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Leader comment: Walk or stay? Differences about sexuality

02 June 2023

TWO documents, one major, one minor. The latter, The Road Ahead, produced by the Church of England Evangelical Council, although made slightly more interesting by carrying the legend “Please do NOT post it on social media or blog/tweet about it — we would rather it remains ‘discreet’ to our constituency,” none the less contains nothing particularly new. Even before the General Synod’s endorsement of the Bishops’ plan to allow individual clergy to conduct church blessings of same-sex couples, conservative Evangelicals were talking about structural protections that would enable those unhappy with the move to stay as part of the Church of England, at least to the extent of keeping their church buildings and clergy pensions.

The only change here is a clarification that moves for structural change will come only after a campaign of persuasion and synodical pressure. Apart from this, the document manages to be irritating, puzzling, and frustrating: irritating for its casual appropriation of the term “orthodox”; puzzling for its selective honouring of individual conscience — a significant tenet of both Protestant and Catholic ecclesiology, but here used to refer only to consciences that come to a conservative conclusion; and frustrating because the document talks of “the plain reading of scripture”. It is remarkable that part of the Church which pays so much attention to the Bible pays so little attention to its complexity.

The other document, the statement produced by the Archbishop of Uganda on Monday, was predictable, educational, and disheartening. It was predictable because the Ugandan church leadership has long been in the forefront of the campaign against Western liberalism, both because of the brand of Christianity which it received from European missionaries, and because of what it has rejected; and predictable, too, because of the multi-layered story of the 45 Bugandan martyrs, whose feast day is tomorrow. Their story is keenly remembered in the country, where it tends to be read on just one level: as that of young Christians martyred in the 1880s for refusing the homosexual advances of King Mwanga II. The statement was educational, because it serves as a reminder that, globally, most Christians probably continue to take a conservative line on homosexuality. (“Probably” is important, since, despite the diligence of pollsters, most of them have never been asked.) Just as cultural changes in the developed countries have prompted theological reassessment, cultural stability in developing countries, on this topic at least, means that customary opinion on sexuality has not been challenged.

Finally, it is disheartening for all who, despite cultural differences, believe in a universal faith based on God’s love for all people, which accords with the lately articulated universal respect for human rights. In response to such differences, it is always a temptation to “walk apart”, as schism is described these days. It is not as if the history of the Church was not littered with a few thousand examples of this. But the scriptures that are cited in support of schism also demand an unending commitment to unity. It is incumbent on all Christians to continue to seek the mind of Christ on this, as on other topics.

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