In February 2017, I gave a paper as part of the second open forum held in Chester Cathedral by the Sexuality & Anglican Identities Project of Chester University. The brief for speakers was to look into the future and speculate, on the basis of current trends in in gender and sexuality, what further developments might occur and how these will influence Church thinking, theology, and biblical interpretation.
Fight the Good Fight – Social change and the church as battlefield
I suspect some of my fellow panellists will be far better able to comment on future developments in gender and sexuality than me. I feel the most useful contribution I can make is to focus on the second part of the question: how will any changes in wider society’s understanding and expression of gender and sexuality influence Church thinking, theology and biblical interpretation?
We are in a time of far-reaching social change. Greater awareness of diversity in sexuality and gender identity has slowly percolated through British society over the last century. Tolerance of different identities, different lifestyles, different family arrangements has grown. There are legal milestones in this, but perhaps more revealing are the cultural ones – the first gay kiss on national TV, the multiplication of options for pronouns and titles on official forms, the first openly gay & partnered Bishop.
There is a narrative of inevitability that has developed around these discussions. It’s rooted in classic sociological studies of these sorts of cultural shifts like Giddens’ notion of ‘plastic sexuality’. Acceptance of sexual and gender diversity is seen as a rising tide, washing further and further across the beach, and those parts of society that appear to resist this change appear like areas of higher ground, that are now islanded, and shrinking as the tide rises higher. The church of England might be the classic example of this. The slowness of structural and theological change within the churchcompared to the rapid pace of social, cultural and legal change in wider British society is hugely apparent. In 1956, when homosexual acts were still illegal, the CofE’s report Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment called for legalisation. 60 years ago, when the tide was still low, the church was at the forefront of cultural change. Now, the latest House of Bishops statement explains why the church will not change its theological or legal frameworks in a wider context where it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and the first same-sex marriage happened 3 years ago. Without changing its position at all, the church appears now to be the relic of a prejudiced and oppressive past.
Change has occurred at an incredibly rapid pace.
A case study: Use of language
The Church of England has visibly struggled to find appropriate terminology. Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment, in 1956, when homosexual acts were still illegal, used the language of ‘inverts’ and ‘perverts’. Homosexual Relationships in 1979 spoke of Homophiles, language taken up by Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991, though now with an apologetic awareness that it ‘may have a somewhat technical ring’. Some Issues in Human Sexuality in 2003 does finally begin to make reference to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgenedered, but prefers ‘homosexual persons’ or even more vague circumlocutions, a trend continued by Pilling in 2013. The overall trend is away from overly scientific and objectifying language like ‘the invert’ and towards a far broader range of expression. However, it lags behind conventional usage. Terms like LGBT are generally avoided, let alone LGBTIQ.
The Church of England is not alone in facing difficult questions of how to respond to swift linguistic change, however. The Gay Christian Movement was founded in 1976. It wasn’t until 1987 that it changed its name to the LGCM in recognition that Gay and Lesbian could be considered as distinct identities that should be accorded equal dignity. It remains the LGCM, though their website honestly confronts the fact that the community they speak from and with is now more commonly described as the LGBTIQ community. Part of the reason they give for resisting further change is that their current name has widespread recognition.
Why has the church resisted change? – Some common explanations
Why is there such a disjunction between cultural change in society at large, and theological change within the church? If we can’t at least venture a guess at this, then our whole discussion today is useless. On the basis of the last 60 years, the prediction of what change might be expected in the next 5-10 years should probably be ‘not much’. Unless we think that something dramatic is going to happen to change whatever it is that is making the church so distinctly different, so out of step.
The most common explanations as to what might be the source of the church’s resistance to change are developments of the narrative of inevitability. Change is still inevitable, it’s just going to take a little bit longer.
The first explanation is that the church is essentially prejudiced, it’s homophobic. This is not rooted in anything rational or inherently obdurate – it’s basically cultural. It can be overcome by more awareness, by hearing the voices of gay people. The church is dominated by old men who are of an older, more reactionary generation. Wider society is dominated by those who are younger. Once generational change occurs, and the older leaders retire (or in some versions, when we get more women bishops) we’ll see the church undergo a sudden shift as this developmental delay is overcome. Much of the response to the recent House of Bishops statement picks up these assumptions. ‘We’d hoped that the Shared Conversations would change things, because the church would actually listen to its gay members. Prejudice would be overcome, the die-hard homophobes would be recognised for what they are, and the bishops would see that there is no reason why change cannot happen.’ The failure for this to happen produces feelings of betrayal because it is assumed that the bishops do know better. It’s a failure of nerve on the part of people who must recognise the inevitability and rightness of change.
