by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vic Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
I was listening to an American political commentator on the radio the other day, who was saying that the divisions between two political sides in the USA were getting worse. Neither side is listening to the other; families and friends are divided; each side listens to what it wants to hear. He’d convened focus groups of differing views where within ten seconds people were taking sides, and within five minutes were shouting at each other. ‘Everyone wants to be heard’, he said, ‘but no one is listening.’
On Saturday 20th October there was a big march in London calling for a People’s Vote on Brexit. Three days later I sat at my breakfast table in London listening to the chanting of supporters of Tommy Robinson at the Old Bailey. Two sides, two views, and who is working to reconcile them and to listen to the other? Who will include the excluded, on either side? And what really is the truth?
The ‘post-truth’ undermining of rational evidence and reasoned argument makes it hard to know what to believe. In the 2016 referendum campaign opinions were presented as facts; truth may be undermined by innuendo or downright falsehood. With climate change for example, doubt is thrown on carefully monitored conclusions by partial studies, in a similar way to how the tobacco lobby fought for years to minimise the harm done by its products. You don’t have to disprove the science: you just have to enable people to ignore it, by giving them an alternative narrative they want to believe, by creating ‘fake news’.
And the same thing is around in the church’s debates on sex. There’s been huge progress made in the scientific understanding of issues around human sexuality over the last 50 years, and there’s much evidence about sexuality to engage with. But that scientific evidence doesn’t necessarily fit with inherited ways of interpreting the Bible: so how do those who feel uncomfortable with the evidence respond? The Church has been tempted to follow the way of the world: setting up binary splits (e.g. GAFCON), disputing the evidence, finding alternative narratives which undermine credible scientific studies, ignoring the challenges of the experiences of others, refusing to engage with those with whom we disagree.
A presentation at the Church of England’s General Synod in July 2018, about the work of a group reviewing the relationship between scientific understanding and the Church’s views on sexuality, began with reference to St Augustine’s comments on how literalist interpretation of the scriptures (in relation to creation) by some Christians was bringing the faith into disrepute among pagans who knew it didn’t tally with scientific understanding of the world which God had created. Augustine’s point was that, while the Scriptures are authoritative and contain the truth of God’s salvation in Christ, the way they are interpreted needs to be carefully assessed, in order not to conflict with the truth of God made known in the world around us, the truths of reason.
Just as we no longer insist, for example, that the earth is the centre of a universe surrounded by water, so we need to listen to and engage with the truth of sexuality in the world around us. We have the ability to understand the human body, the human psyche, the human brain and the human condition better than we’ve ever done before – and we should therefore be open to being challenged about our preconceptions and misguided assumptions. The science doesn’t determine our ethical conclusions, but it will helpfully inform how we should interpret and use the tradition.
That’s why I’m hosting a day in London on December 8th 2018, to help Christians understand more about how science is helping to illuminate our understandings of sexuality. This isn’t a polemical event arguing for change: it’s offering the opportunity to listen across binary divides, to listen to scientific truth which may be uncomfortable, but is the reality of how God’s world is.
A particular example is people who are born intersex, whose sex at birth is ambiguous or uncertain. Because they don’t fit the binary model of what’s ‘normal’, such people have often been forced as children, without their consent, to undergo life-changing surgery. If you’re open-minded enough to encounter four brave young people who don’t ‘fit’ and who may challenge how you think, spend four minutes watching this video:
On December 8th, Sara Gillingham will be sharing her own story about how she has been treated, and Dr Peter Hegarty will be explaining how society has responded to intersex people over time and the harm that has been done to them. We also need to be open to the truth about the significant harm many LGBTI people have suffered over the years, as evidenced by high levels of depression, self-harm and suicide. Professionals such as Professor Michael King have been studying this for years – and as Christians, we need to hear the facts from his studies, and respond pastorally to them.
Jesus says in John’s Gospel: ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.’ Chapters 8 and 9 of John are concerned with ‘fake news’: how good religious people didn’t accept the truth of who Jesus was, because of what they believed should be the case. The religious group they belonged to believed the truth couldn’t be like that, and they were more loyal to their group than to God’s truth.
Jesus doesn’t call these good religious people true believers. He calls them ‘slaves to sin’ and ‘not of God’. Because God is the God of truth, even when the truth doesn’t fit with what we believe should be the case about God. Because not living in God’s truth leads us into sin.
