The Ballad of Reading Diocese

1: Schism... 1

2: Pedantry.. 2

3: Totem and Taboo.. 3

Interlude: The parable of the silly ass (during which a collection will be taken). 5

4: Heresy.. 5

5: Exegesis. 8

6: Eschatology.. 9

7: Benediction.. 11

 

1: Schism

On Sunday (the Synod) met in York Minster for worship. We sang: 'For the love of God is broader/ than the measure of man's mind;/ and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind./ But we make his love too narrow/ with false limits of our own,/ and we magnify his strictness/ with a zeal he will not own.' There had to be a rehearsal for this hymn. Apparently, some people didn't know it.

The Rev Dr Giles Fraser, (Guardian comment, July 14th)

The Beatles broke up because Yoko didn't ask George before taking one of his chocolate digestives. Mrs. Thatcher lost power over a tax amounting to a few hundred pounds per person per year. And it looks as if the Church of England is finally going to go down over the vital theological question of when it is and when it is not acceptable for two men to touch each other's willies.

I have a great many friends who are sodomites. Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course. Gandalf is a charming man, and so is Magneto, although I preferred the Edith Evans movie to the Judy Dench one. Mind you, some of what one reads, I mean, yuk. But on the other hand which of us can honestly say, particularly when we were at school? James Dean, for example.

From time to time, there is a vicar-related fuss about a matter of no religious importance. Can we teach children about Father Christmas? Can we sing 'I Vow to Thee My Country' at weddings? Does God prefer guitars or organs? How many 'thee's' and 'thou's' per square inch are acceptable in the service-book? It would be lovely to say that the maelstrom surrounding the appointment of Jeffery John—apparently a hoh-moh-sexual—to the job of Bishop of Reading was another flap about a non-issue. It would be nice to just say that the church should bloody well drag itself into the late nineteenth century and find something else to worry it's little head about. Why it doesn't have any members, for example.

But.

I do in fact think that there is an issue at stake here; one serious enough that it may bring about the end of the English Church. The question of where Jeffery John puts his Episcopal penis is not, of course, of the faintest spiritual or theological significance But the terms in which the debate has been conducted has revealed a fault-line in the C of E along which there can be no accommodation

A cynic might suggest that this is precisely what the 'evangelicals' had in mind when they started the debate.

 

As I have had cause to mention before, Sellars and Yateman offer the following summary of the English Civil War.

 The Cavaliers: Romantic but Wrong;
The Roundheads: Repulsive but Right.

The burden of this essay will be that, in the forthcoming civil war in the Church of England, the Evangelicals are Repulsive but Right.

 

2: Pedantry

—The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden.
—It ends with revelations.
                Oscar Wilde.

Point of information, before we start.

Evangelicalism is a particular species of protestant Christianity—emphasizing human sinfulness and the need for individual repentance and faith in Christ. An evangelist is a preacher; especially one who tries to win converts. The word presumably started out meaning specifically a Christian preacher—'evangel' meaning the same as 'gospel'—but everyone uses it as a synonym for 'proselytizer'. 'Catholic evangelical' would be a contradiction in terms, but 'Catholic evangelist' would not be. Most evangelists are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are evangelists. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the four evangelists; they may or may not have been evangelicals.

Even the Times sometimes gets confused over this.

Next, let's try to remove a trio of red herrings. We are told that the current schism is between one group— 'Evangelicals' or 'Traditionalists'[1]—who think that you should take the whole Bible 'literally' and another group, 'Liberals' or 'Modernizers', who think that you should interpret it in the light of the modern world. It is often implied that evangelical literalism is simply a mask for that kind prejudice which Peter Tatchell persists in calling 'homophobia.'

First point: I don't think that evangelicals are homophobic or bigoted. When they find themselves saying 'We don't have anything against gays; it's just that they are going to Hell', I think that they are perfectly sincere. If you want to see bigotry—pure hatred and revulsion flapping around for some justification—read BNP literature or any website dedicated to lynching pedophile. (Or, on second thoughts, don't.) I don't hear this kind of hatred in the evangelical anti-gay campaigners. They're more bemused, embarrassed, not quite able to see why the rest of the world doesn't understand something which is to them clear and obvious.  (If anyone wishes to say 'but that makes it worse', I shan't disagree with them at this stage.)

Doubtless, there is prejudice in the church. If a tramp, or a nudist, or a member of the Conservative party turned up to morning service at an evangelical church, then it is quite possible that no-one would sit near him. It is even possible that they would be asked to leave. This would be an example of prejudice. It would be a Bad Thing[2]. It would show that Christians don't live up to the ideals set down by Jesus and that churches are full of sinners who don't practice what they preach.

Well, duh.

But if a couple of nice young…flat-mates…turned up at the same church then I think that there would experience a good deal less prejudice there than they would in many pubs, gyms, Conservative Associations and package holiday firms. It is very unlikely that the question of sleeping arrangements would be mentioned until, say, eighteen months later, when some very hot-under-the-collar house group leader found himself having to say that, well, we don't know if you are or not and it really isn't any of our business but if you are you know really and truly you shouldn't be...

Second: I don't think that the issue is Biblical literalism. No-one, not even self-identified fundamentalists really think that you have to take the 'whole Bible' literally. Many Bible hard-liners agree that when St Paul says that women should cover their heads in church, it should be interpreted as meaning 'Dress modestly, don't tart yourself up.' Hard-core Scotsmen worry about observing the Lord's Day (about which the Bible says a good deal more than it does about anal sex); but their Lord's Day starts at midnight on Saturday, not sundown on Friday. The people who say 'take it literally' usually mean 'believe that the stories really happened: Jonah really was swallowed by a fish, and Noah really did fit all the animals into the ark.'.[3] Fundamentalists don't read Ecclesiastes in the same was as they read Revelation. (Liberals, on the whole, don't read them at all.) The madder fringes of fundamentalism are populated, not by people who take the Bible too 'literally', but ones who are rather too prone to far-fetched symbolic interpretations. .

Third: I don't think that any Christian, however 'liberal' has ever said 'Oh, chuck out anything in the Bible that seems contrary to the way in which we do things nowadays.' If you said that, then there would cease to be any point at all in reading it in the first place. 'Liberal' Christians are perfectly happy to point out that many of Biblical principles—canceling debts, say, or welcoming strangers—are jolly good things which our own society might learn a good deal from. They are not generally impressed when you say 'Oh, all that magnanimity stuff is so last dispensation. In the modern world, we lynch asylum seekers and squeeze the Third World till the pips squeak.'

Even among evangelicals, the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality—let alone the esoteric point about gay bishops—is not in itself a very significant topic. Of course, in any sect you can find people with bees in their bonnets about particular issues; there may be vocal minority that thinks that God is primarily worried about anal sex, just as there are minorities that think he is especially concerned about Dungeons and Dragons and rock music. I once knew an otherwise sensible guy who had a theory that nuclear power was uniquely wicked; because if God created the universe, we ought not to be taking it apart. One such faction have made 'the family' and 'family values' into pretty much the whole of their religion. A 1950s family, with a submissive wife, obedient children, lots of spankings and a properly masculine husband who hunts his own reindeer is the ideal, not to say the idol. One sometimes wonders whether 'God' is primarily recommended as a helpful tool to enable you to reach this target.[4] In such a universe, it is axiomatic that 'homosexuality' is a great evil; if to be Christian means to be a happy family, than 'Christian homosexual' is a contradiction in terms. But I don't think that this strand has ever reached the mainstream in the UK, and I don't think that this is where the anti-gay brigade are coming from.

Before the present row blew up, I don't think that I had ever heard a sermon on he subject of homosexuality. I recall clergymen making remarks in passing that the prevalence of homosexuality in the meejah shows what a pagan nation we are becoming. I recall an eminent figure in the house church movement warning his flock about the dangers of 'masturbation and things of that kind'. (I have often wondered what other things of that kind he had in mind that I may be missing out on.) My recollection of university Christian Unions is that 'not really approving of gayness' was part of the package; probably assumed but rarely mentioned: one of the three impossible things you had to believe before breakfast in order to hang out with a nice group of people, sing songs and occasionally get a faith-based-buzz. Homosexuality is wrong; There's No Real Proof of Evolution; Slow Train Coming is a reasonably good album. We were more likely to be worrying about whether you could be a Christian and also a Catholic, or whether speaking in tongues came before or after being baptized in the spirit. If none of your set happens to be gay, then you can disapprove of it passively without it looming very large in your thinking. I wonder how many Labour MPs have ever actually met a fox hunter?

 

3: Totem and Taboo

Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed…

Shortly before Tony's accession to the role of Galactic Emperor, he re-wrote 'Clause 4', of the Labour Party's constitution. It seemed real important at the time. The old version had committed the party to the principal of 'the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service'. The new version said that the party was committed to 'Doctors, Nurses, Fluffy Bunnies, Chocolate Hob-nobs, Cute babies, nice things, and making the world lovely',—or words to that effect. No-one in the Labour Party actually agreed with the Marxist version; arguably, no-one in the party had ever done so. No-one outside the party cared one way or the other. But it was important for Tony to make the change in order to show that he was New and Modern and definitely nothing like Tony Benn. It was important to the Old Guard to oppose the change in order to show that the Party was still the same Old Party that they had been imprisoned in dungeons deep and gallows grim in order to defend.

Organizations—religious and secular ones—often develop totemic issues and use them as a weapon to use against doctrinal opponents. They may be tests of orthodoxy, commitment or purity, or simply shibboleths to ensure that you are 'one of us'. The British Monarchy, the Drumcree march, the gay Bishop, and the question about whether or not Balrogs have wings all served this kind of function for various groups.

The traditionalists in the church have had the greatest difficulty finding an issue to rally around. The Church has had debates about prayer book revision, women priests, re-marriage of divorcees and come through them relatively united. It has had public rows about Bishops who don't believe in the resurrection, and even clergymen who don't believe in God, and remained intact. None of the U.S totems work over here: we already do have prayer in schools, and no-one apart from Richard Dawkins gives a stuff about evolution.

So could it be…could men's bottoms possibly be the issue that smokes out the liberals and unites the hard-liners? It's a long shot, but it might just work. Someone proposes this John Jeffery character as Bishop of Reading. He has apparently never made any secret of the fact that he has a male friend with whom he maintains a platonic relationship, in all possible senses of the word. The evangelicals pounce, and say that gay bishops are a definite no-no. The liberals retaliate, and say that the evangelicals are bigoted and homophobic.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Druid[5], could, at this point, have said, 'Oh, shut up you appallingly prurient and silly people'. The issue might possibly have gone away. He could also have said that the evangelicals were quite right, in which case the all the gay clergy and most of the gay laity would have buggered off to the outer darkness and become Methodists. But he said that in a very real sense he neither supported nor condemned, and we needed a very full and frank debate, and the issue festered. It got into the papers. Anne Atkins got to do a Thought for the Day. David and/or Richard Dimbelby allowed the audience to ask the panel questions about it. The secular pundits had a lovely time taking the p out of the church. A few genuinely anti-gay bigots got to say that this was exactly what they had thought all along, gayness is disgusting and god hates fags. The Church was forced to wash its dirty cassocks in public.

