It is often noted that the Scottish Episcopal Church is very much in favour of the Anglican Communion. What is noted in public slightly less often but which is no less important to remember, is that it is not in favour of the Anglican Communion at any cost. Our dismissal of the Anglican Covenant showed that very clearly.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s statements yesterday in a radio phone-in, which seemed to imply that opening marriage to same-sex couples would lead to murder in Africa, take us into a very murky ethical place. I have to admit that my heart sank when I heard it. We have had more than enough of this kind of thing from inhabitants of Lambeth Palace. It seems very clear to me that in this case, Justin Welby is wrong.
Generally speaking, I thought it was a poor radio performance. Personally I never do radio phone-ins. It is a format that is hard to do well with. The Archbishop seemed nervous (perhaps rightly) and ill-prepared.
The particularly offensive thing which he has said is to suggest that there should be no movement on opening marriage to same-sex couples in the church because that could lead to Anglicans being murdered in Africa. He told a story of standing beside a mass grave and being told that the people had been killed by local opposition forces.
I’ve stood by a graveside in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far far away in America, and they were attacked by other people – because of that a lot of them had been killed.
Inevitably, I’ve seen US friends posting a great deal online asking whether the Archbishop was trying to lay the blame for dead Africans at the doors of The [US-based] Episcopal Church. It is a repugnant suggestion and comes just before Justin Welby is due to visit that church next week. The Archbishop needs to justify his claim or withdraw it. It is a vile suggestion for a cleric to make of another part of the church.
I find the ethics of this very straightforward. It seems to me that the ethics of the Anglican Communion, of the churches in the UK, of the churches in North America, of the governments of the nations in which we live – these cannot be determined by those who bear the bullet and the bomb. The Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have been suggesting that our policies should be dictated by murderers.
In some ways this isn’t new. Justin Welby’s view is probably not that different to that of Rowan Williams and we’ve heard the same stuff coming from the Mothers’ Union for years. More than once I’ve heard it said that Rowan Williams was desperate for Jeffrey John to withdraw from being a bishop because he feared the consequences of violence in other countries. It can seem plausible put like that, can’t it? Who wouldn’t want to stop violence?
The trouble is, it is an attempt to deal with the reality and horror of violence by appeasing the violent. It is giving those who murder, a moral authority that they can never be allowed to hold.
Let us presume for a moment, for the sake of argument that the story told to Justin Welby is essentially true – that there is a mass grave in Africa caused solely by positive attitudes to gay people (a gay person?) in the US. If that is true then the only Christian response is to condemn the violence and do so publicly, loudly and endlessly. You don’t keep your mouth shut and try to turn the clock back on progressive attitudes on the other side of the world as a response to it.
The claim is that these people were killed because their opponents believed that if they left Christians alive then they would be “made gay”. If this is true then those people were killed as a result of homophobia. It is homophobia of the worst, most violent sort that killed the people in the Archbishop’s story.
You condemn it, Archbishop. That’s what you are called to do.
This feels very personal for me. In my work at St Mary’s I encounter very frequently people who come from Africa including some of the countries that are being discussed around the world because of this current conversation. I also encounter those who are gay and lesbian and particularly, I help those amongst them who want to get married, to get hitched. Am I supposed to prejudice the rights, livelihoods and wellbeing of one group over another because someone threatens one particular group with violence?
We are our own Anglican Communion at St Mary’s and I couldn’t possible care only for the rights of one group. We all have a right to life, to security, to live our lives to the full.
When you encounter violence, you condemn it, Archbishop. When you encounter murder, you condemn it, Archbishop. When you encounter homophobia, you condemn it, Archbishop.
You don’t appease it, Justin Welby. You condemn it.
Why should any of us in any land expect anything less of you?