attractive, inviting, serious. Banging on about gayness puts people off.
That at least has the virtue of being clear, a bit like Chris Mooney’s claim that accommodationism is bad form for atheist scientists, or like the old saw that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
However, Hobson doesn’t seem to recognise why this particular agenda is so high on the list for liberal Anglicans. It’s in a sense a moral marker for liberal Christianity. Like racism for earlier Christian radicals, the cause of gay Christians has dominated liberal Christianity now for nearly three decades, if not a bit longer. Why? Because this is the one area about which conservative, evangelical Anglicans, or conservative, high church Anglicans, are not prepared to give a centimetre, let alone an inch.
It all came to a head at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, the one that was so distressing for Richard Holloway that, ever since, he has found it increasingly difficult to think of himself as a Christian. As he says in Doubts and Loves (see “Where I Stand Now” – extracts from the book posted at graham-turner.com):
LAMBETH 1998 turned out to be the most traumatic experience of my life. The hot topic was the status of homosexuals in the Church. I went to Canterbury naïvely expecting that we would craft a classic Anglican compromise that would allow us to go on working together till some kind of creative consensus emerged in the future. In the event, the debate on the subject turned into an ugly rout, with the vast majority of bishops passing a resolution that condemned homosexuals as sinful.
The significance of this event cannot be downplayed. It has to be recalled that many liberal Anglicans felt that they were being condemned by the very segment of the church with which they had felt common purpose, because of their colourblindness, and concern for the poor. But it was just at that time that the very different Christianity of the developing world was beginning to become more assertive, thus revealing itself to be at once more “orthodox” than their white Anglo-Saxon brothers (some bishops refused to come to Lambeth, if women bishops from the few provinces which ordained women to the episcopate, were allowed to attend). Heir to centuries of conservative, evangelical or high church missions, the bishops of Africa, or of the Southern Cone of South America, came to Lambeth in 1998 ready to fight for “the faith once delivered to the saints,” and to chastise their wayward cousins of the white churches, both North and South: the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, the latter having been more thoroughly integrated (racially) since the appointment of Desmond Tutu as Archbishop of Cape Town.
But here, I think, is the problem, and that’s why I call this “Hobson’s Choice.” Liberals do have another choice, but it is a much more dangerous and confrontational one, and few are willing to make it. So, for them, it is a one choice world. For the admission of gay Christians to full membership of the church, such that they can participate at every level, as well as celebrate their relationships through marriage in the church, is one of the least contentious of liberal religious claims. For liberal Anglicans sit very loose to most of the articles of the creeds and other founding documents (such as the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion). All one has to do is to read some of Don Cupitt’s or Jack Spong’s books to see how far liberal Anglicans have strayed from the ecumenical creeds, and other standards of Christian doctrine. Banging on about gayness, as Hobson puts it, I suspect, is about the only choice they have left, if they are not to be dismissed, without the option.
We can see the same process at work in other large conglomerate churches, like the Roman Catholic Church. There is every reason, as Joanna Manning puts it (h/t Veronica Abbass), to ask whether the pope is Catholic, because since John Paul II thinking outside the box has been almost entirely closed to Catholic theologians. To get a sense of how closed Roman Catholicism has become one need only read something like Monsignor Roderick Strange’s article on “The Virgin Birth is no Fairy Tale” in the London Times for 16 December 2011. Here are a couple characteristic extracts (the rest is behind a pay wall):
The young woman is going to have a baby. She is engaged, but her fiancé is not the father of the child. He is a kindly, gentle man and he loves her. He is dumbfounded by what has happened. Yet he has no wish to shame her. He plans to break off their engagement discreetly. Then one night, shortly before he does so, he has a dream. He dreams that this pregnancy is unique, not evidence of infidelity, but rather of God’s action. He reconsiders and takes her home as his wife.
