Liberals and conservatives

Homosexuality as a divisive issue

My own interest in the question stems from my experience of student religion. The 18-21 age group, recently freed from parental supervision and without dependants of their own, are often willing to adopt more extreme views than more mature individuals and more balanced commmunities. I was an undergraduate in Cardiff in the late 1960s. Since my father was an Anglo-Catholic parish priest I knew only too well that being a vicar’s son sometimes meant being condemned and despised. What happened at university astonished me. The condemnations continued, but for the opposite reason: because I was not a Christian. On one occasion the Christian Union sent a delegate to my room to spend the evening explaining why I was not. One of their reasons was that I sometimes drank alcohol. Campaigning against alcohol was a major feature of many Christian Unions at that time.

Twenty years later I was back in a university, this time as a chaplain at Sheffield. By this time opposition to alcohol was rare; the leaders of student Christian groups knew that many of their predecessors had condemned it, but they now knew that the Bible did not in fact forbid it. Instead they campaigned vigorously against abortion, again on the ground that the Bible forbade it. The Students’ Union had a policy of supporting women who wanted abortions. The religious groups would submit motions to repeal it and organize large numbers to attend the debate. They could easily outnumber their opponents and win the vote. Afterwards, not being lovers of Student Union meetings, they would stop attending and it would not be long before their success was quietly reversed.

These campaigns were very common in their time, not just in student religion but in many churches too. Now, though, they have faded into the background as homosexuality takes over. So why alcohol and abortion then, and why homosexuality now? The ethical issue changes but the ethos survives. Is it perhaps the ethos which is the driving force, and is there something about the ethos which likes to focus on one ethical issue at a time?

The evangelical student religious groups I got to know liked sharp distinctions with everything in black and white. They defined who was a Christian. Often they described all non-members of their group as non-Christians. There were no in-betweens. It followed that to become a Christian must be a sudden event; stories of emotional conversion experiences were popular.

The leaders of the group had supreme teaching authority. They were often treated as the ultimate court of appeal on the truths of Christian doctrine; my sermons would be reported to twenty-year-olds who would pronounce judgement on them. Other members were to learn from them, and were warned not to believe anything taught by outsiders like me who might falsely claim to know about Christianity. I often observed student religious leaders making heavy use of that array of thought-policing practices which characterize sectarian religion: telling members exactly what to believe, warning them that doubts and questions are of the devil, giving them strict rules for conversations with non-members. The Christian Union group at one hall of residence discussed in great detail whether it was permissible to sit next to non-Christians over breakfast. The issues were to do with balancing opportunities for evangelism against the danger of being led astray by un-Christian ideas. I promised myself that one day I would study where these ideas came from. The current debate seems an appropriate time to do so.

Student religion is an extreme example, but we should not underrate its influence. Many of today’s church leaders were first taught about Christianity in these groups. Most of them have relinquished the simple certainties and black-and-white distinctions of their youth but some have retained them, and a larger number retain some elements – perhaps a tendency to revert to them when in doubt.

This book is not, however, about the psychology of religious belief. I shall concentrate on the theological issues and the philosophies behind them, and on these matters the general ethos of the student religion I have described illustrates the kind of Christianity which the leading opponents of homosexuality are seeking to establish as normative for the Anglican Communion as a whole. To establish it as normative is from their perspective to defend the character of the church as they were brought up to understand it; from the perspective of their opponents it is to impose one version of it onto the rest of the church.

Just as Christian Union students have often insisted that Anglicans and Roman Catholics are not really Christians at all, leading campaigners against homosexuality are now insisting not only that toleration of homosexuality should have no place in the Anglican Communion but also that the matter is settled and there is no scope for discussing whether it should be reviewed.

Liberals and conservatives

Although the words ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have become the usual labels for the two sides they are both misleading, not least because they can mean a great many different things. In this book I am only interested in religious uses of the terms, and it will be helpful to distinguish between three types.

Firstly they are used to describe different views on specific issues. This mirrors non-religious uses of the terms. Institutions find reasons for change, and at their best they allow different points of view to be discussed until a consensus emerges. Within that discussion those who oppose change may be described as conservatives and those who support it as liberals. Similarly in religion those who maintain traditional beliefs in the Virgin Birth or the immorality of homosexuality are often described as conservatives and those prepared to question them as liberals. In this sense it is possible to be a conservative on one issue and a liberal on another without any contradiction.

The second distinction refers to a person’s general approach to issues of debate within a subject area. All traditions of enquiry inherit a range of teachings but also have tools to question them and develop new ideas. Within any tradition conservatives tend to give more weight to inherited teachings, liberals to new ideas. There is a spectrum of positions; at the extremes are the very liberal and very conservative, while most people are somewhere in the middle. Some Christians condemn homosexuality but not women priests while others argue the other way round. Some affirm the authority of the first half of Leviticus 20:13 which condemns men who engage in homosexual activity, but not the second half which insists that they should be put to death. In this sense people are more or less liberal, more or less conservative: they value both the inherited tradition and new ideas, and do not believe issues of debate can be answered simply by appealing to one authority or the other. Moderate conservatives of this type may describe themselves as committed to the authority of the Bible, but ‘within reason’. They do not, for example, expect to obey every biblical command.

This spectrum – with a few extremists at each end but most people being more or less moderate liberals or moderate conservatives – characterizes many religious traditions as well as non-religious ones. What makes moderate positions possible is that when new ideas conflict with old traditions, neither the new ideas nor the old traditions win the argument every time. There are no all-purpose principles of decision-making which settle every dispute. Each issue has to be judged on its merits, taking into account all the relevant information from whatever source, and applying all the relevant mental processes and decision-making procedures.

The third distinction is a sharper one. It claims that the second, with its spectrum of positions, is itself a liberal process, and conservatives who take part in it are betraying their conservatism. According to this distinction, liberals are those who allow divine revelation to be modified by rational processes, while conservatives insist that the right answers are to be derived from appeal to truths which have been infallibly given by God and can therefore be known with certainty.

This distinction between conservatives and liberals is often found in religious debate but is rarely found elsewhere. It is the one which dominates the current debates, as indicated by the endlessly repeated claims that gays and women cannot be legitimate bishops because of what Scripture and tradition decree, and that therefore there is no scope for legitimate discussion about whether they may become acceptable. A church with one gay bishop is a tainted church, even if there is only one and he lives thousands of miles away. Conservatives in this third sense believe that if they ever are persuaded to accept something contrary to what God has revealed they will have deserted the Christian gospel in favour of mere human reason.

This is not to say that all the leaders of the current campaign consistently apply this black-and-white distinction between revelation and reason, or even that they describe themselves in this way. In practice nobody has ever conscientiously lived their life on the basis that every statement in the Bible is true, let alone that they have a moral duty to obey every one of its commands. There are far too many for this to be possible. What happens is that each community which is conservative in this sense, at each stage of its history, concentrates on a small handful of doctrines and commands – perhaps only one – and trumpets its commitment to the Bible’s supreme authority by drawing attention to this one while overlooking others. As the church press amply reveals, this provides unlimited opportunities for conservatives to condemn each other as liberals. Group A refuses to have women leading worship and condemns Group B for their women ministers; Group B condemns Group A for permitting divorce and remarriage. Each accuses the other of not being obedient to the whole Bible, and both are right.

This third account of the distinction between liberals and conservatives is therefore the one on which this book will focus. It is important not because it describes real alternative possibilities for holding Christian beliefs and living a Christian life – it does not – but because it dominates the rhetoric of the debate. The idea that the Bible condemns homosexuality and that therefore the morality of homosexuality does not need to be discussed any further is a powerful idea. It leads to the conclusion that psychological research into the causes of homosexuality and the effects of permitting or preventing homosexual activity are irrelevant. Revelation has established the matter, and reason has no right to question it.

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