It’s not often that the police find themselves called in to deal with disputes within the church. Last month, however, they were. Ben John of Christian Concern, a traditionalist ginger group, issued a 15-minute video attacking the C of E’s 2020 initiative Living in Love and Faith (Living in Love and Faith), a substantial publication whose professed aim is to make the church more welcoming to those espousing non-traditional sexuality.
His thesis was that the message of Living in Love and Faith, while well-meaning, was misguided. In his view it condoned sexual immorality and undermined Biblical teaching, and it threw doubt on the idea that a person could not in God’s sight validly change their birth gender.
It followed, he continued, that anyone who affected to do so and then “married” someone of their original gender was living in an immoral same-sex relationship, and that this was something the church should condemn as sinful.
A transgender nonconformist minister who happened to be in this position, and who had been featured in Living in Love and Faith, complained that the video made him feel excluded and unsafe. As a result, Mr John is now under a criminal police investigation for hate speech.
Whether or not you agree with Mr John, the immediate comment is obvious. It is outrageous to attempt to use the criminal law to silence him. It’s not as if he is yelling foul-mouthed insults in the street, or for that matter breaking up services or brawling in church. All he has done is produce a video on a non-mainstream website in which he argues in a cool, collected way from scripture and the Prayer Book that Living in Love and Faith is theologically wrong.
Indeed, while we obviously must await the outcome of any investigation, it is highly unlikely that on the basis of this he could be convicted of any hate crime as such. It would have to be shown that there was an intent to stir up hatred against same-sex couples, which seems pretty unlikely (though he might be convicted under the Communications Act of posting material “grossly offensive”, a vague, unpleasant and thoroughly illiberal provision already recommended for repeal by the Law Commission).
But there are more important points to make here. Living in Love and Faith was produced by the Church of England in an attempt to deal with long-standing complaints (backed by a number of bishops, notably the vociferous Paul Bayes of Liverpool) that it had traditionally been excessively hostile to non-traditional sexualities, and LGBT people in particular, and that it owed them an apology and a rapprochement. However, if one looks more closely, neither the original attacks, nor the church’s rather plodding reaction to them, are enormously convincing.
The difficulty with the attacks by LGBT Christians – which, summed up, are that the church by its insistence on no sex outside marriage, and marriage being limited to a lifelong union between one man and one woman, has excluded those who do not accept these ideals and nullified their experience – is that they are largely misguided.
True, the church has said, and at least for the moment continues to say, that sexual relationships outside traditional marriage, including all same-sex relationships, are sinful. True, also, that it expresses disapproval of them.
But at least as regards the Church of England (we say nothing of the wilder Christian outliers like the Westboro Baptist Church), that isn’t the same thing as excluding people who practise them. On the contrary: the very point of the church is that it takes everyone. It doesn’t exclude sinners, however heinous their sins.
We are, after all, all sinners; and provided he is penitent, the mass murderer or serial child abuser is as welcome to worship as the rest of us. Indeed, except in very rare cases canon law makes it clear that a priest cannot even refuse communion to an open sinner. Some exclusion.
Whatever they may say, the real difficulty with the church as regards the LGBT activists isn’t that it excludes or marginalises them. It is rather, that it refuses to adjust its doctrine to say they aren’t sinners at all; that it is unwilling to commend all relationships, sexual or otherwise, provided they embody a vague warm sense of love and commitment, and for that matter to allow those unrepentant about their sexuality to be priests.
Put another way, their real beef is that the church remains obstinately ecclesiastical and refuses to adopt the essentially secular doctrine that all relationships are OK provided they are truly consensual, and that if this is the case what people get up to in the privacy of the bedroom is no business of anyone apart from them.
To which the short answer is that, whether or not you personally believe the secular doctrine to be right, there is no reason whatever why the church should adopt it. “My kingdom,” said Jesus after all, “is not of this world;” the very point of being a Christian is the sidelining of worldly values.
You may of course disagree strongly and sincerely with this. But if you do, then it is you who should draw away from the church, not the church that should change its revelation so as to accommodate your beliefs.
What of the church’s answer? Living in Love and Faith is certainly a substantial production: the book alone weighs in at over 400 pages, with index entries on everything from “discrimination, and intersex people” to “slavery, sexual”; and there are a good many other resources beside. But what comes out of it is actually surprisingly little theology.
We have extensive coverage of issues of consent; of the difficulties faced in society by LGBT people, and of scientific developments in the field of sexuality; we have considerable emphasis placed on arguments that sexual orientation may be innate and unchangeable, and gender dysphoria at times very real.
But when it comes to what to do about this there is less substantial argument. The overall impression put forward is that Living in Love and Faith regards doctrine as less important than inclusiveness, morality than sensitivity to feelings. We are fairly constantly nudged towards the idea that if a change in rigid church doctrine might make people welcome, then perhaps we ought to water down the Christian message to a general rule acceptable to secular society that all you need is love and sympathy. It is this that gets the traditionalists’ goat, because it is essentially allowing the church to be taken over by easy-listening secular political morality. That is the essence of Ben John’s criticism.
The pity of it is that there was no reason for the church to go down this road. A more principled answer would have run as follows. First, however abhorrent you think someone else’s practices or lifestyle, you must show sympathy and decency on a personal level.
To this extent Living in Love and Faith is entirely right. But it needs to go further, and accept that, secondly, the church must make demands, including sexual demands, that society as a whole doesn’t. It must be prepared where necessary to go against deep human instincts and stick to its position. Being a church based on revelation it demands higher standards from its adherents, and integrity demands that those demands be non-negotiable.
However, there is an even more important point third point to bear in mind. We are all sinners, and there is every reason to think that there are far more serious sins than sexual ones. Selfishness, ignoring of those in serious need, and self-righteousness come to mind. The church has long had to reconcile itself with prioritising the sins that are really important, and not getting too tied up with those that are less so: sermons quite rightly spend more time on such things as the need to avoid cruelty than on the fact that a number of the congregation may be living in sin.
The real difficulty is that, like the church’s LGBT detractors, Living in Love and Faith is too much obsessed with sex. The beauty of Christianity, properly understood, is that it draws a proper balance between virtue and human frailty. A bit of balance of this kind from the Church of England, as much as from a shrill minority within it, would have done a great deal to avoid this debacle.