“Sooner or later Justin Welby will have to tell us exactly where he stands on gay marriage, and then face the consequences”.
This is Damian Thompson’s summation of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s most recent equivocation on the subject.
The media friendly prelate has admitted, despite his previous passionate defense of LGBT Christians, to putting the brakes on the House of Bishops’ discussions on same sex marriage blessings.
It seems before his recent visit to South Sudan’s killing fields he had not fully faced what such a change to Church teaching would mean – let alone its human cost.
But in the horrific aftermath that he witnessed, of the slaughter, rape and burning 6000 African Christians by Islamic militants, murdered even in the Cathedral in which they had sought sanctuary, he could not avoid it. There and then his local church hosts confronted him on Anglican policy on homosexuality.
They left him in no doubt that for the Church of England to bless or sanction same sex marriage meant schism – a division of the church that would be second only to the Reformation. What was clear too was that blood of innocent African Christians, targeted by Islamists as supporters of a depraved church, would be on Welby’s hands.
What a responsibility for him to contemplate; what a possible legacy to ponder. No wonder the Daily Telegraph described this as the Archbishop’s deadly dilemma.
But the question of whether it was self inflicted, Cole Moreton, Welby’s interviewer, did not ask.
Nor did he ask how Welby’s perception of homosexual marriage as a plausible “development of doctrine” tallied with the C of E’s official response to same sex marriage:
To change the nature of marriage for everyone will be divisive and deliver no obvious legal gains given the rights already conferred by civil partnerships. The Church of England cannot support the proposal to enable all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony. Such a move would alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history. Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.
….. We also believe that imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage would be deeply unwise.
For in his speech in the House of Lords debate on the same sex marriage Bill Welby extraordinarily asserted that his defence of marriage was “not a faith issue”.
And contrary to the C of E position, he said the legal existence of civil partnerships was not yet enough and “that stable and faithful same sex relationships should, where those involved want it, be recognised and supported with as much dignity and the same legal effect as marriage.”
He underlined all this by giving his ‘personal strong support’ for ‘a new and valued institution alongside (traditional marriage) for same gender relationships’, in order ‘to strengthen us all’.
He might as well have voted for the bill.
After the legislation passed, appalled at finding the Church of England cast in the role of homophobe and bigot prepared for it, he then insisted it “demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being”.
But now, faced with an African apocalypse, he finds himself baulking at discussion of the Pilling report proposals that the Church give public recognition to permanent same sex relationships (blessings).
Still trying to balance competing rights and interests, he hopes, it seems, that avoiding awkward questions and not shifting doctrine too fast or too far will suffice.
It won’t. It will still lead the Church into the kind of cultural captivity the Bishop of Birkenhead warned against in his dissenting statement to the Pilling Report.
For what the Archbishop must grapple with is whether he thinks contemporary liberal orthodoxies offer the clearer and better vision regarding our human sexuality and behaviour than Scripture and Christian tradition.
He should also ask himself whether in this critical time of major cultural change – of family breakdown, spiraling rates of abortions and sexually transmitted diseases – he thinks Biblical teaching on ethics is more or less relevant?
If the answer is that his liberal leanings trump his religious belief, instead of buying more time, he should seriously think of standing down as the moral and spiritual leader of the Church of England.