What Are We Fighting About?, Part II--Anglicans, Establishment, and Non-Negotiables

People who grow up in the United States, such as myself, have a very difficult time wrapping their heads around the idea of an established church.  Every November, we get together to eat turkey ostensibly in remembrance of folks who fled England to get away from the grasp of the established church.  People who agree on nothing about the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution agree that it means that the government cannot establish a church as the official church of the country.  The basic story we get is that an established church is bad because it puts the power of the state behind efforts of that particular church to enforce orthodoxy, leading to religious wars and conflict.  In addition, an established church is bad for that church, because the church will be "captured" and subject to the agenda of the state, compromising its freedom and witness.  And, certainly, there is support for both of those theses in the history of the established Church of England.

Because established churches are so foreign and incomprehensible to me as a person from the U.S., I found this essay by Rev. Martyn Percy, the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, to be very enlightening.  In reading this essay, it seems to me that there are two other problems that an established church has that a non-established church does not, or at least not to the same degree.  The first is that an established church is a public institution, with all the attendant obligations that this creates.  As Rev. Percy notes, the position of the Church of England on LGBT questions (at least, the official position) is not one shared by a majority of the people of the country.  If the Church of England were simply one church among many, it can always say "well, if you don't like it, don't join us."  Whatever the prudential difficulties of the Benedict Option, everyone in the U.S. context would accept that a religious body can insist on a rejection of LGBT people even in the face of contrary public mores.  In other words, I don't have the right to insist that the Catholic Church or the Southern Baptist Convention allow me to participate in their services or church life.

But the Church of England is, in theory, the religious body that represents all of the people of England.  Rev. Percy's point is that it is insisting on policies that exclude some significant, legally protected slice of the people of England makes those people, on some level, second class citizens in their own country.  An LGBT person who is denied the right to get married by the Church of England is arguably in a position more analogous to the people who couldn't get a marriage license from Kim Davis than the hypothetical couple that might insist on getting married in a Southern Baptist congregation in the U.S.  This is the price of being an established church--like it or not, you are there for the whole of the country, not just some self-selecting group.

But there is another side of this coin, one that is relevant not just established churches like the Church of England, but to all Christian denominations in the West.  It is becoming increasingly the case that large chunks of the population in the West, especially among younger people, see endorsement of LGBT people and committed LGBT relationships as simply non-negotiable.  And, critically, this is true among people who would otherwise be committed to the Christian faith.  In other words, it is not the case, contrary to the way it is usually portrayed by the hardline folks, that these people first reject the church and then as a consequence of that embrace LGBT equality; instead, you have people who would, or at least are open to, embrace the church but for its position with regard to LGBT equality.

If this is true (and I believe that it is, and will become increasingly so as we go forward), then this presents churches with a simple question--just how important is this issue to you, really?  If a person comes to the church saying "I would be willing to jump into this Christian thing and try to follow Jesus, but I can't do it so long as you take the position you do with regard to LGBT issues," and the church says, "so be it,"  then the church is saying either that opposing LGBT relationships is more important than evangelization, or that opposing LGBT relationships is so central to the Gospel message that evangelization without that component would be meaningless.

That places sexual morality in a place of importance to Christianity that is really hard to justify based on the Gospels or the writings of Paul, even if you think that the New Testament requires you to oppose LGBT relationships.  After all, Jesus told us that if we have two tunics we must give one of them to someone else, but we don't say that people who have an extensive wardrobe cannot fully participate in church unless they first give away all of the items in their closet.  Things related to sex are used as a litmus test in a way that other moral questions are not.  And this litmus test, increasingly, is going to be one that will exclude increasingly large slices of the population from even considering the church or the Christian message.

The effect of all of this, if allowed to continue unchecked, is to turn Christianity "tribal," as Rev. Percy calls it.  Another way to say it is that the Benedict Option, with all of its inherent pathologies, will become the de facto expression of Christianity, because only the already committed will be willing to listen to its message in the first place.  This would suit the Benedict Option people just fine, as they have already written off anyone who is willing to even consider reevaluating the traditional sexual morality.  But a Christianity consisting of nothing but Rod Dreher and his Catholic and evangelical fundamentalist fellow-travelers would be a big set-back for the actual message of Jesus Christ.

Folks like Rev. Percy are right to note this danger and warn against it.  Once again, even if you believe that the Bible requires you to oppose LGBT relationships, I think it imperative that you ask yourself the question, "is our continued fighting along this line worth what it is going to cost the church?  As they say, is the juice worth the squeeze?"

Asking that question, though, is complicated for the Church of England by its (in a Girardian and Gospel sense) scandalous relationship with its African daughter churches.  Here again its status as an established church makes things much harder for the Church of England, as it must bear the burden of 300 years of sins against Africa and the African people not only in its role as church qua church, but also as church as extension of the British Empire.  So, you have people like Rev. Percy taking the position that the homophobia of Africa is yet another piece in the string of terrible consequences wrought by colonialism.  This is a position which, as I am sure Africans would be quick to point out, removes any agency on the part of Africans themselves, itself a part of a Western colonialist mentality.  On the flip side, you have more conservative folks literally idolizing the African church as this bastion of fidelity that will preserve in the face of the wicked disintegration of Western Christianity, an idea that has no little bit of a "noble savage" flavor.

Western Christian churches can have a productive relationship with their African brothers and sisters only to the extent that they treat them as true equals.  Neither holding them up as paragons of virtue (which is only a knife's edge difference from making them scapegoats) nor taking responsibility for their actions as a sop to our consciences is treating them as equals.  Insofar as homophobia is rampant in sections of the African church, and insofar as we believe that to be wrong, we need to say so directly, without making the issue always and everywhere about us and our problems and our concerns.  That's what you do with people who you view as your equals.  That's the real challenge inherent in this Primate's Meeting that Archbishop Welby is putting on in January.

I have no particular attachment to Archbishop Welby, but as an outside observer it seems to me that Rev. Percy is being a little harsh in his assessment of Welby's performance.  Archbishop Welby, it seems to me, is in an impossible position, and he is trying to find a way to buy time in the same way Pope Francis and the Catholic Church is trying to stall.  The problem is that Pope Francis has ways of imposing a stall that Archbishop Welby does not.  It may be the case that Welby is not helping things with his management theory approach to church life, and it may even be the case that he is actively screwing it up.  But I am not sure anyone else would be able to do much better.  I don't envy him in the task he has in front of him.


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