Comment. December 1996

THE TWENTIETH anniversary celebrations of LGCM were, let no-one doubt, a watershed. Richard Kirker, interviewed at the end of a well-organised and well-attended day of which he must have been justly proud, looked forward to a future occasion when an Archbishop of Canterbury would be the principal speaker. Probably he will not have too long to wait.

Whilst taking issue with LGCM on its interpretation of the scriptures and of the weight of tradition (in a matter which affects not only the moral life of Christian people but the doctrine of salvation as expressed in the scriptural understanding of the Church as a nuptial mystery), New Directions has a considerable sympathy with its members. Like other groups in the Church of England, they have been ill-served by a temporizing management style which has for too long preferred adaptability to truth.

The Church of England’s position with regard to homosexuality is frankly a mess which no responsible (and responsibly collegial) House of Bishops would ever have permitted. The General Synod vote of 1984, (with larger majorities than those embracing the ordination of women to the priesthood) still stands and must be regarded as official and binding, if decisions of the General Synod are to have any force at all. But no sooner had it passed than the House of Bishops set about undermining it.

Issues in Human Sexuality (to which members of the House now appeal as though it had the same authority – or more – than the Higton motion) set out an untenable position which satisfies neither side in what is becoming an increasingly acrimonious debate. It is difficult even to see how it helps the bishops themselves in the difficult pastoral and disciplinary decisions which they must take. Quite simply equivocation makes for bad and unequal discipline; and it is now clear that that is precisely what has resulted. In one diocese gay priests can, with impunity, appear on television and proclaim that they are sexually active with the full knowledge of the diocesan; in another they may find themselves disciplined, or inhibited, for what is elsewhere a matter of indifference and even pride.

This will not do and betrays that flight from honesty and commonsense which too often mars the Church of England’s dealings with those whom it finds difficult or unclubbable. Opponents of the ordination of women will recognize the symptoms - public statements of tolerance and understanding punctuated by private vendettas based on fear and atavistic prejudice. Neither Forward in Faith nor LGCM can take much comfort from the fact that when a primate of the Anglican Communion wants to revile those who disagree with him he calls them ‘buggers’ and ‘sods’. It reveals more than simply the balance of his own mind and the problems of his own personality.

The Southwark Service, whatever one thinks of its advisability or acceptability, made the more urgent the need for clarity and charity in an debate which is set to get out of hand.

Homosexuality is a side issue (albeit an important one) in a much larger debate. The debate is about the relationship of natural theology to the doctrine of salvation. Familiar markers from the women priests argument are already appearing, as inevitably they will. Doctrines of human sexuality, like women priests, are being portrayed as ‘second order issues’ (shades of John Macquarrie at Lambeth 1978); and a notion of ‘core doctrine’ is being developed which defends as essential those things which liberal theology has previously been eager to jettison. Virgin Birth, Resurrection, Chalcedonian Definition, Holy Trinity; these core doctrines are once more, it appears, in fashion with the intelligentsia which has consistently rubbished them for the last four decades. Apostolic truth is being rehabilitated merely to accommodate a shabby and unacceptable ethical pragmatism.

But the core doctrines of Christianity are not negotiables in a programme of ecclesiastical crisis management; nor are they possible pawns in a play for power in the Church. Either they are true or they are false. And because they are non-negotiable they have far reaching implications. We saw in the women priests debate how a church which once prided itself on its scholarship and knowledge of the Fathers, declared as 'required by tradition' a practice which the Fathers had unequivocally rejected; and that without any reference in the debate to patristic texts or Councils of the Church. It is in no-one's interests that the Church of England should continue to prefer the subjective to the actual.

Just as Monica Furlong rightly railed against a House of Bishops who did not (would not?) see the radical implications of women’s ordination, so campaigning homosexuals are right to be disturbed by a programme of piecemeal reforms which do not take seriously the radical challenge which they, in their turn, represent. It is the same challenge; and however the Church temporizes, it will not go away.

Forward in Faith and LGCM have much in common. Both represent marginalised groups uncertain of their relationship to the establishment - ‘heretics’ at one moment; valued partners in a common process of discernment the next. Both know, in their heart of hearts that they cannot be content with compromise: for they are committed to the search for honesty and truth. And both wonder, at times wistfully, at times despairingly, whether the Church of England is a place in which either is to be found.

 

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