God in Jesus calls us to listen to others, to learn and to love. Are we willing to be challenged by the uncomfortable truth? Or will the Church follow the way of the world and avoid the uncomfortable facts which don’t fit what we want to believe?
The Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London offers his opinion on the polarities abounding in human society today – including division in the U.K. about Brexit; division in the US on the continuing abrasiveness of the current President; and, finally, in the Church’s understanding and tendency to a division on matters of gender and sexuality:
“On December 8th, Sara Gillingham will be sharing her own story about how she has been treated, and Dr Peter Hegarty will be explaining how society has responded to intersex people over time and the harm that has been done to them. We also need to be open to the truth about the significant harm many LGBTI people have suffered over the years, as evidenced by high levels of depression, self-harm and suicide. Professionals such as Professor Michael King have been studying this for years – and as Christians, we need to hear the facts from his studies, and respond pastorally to them.
Although the prospect of Brexit is not, specifically, a religious question, it will have a profound effect on the unity of people in the United Kingdom – whose views may differ, radically, on the matter of what might turn out to be ‘the best’ (or not as the case may be) for Britain’s economy and social and spiritual well-being.
Most people around the world are aware of the split between conservatives and ‘liberals’ in the United States – mainly because of the predominant self-interest of its President’s desire for a ‘Make America Great’ policy, which is leading to a severe split in the country on Trump’s ideological claims of supremacy in world affairs that is increasingly (some may even think ‘dangerously’) isolating America from even its former allies. Sadly, in the US, a lot of support for this fortress mentality is coming from the conservative and Evangelical wing of Christian believers whose support is being actively courted by the President – to the point where he and his conservative advisors are seeking to overturn recent legislation affecting justice issues for society’s underclasses.
Although in England, at least, the public attitudes have turned around from homophobia and sexism to a more just view of its treatment of LGBT+ people, now enshrined in legal measures of support (e.g., Equal Marriage); the Church of England is still divided on how to incorporate such measures of liberalisation to the point where legally married same-sex couples can actually be openly and officially, welcomed by the Church.
This problem of division, however, is not unique to the Church in England. There is now a very real threat of an institutionalised division between parts of the worldwide Anglican Communion around the world on matters of gender and sexuality and the treatment of LGBT+ people within the Provincial Churches of the Communion.
Part of the problem is that the governments of many ex-colonial countries, which were originally missionised by a Church which enshrined a traditional, anciently biblical, understanding of gender and sexuality – based on the binary theory of sexual activity being reserved for the propagation of the species, without reference to the possibility of sexual attraction as a means of engendering a faithful bonded relationship between two people of the same gender. Some of these countries – especially in Africa and Asia – still convinced of the impropriety of homosexuality, legislate for severe sanctions against the LGBT+ people in their jurisdiction, often aided and abetted by the leaders of the local Anglican Provincial Churches in those countries.
The formation of GAFCON/FOCA in the Global South (oddly – promoted by the one-time Sydney Anglican Archbishop, Peter Jensen) has now precipitated a culture of schism within the Anglican Communion, which began with their sponsoring of rival Anglican Churches in the USA and Canada, and now even in the U.K., which operate separately from their roots in the Anglican Communion stemming from the See of Canterbury in the U.K. (Our own Church in Aotearoa/New Zealand (ACANZP) has already suffered from the schismatic departure of several clergy in the diocese of Christchurch – although, in most cases they have not taken the majority of their congregations with them).
Social and scientific observation – especially in the Western world (Global North) – has now found clear evidence of an alternative to human (and animal) sexual responses; as originally perceived to exist for the sole purpose of procreation. This gift of an alternative sexual relationship can often produce a stable and faithful couple bonding that can provide a model of propriety for heterosexual married couples – including the adoption and care of children who might otherwise not receive the care and nurture of loving parents. If this had not been possible, then secular (political) means would never have been initiated to make them legally admissible.
What has happened recently in this area could be seen as a new era of enlightenment for the Church of England which, at a recent General Synod, voted overwhelmingly to petition the UK Government to ban clinical ‘Conversion Therapy’ for homosexuals in the U.K. Another bold move was for its General Synod to declare a ban on discrimination against transsexuals whose lives have formerly suffered from an ignorance of the psychological, biological and social elements involved to properly enable the orderly accommodation of their social transformation into both Church and society.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand