The next five questions the Archbishop needs to be asked

First of all, we need to give some cheers to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

He was asked some great questions about the Usual Topic this week in an interview and he gave some great answers.

The interviewer was Michael Gove and the interview appeared in the Spectator.

The crucial bit is this:

It would be a challenge for any Archbishop of Canterbury to accommodate both the concerns of the traditionalists and the evolving views of the rest of British society. But when I ask this, Archbishop of Canterbury he doesn’t prevaricate.

If one of his own children were to be gay and fell in love with another person of the same sex, and asked his blessing, how would he react? ‘Would I pray for them together? You bet I would, absolutely. Would I pray with them together? If they wanted me to. If they had a civil service of marriage, would I attend? Of course I would.’

But, I challenged him, conscious of what many evangelicals believe, wouldn’t you say to them that while you love them, their relationship was sinful or inappropriate?

‘I would say, “I will always love you, full stop. End of sentence, end of paragraph.” Whatever they say, I will say I always love them.’

Listening to the archbishop, you get the sense that he is never calculating who might be offended, or attracted, by his words. He is following what he believes to be the path that Jesus has called him to take.

Those really are great answers and it is good to hear them coming from the leader of the Anglican Communion.

Now, I know what you are thinking – you’re thinking “Do we really have to give three cheers for someone simply behaving like a decent parent?”

Well, right now in the mire of the church’s troubles over sexuality, we do need to cheer him on when he says good things and we need to remember that it could be a very different message and a very different tone. Just the same week, a bishop in Greece has been reported to be lashing out at gay people and atheists, encouraged his ‘readers and followers to “spit on them” and “blacken them” with violence, stating that they are not humans’.

So, it really is three cheers for Archbishop Welby along with a cheer to Michael Gove for asking the right questions and getting the results printed. (And you are quite right, you are not going to hear me cheering Justin Welby and Michael Gove that often so make the most of it today).

One of the things that surprises me about the Church of England is that the bishops there are not subject to intrusive questions more often. I happen to think that Michael Gove’s questions were intrusive but necessary and reasonable. The Archbishop could have simply said, “Don’t bring my family and children into this” but it is to his credit that he didn’t. We need more of the same.

It is perhaps worth remembering in passing that one can sometimes experience ranting uncontrollable anger from bishops by asking questions about their own families (spouses, children, extended family members). I’ve experienced that and it isn’t at all pleasant. Rather oddly, some people think that they can pontificate (pun intended) about other people’s family life and personal relationships whilst their own should be utterly untouchable. It doesn’t work like that, of course, and Justin Welby was wise to give straightforward answers.

But what questions need to be asked of Justin Welby next?

Here’s my starter questions for anyone getting the chance to interview Justin Welby or any other bishops in the C of E at the moment. Or indeed those who can ask questions at Synods.

  • Do you think that you would take a different view on going to a same-sex wedding if it involved someone who had worked closely with you rather than involving a family member?  (Clue: The follow up question is “But what if that person was also a relative? And anyway, in what ways should one behave differently towards one’s family and towards the household of God?”).
  • Do you think that there should be a different moral standard for clergy from the membership of the church? Should clergy be held to a higher moral standard. (Clue – if anyone is foolish enough to answer “Yes” the follow up is “so what exactly can lay people get away with that clergy can’t whilst still being in good standing in the church? – which areas of morality are different – just sex or other things too?”)
  • Do you believe sex outside marriage is always wrong? (Clue: the follow up is “What proportion of people whom you have married have you believed to be virgins?”)
  • What should a same-sex marriage involve? What should the ceremony be like? (Clue: the follow up is “Do you think that God should be involved in a marriage between two people?”)
  • Do you believe that people are turned off from exploring religious faith or attracted to religious faith by the church’s prevaricating over this question? (Clue: Next question is to ask what the proportion of anti-gay people at Holy Trinity, Brompton actually is – both leaders and members of the congregation. Note that the Archbishop is likely to know how this has been changing).

Article in Herald: I’ll march with Pride – but…

I’ve got an article in The Herald newspaper this morning ahead of tomorrow’s Pride March in Glasgow. This is what it says:

Agenda: I’ll march with Pride at our achievements but there is still a long way to go

This weekend, I’ll be marching through Glasgow in a black clerical suit and dog collar amongst a sea of rainbows as I take my place in the Pride March.

There’s a huge amount to celebrate this year, not least the way marriage equality is sweeping the world. It is an idea whose time has come. However, there are a lot of areas where change still needs to come.

The truth is, marriage law reform is not enough to achieve equality and it isn’t as though we’ve actually achieved equal marriage yet in Scotland either. Most religious people who happen to be gay still cannot get married in their own chosen church or other place of worship. The law may have changed, as have social attitudes, but there are still plenty of institutions that discriminate directly against people like me.

The next steps are easy to foresee but they won’t happen automatically. We need individuals to continue to stand up against prejudice when they see it. We need the major equality organisations to understand how much remains to be done, particularly in areas touched by religion. We need political parties to continue to consult about the next steps in changing the law.

The most obvious area where a further change in the law could make a difference is in respect of charity law. It simply shouldn’t be the case in a modern Scotland that any group can be a charity, with all the tax breaks that implies, and campaign or discriminate against lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual (LGBT) people. Yet religious charities can do exactly that. Charities that tried to campaign against people because of their race would be utterly unacceptable in society even though that was once justified on religious grounds. The same change needs to happen in respect of all charities, religious and otherwise; no exemptions, no get-out clauses, no discrimination full stop. Why should any citizens have to live with so-called charitable organisations getting tax-breaks to campaign against their wellbeing?

Religion remains one of the areas where even the pro-equality organisations fear to tread. Yet equality will not ultimately be won in wider society until it has been won in even the most intransigent institutions. Campaigning organisations have helped to remove or at least significantly lessen prejudice and discrimination in so many unlikely institutions: the military, the police, the fire service, and so many workplaces have changed hugely for LGBT people. Their work cannot be completed until religious institutions have changed too.

Fortunately, the religious scene is beginning to change. The views of people in the pews of most of our institutions are converging around the acceptance of same-sex relationships. However, institutionally there is much to do and there’s a particular need for many in leadership positions to articulate publicly the support they have been happy to give to gay colleagues in private for years.

There will be many who share my view that no school, religious or otherwise, should have access to public money unless it is not merely tolerating gay staff and gay pupils but actively encouraging them to thrive. Education policy needs to catch up with public opinion. Conversations between government and the faith-school sector need to be both robust and challenging.

One of the most bizarre claims that we heard in the debate about marriage is that allowing same-sex couples access to marriage would somehow imperil the married lives of straight couples. Such nonsense was as likely to come to pass as the claims that hurricanes and earthquakes would follow on from strengthening gay rights.

In fact, there are areas of society where campaigning to improve things for LGBT people will lead to supporting marriage rather than threatening it. LGBT people are disproportionately and adversely affected by poor sex education in schools, for example, but that area of education is becoming a crisis for all pupils. Most young people learn about sex from pornography. If we want them to learn something different then it means parents working with schools to produce much better age-appropriate sex education using some of the successful models found on the continent. Such education will be much more explicit and come much earlier. It will also be much more effective leading to better life choices, happier people and fewer teenage pregnancies.

I’ll join the march this weekend with a strong sense of Pride in what we’ve achieved but also a strong yearning for the changes that we’re yet to bring about.

The Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth is Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow