Monday 7 December 2009

What hath Kampala to do with LA?

Archbishop Rowan Williams and Archbishop Patri...Image by Catholic Church (England and Wales) via Flickr

I can see why people compare the speedy Lambeth statement about the nomination of a gay bishop in Los Angeles unfavourably with its more apparently leisurely behind-the-scenes reaction to proposed draconian anti-gay laws in Uganda. As one Guardian commentator puts it.
I simply fail to understand how Rowan Williams can say to the liberals don't do that, you'll annoy the right, we must avoid schism at all costs, while saying to the right, um, yes, whatever, please don't go.
Of course there are boringly obvious reasons why the two questions at issue don’t quite square up alongside each other: The Los Angeles one is an in-house bishoppy thing, where the Ugandan issue involves weighing into a touchy foreign legislature, incredibly still on the rebound from Empire after 47 years. It would be a bit odd if both were responded to in the same way. Still, the squirmfulness of all this is unavoidable.

A part of me would love the Archbishop to swing in, Pope style, with quick auto-da-fés all round, preferably enforcing my own eminently reasonable views of both matters. Bang a few heads together. Send the Ugandans to Los Angeles for six months, and the Angelinos to Uganda. That may not be such a bizarre idea... However, bishops in autocephalous churches don’t do autos-da-fé. Back in the third century, one Bishop of Rome who tried it on got this flea in his ear from Firmilian of Caesarea:
I am justly indignant with Stephen’s obvious and manifest silliness, that he so boasts of his position...
That messy, mainly voluntarist place, is where the C of E has been since the Reformation, increasingly choosing the ecclesiastical methods of St Paul and the early Church rather than those of Pope Innocent III and the Holy Inquisition. It’s to be hoped, however, that all proceed with open eyes — remembering the simple fact that the motive for anti-discriminatory behaviour, as well as the deep revulsion people here feel about the Ugandan proposals, are moral objections with missional implications, not just some taste or lifestyle choice...
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Erp said...

I suspect the comparisons wouldn't be happening if the Archbishop hadn't commented on the US election. Americans can also be quite touchy about what they perceive as foreign interference even after 225+ years of independence.

Anonymous said...

Bishop Alan,
thank you for a very helpfully balanced and sensitive take on this - being of a frame of mind that is more 'I'm not sure how to think about these two things together' rather than my more normal 'oh, for goodness sake surely x or y course of action is needed' I found it a very helpful read.
Our actions should surely be to pray for Archbishop Rowan, for the people of Uganda, and for The Revd Mary Glasspool and all in Maryland.
Adrian C

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I'm sure you're right. It's surprising how little American history people in the UK study, really. The touchiness of some English about foreign interference 869 years after the Synod of Whitby is one factor new revisionist historians of the reformation often overlook.

Erika Baker said...

The revulsion would probably also not be so great if there had not been a constant stream of public criticism of TEC and by extension of all liberals, accompanied by complete silence about anything done or said by the extreme right across the Anglican world, and a complete abandoning of serious theological engagement in favour of what appears to be political manoeuvring.

There may, just possibly, be good moral and theological reasons for any single intervention or non-intervention over the last few years that I cannot see at the moment. But taken together, they do form a very obvious pattern.

And when you look at the actual consequences for real people's lives the actions or inactions on both sides have, you have to concede that the liberal spectrum in the Anglican Communion has at the very least the right to ask some pertinent questions. In the absence of answers, we have to come to our own conclusions.

Canon Andrew Godsall said...

Bishop Alan I've been an admirer of your blog for some time, and commended it to others, but not until now have I been moved to comment. As one of those who has been extremely supportive of the Archbishop over these last few difficult years, the most recent (and seemingly rather too hasty) statement about the election of a suffragan Bishop in LA has come as a blow for a another reason, as well as the one you refer to. It is not an unknown fact that we have had Suffragan Bishops and Assistant Bishops (and of course quite a number of clergy) in the C of E in stable homosexual relationships. It's that slight double standard that is increasingly bothersome about this statement I fear.

SimonH said...

I think also it is about the difference in approach to the Ugandan Anglican Church and ECUSA: whereas the ABC implies ordaining a lesbian is so horrendous it will split the communion and must be stopped, the Church of Uganda's whipping up of prejudice and hatred against gay and lesbian people is fine. To quote Andrew Brown: "Under Williams, the church that marries two women who love each other is to be thrown out of the Anglican Communion. The church that would jail them both for life, and would revile and persecute their defenders, stays snugly in his bosom."

Vinaigrette girl said...

I think the touchiness of some Americans and Anglicans relates, also, to elements of the Ugandan right being financially stoked up by American right wing homophobic evangelicals - which is also a form of colomnialism; and the fact that for supporters of homosexual marriage, their stance is also highly moral and has implications for mission.

That said, I wish the folks in LA or elsewhere could see how hard it is for the Ugandans who are up against aggressive and sometimes fatal attacks on Christians by people purporting to, or in many instances, actually representing, other faiths.

Equally, the Church should acknowledge openly that homosexuals are killed both in Uganda and the US just for being gay. It is easy to see the Anglican silence as valuing some people's lives more than others. I don't think the ABC makes enough of his understanding of this conundrum. And I wish very much indeed that Dr. John Sentamu, who is a good and decent man, would speak up more clearly, at least to clarify the terms of the debate for both sides.

Lapinbizarre said...

Repeating what I posted yesterday at another blog, as a long-time English expatriate in the US I can finally, clearly see why the colonists took an "enough is enough" - or, as the grandmother of a college friend used to say, "a joke's a joke, but b-gger a carnival" - response to George III.

Anonymous said...

I rather regret the flippant tone of this piece. We're talking about people in Uganda losing their lives here. And, don't forget, we're talking about the church contributing to a climate of opinion in the west as well. Gay people are still beaten up and killed in the UK and the USA just for being gay. It happened only the other week in Liverpool. What does RW think his interventions on lesbian bishops say to violent homophobes? This is not time for flippancy.

Lapinbizarre said...

Wondering, Anonymous, if you appreciate what an encouraging document this "flippant" piece is, coming at this point in time from a bishop of the Church of England?

Unknown said...


I don't read the piece as flippant (nor any of the responses for that matter), but in fact, quite serious. What is difficult in this process is that truly horrible acts based on weakly-defended prejudices are being treated by leadership throughout the world as a mere political 'difficulty'. I would say that any attempt to demonstrate inconsistency on the part of the ABC is not done with humor, but with irritation, anger, and a whole host of emotions (perhaps just short of true outrage).

Clayton Chrusch said...

I am one of the people who are annoyed. Let me try to say something that hopefully will help make my point of view clearer. I ask you to read what I have to say charitably.

Straight people do not have the experience that gay people do. This is just a fact. Even pro-gay straight people can have a very deficient understanding of what homophobia is like from the perspective of a gay person. The disparity in perceptions about homophobia is very striking for me and for many gay people. Our sense is that straight people, including our allies, for the most part just don't get it.

From our perspective (and I think I do speak for a large fraction of gay people, otherwise I wouldn't say anything here), homophobia is a single thing. It has degrees of intensity which are obviously very consequential, but it is a continuous and homogenous evil substance that pervades the world. Straight people associate homophobia with physical violence, but gay people see that anti-gay beliefs, even when accompanied by no violence or explicit threat of violence, are equally homophobic because anti-gay beliefs are implicitly violent. When anti-gay beliefs find a violent outlet, they are simply revealing what they were all along. Homophobia, essentially and in its fully revealed manifestation, is the malicious desire to destroy gay people. That's why gay people can have no tolerance for homophobia even in its most seed-like form. Do people have a right to their anti-gay opinions? They have a legal right and there may be much to be said for the practicality of maintaining that legal right, but there is no moral right, because there is no moral right to destroy gay people.

Rowan Williams is acting on the principle that homosexual acts are incompatible with scripture. Sounds like a very reasonable opinion in straight ears, especially if he is just defending tradition and established church doctrine, as is his duty. But no gay person with any experience looking homophobia in the face can hear Rowan Williams repeat that statement without seeing it as homophobic, as something that unfolds naturally and inevitably into the belief that gays are rebelling against God, the belief that gays are a moral disease threatening society, that gays are dangerous, that gays threaten children, that gays must be destroyed.

I do not say this to persuade anyone of my opinion, but only to hopefully shed light on a way of seeing things that often seems quite alien to people in the church, but that is unavoidable to many gay peole who look honestly at the world by the light of their own experience.

Anonymous said...

In a sense, the whole question of Mary Glasspool's election is beside the point.

The situation in Uganda shouldn't be treated as an issue of church politics, but one of human rights and dignity. Even if sections of the Ugandan churches were not actively involved in the promotion of this legislation, Christian leaders of all countries and denominations would still have a a duty to speak out.

Even if one takes the view of, say, the Catholic church that homosexuality is an objective disorder, this is still a manifest example of the "unjust discrimination" which the Catholic church says should be "avoided."

So, whatever one's churchmanship or moral views, this seems a matter of basic Christian witness rather than exquisitely nuanced diplomacy.

Likewise, in relation to Uganda, your examples from church history seem a bit irrelevant. They refer to arguments over polity and ecclesiology rather than matters of literal life and death. Even in the 3rd century debates over re-baptism in North Africa no-one's life or limb was at direct risk as a result of jurisdictional bitch-fights between Carthage and Rome.

Los Angeles is only worth mentioning to the extent that it shows up the failure of Lambeth Palace to speak out courageously in the case of Uganda.

Bradley said...

Canon Godsall makes a valid point, the hypocrisy of making a big hullabaloo over the Los Angeles suffragan from an organization that knows commonplace LGBT people in their ranks is odious. Again, as I have said many times before, it is honesty that is under trial here, and should show how inept Christianity has become at living Christ's teachings.

Good greetings Cannon Godsall, I hope to see you next year when I return to your cathedral to sing with another visiting American choir.

Jim Pratt said...

Bishop Alan,
You state that the Ugandan matter involves "weighing into a touchy foreign legislature". Yet, Dr. Williams could make a comment without directly addressing the Uganda parliament, if that is his concern. He could simply direct his remarks to Archbishop Orombi and the Ugandan bishops, and remind them of the various resolutions of Lambeth and Dromontine, and suggest that they have a duty to speak out on the legislation. While it would not be the strong statement that some of those crying for his head would like, it would at least be something. And I'm sure he is capable of making such a statement forcefully and diplomatically, should he be so inclined.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I'm really grateful for the added dimension, focus and wisdom of these comments. I think I'm very much with Jim, practically speaking. Advent is a good time of year for any Church to look in the mirror and encounter the unpleasant face of its own hypocrisy. The role of Bishops, IMHO, is to help that happen for the health of everyone, not to collude.

Whilst agreeing with the thrust of the anon comment about the stakes in Uganda, with thanks for reminding us of a fact sometimes forgotten, I agree with the basic analysis, but historically, one thing that makes the rumbles over ecclesiology in third century North Africa so interesting is that human lives were, actually, at stake. I'm sorry to say I don't know what RC bishops, in England or Uganda, have said about this legislation.

Clayton, Thank you for a clear articulation of the grounds for your anger, which did for me shed considerable light. Any phobia, if it is a true phobia, is fear based amygdala stuff. It may use words and ideas as weapons, but it isn't ultimately rational. This makes the question, "How do you get people to take responsibility for their feelings?" The moral dimension can make a subject easier to discuss — for example I believe capital punishment is profoundly immoral, but that wouldn't necessarily stop me debating the subject with someone who held the opposite on moral grounds. Would I however, be able to debate it with some hate-filled crazy with "If there's an electric chair I want to pull the switch" views? I think we all just need to be clearer and more honest about who we are and what's motivating us in what ways, and, if I may react, I found your comment was a noble expression of that method.

Finally, with space running out, I had not intention to be flippant, and must apologise for my incompetence in giving some that impression.

Erika Baker said...

Alan, I think your question of how you get people to take responsibility for their feelings is hugely important, as is getting them to understand that their deep seated feelings are what largely rules their minds, not the other way round. There is enough theology to support a variety of views on homosexuality, and everyone opts to be convinced by that which reflects his feelings.

The problem I’m having with your comment that the moral dimension makes a subject easier to discuss is precisely what Clayton has pointed out. For us, this is not an abstract moral issue, but a discussion about the morality of our existence. An anti-gay person and I would not sit down together and talk dispassionately about an abstract issue which is equally remote to both of us. But we would sit down with the anti-gay person trying to get me to admit that my very being is a moral failing that he has the right to judge and legislate. Whereas, from my point of view, this is not a debate about morality at all, but about my very life.

Many people are, of course, aware of this, which is why they insist that homosexuality is a choice or something that can be cured, because that alone would make it into a moral issue that could be discussed in the way you would discuss capital punishment.

We will only be able to move on from this deadlock once we have all accepted that people do not choose to be gay and that gayness itself is not a moral issue.

It would truly become a discussion of morality if we accepted the labels heterosexual and homosexual as the morally neutral umbrella terms, and then the various expressions of sexuality – anybody’s sexuality - in terms of morals.

It strikes me that we haven’t even defined the basic parameters of our conversation yet, and until we do, we will continue to talk cross purposes.

Pam Smith said...

While realising that an Archbishop carries burdens and responsibilities that I'm never going to encounter, I do think it's fair to examine and contrast these public pronouncements.

Jesus did have a track record of being rather hard on hypocrisy among leaders of organised religion.

I categorically do not think Rowan Williams is a hypocrite, but I think that in trying to be politic he's stumbled into a position where it can be argued from the evidence of his own words that he is.

Personally, I think before any Christian pronounces on anyone else in the public arena they should ask themselves WWJD - Who Would Jesus Denounce?

Clayton Chrusch said...

Thank you so much for your response. I find it very useful because it shows me how you understand homophobia, and how quickly you return to that understanding. You divide the word into its semantic particles and therefore see it as clinical description of the fear of gay people. You may certainly see it that way if you wish, but I don't see it that way, and I don't think gay people often see it that way.

I've never seen a genuinely fearful homophobia. Homophobic people have a sense of power and entitlement to power, a power over gay people backed up by social consensus. There is no fear, there is only malice (again I am trying to explain my perspective not convert people).

I would radically break off homophobia from its clinical and even its emotional moorings. It is malice, and often a cold or even cheerful malice. That is what the word means to me, because that is what I see in the world.

Fear is often used as a prod to egg people on to more and more homophobic actions but the fear in that case is not the essence of homophobia. It is not even taken seriously by any of the parties. It is just the spur.

I suppose my point is that I see homophobia as a purely moral force (or rather immoral force), not an emotional or psychological state. I do not know what it is like psychologically from the perspective of the person who owns it. It would certainly be very enlightening to hear an honest description of what homophobia is like from the perspective of the anti-gay person, because surely any moral force in the world is indeed embedded in feelings and perceptions in individual minds.

What I find in my own mind when I am possessed by malice is that this malice, though associated with specific perceptions, is not justified by them. There is a radical intellectual incoherence behind malice. Malice is not something that makes sense for the simple reason that nothing can even begin to make sense without the presence of love. If I'm going to speculate on the internal experience of anti-gay people, I would suggest that they share this experience of radical intellectual incoherence, but they see something real enough in it to hold on to it.

Clayton Chrusch said...

Just a short addendum to my previous comment. It can probably be summed up this way: when a gay person uses the word homophobia or homophobic, we should generally be understood as making a moral judgement, not a psychological diagnosis. Such statements should be evaluated according to the criteria of ethical thinking, not the criteria of psychological analysis.

Canon Andrew Godsall said...

Bishop Alan thank you for your helpful summary and wise recognition that there are views other than your own; that is something that makes your blog worthwhile reading in comparison to others who are simply incapable of seeing any other 'side' than their own.
You said: "Advent is a good time of year for any Church to look in the mirror and encounter the unpleasant face of its own hypocrisy. The role of Bishops, IMHO, is to help that happen for the health of everyone, not to collude." The problem for me about the Archbishop's statement around the election in LA is that it simply fails to meet your test. It colludes with hypocrisy - and I know full well that Rowan is not a hypocrite. It leaves me suspecting that someone else at Lambeth drew up the statement, and Rowan signed it off in a rare moment of thoughtlessness. We all have them, so why shouldn't he. But the collusion with hypocrisy stands nontheless and that, as you say, is not good for the health of any of us who try to serve the Anglican communion. The statement fails the test of justice, mercy, and humility - three things the Lord requires of us. And we know Rowan to be a just, humble and merciful human being.

Clayton Chrusch said...

I just want to agree whole-heartedly with Erika. Homophobia is the moral issue, not homosexuality. The Church gets this exactly backwards. Homosexuality is no more a moral issue than purple is a moral issue.

I also want to agree with her that what makes this discussion so difficult is that one side of the discussion is defending our right to exist.

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