Cambridge college chaplains have a long and honourable history of using their position to make principled gestures on matters they feel strongly about. An example of precisely this, albeit in a thoroughly misguided cause, occurred a couple of weeks ago.
In common with a number of other radical Christians, the chaplains of King’s, Trinity and St John’s believed that LGBT people had had a raw deal from the church and from Christianity generally. The Rev Andrew Hammond of King’s, for one, left no doubt where he stood on these matters. He thought the entire teaching of the church on gender was wrong; while admitting that some theologically conservative students had questioned his views, he said their opinions could ‘give you the heeby-jeebies’.
The chaplains decided to make up for this with a series of unorthodox LGBT-oriented services. Mr Hammond, for example, put on an event in the King’s College chapel with the congregation sitting on rugs on the floor and listening to hip relaxing music, in order (he said) to ‘break with tradition’. John’s similarly ran a ‘relaxed and informal Eucharistic service’ to provide a ‘safe sacred space accompanied by ‘poetry, music, video clips and/or silence’.
No one for a moment doubts the utter good faith of everyone involved in this gesture. A moment’s thought, however, suggests that, just like much of the unthinking practice of the clergy today, it was futile, foolish and misconceived.
For one thing, as regards the style of the services, we’ve been here before. In the 1960s clerics fondly assumed that the young would flock to religion that spoke their argot and aped their mannerisms (indeed Hugh Montefiore, then a Caius don and a future radical Bishop of Birmingham, was a prime mover). Pews and preaching out, beanbags and banjos in, and all would be OK. This didn’t work then and it won’t work today, for the very simple reason that it is both transparently patronising and obviously counterproductive. Young people aren’t that gullible, and you don’t attract recruits by imitating what others do, only doing it worse.
But that is a side issue. There are more serious points here. Mr Hammond solemnly argued that the problem was one of ‘acceptance’. LGBT people had failed to achieve acceptance within the church; and he added, sententiously, the soundbite that ‘it's the quality of the love that matters between people, not the gender of the lovers’. Even accepting his views on Christian sexuality, this is hard to swallow. The church, or at least the Anglican church, has never failed to accept LGBT people. It disapproves of certain things they do, but that is different. It no more rejects them than it rejects thieves, murderers and adulterers despite its disapproval of their sins. All are, and always have been, made welcome as the objects of God’s love (and indeed under the Prayer Book they cannot be excluded from worship or denied communion without the express permission of the bishop). As for the soundbite, it trips nicely off the tongue, but it is actually plain misleading. The church has never frowned on love between people of the same gender: indeed it encourages and requires it. It does not approve of sex between them, any more than it condones any sex outside marriage. But that is not the same thing at all. Conflating the two and assuming that love must mean sexual love, as Mr Hammond seems to do, serves only to obfuscate an otherwise simple issue.
Another difficulty with this whole event, and indeed with all events of this kind, is their tendency to cause disproportion. The church’s stance on sexual orientation is important, but it is not that important. Most of the time, in religion and in life generally, we have more important fish to fry than issues of sexuality. Thus, at least outside the lunatic fringes of intersectionality theory, sensible people talk not of LGBT Christians but of Christians who happen to be (among all sorts of other things) LGBT. Like the rest of us who are all sinners in one way or another, they are, and should be, welcome at all acts of worship. The church is an open church and welcomes all sorts into its doors. Unfortunately what has happened in Cambridge encourages exactly the opposite approach: it promotes not unity but a segregation of worshippers. Moreover, this is a segregation not for any possibly rational reason such as belief or churchmanship, but on the fundamentally trivial criterion of sexual orientation. It cannot be defended.
Lastly, it is worth pondering a little further on the ecclesiastical ‘inclusiveness’ which this exercise aimed to further. If the church has never in fact excluded LGBT people, what does this mean? The answer isn’t difficult to see: it comes essentially from the political idea of equality. Not the equality we all share before God as being made in his image, but the much more doctrinaire equality promoted by secular legislation which insists on equal treatment independently of characteristics such as race, religion – and sexual orientation. It is hard to resist the inference that what we have here is an assumption that secular and religious political theory ought to coincide, if necessary by the church taking on wholesale the secular equality agenda. To which perhaps the best answer is in John 18:36 – ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. This was originally said by Christ to explain non-resistance to the state. It applies equally to foolish attempts by the church to import the values of that state and use them where they have no place.