The debate panned out roughly along theses lines:

Ivan Gelical:      Men can't touch each other's willies!

Archdruid:      Don't be silly. Grown men can do whatever they like.

Ivan:      Men who touch each other's willies can't be bishops!

Archdruid:      Really, I think you ought to bring your views up to date.

Ivan:      God says so! Jesus says so! The Bible says so!

Archdruid:      (annoyed) I don't care what the Bible says! I don't care what Jesus says! I don't care what God says!

Ivan:      Ha-ha! So then, you are not a Christian at all!

Archdruid:      Drat and double drat, you have caught me out. Truly, you are too clever for us syncretic people. I suppose I will have to let you run the Church from now on.

Ivan:     Don't mind if I do. (Aside) My plan worked. Heretics always make at least one foolish mistake. Would you be interested in coming to my Alpha course? We serve rice salad.

What the 'liberals' could not do was mount a defense of the Bishop on theological lines. To do so they would have had to appeal to a specific set of theological principles. They would have to have said "God is very definitely like this and not at all like that and anyone who thinks he is like this is wrong." But if they were prepared to do that, then, by definition, they wouldn't have been liberals. The whole point of evangelicals and fundamentalists is that they think that they have arrived at the Truth. The whole point of liberals is that they don't. That was why it was so silly for the Archdruid to call on everyone to respect each others differing views in the name of Unity. Evangelicals, by definition, don't care about "unity" nearly as much as they care about truth. When you say "We may differ on some issues of morality and theology, but the important thing is that we stay together in one united church" you pre-suppose that the Liberals are right and the evangelicals are wrong. Which, when you think about it, isn't very liberal at all.

You can't say 'the teaching of the Church is such-and-such', if part of the point of the Church of England is that it is a broad Church which allows it's clergy to teach different things. You can't say 'this is what the Bible says' because the degree of authority which the Bible has is one of the subjects about which a range of viewpoints are respected. You can't even say "this is what Jesus says" because if you do, there is a very real danger that three Vicars with PhDs in divinity will tell you that we can't be sure that the Synoptics, and certainly not the Fourth Evangelist[6] recorded His words accurately. So the only grounds on which the Liberals can conduct a discussion about gayness are the standard Liberal Humanist ones[7]. It's not doing any harm. It's between consenting adults. That Leonardo De Caprio is quite cute, isn't he? All of which is perfectly true, but doesn't actually address the evangelicals difficulties, which aren't about real-world common-sense practicality, but about what they see as supernatural realities.

From the liberal standpoint, the evangelicals have trapped God in a narrow set of doctrines, and want to impose them on everybody else. From the evangelical standpoint , the liberals tolerate so many and so wide a range of possible views about God that they may as well not call themselves "Christians" at all. Both sides are, up to a point, right. But the issue isn't male sexuality: it's whether or not the Christianity is a religion. Is it about the interface between the material world and the supernatural, about whether or not people can get in touch with God and if so how to go about it, or is it a large and very useful organization which provides a social cohesion, community focus, a shoulder to cry on, rites of passage, charitable work, carol singers?

 Intentionally or otherwise, the homosexuality debate has outed the schism which dare not speak its name.

Interlude: The parable of the silly ass (during which a collection will be taken)

In Matthews gospel, the twenty first chapter, commencing to read at the second verse, Jesus says 'Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to me.'

This is not a verse we can take lightly. It is a direct command from Jesus. You cannot pick and choose about Jesus' commands; you have to accept them all. So Christians in all ages have, in differing ways, tried to put this scripture into practice in their daily lives.

What does it mean to 'bring a donkey to Jesus'? Some people take the verse very literally, and each Sunday, bring a donkey and present it to Jesus in church; that's why you often see bails of hay and manure outside churches.

Some people have toned down the command, and simply bring a toy donkey which they lay at the altar at the beginning of the service.

Others have interpreted the verse spiritually, and said that by 'donkey' we are to understand one who is foolish and unspiritual, and that the command 'bring a donkey to Jesus' means 'convert the foolish.' (Hence, 'loose them, and bring them to me' —loose them from their enslavement to sin. The 'village opposite' is a metaphor for Satan's kingdom, as opposed to 'this village', which means heaven.)

A third view says that when we are commanded to do things for Jesus' person—bring him food or drink or donkeys—we should interpret it as referring to the poor of the world, for 'inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these, you did it also unto me.' Believers in this theory therefore spend a lot of their time giving out donkeys to small children and third world farmers. A very few have suggested that the command is fulfilled by investing money in donkey sanctuaries and giving the money to the poor. One or two suggests that the modern equivalent of a donkey is a moped.

