Welby’s self-awareness is too little, too late
On Wednesday, Justin Welby “came out” in his own way. And what a very strange and inconsistent way it was. Speaking to the Evangelical Alliance, a group with little sympathy for gay rights even if evangelical laity are now pretty much evenly split on the issue, the Archbishop accepted that his opposition to the new same-sex legislation was alienating the church from the younger generation, who see it as “wicked”. He could have chosen a less ambiguous word in the context, but the overall message was clear.
Later, Welby went on to explain that the old man who lives in the Vatican turns out to be a Catholic, and that bears continue to shun modern flushing toilet facilities which fundamentally redefine the act, preferring the traditional, divinely approved form of a bush in the woods.
Despite the “Eureka” moment of noticing that his church is increasingly despised and shunned for their bigotry (a fact which was cunningly concealed by being repeatedly plastered across vox pops, social media and the wider internet), Welby would vote the same way again, should the opportunity arise. He thinks it’s a jolly good wheeze to try to reduce homophobia, but not if it involves actually treating queers the same way as everyone else.
This is the problem. Like a politician, Welby’s automatic response is not to question his policy, but to conclude that it’s not coming across very well. You see, there’s nothing homophobic about denying gay people the same rights as straight couples, even if you extend this to the point of getting the rest of the country to use the church’s definitions. Apparently, God cares deeply about every single person, and we’re all His children in a way. It’s just that some are destined to be more like redheaded stepchildren.
He understands that people draw parallels with racism, but doesn’t know what to do with that knowledge. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to him to wonder how seriously his arguments would be taken in that context. “I understand and support the aim of dealing with racism in our society. But redefining marriage by permitting people of different races to marry is not the right way to address that.” Just how progressive and supportive does that sound?
It’s not words that make the difference, but actions. The excuse that you’re only doing what God said is no excuse, and the synthetic sympathy adds insult to injury. This is our position, and we can see that it hurts and upsets you, but rather than reconsider our beliefs, we’re going to sigh, tut, shrug our shoulders and say sorry, it’s out of our hands. And no, you can’t have your civil partnership blessed either. We might claim to support them, but we can’t have that sort of perversion in God’s house. Sorry.
Possibly the most revealing aspect of this speech, although it could be down to the reporting, is that Welby makes no comment about the people whose rights he wants to restrict. Lots of obsessing about the youth of today and their total dismissal of the church, but nothing on the impact for gay people who want to get married. The cost is being weighed in terms of the church’s future reputation, not the lives of real people who want to marry their soulmate. Colour me unimpressed by your new-found liberalism.
It may be that this is the opening salvo in a new battle to drag the church kicking and screaming into at least the 20th century (the 21st being an unrealistic ambition), and that Welby is hoping to soften up the bigots with salami tactics. If that’s the case, I’ll fully support him, but despite some positive PR, this speech amounts to no more than a time-worn “Sorry, I just honestly believe that you’re a hellbound pervert.”
The church has been shown up badly on this issue, and the longer it goes on, the greater the long-term damage will be. A few empty words just won’t cut it.