If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull. The Archbishop of Canterbury did just that at the Greenbelt Festival last week when interviewed by ‘vicar of Gogglebox’ Kate Bottley. The interview made news headlined with a classic “Wonga” Welby sound bite: ‘I am constantly consumed with horror’ at the way the Church has treated gay people.
Greenbelt is a Christianised Glastonbury or Woodstock, attracting holy hippies sporting Hare Jesus Hare Krista T-shirts and hairy-lefties with piercings and ponytails. It features “HaLOL” Muslim comedians like Imran Yusuf, psychedelic rock groups like the Mourning Suns and artists who exhibit a potty under the title ‘This isn’t a potty.’ So naturally they invited the Arch of Cant.
Welby was a one-trick pony. If you can’t impress them with substance, smother them with synthetic sincerity, manufactured authenticity, and carefully calibrated righteous indignation. In short, substitute stuff with bluff.
Welby said that he spends ‘a lot of time feeling a fraud.’ Wherever he went, he found people who could do his job ‘infinitely better’ than he could. Regarding same-sex relationships, he said that he ‘can’t see the road ahead’ for the Church. So let’s get this straight, Justin. You’re CEO of a worldwide corporation—the Anglican Communion. Your company—the church—has been around for 2000 years. You’ve got directions in a SatNav—the Bible. You’ve got a gilt-edged promise that the Holy Spirit will ‘teach you all things’. Your boss is God. Millions are looking to you for direction. You’re the shepherd—with a crook.
And you’re telling us you can’t see the road ahead? And others can do your job better? Well, if you sincerely mean that then why don’t you call it a day and let the better person do your job? If you can’t see the road ahead don’t sit in the driver’s seat. You might crash and take the entire Church of England with you. Or perhaps you don’t really mean what you say.
Thumping your audience with carefully calibrated righteous indignation got you a round of applause at Greenbelt. You knew spitting fire and brimstone at how ‘constantly consumed with horror’ you are at the way the church has treated homosexuals would get you a terrific headline, didn’t you, Justin?
Can we ask you what you mean exactly? In what horrific manner has the church treated gays? We know Catholics and Protestants in the Middle Ages enjoyed an occasional bout of barbequing each other at the stake. We know how shamefully black and Asian immigrants were treated by the Church of England in the Sixties—literally shown the door and told to find the Pentecostal church down the road.
I’ve served a variety of churches in India. I’ve seen lower caste Christians treated abominably by upper caste Christians. I’ve served a variety of churches in the UK. I’ve seen Christians from ethnic minorities marginalised at every level in the Church of England despite more than 30 years of campaigning and phony assurances of inclusion. When it comes to the church’s treatment of gays, we both know that openly gay clergy now live with their civil and married partners (the latter in open defiance of the church’s rules) in deaneries and vicarages, with a nod and a wink from the top brass.
A good number of the churches in London would close if gay clergy were hounded out. Homosexual clergy openly and freely minister as deans of prestigious cathedrals and even a bishop who has just been ‘outed’. Such a privilege is unthinkable for ethnic minority clergy who face the most demeaning exclusion within the monochrome Church of England. And you’re telling us you are ‘constantly consumed with horror’ at the treatment of gays by the church?
Can we ask how you’ve arrived at this conclusion? Perhaps you’ve seen studies and statistics, reports and research I know nothing of? Perhaps like Tony Blair you’ve had sexed-up intelligence dossiers of gays being served poisoned wine at Holy Communion or forced to pump bellows on pipe organs when the electricity fails or a system of apartheid with gays allowed only in segregated choir lofts?
Maybe you are right. But can you honestly say that the biggest issue facing the church that constantly consumes you with horror is the treatment of gays? In the last hundred years, more Christians have been murdered for their faith than in all the 2,000 years of church history. Christians are facing genocide in some parts of the world. In 2015, 7,000 Christians were killed for their faith. These are conservative estimates and exclude North Korea, Syria and Iraq, where accurate records do not exist. Why are you not ‘constantly consumed with horror’ at the images of ISIS crucifying Christian boys, burying their parents alive and selling their daughters as sex slaves, Archbishop? Closer to home, why are you not ‘constantly consumed with horror’ by the sexual abuse of minors by your clergy?
You then say that we have to find a way to love and embrace people who come from societies that believe same-sex relationships are ‘deeply, deeply wrong.’ But, hold on, you’ve just turned a theological issue into a cultural one. People who come from Africa, say, don’t find same-sex marriage to be ‘deeply, deeply wrong’ because they run around half-naked in grass skirts and are hoodwinked by fakirs and snake charmers, and sadhus sleeping on spiked-beds.
People from ‘backward’ cultures—the implication is clear—are not ‘progressive’ on the issue of same-sex marriage because they believe that God has spoken fully and finally in Holy Scripture. It is the Bible that is our ultimate authority, not our culture. We don’t decide doctrine by democratic franchise. But aren’t there people even in Western culture, like the quintessentially English and nominally Anglican novelist Frederick Forsyth, who says he is ‘not in any way homophobic’ but ‘does have an aversion to sodomy’? Don’t you think people from other cultures would find your statement deeply, deeply patronising and offensive?
‘In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible,’ George Orwell famously said. The entire Anglican Communion would sincerely hope that your discourse at Greenbelt was a symptom of anarchic impulsiveness rather than your attempt to defend the indefensible.