But a fourth group, if you ask them says "It was in quotation marks, dammit! The Bible isn't like the Koran or the Book of Mormon which was actually supposed to have been handed down from Heaven as God's Final Message To His Creation. It's a record, or a set of stories even, about what God said to particular people at particular times. Every thing God says in the Bible appears in a specific context; what God told Abraham (leave your country, kill your son) what God told Moses to tell the Jews (don't eat shellfish) and what Jesus told his disciples on one particular Sunday (get me a donkey because I need one). We have to read the stories about what God told these people in order to find out what kind of God he is. So the story about the Donkey tells us that during the Incarnation he had specific practical needs; or that Palm Sunday was important enough that he prepared for it in advance; or that he knew the prophecy about the Messiah riding a donkey and deliberately arranged to fulfill it; or else it tells us that the disciples had to do what Jesus said, even though it might have seemed odd at the time ("But Lord, isn't that technically donkey-stealing?") Just like we need to know that God gave the Jews rules about shell-fish, buggery and latrines because we need to know that, at that time, he cared about ritual purity. But it doesn't, necessarily, mean that we have to read what he said to Moses, Abraham or the Disciples and assume that those exact things apply to us. So please take that Donkey out of the vestibule. It's making a mess."

"Oh, you make things so complicated." say the other groups "You liberals will go to any lengths to twist the plain and obvious meaning of God's Word. Are you coming to the stoning after Sunday School?"

 

4: Heresy

A supporter of women's ordination said that the only difference between her and the Archbishop of Canterbury was that he had a penis and she did not. Even from the purely biological standpoint, this argument is bollocks.

                Auberon Waugh

Christians tend to regard the soul as much more solidly plumbed into the body than Buddhists or Platonists do, so they have tended to think that what you do with the physical bit of you affects the immortal bit of you. Christians regard it as a very big deal that God took on a human body, and that when He returned to heaven he took that body with him. A lot of them think that eating physical things like bread and wine effects the state of your soul; they sometimes kill each other over disagreements about how exactly this works. So there could very well be rules and regulations about what you can and can't do with the biological equipment that God put between your legs.

Do the people who are bashing the bishop[8] have any coherent theology to back them up?

The evangelicals only rarely make a direct appeal to the handful of Bible verses, mainly in the Pentateuch, which refer explicitly to homosexuality. To do so would raise questions like 'Why do you make such a big deal out of a relatively obscure verse in a relatively obscure book, and much less noise about subjects on which the Bible has far more to say—Sabbath observance, for the sake of argument?' They would also risk being hoisted on their own petard. If 'Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind, it is abomination' is your proof-text, and if we are expected to take it 'Literally' then hot girl-on-girl action is presumably permitted[9]. (If the NIV's gloss is right then 'Do not lie with a man as you lie with a woman' could be taken only as banning bi-sexual three in a bed romps.[10]) Instead, they have to come up with quasi-rational reasons why 'the Bible as a whole' says that gayness is off the agenda god-wise.

There are two arguments: a sophisticated one and a naďve one.

The sophisticated argument says that the Bible likens the relationship between God and the Church with marriage. It 'follows' that God invented marriage primarily to convey this symbolism, and only incidentally to provide babies and companionship. This is the line taken by the prayer book.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honorable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocence, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honorable among all men…

By this argument, marriage is sacramental, and any sexual coupling outside this sacramental relationship is blasphemous, sacrilegious, wrong.

Now, it is certainly true that Jesus likens himself to a Bridegroom and the Church to a Bride. The Authorized Version helpfully provides a gloss to the sacred pornography in the Song of Songs, explaining that verses that say things like: 'I have a little sister, and she hath no breasts: what shall we do we do for her sister in the day when she shall be spoken for?' represent things like 'The calling of the gentiles.' Medieval female mystics talked about their 'love' for God in language which modern Christians often find rather…inappropriate. My favorite Biblical example is the book of Hosea, where God's relationship with Israel is portrayed as that of a hurt lover whose wife keeps going off with other boys, but who nevertheless is going to stand by his gal.

I agree with the traditionalists that it would be very dangerous to say 'Oh, but when it says that Jesus is like a bridegroom, it actually refers to all makers of dairy produce.' The Bible talks about God in metaphors and you can't change the metaphors without unpicking the whole of the Bible. People sometimes say 'Does it have to be bread and wine? Couldn't just as well be coconuts and rice, or some other culturally appropriate image?' The problem with this is that 'bread' is mentioned all through the Bible, and practically any other reference to it has at some time been understood to refer or allude to the Last Supper. Changing one reference probably scrambles the rest of the text. (What would you do with the bit where it says that the Jews left Egypt in a such a hurry that they had to eat unleavened rice?)

So the traditionalists have a point, albeit a rather esoteric one. Some people seem to think that you could leave the marriage service exactly as it is written, but change 'this man and this woman' to 'this man and this other man'. I agree that this is silly: the Biblical symbolism would no longer work. Possibly (possibly) you can't ever call a same-sex union a 'marriage.' Possibly (just possibly), a same sex union, since it lacks the sacramental dimension, is 'inferior' to a heterosexual union—in the sense that marriage was traditionally said to be 'inferior' to virginity. It would be better to remain celibate if you can; but it's not a sin to marry if you want to; it would have been better to have been straight, but it is okay to live with another bloke if you have to.

Translated into English, this means 'We'd need to design a new ceremony for Christian gays, and we probably wouldn't call 'marriage'.'

But how you get from 'God made the love of man and woman to represent his own love for the Church' to 'If two guys are interested in (and only interested in) each other, they can't touch, much less live together' I can't imagine.

The Bible frequently compares God's love for his people with that of a shepherd for his flock. It follows, I suppose, that God created sheep and farmers primarily in order to provide us with this image, and only incidentally to provide us with lamb chops and wooly jumpers. It would therefore follow (presumably) that factory farms, sheepdogs, and all forms of agricultural practice not specifically mentioned in the Bible are sacrilegious. At one level everything that God made stands as a symbol or allegory of something in God's nature. Medieval bestiaries are full of it. The reason that male elephants are (as everyone knows) not interested in sex, to the extent that the female elephant has to tempt them with mandrakes, is in order to remind us that Eve tempted Adam in the Garden of Eden. Or that the human race is not very interested in God, and that he as to send evangelists[11] to 'woo' us. It's all in Plato: I wonder what they teach them in these evangelical seminaries?

Readers of a nervous disposition might want to read the next couple of paragraphs with their eyes closed.

It has occurred to me to wonder what aspect of marriage is specifically, on the sacramental view, supposed to resemble Christ's love for the church? Is it merely the groom's love for the bride, or specifically what they do on their wedding night? If the former, then any loving relationship can be a sacrament, and gay marriage is not a problem. But if the latter, then one has to wonder how specific the allegory is. Is a married heterosexual couple acting out an allegory if it engages in consensual anal sex? Where does God stand on oral sex? Consensual sadomasochistic play? Or kissing, even? Does it make a difference who goes on top? Is that why they call it the missionary position?

I once visited London Zoo, and saw two rhinos engaged in the act of Venus for the entire duration of my visit. Were they enacting an allegory of God's love for Israel, and if so, should I conclude that the male rhino was quite enormously spiritual? (And what did God think about what the monkeys were doing?)

It does appear, seriously, that many evangelicals are worried not about love or spirit or state of mind or lifestyle, but about, er, what goes into which hole. Some evangelicals say specifically that homosexual orientation is not a problem, its 'genital homosexual acts' which God doesn't like. This means that God is saying 'It's okay to fancy blokes; it's okay to hold hands and kiss; but HANDS OFF THEIR WILLIES.' Where they get this from, I don't know. I remember the passage where Jesus says that lusting after a woman is just as bad as fornication; I must have missed the bit where he says that lusting after men is fine, provided you don't go near their private parts. (Unless 'homosexual orientation' means 'It's okay to be the kind of man who fancies men, provided you don't actually fancy any men?'[12])

And while I'm at it: if sex can be sacramental, does it follow that all sexual acts are either sacramental or sacrilegious? If you believe that bread and wine can be the body and blood of Christ, does it follow that you are blaspheming if you eat bread in any other context. (I believe that some sects, including the Exclusive Brethren, actually take this line.) If not, what makes sex a special case?

Fortunately, the majority of anti-gay traditionalists aren't nearly clever enough to put forward this sacramentalist argument. Some of them probably haven't even read the book of Leviticus. They just say, sometimes in so many words, that homosexuality is unnatural, or resort to clichés about how God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. It hardly seems worth saying that, if we took Adam and Eve as our model, or families would have to commit mother-son incest, sibling incest[13], and fratricide; or that we all ought to be naturists, or that we all ought to be subsidence farmers. And that one can't really see that much ethical conclusion can be drawn from the fact that the mythical name of the first woman rhymes with a modern English man's name (even if her name was 'Eve' in Hebrew, which it wasn't.). Or that if 'naturalness' was the benchmark then you'd have to go down the path of banning all recreational sex whatsoever….along with clothes, cooked food, and watching Fame Academy. But while the sacramental neo-Platonists and the extreme 'family values' brigade are probably convinced by their own arguments, the naďve majority are just quoting proverbs to uphold something they 'just know' is right.

There would be two much better ways to construct an anti-gay argument if you wanted to.

The first is the old fashioned Catholic way: sex is for making babies, and doing it for any other reason is just plain wrong. Provided you go the whole way with this—no non-productive sex between married couples, no contraception, no masturbation, ladies to just lie back and think of Constantinople—this is quite logically consistent. C.S Lewis comes perilously close to arguing for it in the racier sections of Mere Christianity. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a biological function like sex, he says, any more than there is anything wrong with enjoying a pork chop: but you would think that something had gone seriously wrong with the appetite for food if people wanted to chew it up without swallowing it, or do things to it other than eat it, or eat things which weren't food. He imagines a society where you could get an audience together to watch a gastronomic strip-tease, staring at a pork-chop they weren't allowed to eat. (Query: Are the highly expensive and creative 'tasting menus' in gourmet restaurants 'food pornography' of exactly this kind?) The message is that while sex may be about things other than making babies, it is perverse to separate that function from the others. Lewis said that he wasn't prepared to express an opinion on artificial contraception, but one imagines one knows which side he would have come down on. He also seemed to believe that sexuality had an intrinsically 'magical' dimension: that the mere act of copulation created a transcendental relationship between two souls, which must be eternally endured or eternally enjoyed.

Very few people, not even the Pope, are now prepared to take this line. We all agree that sex is primarily about love and pleasure and relationships, and only secondarily to do with making babies—except, of course, when we are discussing what kind of sex education to put on the national curriculum.[14] The Church of England, at any rate, admitted that non-reproductive sex was a Good Thing the day it permitted artificial contraception, in, I think, the 1920s. Once you've said 'sex for fun is okay' it is very hard to logically say 'some kinds of sex, entered into consensually and not otherwise doing any harm, are nevertheless very evil, so evil, in fact, that a practitioner of them is debarred from the clergy.' [15]

The other case you could make out would be to say that some things are wrong Just Because God Says So; and God, being inscrutable, can put a no-buggery clause into Christianity if he wants to. The advantage of this argument would be that you don't have to get bogged down in coming up with post hoc rationalizations which just aren't true. God doesn't have to have a reason; he's God, okay? No foreskins for Jews, no beefburgers for Hindus, no anal sex for Christians. If you want to join the club, you follow the rules. Jews don't have to say 'bacon sarnies are obviously unnatural': it's just a rule they follow. The gay-sex ban is just another taboo. I don't think that it anyone has ever thought that God had a moral objection to foreskins and pork chops and that any person who was not totally depraved would be able to see why such things were totally unnatural. They were just arbitrary rules that you obeyed if you wanted fellowship with God.

The problem with this is that on most views, especially most evangelical views, 'arbitrary rules' are exactly what Christianity is not about. That, arguably, is the Whole Point.

 

5: Exegesis

"So Father, do you ever have any doubts about the religious life? Is your faith ever tested? Anything you've been worried about? Any doubts you've been having about any aspects of belief? Anything like that?"
"Well, you know the way God made us all right and eh, he's looking down on us from heaven and everything. And then his son came down and saved everyone and all that."
"Well yes."
"And when we die we're all going to go to heaven."
"Yes. What about it? "
"Well that's the part I have trouble with."

Father Ted

 

Discussions of this kind never go very far before some smart alec with a GCSE Religious Studies says: 'Hang on. The Bible says men bonking men is wrong; but doesn't it also say that you mustn't eat a light switch kindled in its mother's milk? Ha-ha, caught you out!'

'Do you know' the Christian almost never replies 'That hadn't occurred to me. And do you know what? In 2000 years of church history, no-one else had spotted it either.' [16]

'Why are there funny laws in the Bible which Christians don't pay very much attention to?' is one of those questions like 'What, exactly, do you mean by calling it 'good' Friday?' and 'Tell me again whether there can be movement in the Holy Trinity?' which turn out to mean 'Could you tell me the nature of the Christian faith, and while you are it, explain the whole of it's theology and summarize the plot of the Bible, without repetition, hesitation or deviation, in one minute, starting….now'

At risk of becoming very boring indeed, then:

1.        ·        The Bible is split into two halves.

2.        ·        The first half is labeled in large friendly letters The Old Testament

3.        ·        'Old' as in superceded, past, we've moved beyond that now. (Jews find this quite irritating, oddly enough.)

4.        ·        The 'old' Testament contains rules. Don't eat this kind of food, refrain from that kind of sexual practice, sacrifice goats, don't touch icky things.

5.        ·        The second half of the Bible is labeled the New Testament.

6.        ·        A very large proportion of the 'new' Testament is given over to answering the question 'Do Christians have to obey all those rules in the Old Testament? If not, what was the point of them?' See Romans, Hebrews, Galatians, etc.

7.        ·        Be honest, you gave up half way through Acts and skipped to the juicy bits of Revelation that are mentioned in that Clint Eastwood movie, didn't you?

8.        ·        Christians say that God is Holy and Man isn't. They say that as long as we aren't holy, we can't talk to God. (This is called 'Original Sin.')

9.        ·        In the 'Old Testament' God picks a particular tribe and says, 'If you do try really hard to be clean, abstain from certain foods and certain sexual practices, do special holy washing and wear special holy clothes and don't touch icky stuff; and then kill animals in the temple to 'pay' for sins, then I'll treat you as if you were Holy and let you, or at any rate your priests, talk to me, even though that stuff can't make any difference really. '

10.     ·        The theological sections of the New Testament say: 'Because Jesus (God) really did die for our sins, it is not necessary to kill sheep and goats in the temple. Because Jesus (God) really washes us clean of sin, it is no longer necessary to do all the washing and abstaining from 'unclean' foods. We actually are holy again. We can talk to God whenever we want to. Hurrah!'

11.     ·        Or words to that effect.

12.     ·        But that doesn't mean you can do what you like: God hasn't changed his mind about the moral stuff in the Old Testament, like not killing and not stealing.

But please  look this stuff up in the Bible, though: St Paul says it much better than me.

 

'So, Andrew, what you are basically saying is that the theological issue regarding homosexuality boils down to a disagreement between those who think that the sodomy laws are part of Levitical code about cleanliness, holiness and ritual purity, which are not binding on Christians, and those who think that they are part of a more general moral law, which is.'

I guess I am.

'Gee. It's so simple when you put it like that. Why didn't the Archbishop of Canterbury explain it at the beginning and save us all a lot of trouble?'

I don't know. But if it turned out that he didn't think that understanding the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament was very important; or that the didn't think that the people in the pew really cared very much about the difference between Law and Grace, or if — if — he himself doesn't believe in it—then I would be very worried indeed.

 

6: Eschatology

The world is on it's elbows and knees
They've forgotten the message and worship the creeds.
                                        A Pop Group

In the 1980s, the then Bishop of Durham was widely reported as having doubts about the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and Mrs. Thatcher's handling of the miner's strike. For a while, the debate seemed really important. God made one of his rare personal interventions, striking York Minster with a bolt of lightening, a contribution widely regarded as having great rhetorical power but questionable logical validity.

But it was never actually that big a deal. Jenkins, an over-educated buffoon, didn't really disbelieve in the Resurrection: he merely questioned the historical veracity of the New Testament narratives. It was quite interesting, of course: one side saying 'I really believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and that the Bible gives a journalistically accurate account of the circumstances surrounding his birth' and the other saying 'I also really believe that Jesus was the Son of God, but I think that the story of Mary and Gabriel may be a legend.' A real disagreement, an important one, but not a fundamental fault line along which a church can split. The people who think that the stone really was rolled away, and the people who think that it was rolled away in a very real sense are clearly part of the same religion. But it is hard to see how people who think that it doesn't particularly matter whether or not the stone was rolled away, provided we live in the way that Jesus would have wanted us to are part of the same religion; or, indeed, of any religion at all.

I think that this is what some evangelicals think some liberals think. I think they may be right.

here have always been two Churches of England. There is the one in the prayer book, the middle-of-the-road Christian body, with a catechism, a creed, broadly protestant thinking, but enough flexibility to tolerate almost-catholic and almost-fundamentalist congregations. And there is the popular, national religion, presided over by the Queen, and which successive Archbishops seem prepared to pay lip-service to. The National Church crowns queens and buries princesses. It's a public service, like the BBC and British gas, whose job it is to provide a shoulder to cry on when somebody dies and to take a moral lead or encourage people to be good. People who don't  believe in God take it as red that it this National Church which Christians subscribe to…and therefore, not unnaturally, can't see how homosexuality can possibly impact on its beliefs one way or the other.

Where is the tolerance that the church is supposedly all about? In this dispute none has been shown, only malice towards 'Imperfect' human beings. But weren't we all created imperfect? (Letter in the Times)

How a religion which is meant to be all about love want to stop two men from loving each other beats me. (A pundit on Question Time)

But what's the point in having a church if it doesn't lead people towards tolerance? (Simon Hoggart)

The National Religion—God as thought about by people who don’t think about God very much—is, I think basically Deistic. It imagines a God who created the world and then pretty much left it to govern its own affairs, leaving a handful of priests to keep the tenants on the straight and narrow. It used to be said that the British God was basically Santa Claus, a wise old man with a beard who gives rewards to good children and withholds them from bad ones. But we can now recognize him as Professor Dumbledore—wise and inscrutable, he makes strict and sensible rules and warns us of the dire consequences if we break them. But when we do break them, he calls us into his study, gives us a chocolate frog, and remarks that even the wisest people sometimes have to change their mind. It’s non dogmatic: reluctant to say that any one view of god is better than another. But it is very ethical and moral: indeed, at times one could be forgiven for thinking that the church is primarily a pressure group campaigning on a small number of (wholly admirable) social issues—stop the war, Third World Debt, soup kitchens for rough sleepers. It's a social movement based on liberal humanist values, underpinned by a deity who makes no difference.

Christians say 'Religion is about contact between Man and the Divine—and by the way, this has lots of implications about how we should behave towards each other'. The National Church says 'Religion is about how we behave towards each other (justice, tolerance, love) — and, by the way, God can be enormously helpful in getting this right.'

In the past, these two organizations existed, not so much in  parallel, as simultaneously occupying the same space. The Vicar, who was a Christian, was pleased to have a full congregation, and therefore didn't worry too much about what that congregation believed. His sermons pleased the minority of Christians in his congregation, who listened. It would have annoyed the majority who were followers of the National Religion of Non Dogmatic Theism, but they didn't listen, so everyone went home happy. A theological doublethink was achieved. At funerals, the vicar said "Whosoever believeth in me, though he be dead, yet shall he live, and whosever lives and believeth in me shall never die"; but the congregation heard "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, all good children go to heaven."[17] The evangelicals, of course, want to sabotage this state of affairs. They want to make it impossible for the two churches to occupy the same physical and mental space. When people come to a Christening, expecting to hear a nice rite-of-passage about naming the baby and promising to bring it up in a good liberal humanist home, they are inclined to hit the congregation of infrequent church attendees with a sermon about how, splashing a baby with water doesn't really make any difference, but that we all need to be cleansed with the blood of Christ. If any one would like to know more about this, they'll be someone at the front waiting to pray with you.

So perhaps the C of E should welcome a schism. It would, if nothing else, release both sides from the need to engage in double-think and hypocrisy. The ideal solution would be for all the Capital See Christians to form some kind of breakaway sect, leaving the Deistic majority to play at being the Established Church unencumbered by silly ideas about creeds and Scriptures. The accession of Charles III would probably be the ideal time to do this: what better point at which to abandon the pretense that the C of E is a Christian body than when its titular head becomes one who doesn’t so much see himself as defender of the faith, but as defender of faith in general. He's already said he wants a multi-faith coronation.  There is, after all, nowhere you can be which isn't where you're meant to be: it's easy.

Those of us who are Capital C Christians would be then faced with a simple choice. We might think that The National Church, the Church of Dumbledore was full of sensible intellectual people, and we might think that it served a very useful purpose, doing community based social work, preaching morality in the House of Lords and on the Today Programme, baptizing the dead and burying the sick. However, it wouldn't have anything to do with our religion. The breakaway sect, on the other hand—let's call it New English Reformed Denomination— would continue to tell the story of Jesus-crucified-and-risen-again and to explain the theology about Law and Grace and Sin and Redemption. Theologically, we would feel at home there. (It would also have better hymns.) But on present form, it would regard as non-negotiable the idea that God Hates It When Men Touch Each Other's Willies. And that would prevent most of us from wanting very much to do with it. 

 

7: Benediction

And every human heart that breaks
In prison cell or yard
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord
And filled the unclean Leper's house
With the scent of costliest nard
Ah, happy they whose heart can break
And peace of pardon win
How else may man make straight his plan,
And cleanse his soul from sin?
How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?
                "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

 

"But Andrew. Hasn't it occurred to you that the evangelicals might be right, and that acceptance of a specifically Christian God (as opposed to non-dogmatic ethical deism) logically implies hating gay sex; and that if you take a broad-minded view of the latter you have to reject the former?"

Yes, it has. Just as there was a period of 45 minutes at college when I was convinced that to be a Christian I had to be a Creationist.[18] But, had I not instantly seen the flaw in the argument[19], it would not have made me reject Darwinism, but give up on Christianity. I wouldn't have been able to reject a scientific understanding of biology for religious reasons, any more than I would have followed the Bible if it said that the sky was bright green. I can't  carry on believing that Christianity is true if it tells me that I have to believe something  is a sin which obviously isn't. I cannot, intellectually, convince myself that anything can be "a sin" unless it's a sin against love[20] — unless its hurting someone or doing harm. I can't, logically, see how any particular sexual act can be intrinsically unclean, or disgusting or sinful. So if I were convinced that the only possible understanding of the Biblical God was "a being who doesn't like it when men put their willies up each other's bottoms", then I would have to reject the Biblical God.

In which case, I imagine that I would embrace a New Age world view of the kind that Alan Moore is currently expounding. All stories are true; various Gods and archetypes exist in "idea space", and one picks the symbol-set which serves you best as a road-map on your spiritual path. The "archetype" I would pick would be the one in the Christian Bible about the God who came to earth and was crucified in order to free mankind from burden of Original Sin an the curse of the Law. 

The rest of you would probably hardly notice the difference.

 

Main Index

Section Index



[1] Since evangelicals tend to be the ones knocking holes in old buildings to make space for their overhead projectors and replacing the tried, tested and inaccurate King James Bible with the sound but cloth-eared NIV, it is amusing to hear them referred to as 'traditionalists'.

[2] Sellars and Yateman again.

[3] There were less animals in those days. And they took baby elephants and brontosauruses. 

[4] In the way that 'prosperity evangelists' were accused of telling people to become Christians in order that God would grant them success in business.

[5] Contravening, it seems to me, the rules about multi-classed characters in the player's handbook

[6] As opposed to evangelical

[7] Similarly, a lot of the arguments about the ordination of women had to be done in terms of gender equality in the workplace, rather than in terms of "what is the nature of priesthood and what is god's view of gender", which was presumably where the real issue lay.

[8] I'm sorry, but it had to be done.

[9] Which would fit in with the theory that it’s the wastage of seed that makes God quite irate.

[10] Which might also fit in with the Levitical concern about mixing types — cross-breeding animals, weaving two fabrics together, and treating as unclean animals which transcend category types (things which live in the sea but aren't fish, for example.)

[11] As opposed to evangelicals

[12] It's very convenient that God made this distinction since 'gay orientation' seems to be a pretty culturally specific concept. Oscar Wilde didn't think of himself as a 'homosexual', but as a person who sometimes went with boys. Plato regarded Pausanias and Agathon as pre-destined lovers, but were they 'homosexuals' in the modern sense?

[13] Depending on what view you take of Cain's wife.

[14] Evil left wingers to mention masturbation to children as young as nineteen, shock!

[15] Someone in the C.S Lewis newsgroup asked the question: "If you reject the Levitical teaching against homosexuality, then won't you also have to say that bestiality, also forbidden in the old Law, is perfectly all right." Which raised in my mind the rhetorical question "Why is bestiality wrong?". And back-a-come the answer "Because it is unwise — you could injure yourself. Because it is unhygienic — you could catch something. And because it hurts the animal, which can't give consent." None of which obviously applies to consensual responsible acts between adult men.

[16] People also say, 'You say that there is a God. But last Tuesday, Something Bad Happened In The World, and was reported on the front page of the Times. But God could have stopped the bad thing from happening. So there can't be a God after all. Ha-ha; caught you out.' You might think that 'bad stuff' would not be an entirely foreign concept to a religion which makes a big deal about sin and has the execution of an innocent person as its central motif. You might suppose that, if the entity depicted in the Bible were real, then occasional Bad Stuff might be roughly what you would expect. But it's still thought to be a very clever by people who are both very smug and very ignorant, such as Richard Dawkins.

[17] When someone took an obviously Christian stance—when Runcie said after the Falklands war that nationalism wasn't very creditable, or when Lord Longford said that murderers could go to heaven if they repented—they were not praised for being Christians, but castigated for violating the tenets of the National Religion. The Daily Mail described the Archdruid's sermon at the Gulf War memorial service as "demented", and let's face it, if anyone knows about being demented, it's the Daily Mail.

[18] It is key to Christian theology that death came into the world through Sin: if animals existed and were dying long before there were human beings, then there must have been death before the Fall: ergo,  both evolution and Christian theology can't be true.

[19]It Depends What You Mean By Death

[20] Charity, Agape, you've read that book by C.S Lewis, haven't you?