Friday, 28 February 2014

Who's fooling who about history?

I wrote today to fellow bishops, along with many academic colleagues more skilled in the field than me, to see if they might care to correct a foolish historical howler in the understanding that informed their recent letter on same-sex marriage.
It seems to me vastly unfair on those who struggled against Deceased Wife's Sister marriages between 1842 and 1907 to suggest that a marriage setup that potentially breaches Leviticus 18:18 should be a minor matter of “accidents” whilst one that potentially breaches Leviticus 18:24 should be a fundamental matter of “substance.”
What really intrigues me about the whole rhetoric of "redefinition" (as developed by the Moral Majority on the West Coast in the 1990's) is how appealing it is to those who don't want to allow gay people to marry, but how completely foolish and ineffective it has been with everyone else. 
 Not only did it pancake seriously in both houses of the UK parliament, but all the right wing websites that swore to carry on the struggle for ever, even lie down in the road in front of the bulldozers, after the legislation went through last year seem to have packed up and gone home. I wonder why?

27th February 2014 
Dear Bishop, 
Error in the Bishops Guidance on Same Sex Marriages 
We write to alert you to the fact that an important statement in the Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriages issued on 14th February is wrong.The guidance claims that: "There will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer." - House of Bishops, 14th Feb 2014, Appendix, para 9. 
This is inaccurate. Civil law and church teaching have diverged before, on at least two occasions. The first was in relation to the marriage to a deceased wife's sister, the second in relation to the remarriage of divorcees.There has been a robust discussion of this topic between experts on ecclesiastical history, law and sociology which Dr Scot Peterson summarises hereWe are all in agreement that the statement in the Bishops Guidance is mistaken and misleading. Since it forms an important part of the case which is being made, we felt it was right to draw the mistake to your attention. We respectfully ask that it be corrected. 
Our attempts to resolve this matter by writing to Mr Arora and Mr Fittall have failed. There is growing concern amongst the academic community about the situation. 
Looking to the future, some of us are anxious to improve channels of communication with the Church, so that our research and scholarship can be used constructively. If you would be interested in a meeting to discuss this issue, we would be very grateful if you would reply to Professor Woodhead. 
Yours truly, 
Professor Callum Brown FRSE, University of Glasgow  
Professor Arthur Burns, King’s College London 
The Revd Dr Mark Chapman, Ripon College Cuddesdon 
Professor Grace Davie, University of Exeter 
The Revd Duncan Dormor, St John's College, University of Cambridge 
Professor Kenneth Fincham, University of Kent 
Professor Sarah Foot, Christ Church, University of Oxford
Dr Matthew Guest, University of Durham 
The Revd Dr Carolyn Hammond, Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge (member of FAOC) 
Professor Gerard Loughlin, University of Durham 
Elizabeth MacFarlane, St John's College, University of Oxford  
The Revd Dr Judith Maltby, Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford 
Professor Iain McLean FBA, Nuffield College, Oxford  
Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA, Saint Cross College, University of Oxford 
The Revd Professor David Martin  FBA, London School of Economics 
Dr Charlotte Methuen, University of Glasgow (member FAOC)  
The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, King’s College, University of Cambridge 
Dr Scot Peterson, Balliol College, University of Oxford  
Professor Alec Ryrie, University of Durham 
The Revd Dr Robert Tobin, Oriel College, University of Oxford 
Revd Dr William Whyte, St John’s College Oxford 
The Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham  
Professor John Wolffe, The Open University, President of the Ecclesiastical History Society  
Professor Linda Woodhead, University of Lancaster 

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Structure of Moral Revolutions

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a Ghanaian Cambridge / Princeton historian who has examined how moral revolutions happen. He studied practices like duelling, slavery, and footbinding in China. Moral practice does not develop in straight lines, but by a process of subterranean build up followed by swift surface disruption. What seemed unthinkable suddenly, over a single generation, becomes the social norm.

Appiah’s key concept is Honour. In 1790’s England, the traditional honourable thing to do when gentlemen fell out seriously was to fight a duel. Very soon after 1800, all of a sudden, it wasn’t any more — the honourable thing became not to fight a duel.

Such changes are always led by small groups living out their beliefs. They survive and flourish, like eighteenth century Quakers and Evangelicals, by aligning their ideals and their lives. The more their powerful opponents try to bolster the status quo by pleading what “everybody knows” the more they make it plain that everybody does not know what their small group does any more. All others see is ambiguity, defensiveness and hypocrisy. From then on in, reiterating anti- arguments actually backfires and promotes change.

A moral revolution throughout the developed world fits professor Appiah’s schema perfectly. It has normalised gay people, entitling them to respect and equal treatment.  Narrow changes in social attitudes to homosexuals are only a small part of a far broader mellowing in the way people see others, partly in reaction to the barbarities, cheapening of life and suffering experienced in the total wars of the twentieth century. These privilege respect, and the cherishing of human dignity.

Like every a moral revolution the process has deep roots. It touches many aspects of life, including capital punishment, child beating, sweated labour, racism, discrimination and violence against women. The assumption that gay people have a stunted capacity to give and receive love and to structure their households around permanent commitment, has collapsed for most people under 50. Articulations of the old morality suddenly appear outrageous, for moral reasons.

Tragically, churches too often position themselves on the trailing edge of moral change — 1950's C of E bishops railed against the abolition of hanging, quoting the Bible and warning of social collapse. Now it's this. Often they are comfortable people with an enhanced sense of their own virtue who do not know personally the harshness that necessitates change. Jesus pointed out Pharisees can change, and longed for them to be born again, but it's a harder process. They have more face to lose.

So what should everyone do? Professor Appiah:
Create organizations which commit themselves to implementing the norm, not just as a norm of morality, but as a norm, as a convention of everyday life, as it were, as something you are going to live by, then you can be one of the key figures in... if you create such institutions, you can begin one of these revolutions.  And I think that in all of these sorts of cases—there was an anti-dueling society in England—in all of these cases it is very important to get people organized around the new norm and it’s kind of exciting to be in those societies because of the thing I said earlier, which is that you can see that you’re on the right side because other people, the people who are engaging in the old norm, the norm you’re challenging, already know in their hearts, in part of their hearts at least, that what they’re doing is objectionable in some way, that it’s causing unnecessary pain, that It’s denying people things they are entitled to.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

We come in Peace — Shoot to Kill?

John Tenniel, Punch 1869
It is understandable that the anonymous author of the latest letter from House of Bishops (of which I am not a member), must, like Agag, “walk delicately.” Perhaps the best they could produce is what one early tweeter, retweeted by John Bingham of the Daily Telegraph, called “a masterclass in doublespeak, obfuscation and internal contradiction.”

The real issue was articulated by a member of the General Synod,  Simon Butler, who asked the following question at its recent session:
My question requires a little context and a large amount of honesty. I’m gay; I don't have a vocation to celibacy and at the same time I've always taken my baptismal and ordination vows with serious intent and with a sincere desire to model my life on the example of Christ simul justus et peccator. Those who have selected me, ordained me and licensed me know all this. My parish know this too.

My question is this: at the end of the process of facilitated conversations will the College of Bishops tell me whether there is a place for people like me as licensed priests, deacons and bishops in the Church rather than persisting in the existing policy that encourages a massive dishonesty so corrosive to the gospel? For my personal spiritual health, for the flourishing of people like me as ministers of the gospel and for the health of the wider church I think we will all need to have a clear answer to that question..

Clarity will need to emerge, then. We haven't got it yet. Is the answer to Simon’s question, “yes”? Well, apparently so. Recommendation One of the Pilling report states “We warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained.” Surely the existing policy, with all of the moral drawbacks Simon enumerates won't continue, then? Well, apparently it will. Abiding by traditional teaching is the watchword. The massive dishonesty of which Simon speaks was not intentional. It was the only way kind hearted people could maintain what they understood to be traditional teaching in the real world.

As it was in the disputes of the 1860’s the way things pan out will largely be settled by what people do, not  policy statements or sabre rattling. Whilst a great fan of facilitated discussions I am still fuzzy about exactly who will talk to whom about what and why. Also, if it is axiomatic that nothing will change, what exactly will the point be? We may be far gone in the hypocrisies of past years, but why add to them? Jesus had far more to say about hand wringing Pharisees than he did about gays.

If facilitated conversations are to mean anything, it's important not to derail them by what bishops do to the people with whom they are supposed to be talking in a safe space. Whoever wrote the new document is plainly out of their depth. Even after twenty years of listening, nothing much has been heard and the watchword remains “Life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Captain Kirk’s next line was “We come in peace, Shoot to Kill.” Adopting that now will not facilitate honest or productive conversation.

But where do I want it to end, I am asked, and where are the Bishops really coming from if the chips are down? two quotations came across my desk, by sheer chance, this morning:

One is from Sister Simone Campbell, a Roman Catholic Nun.
The Catholic hierarchy has done very poorly at engaging the issues of sexuality, period—their own, or anybody else’s... what we need is a real spiritual renewal among our leadership because for me, following the gospel means be not afraid—welcome everyone, hug them, welcome them close, and live and love.

 The other is the gospel for the Third Sunday before Lent, year A, on which I am preparing a homily for tomorrow morning. St Matthew 5, and verse 37:
Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
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