The woman’s experience has been far more remarkable. One day, she has had a sudden, startling, overwhelming sense of divine presence and an invitation to motherhood: the child she will bear will be the Son of the Most High. She is alarmed, utterly bewildered. She is still a virgin. How could she become a mother? She learns that she will conceive, not by sexual intercourse, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. She believes and bows to the divine will: “Let it be to me according to Your word.”
When I was just a schoolboy I used to say, rather wittily, I thought, at the time, that, if the virgin birth mattered, then nothing really mattered (that is, so far as faith is concerned). My point was simply this. If god expects us to believe in something so out of the ordinary, then it is hard to think what could convince us that anything we are told about such a god is true. You might wonder how, starting from this point, I ended up a priest. It was easy. Christianity didn’t seem to require such belief. These were myths which could be intepreted theologically.
Of course, it was hard to say where the myths came to an end, and things became real, but that was the virtue of liberalism: the goal posts could be kept in motion. As Dennett says pointedly, if you play tennis without a net, every shot counts. And that, I think, is why liberals bang on about gayness. This is a relatively safe goalpost to move, and if it can’t be moved, then there aren’t many other ones that can be budged either. This is something that Holloway recognised at Lambeth 1998. He also recognised that liberalism is harder to sell as religion. As he says, in the extracts from his book Doubts and Loves linked above:
THEOLOGIES of anxiety [conservative, evangelical] have considerable strengths. The main one is the coherence of the system they proclaim. Once we accept the premises on which the message is based, the logic is powerful and persuasive. It can be learnt easily and taught effectively. It is, essentially, a product, a package that can be explained to the sales force.
But it doesn’t satisfy the needs for justice and fulness of life. Jesus is supposed to have said:
The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. [John 10.10]
This is already a warning against those who come pretending to speak the truth, and yet purveying a different message to the one preached by Jesus. But where abundant life is defined strictly in terms of a narrow band of orthodox beliefs — as so often happens – the life of faith becomes calcified by institutional barriers and anxious concerns about faithfulness. Abundant life is always the loser. InDoubts and LovesHolloway suggests an alternative, but the alternative will not convince those who hold that certain well-defined beliefs are central to faith, as most Christians do.
Theo Hobson does not seem to be aware of the limited choices that liberals have in the contemporary church. There is a steady trend towards reading the limits of faith more and more narrowly, without any wiggle room between the orthodox formularies and their interpretation. The Roman Catholic Church is not the only ecclesial body to be undergoing this process of conservative retrenchment. In this case, I suspect, liberal Anglicans are playing a cagey game. By concentrating on a point that can be disputed in biblical terms (see, for example, the Roman Catholic, Gareth Moore, A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality, Continuum, 2003), liberals can distract attention from offences against orthodoxy which test the limits of faith much more invidiously.
Interpreting resurrection, virginal conception, or incarnation in ways that depart from the orthodox understanding of such things, has a tendency to be much more threatening to the institutionalists in the church. I suspect that bishops in the African church are quite aware that liberalism about homosexuality cashes itself in in terms of liberalism with respect to the fundamental doctrines of the faith. Their opposition to the acceptance and recognition of homosexual relationships is largely cultural, but their concern for orthodoxy, given the historic background of the African church in conservative Christian movements, weighs much more heavily on their minds. Liberals, like Rowan Williams, who has tried to keep the Anglican Communion from tearing itself apart over the issue of gayness, are, I suspect, fully aware that the problem really lies at a much deeper level than this. It really is Hobson’s choice. Liberals either bang on about gayness or they shut up. Or, of course, like Rowan Williams, they obfuscate. Liberal Anglicans (and many other Christians) have painted themselves into a corner, and it is hard, in this case, to preserve their integrity. Theo Hobson seems to think that it’s time to stop banging on about gayness, but he seems unaware of the extent to which this is a Hobson’s choice. And with a growing atheist constituency, the tendency of a growing conservatism in religion is to drive people away from faith altogether. We should celebrate that, but we should also recognise how tenuous in makes the hold of liberal believers on to their faith.