Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Incarnational experiences can fail: Stephen Bates takes Archbishop of Canterbury to task for speaking out against UK Sexual Orientation Regulations and church exemptions

[Editor: I previously lambasted Bishop Michael Nazir Ali of the Church of England ( for basically threatening to close CoE charities rather than serve gay people. The UK government is introducing sexual orientation as a category protected against discrimination; it seems there may be some exceptions for religious groups, but the Roman Catholic church in the UK has protested and threatened to close its adoption agencies.

Now, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu have come out in support of the RCC, saying that conscience should not be subject to the law of the state. I understand that BBC has an interview with ++Sentamu, where he squirms trying to justify conscience in not serving homosexuals vs conscience in not serving Blacks, but it's in Real media format, and my mac can't play it.

And here, Stephen Bates takes on ++Rowan Williams. Our friend the Archbishop apparently lived next to a gay Anglican priest, with a partner, who had adopted a very difficult child. Their kids played together. And still, the Archbishop can do this...

One other Anglican/Episcopalian blogger mentioned a CoE bishop who initially strongly opposed moves to ordain women ... until he actually spoke to women who were seeking and denied ordination. He changed his mind, and is now supporting consecrating them as bishops. The blogger, whose name I can't remember, described it as an incarnational experience. God became human in Jesus to experience what we experienced, which is a central element in Christian theology. Similarly, this particular bishop experienced, and was changed.

I lambasted Peter Akinola for wilfully avoiding an incarnational experience with Louie Crew, calling for him to (not literally, mind you) have a millstone hung around his neck and thrown into the ocean. Well, ++Rowan didn't flee, but it seems the incarnational experience didn't really take.]

Now that the archbishops of the Church of England have stepped into the government's gay adoptions row, it's worth adding church politics to the politics of Westminster and Whitehall.

I suspect two different, internal, forces are at work in the two denominations here - which isn't to say that the Catholic and Anglican hierarchies are not quite sincere.

In the Catholics' case, the push for a hard line on the adoption issue has largely come from Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Birmingham, who is generally responsible for child policy issues in the church. Vincent is almost ostentatiously ambitious to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who is due to offer his resignation on reaching the age of 75 this summer. Furthermore, Nichols is fresh from spearheading the church's campaign before Christmas, which forced ministers to back down on their admittedly half-baked scheme on admissions to church schools.

Murphy-O'Connor has not been in good health, but the expectation is that he will be asked to stay on for a year or so. Even so, he won't want to be outflanked by his ambitious colleague. Taking a hard line on gay people won't do Vinnie any harm with the Vatican when the time comes to name a successor, particularly as one of the other candidates is Timothy Radcliffe, the former head of the worldwide Dominican order, who has been noticeably more understanding and conciliatory in his attitudes towards homosexuals and has preached at services for them. Radcliffe is much the more intellectually and socially assured candidate - some might say holier - while Nichols is altogether spikier and less emollient.

On the Anglican side, the archbishops leave in a few days' time for Dar es Salaam and the next meeting of the world's Anglican primates, where the communion's on-going and long-lasting row over homosexuality is once again high on the agenda. Some of the developing world's Anglican archbishops are suspicious of Archbishops Williams and Sentamu and censorious of the Church of England for accommodating gay people at all.

In this, they are egged on by conservative evangelical factions in both England and the US, anxious to assert the authority of their view of biblical orthodoxy and reshape the church in their image. Williams in particular is under pressure for his supposed liberalism - though he has taken considerable steps to conciliate the conservatives. A secular gay row in Britain is the last thing he needs now and the hard line taken in his letter to the government last night was the very least that would have been demanded of him.

Even so, it is uncomfortable for the archbishops, as anyone who heard Sentamu equivocating on the Today programme, as he tried to explain why being in conscience unwelcoming to gays was entirely different from in conscience discriminating against black people, will have appreciated.

It is particularly difficult for Dr Williams because he actually knows very well the case of a gay couple who have brought up a youngster with severe behavioural difficulties. Not only that, but one of the couple, Martin Reynolds, is an ordained Anglican priest.

The lad was placed with him and his partner at the age of 4 when Barnardo's could not find any other foster care for him and the couple have provided him with a stable and loving household ever since - for 15 years - despite his disruptiveness and other difficulties. Dr Williams knows this because, when he was archbishop of Wales, he lived next door: the boy played with the Williams children. The archbishop understands very well that gay couples can successfully and charitably foster children, which makes his letter verge on the hypocritical.

Martin recently rang a Catholic agency to inquire about fostering, posing as an atheist and was told he would be quite acceptable. When he rang again as homosexual he was, of course, told to get lost.

But in a further sense this row and others currently affecting church-state relations illustrate a wider problem for the religious authorities. One of the most dispiriting things about the way in which current religious disputes are framed is the assumption by some religious folk of victim status.

Christians in Britain are not an oppressed minority and it is dishonest to suggest they are: people have full rights to worship as they wish, they have special, unelected, representation in the legislature and particular attention is paid to their views - sometimes more than is warranted. What society does say is that they have no special claim to be affronted, or to impose their views on people who do not share them, as if they automatically have some special moral virtue.

Accompanying all these demonstrations of lofty moral virtue from a certain sort of Christian has been a hectoring, bullying tone, as exemplified by the Catholic Church's moral blackmail to close down their adoption agencies if they are required to comply with the sexual orientation regulations. Just who will suffer from this?

It was pathetic and ridiculous for the cardinal effectively to tell the government: "Exclude us, or the kid gets it," particularly one might add - and I speak as a Catholic - with the church's spotty record for putting vulnerable children in harm's way with predatory paedophile priests over the years. And it was lamentable for the Anglican archbishops to support them in their blackmail.

If the churches wonder why their message is less and less appealing to the outside world - to those they hope to attract - they might ponder the bullying and sanctimonious face they so often present to the world. It's not attractive; it won't win them converts - and, ultimately, it won't win the argument.

[Editor: I should add, it was my actually meeting and talking to gay people that changed my mind about homosexuality, and caused me to leave my old church and join the Episcopal Church.

PS, perhaps the UK government should consider allowing Catholic agencies to not serve same-sex couples, but mandate that they refer such couples to other agencies? That might be enough fudge to satisfy everyone.

PPS, it is my understanding that the aforementioned RCC and other religious adoption agencies are taking public funds. It is also my understanding that some Christians are whining about their beliefs not being respected, and about being persecuted for Christianity. If they were running private adoption agencies that would be one thing, but these guys are taking public funds and serving the public.]

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