Monday 6 July 2009

Dumb versus Intelligent Conservatism

I used to take the Daily Telegraph seriously. It was sometimes over to the right of the gentleman on the left, but it was good for sport and contained an extensive compendium of what was going on around the place. In a slightly contrarian way, I have always valued Conservative insights as food for thought, even, no especially, if I didn’t entirely agree with their starting points. Neil Davies’ Flat Earth News said significant things about the decline and fall of Fleet Street as a serious source of comment, and this week I noticed one story, nothing to do with religion, that really says a lot about the kinds of dogs to which the Telegraph is presently going.

Screamed the Telegraph story, and I smelt a rat. Is this our old friend “Rape is really the Victim’s fault?” I wondered. When I worked in a prison, I noticed it was the story rapists used to tell themselves, anyway. I never did believe it, myself.

Said the Leicester University press release. Notice, and ponder, the difference. Now you know how the subs at the Telegraph view this subject.

But what of the story itself? As explained by Dr Ben Goldacre, this is what happened. Sophia Shaw, MSc student, conducted some research for a dissertation. The point of making trainee scientists write such things is to learn how to turn tentative preliminary research into disciplined scientific conclusions. She hasn’t yet done this for her, as yet unfinished, dissertation. Turned into a press release, à la Flat Earth News, her work became the germ of the Telegraph story. Not surprisingly, she objects to her work being manipulated and turned into rubbish by the Telegraph for its own idiotic purposes.

Looking at hot button issues, let’s turn to the grand-daddy of them all, the gay issue in Church. I turned not to the Telegraph, but to Cranmer, for a genuinely perceptive, intelligent Conservative take:
...dear readers and communicants, homosexuality is not an issue worthy of schism: it is simply not of the order of the sort of debate that used to divide the Church: the divinity of Christ, for example, or the nature of his humanity – the great controversy at the Council of Nicea in AD325 – or even over liturgy or the transforming nature of infant baptism. The issue of homosexuality affects only a tiny minority of its adherents: it is of distinctly secondary, even peripheral, scriptural importance.

The role of the Bible in addressing the modern question of the place of the homosexual in the church is complex, not least because where it is mentioned in Scripture, the authors give little sustained consideration of the issue as it manifests in the modern world. The nature of a biblical perspective will invariably be affected by the questions posed of the Bible, by the particular hermeneutic employed, and by the unavoidable perspective which each scholar brings to his or her reading of the Bible. While some may have an instant negative reaction, others seek to understand the debate in the different and changing circumstances in which we now live. Still others, who may identify themselves as homosexual Christians, struggle to express either their feelings or their thoughts on the issue. They are themselves divided into those who acknowledge that homosexuality is a sin and therefore a call to celibacy, and those who assert that they also are made in God’s image and therefore seek to express their sexual desires in an intimate, monogamous relationship.

That God established an objective, moral order in creation, and continues a work of re-creation through Jesus, is a source and standard of all that it beautiful, good and true. If such a moral order means anything, there may be no via media on the issue of homosexuality. Accepting theological diversity is not the same as tolerating all beliefs and practices, because ultimately the Church is called to be holy because God is holy (Lev. 19:2; Mt. 5:48). We cannot as Christians just give way to ‘you believe this, I believe that’ approach to being together, or moving apart, in the Church. Nor even can we be content with the rather cheap model of ‘reconciled diversity’, meaning benign tolerance, which many Christians find an easier option to the costlier pursuit of real, ‘visible’ unity. We need to continue to struggle together for the truth, to find the right and godly balance between the call to solidarity and the recognition of difference. Presently, nowhere is this more important – especially in the Anglican Communion – than in the area of sexuality.

But Cranmer is persuaded that the whole issue may really be a non-issue because the wrong question is being asked. His Grace posited a few days ago that the modern era is sex-obsessed: we live in a consumer society, and there is little that is marketed without a glance, a wink, a flirt, a breast, or allusions to sexual intercourse, because ‘sex sells’. If one were to judge by the media (which is more frequently a mirror to society than a catalyst for change), the fascination with people’s sex lives is now more important than politics, religion, philosophy or even Mammon. Jesus may have had to address the latter as the dominating idol of his era; his judgement was that one may not serve both God and Mammon (Mt. 6:24). But he did not enter into discussion on the fiscal minutiae of cash, credit, bonds, shares, loans or interest; a macro-warning not to be obsessed with Mammon was sufficient. If one were to apply the same principle to the modern idol – ‘Eros’ – it is doubtful that Jesus would address its sub-divisions (gay, bi, straight, oral, anal, tantric); he would most likely directly challenge society’s obsessive fixation with Eros, and by so doing confront both those who prioritise issues of sexuality and those in the church who presume to judge them.

By devoting so much time and effort to the ‘gay issue’, instead of challenging society by deconstructing the question or focusing on poverty and wealth (for example), the church is simply showing itself to share the same obsessions as the world. Paul allowed no compromise on the restriction of sexual activity to heterosexual, monogamous marriage. But such an ethic seems almost utopian to our sex-besotted age, in which it appears at times that one’s identity is made to reside in one’s sexual organs and their untrammeled exercise. The issue for the Church of England is that this debate has been blown out of all proportion; it is neither a battle for the soul of the church, nor an issue worthy of schism. It is a question utterly peculiar to this era, and those on both sides of the divide – both politicians and theologians – might consider toning down the rhetoric and the apologetics, and instead preaching a message that, contrary to society’s thinking, sexual expression is neither a necessary line of inquiry in every human interaction, nor an essential component in human fulfilment.
If, as is suggested here, we do indeed live in a society which has a basically gormless, obsessional, and corrupt over-sexualised self-image, playing along with its assumptions about how these things work is less than the best we can do. Church has to position itself somewhere other than as the thrower of custard pies from the midst of the fray, whether from right to left or left to right. Rather it exists to bear witness to the Scriptures and our tradition — a deeper, richer, more ancient and meaningful wisdom. We offer it as a resource to our society, which it may care to take more seriously when it has had enough of its current obsessions and becomes seriously interested in human beings — a truer, more humane vision of what we could be than simply whizzing down the slide, as Philip Larkin used to say “like free bloody birds.”