The second explanation, which we’ve also seen on display in recent days, mainly among those who are linking the bishop’s statement with the revelations of historic abuse within the evangelical wing of the church, is a much harder version of the first: the church is prejudiced and homophobic because its theology and spirituality is inherently dangerous, justifying hatred, fear and abuse, linked to deeply flawed models of authority and biblical interpretation. On this analysis, change, the leadership of the church is understood as dominated by a dangerously fundamentalist spirituality and theology. The inevitable change will therefore involve not just generational change and some altered policies, but far-reaching theological change. This is obviously a far more long-term process of change, and indeed it’s one that in reality may require the church to divide on theological grounds in order to allow the necessary changes to be made. This second explanation, far more than the first, is open to questioning the narrative of inevitability itself. What if this change is not inevitable? What if some cultures, some theologies, are inherently opposed to it – meaning that accepting this change means their own death? Maybe some people will never be able to embrace this change.
They’re caricatures, of course: the homophobic church and the fundamentalist church. Maybe you recognise them. There’s evidence that can be pointed at to support both, surveys indicating generational difference in views, personal testimonies of those who have felt the need to radically change their theology to accept who they are. And clearly they overlap. The point is that these explanations themselves are part of the social change we are discussing. They’re not objective observations made from somewhere outside of society. They emerge as part of the wider cultural changes that we are discussing, and they emerge as a form of critique offered by one ‘side’ to the other.
A case study: Homophobia
The concept of homophobia has a history. It was coined by the American psychologist George Weinberg in the 60s, and he employed it in his 1972 study Society and the Healthy Homosexual. At this point, the American Psychiatric Association defined homosexuality as a mental disorder. In 1973, influenced by Weinberg, the APA removed it from their list of disorders, concluding there was no scientific evidence to suggest it wasn’t a healthy expression of sexuality. Since then, the idea that homophobia itself is a mental disorder as well as an institutional prejudice has steadily gained traction.
Homophobia as an explanation of resistance to cultural change is fundamentally a product of the process of cultural change it attempts to explain. Not only that, but it’s clearly a weaponised cultural product – it’s used to attack those perceived to stand in the way of inevitable change. It’s a weapon that has been formed because of the need to defend a community who were already being attacked. We like to avoid this language, but I’m using it deliberately, because it points to a reality that we are in danger of ignoring: that the incoming tide is not the most accurate way to describe what is happening in the church at present. This is not a natural event. This is warfare, and the church is the battlefield. Significant and rapid change like this involves acts of violence and sacrifice on both sides, and the outcomes of battles are never certain.
The Church as battleground
I want to suggest that the battle being fought in the church over gender and sexuality is a mimetic conflict, in the sense defined by Rene Girard, in which both sides are locked in a downward spiral of violence, mirroring each other increasingly closely as they reach crisis point.
In this context, some sort of ‘natural’ development or influence of trends in wider society and culture isn’t going to happen. What happens instead is the weaponisation of theology. Lines are drawn, sacrifices are made – this position is defensible, this is not. The effect on theology is unpredictable, but rarely positive. Some long-held positions are quietly surrendered (the very quiet admission from Reform that women’s ministry is not a first-order issue, but that homosexuality is – a move that effectively undermined the very reason for their having been established in the first place – is a good example of this). Some new positions are adopted because they bolster the main line of defence (I have an example later). Central positions may become distorted or degraded under the pressure of an attack. The apparent inability in some quarters to see recognition of other’s self-identity as a key part of the love commandment, but to view it as equating to agreement with a theological position (visible both in liberals branding evangelicals as fundamentalists and in evangelicals refusing to recognise a gay identity and using circumlocutions like ‘those experiencing same-sae attraction’). These are the most significant and direct ways in which this cultural shift is influencing the church.
Unpredictable theological developments
A Case Study: Hierarchical ideas of Trinity
John Piper, Wayne Grudem & Bruce Ware, all prominent evangelical theologians, are putting forward a complementarian view of the Trinity. This theology argues that the correct biblical way to understand the relationships of the Trinity is as hierarchically ordered – with the Father ruling over the Son, who eternally submits to his authority, as their roles are inherently ones with different levels of authority. Grudem argues that the eternal subordination of the role of the Son to the role of the Father is the teaching of the Nicene Creed. This all seems very unlikely to be related to developments in gender and sexuality, but these theological positions were all explicitly being adopted as a means of bolstering a complementarian view of men and women. The argument was that an ‘egalitarian Trinity’ was a theological innovation that had been introduced under the influence of egalitarian views on gender.
Obviously, in the case of a battle of this sort, there is increasingly the sense that we are hastening to some sort of violent resolution. Increasingly, both sides seem eager to see this happen – to bring about some sort of split that will leave them in a ‘pure church’, no longer bound together with the hateful other. I think, if nothing else changes, in all likelihood some sort of split looks likely. Whichever side gets to call itself the ‘Church of England’ and claim to have ‘won’ is as yet uncertain. If this happens, though, neither side will get the ‘pure church’ they long for. Battles raise demons in both sides, changing those who fight in them, and neither ‘side’ is now the same as it was before this battle began.