The Way We Live Now

That’s the Way to Do It

I have recently been reminded of a book I read a long time ago. It was published in 1989, just as the campaign to see women ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England was hotting up. Its authors (memorable to me for obvious reasons) were a neuropsychiatrist and a public relations consultant: Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen. The book was entitled After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s.

Conceiving their book as a ‘gay manifesto for the 1990s’, the authors called for homosexuals to repackage themselves as mainstream citizens demanding equal treatment, rather than as a promiscuous sexual minority seeking greater opportunity and influence. They saw the AIDS crisis not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity to change the public mind. ‘As cynical as it may seem,’ they wrote at the height of the conflagration, ‘AIDS gives us the chance, however brief, to establish ourselves as a victimized minority legitimately deserving protection and care.’

At the heart of their campaign was to be the potent image of the Victim. ‘The purpose of victim imagery is to make straights feel very uncomfortable … gays must be portrayed as victims in need of protection so that straights will be inclined by reflex to adopt the role of protector.’

This, they saw, would necessarily involve marginalizing some of the homosexual community. In-your-face homosexuals would be held firmly in the back seat; no moustachioed leather-men or drag queens on this platform! Middle-class queers with doting mothers were to be the order of the day. The less said about sleazy San Francisco bath houses the better.

At the same time there would be an attempt to make homosexuality seem intellectually respectable. Theologians and historians would be needed to rework the evidence and to claim gay culture as part of the ‘great tradition’.

The remarkable thing is that this well thought-out programme has actually worked. Through the 90s of the last century the Kirk–Madsen plan was followed to the letter. It was more successful than their wildest dreams. Christianity was claimed, in 1989, to be the perennial enemy. But mainstream Protestantism has shown little substantial opposition in the last twenty years; and now the Episcopalians in America have a practising gay bishop! Who would have thought?

But I did not originally read Kirk and Madsen simply out of an interest in the unfolding campaign of the gay activists. I read it because a wise American friend had pointed it out to me as a plausible analysis of the tactics of the women’s ordination lobby. And so, of course, it proved.

The women’s movement in the Church was quick to adopt the ‘Victim’ posture on which Kirk and Madsen majored. Their success was, on the face of it, improbable. The truth is, of course, that gays had the advantage of really being in a minority. Women, on the contrary, made up the overwhelming majority of practising Christians; and the overwhelming majority of those were opposed to the ordination of women.

The Christian feminist campaign, moreover, was being conducted, at the outset, by precisely the sort of people whom Kirk and Madsen advised should be muzzled (or at least kept in the far background). People like Carter Heyward (an out lesbian post-Christian with a theology of bondage) and Mary Daly (an atheist with a declared hatred of God) and Daphne Hampson (a theologian who had overtly dispensed with the doctrine of the Incarnation in the interests of feminism) had to be kept in the distant background. Even dowdy old Monica Furlong was a bit of a liability.

But the near-impossible was finally achieved. Women were portrayed as an oppressed minority in the Church (the comparison was even made with the black slave trade!) Even when they were finally ordained they (wisely) continued to portray themselves as slighted, and maltreated. Willing membership of a voluntary organization was daringly painted as an arena for abuse, both verbal and physical. Tales were rife of women priests being hissed at or spat upon. They were even said to have received death threats. None of this, needless to say, was ever substantiated; but it served its turn.

Meanwhile, the more ardent feminists were reined in. When William Oddie exposed them in What will happen to God, there was a pained outcry which did not die down for some time.

As Kirk and Madsen had advised, the campaigners embarked, at the same time, on a flurry of quasi-scholarly activity. Just as John Boswell (The Marriage of Likeness: Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, 1994) had prepared the way for same sex blessings with spurious erudition, so a wave of books and articles peopled the Mediterranean of the first century with female apostles and priestesses at every touch turn. Lavinia Byrne, and the even less scholarly Mary Ann Rossi, prepared unlearned opinion to receive an innovation as a revival, and a travesty as a tradition.

The parallel trajectories of the gay liberation movement and the campaign for the ordination of women, of course, spring from common origins and shared social factors. Both (despite Communist oppression of both gays and women) owe a good deal to Marxist roots – something about which Kirk and Madsen also counselled silence! Both have benefited from (perhaps owe their origins to) a tectonic shift in public values and mores.

That shift has been one from obligation to gratification. The purpose of human life has come to be seen increasingly as what is called ‘personal fulfilment’. The effects of this change are everywhere. In politics the rights of the individual take precedence over the needs of the collective. In social relations, marriage is in terminal decline. In the Universities, canons and disciplines upon which whole Schools have been based are dismissed as ‘irrelevant’. A vague notion of ‘rights’ is ubiquitously applied. People are said to have ‘rights’ to things which, for their grandparents, were not even aspirations.

In such a world it was inevitable that sooner or later, gays would demand the same public recognition as heterosexual couples (marriage now having no declared purpose beyond self-fulfilment – witness the divorce epidemic; and sex having been re-categorized from the sacral to the merely recreational).

It was equally inevitable that women should be declared to ‘have a right to have their vocations tested’. An essentially Erastian Church – the Church of England is an established Church; ECUSA strives to be the Church of the Establishment – could not long resist the pressures of the ambient culture. Archbishop Fisher, it turns out, was right in the first half of his famous dictum; but misguided in the second. Anglicans have no Doctrines, no Orders and no Sacraments of their own. Those things are merely the borrowed veil of the numinous which they feel called to cast over the mores of the moment.

Thumbing my way back through Kirk and Madsen I stubbed my toe again and again on the thoughts and reflections which came to me at first reading. None more powerful than this: that the sons and daughters of darkness are indeed, in their generations, wiser than the children of the light.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the Diocese of Southwark.

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