Who’s your ugly friend, Justin?
I used to think that it was just a student cliché to go on the pull with an ugly friend to make yourself seem more attractive in comparison. But it seems that Justin Welby’s pulling the same trick on behalf of the Church of England, during his tour of Africa, standing next to outrageous homophobes to invite flattering comparisons.
Let’s be clear – despite occasional flashes of self-awareness and a few woolly compromises, the CofE is no friend to gay people. Even last year’s Pilling Report, the latest in a long history of attempts to restate the church’s position on sexuality in more palatable terms, makes that starkly obvious. More on that another time, perhaps. But despite that, they end up looking like the rational, tolerant ones.
Welby and John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, have sent a letter to Anglican Archbishops, encouraging them not to victimise gay people, who they describe as “children of God”. This is an unremarkable application of Christian theology, as is the encouragement to “demonstrate the love of Christ”, and their continued opposition to same-sex marriage makes it clear where they stand on the matters of substance, rather than presentation. Nevertheless, the response has been incredibly hostile.
Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of Uganda typified this hostility, insisting that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture”. That’s not something either Welby or Sentamu would disagree with, although they’d probably try to frame it in subtler terms, but Ntagali seems to have his own view of their opinions, complaining about the path the CofE is on, and telling them to stop it. I have a hard time understanding how the CofE position can be considered dangerously liberal, but in a world where you can be put in prison for holding the wrong person’s hand, anything’s possible.
The irony is that in terms of concrete action from the top, the two sides are almost indistinguishable. Working to liberalise oppressive anti-gay legislation? That’s the Ugandans. Pushing the government to deny rights to gay people? Strangely, that would be the “liberal” CofE. The most significant difference is the general attitudes in their respective societies.
And the CofE’s hypocrisy is pretty stark here. The letter was motivated by “legislation in several countries that penalises people with same-sex attraction”. They rightly accept that they can consider something immoral without attempting to legislate against it, yet the CofE issued a very public official response to the UK’s same-sex marriage consultation, objecting in the strongest possible terms because, er, they thought it was immoral.
But most of all, I can’t help wondering what Bible the African churches have been reading. Maybe I missed the passage where Jesus tells his disciples to go and make prisoners of all nations, or the epistle which lists persecution of homosexuals as a fruit of the spirit. I don’t care what doctrines you believe about Jesus – if you don’t consider all people to have a basic human dignity, both in principle and in practice, you aren’t much of a Christian in my book.
If Welby really believes what he says, that’s the angle he should be taking. Never mind all the theological wrangling over the same few ambiguous pericopes, it’s a simple matter of dignity and conscience. Anyone who wishes to deny that isn’t preaching Christianity, and has no place in this church or any other. But I think we know that it’ll never happen.
Image courtesy of Ellif, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License