According to my Facebook profile, I am variously an anesthetist, and aesthete, and (less frequently) a non-practicing atheist. But whatever guise I choose for myself, I tend to look upon the tribulations of Dr Williams with the detachment of an outsider. I reason that because I’m not a church-goer, the possible ‘schism’ over gay clergy should not really concern me.
But now I’m wondering whether that is the correct view. Looking again at the word ‘Anglican’, it occurs to me that this particular Communion of Churches might actually be considered an exporter of British ‘soft power’ and influence, much like the British Council. The Church of England is still a formal branch of our state, and Anglican Bishops sit in the House of Lords. Furthermore, it is the British Prime Minister who effectively appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury. So I would say that the Archbishop and his Church are formal (though obviously not democratic) representatives of our country.
If The Church represents us all, is is not reasonable for atheists, agnostics and secularists to poke their nose into its affairs? Traditionalists say that Britain is still essentially a Christian country built on Christian morals. If that is the case, and while Church of England retains its privileged position in our political system, then I would say that us non-believers have the right to interfere in its policies and rulings.
I imagine that such an interference, should it come, would require Dr Williams to take a more liberal approach to homosexuality. He should commit the Church of England to a more tolerant stance (which we suspect he favours anyway).
Some might say that by taking an approach that is too liberal, Dr Williams will only catalyze the ‘schism’ in the Anglican community. Indeed, Dr Williams himself seems to hold this view. However, this is actually a very odd way of looking at The Church and at religion in general. In other situations, such as over the use of contraception or who to vote for in elections, we assume that the officers of religion hold enormous power over their flock. We assume that the pronouncements of an Ayatollah here or a Cardinal there, will inform, sway and change the values of their congregations. In a way, it is odd that we do not assume a liberal sermon from the most senior Anglican bishop would have a similar effect.
Yet, what else can inspire a better attitude to homosexuality, other than standing up to the conservatives, demonstrating that their intolerance breeds nothing but hate and harm? Its time for the Archbishop to speak up for the values of love and tolerance which Jesus stands for (regardless of his alleged divinity), and show that those values are embodied by homosexual members of the Anglican Church. He should hope and trust that the schism, when it comes, occurs (as it should) within the congregations of the conservative African Churches, rather than between Churches within the communion. Such an outcome is by no means guaranteed… but hey, that’s what Faith is for. Go for it, Rowan.