Understanding the Justin Welby Radio Phone-In Controversy

There’s been something of a fluttering in the various Anglican doocots this week over remarks that the Archbishop of Canterbury made on a radio programme. When asked why the Church of England could not move forward on affirming marriage as an option for same-sex couples, the Archbishop spoke of standing at a mass grave in Africa and being told that this was caused by some event in America – the implication being that if we affirm LGBT people in the affluent west then Christians who are up against it in places of violence will be killed. It appeared to many that he was suggesting that we shouldn’t move on LGBT affirmation because of what would happen in Africa.

People got cross about this. People including me, accused him of appeasing people of violence.

Then he said that people hadn’t listened to him and that he hadn’t meant it. Then he repeated it several times, leading people like me to the view that we had heard him loud and clear the first time.

It was as though the Archbishop wanted to believe that those who were criticising him had simply not understood him. In fact, it seems to me that we understood him perfectly well the first time but didn’t like what he was saying – something which he now seems to find difficult to understand.

It seems to me that there are a number of important things swirling around under the surface of this story which need to be understood.

Deference is dead in the West but not in the Global South
Firstly, there’s no sign that the Archbishop has understood that deference is dead in the West. People will not simply believe what someone says because of the position that they hold. They will want to question, tease out, reject, argue, discuss, be persuaded. The very fact that the Archbishop went on a radio phone-in last week is part of a remarkable culture shift whereby people simply don’t believe something because someone important says it. Now there are things to be regretted about this but there are things to be celebrated. There has never been a better time for getting people to discuss faith if you approach it in the right way. But you have to expect people to test things out for themselves. They want to know that it is true for them, not for you. What’s so wrong about that? The tone of the Archbishop’s answers seemed to be that we needed to trust him on this because he was right. He has also since said he won’t provide any evidence to back up what he was saying. This comes over as arrogant even if it is not intended to be and I don’t think he realises how it makes him look.

Unfortunately for leaders who have to work across global cultures, this is not so everywhere. In the Global South, deference is far from dead. What bishops say there largely goes. The question is not really how the Anglican Communion can hold together with different views of homosexuality in it. The real question which we never seem to discuss which is fundamental, is whether the Anglican Communion can hold together in the face of radically different views of what the episcopate is about.

The Back of the Bus Won’t Do

It looks as though the Archbishop is trying to set up a “reconciliation process” when he has already decided that the best outcome would be for the church to adopt a policy of blessing gay couples in Civil Partnerships but not affirming anything to do with same-sex couples and marriage. The trouble with this is that it won’t do for those who have come to the view that gay people and straight people should be dealt with equally because they are fundamentally equal in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of God.

The suspicion is that the Archbishop of Canterbury and many others with him, is trying to address this question on the presumption that gay people are in some way disabled (or worse, dysfunctional) straight people. Does he believe that gay people just can’t help themselves and so something must be done for them? It may be to misjudge him terribly, but it feels very much like it.

The reality is that those who have campaigned long and hard for marriage to be opened up to same-sex couples have drunk deeply at the Civil Rights well of justice. They (we!) believe gay people and straight people should be treated equally because of a fundamental existential equality between gay people and straight people.

Any hope that the church could have satisfied people by blessing civil partnerships but refusing to affirm marriages contracted by gay and lesbian couples is 10 years out of date. Had the churches affirmed Civil Partnerships in the first place then they might be in a better place to affirm them now. The argument can be endlessly made that Civil Partnerships and Marriage confer the same rights. The trouble is, most people now accept that Rosa Parks was right. Even if the bus does get you to the same destination, travelling at the front of the bus and travelling at the back of the bus are not the same thing.

There is no sign at all that the Archbishop of Canterbury has understood this as a Civil Rights struggle. The absence of any discussion of rights issues from the narrative whereby these conversations takes place is part of the problem. (The Church in Wales – I’m talking about you!)

The Grinding of Gears as [some] Evangelicals change their minds

These days we are constantly hearing the grinding of gears as some of those in the Evangelical parts of the church are reassessing their views on LGBT people and their relationships within a difficult context and in a place whereby they may suffer at the hands of others for doing so. I’ve been talking about the realignment of Evangelical opinion around this for years and gradually, step by painful step, it is happening. In recent weeks we have had the debacle of World Vision firstly supporting the right of its employees in same-sex relationships to contract marriages and then going back on the decision when people rang up to remove their pledges to support poor children in the world’s most needy places. The revolting display of people removing their financial support from needy children because of LGBT affirmation, and the capitulation of World Vision to those people has made many pause for thought.

And then we have had Vicky Beeching this week talking about how her own support for same-sex couples wanting to marry could cost her her livelihood as US Evangelicals may stop singing her worship songs as a consequence.

These are ugly scenes by the wayside but need to be keenly monitored and understood.

We’ve also seen the Archbishop strongly supported this week by a small number of commentators – particularly those bearing the “Open Evangelical” brand. Now this is complicated, but I still maintain that “Open Evangelical” can in most cases be used as shorthand for those in the Evangelical wing of the church who are pro-women, pro-divorce (though you won’t find them saying so in public) but anti-gay. There may be signs that this is breaking down, but I’d say this description still broadly holds true.

The Spectre of Rowan Williams

Finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s seemingly casual comments on a radio phone-in have raised the fear in many good-hearted people, that his views are no better than those of his predecessor. I make no comment on whether they are the same or not – simply that it matters that many thought – “here we go again”. I don’t think that there has been enough of an understanding thus far that many moderate Christians simply don’t feel that their leaders represent their views, values and generosity. Indeed, I’ve never known bishops to be as mistrusted as I perceive them to be now, by those who traditionally would have supported them the most.

The particular fear that has been raised by this radio phone-in is that Justin Welby harbours the same fantasy that the Anglican Communion is a church which a leader can control (as Rowan Williams appeared to many to believe) rather than a communion of autonomous churches which are able to make decisions appropriate to their situation. Talking about homosexuality is a displacement activity from talking about autocephaly.

The Rowan Williams factor is a significant one and this is the first time that I’ve really seen people dismissing Justin Welby as just another version of the same thing. It matters to understand this and to try to work out whether or not it is true.

You condemn it, Archbishop

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?