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Andrew Symes: Beware the BBC’s religious divide. Reasonable, liberal Christians versus horrid anti-gay ones


This article is reproduced by kind permission of Anglican Mainstream

Revisionist leaders talk a lot about their desire for unity in the Church. But more often than not, the only unity they are interested in is with the world, joining with the briefings of the secular culture against orthodox Christianity.

Here is what happened on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme where the Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, and myself were in separate studios to discuss Justin Welby’s recent invitation to the Primates of the Anglican Communion to attend a meeting in January. Bishop Walker began with a downplaying of the sexuality question, saying that there were many other issues of shared interest which would continue a sense of unity:

“…they will be discussing religiously motivated violence, the environment, protection of children…[on my recent visit to Pakistan] Christians were far less interested in my views on same sex relationships than that I was prepared to be with them and…pray with them.”

He then spoke of how the Communion can hold together with “strong autonomy for each national church, but a sense of mutual affection and…shared history”.

My response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation was to show appreciation for his initiative in getting people round the table who have been estranged, but I questioned the diagnosis of the problem, in particular the suggestion in the Statement from Lambeth that the differences are cultural when in fact they are theological; serious differences about what the Christian faith is.

The interviewer, following the line of questioning provided by the Radio 4 researchers, then asked how the Communion can hold together when the American branch supports gay marriage, while Ugandan bishops support the death penalty for homosexuality. I said immediately that this was completely false. The Ugandan church holds to the historic biblical teaching on sex and marriage, but does not support the death penalty – and in fact has worked hard for protection of homosexuals and other minorities in Africa from injustice.

At this point the Bishop of Manchester, only a couple of minutes before telling us all how sexuality was a minor issue in the overall unity of the Anglican Communion, jumped in to say “Oh, but the Ugandans do support criminalisation of homosexuality”. Er, no. We need to get our facts right. [A statement from the Church of Uganda from January 2014 can be found here and further background can be found here .]

The interviewer then said that there were obviously major differences. How could the splits be healed? Bishop Walker assured her and the listeners that the “bonds of affection” would continue.

Now, apart from tips as to how I can improve my own media performance, is there anything we can extrapolate from this encounter?

Firstly, a clearer understanding of the methods of spin that are being used. The “Ugandan bishops support the death penalty for gay people” line was used in an article by Andrew Brown in The Guardian the day before; it was picked up and repeated by Caroline Wyatt, the BBC religion correspondent, in her TV report, and then used by the interviewer Mishal Husain in the morning. Wyatt and Brown have apologised and amended their reports, but the damage has been done. A big lie has been asserted as truth by authoritative sources, and has reached millions of people. Repeat the lie; it will stick in people’s minds. George Orwell could not have thought up a better example.

Secondly, vilifying the Ugandan church in this way, and setting it against the pro gay marriage stance of the North American Episcopal Church, is part of a consistent and clear narrative emerging in the public square: there are two types of religion, good and bad. In the same way that there are ‘moderate’ Muslims and jihadists, so there are reasonable, liberal Christians, and horrible conservative anti-gay ones. Any orthodox believer who has a conservative view on sexuality, however nuanced and compassionately expressed, is now, by implication and because of the lie about the death penalty in Uganda, confirmed in an association in many peoples’ minds with murderous bigotry and intolerance. It seems a remarkable coincidence that in the same week that the BBC and  The Guardian were putting out these mendacious memes: “conservative Anglicans…GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference)…kill gay people”, reports were coming through that our Government is seriously considering legislation which will require religious leaders to register for government approval and show that their views are not “extremist”.

A new message is being hinted at to orthodox Christians by the secular state: get with the programme, or we will treat you as extremists.

Thirdly, the episode is an example of revisionist episcopal hypocrisy. David Walker (whose views are well known) claimed on one hand that the “gay” issue was not going to split the church, and that unity in the Anglican Communion was his priority. But then he joined in an attack on the Church of Uganda using false information. If his aim is unity, this will surely have the opposite effect – unless of course he thinks he can bully African churches into following his revisionist views, and creating ‘unity’ that way? Rather than discuss the theological issues behind the fracture in the Communion, the Bishop of Manchester chose to use the radio interview to solicit support from the secular liberal audience for his own brand of Christianity, by demonising African Anglicans and so further hardening the divisions in the Communion. To what extent does this reflect his own view, or part of a more organised policy?

We are seeing a combination of spin, intimidation and hypocrisy as revisionist church leaders join with the secular media in creating distance between (in their narrative) ‘good religion’ of liberal Western Anglicanism, and the ‘bad religion’ of the orthodox version in the developing world. In North America the faithful confessing Anglicans have faced this, taking a public, costly stand, articulating the Bible’s clear teaching about sex, marriage and what it means to be human as part of a fully-orbed presentation of the counter cultural Gospel of Jesus Christ. They have not been ashamed of association with African Christian leaders, warmly welcoming close fellowship and even oversight from them. The Archbishop of Canterbury needs to show at the January meeting that he rejects the revisionist tactics of the BBC/Guardian/Bishop of Manchester (that is, if the GAFCON Primates accept the invitation). Otherwise English evangelical Anglicans and orthodox anglo-Catholics will need to be moving ahead organisationally along the same lines as ACNA (Anglican Church in North America).

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Andrew Symes
Andrew Symes
Andrew is a vicar and theological educator. He is also the Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream.

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