I have also been chortling over the Archbishop’s recent run in with Facebook, who took a dim view of His Grace’s ecclesiastical title, whilst simultaneously allowing that old scoundrel Cardinal Wolsey to keep his. After a surreal correspondence with various cheery FB Sockpuppets, in the best traditions of cussed Englishness, His Grace refused to take the sleight lying down and set himself up with a new account in the magnificent name of “Ayatollah Cranmer.” Right wing, but fun. Inexplicably, he was allowed his new moniker. Draw your own concusions...


Erika Baker said...

Brilliant post, thank you.

I read it after Ruth Gledhill's report on the launch of FCA. This most disturbing of posts includd the line from Bishop Greg: 'We must remember we are not fighting flesh and blood. This is about principalities and powers.'

So no more 'love thy neighbour'. Or better, 'these others aren't my neighbours, they're not even human.'
Is this the ultimate in de-humanising those we disagree with?

Keep blogging, we need you!

Archbishop Cranmer said...

Bishop Alan,

You have provided His Grace with so many quotations of appreciation that he is greatly honoured.

To find that even Church of England bishops now turn to him instead of to The Telegraph for 'intelligent Conservative' commentary is humbling.

Bless you.

adriancopping said...

Nick Davies' 'Flat Earth News' perhaps should be compulsory reading for all church leaders at least. It's not difficult to read but it did seem to me to go on a bit so examples like this one are priceless reminders. BBC Breakfast illustrated another Flat Earth approach this morning taking a piece of research which indicated that, contrary to much popular belief, those not born in the UK were not in fact given any special priority in obtaining social housing. In order, to presumably, worship at the altar of 'balance' they then, instead of seeking a contrary view which actually engaged with the material in the research, did street vox-pops amongst some with only anecdotal evidence, and concluding with a return-to-studio throw away line along the lines of 'not everyone, however, is convinced by the research'. Sadly some BBC output leaves as much to be desired as the Telegraph!

Erika Baker said...

You only have to read the comments on Archbishop Cranmer's post to see that the Daily Telegraph has its fingers on the conservative pulse.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for kind words and sentiments. Just seen said comments, Erika, and I see what you mean. I'm also grateful for your reminder that things like the golden rule are actually an integral part, if not the keystone of the Jesus' teaching. Thanks, Adrian. I have to say that once you've read the Neil Davies book you begin to see the phenomenon all over the place.

Archbishop Cranmer said...

It would be as wrong to judge a blog by the comments it attracts as it would be to judge the Lord by the company he kept.

It may assist Ms Baker to know that The Telegraph rigorously controls its content and heavily censors its blogs. His Grace, on the other hand, while having neither the time nor the financial means of the Barclay brothers to do either, is content (and quite secure) with contributions from a myriad of perspectives, and to hope that enlightenment might emerge from the dialogue.

It may not always do so, but in seeking to be light in the darkness, there is no point keepng company only with those who emit 100W of politically-correct renewable energy.

If, as you say, the 'Daily Telegraph has its fingers on the conservative pulse', where in its pages (or its blogs, for that matter) is the 'genuinely perceptive, intelligent Conservative take' on the Established Church, or the 'genuinely perceptive, intelligent Conservative' voice from within the tradition to which the majority (according to the last census) still subscribes?

Erika Baker said...

Your Grace
Of course there are many genuinely perceptive and intelligent conservatives, and of course the Daily Telegraph represents them well.

In the area of human sexuality, however, we are now witnessing a trend that always happens whenever a previously new outrageous idea becomes normalised in society.

Initially, liberals are in the minority and seen as dangerous crackpots wanting to destabilise society with an immoral innovation.
Then the pendulum swings towards the centre and there are as many intelligent liberals as intelligent conservatives on either side of the debate. The debate continues to be courteous, reasoned, passionate, at least in the centre. Extremists on either side will never contribute to a rational discourse.

But eventually, when most of society has begun to accept the new thinking and realised that it is not leading to a dangerous destruction of everything we hold dear, the conservative centre also shifts to what used to be perceived as extremely liberal but is now merely normal and common sense. What remains is the extreme, emotional, uncritical end of the conservative spectrum.

It happened in the slavery debate, which has advanced so far that not a single person would still support it, although many extremely reasonable ones did when the debate first begun.
It happened in the debate for women’s rights, which are now opposed only by a small extreme right wing group.
It happened in the debate about the equality of black people, which is now only opposed by the BNP.
And it is now happening in the debate about human sexuality, where only a few incorrigibles believe that raped women have been asking for it.
The debate about full equality for lgbt people is now moving from the stage where liberals and conservatives held equal balance into that where most people either simply accept this equality without doubt or do not find the issue important enough to get really worked up about. What you are left with is an increasingly frustrated conservative remnant and sadly, the kind of comments that have been left on your excellent blog.
When commentators sink to the level of writing, for example, “every face I stamp on is yours”, I believe we are no longer defending the right to have opinions that do not emit 100W of politically-correct renewable energy, but we have left the shores of acceptable conversation.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of titles when signing up for things, pop on over to Christian Marketplace magazine's free subscriptions for Church leaders page: the range of titles you can choose is mind-boggling ... and the suffixes ... well, you've heard of raising the dead, but this is hilarious: must be seen to be believed!!

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