There have been eight Archbishops of Canterbury during my lifetime: the sanctimonious Cosmo Gordon Lang; the robustly socialist and community-focused William Temple; the schoolmasterly Geoffrey Fisher; the saintly and subtle Michael Ramsey; the staid and uninspiring Donald Coggan; the misleadingly affable and on occasion steely Robert Runcie; the principled evangelical conservative George Carey; and now the amoebic Rowan Williams.
Lang was satirically immortalised by Gerald Bullett for his implacable opposition to King Edward VIII’s intention to marry a divorced woman and stay on the throne:
My Lord Archbishop, what a scold you are
And when your man is down, how bold you are
In Christian Charity how scant you are
Oh Auld Lang Swine how full of cantuar.
When Edward VII appointed Lang as Archbishop of York he gave him only two instructions: ‘Keep the factions in the Church from fighting one another, and don’t let the clergy wear moustaches.’ But moustaches or no, the devotees of the Anglican church have an ingrained habit of squabbling like a bunch of ferrets in a sack, and their disputes are usually about sex because these days the Church appears to have little to say about the wider injustices and hypocrisies of society, which don’t interest their flock nearly as much as the naughty peccadilloes lapped up by News of the World and Sun readers.
William Temple, seen as a towering figure by his contemporaries (“the only sixpenny object in a penny bazaar,” quipped Winston Churchill when nominating him to Canterbury after his many years as a much-loved Archbishop of York), only survived his translation to Lambeth by less than three years, dying of gout – a lifelong affliction – at 63. Temple had been a headmaster but was much more than just a headmaster. His successor, Geoffrey Fisher, who was also an ex-headmaster, remained essentially just that.
It was indeed fortunate that Fisher had been succeeded by Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, by the time that the Wolfenden proposals for the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality were being debated in parliament in the 1960s. A social liberal as well as a great churchman, Dr Ramsey unflinchingly supported the Wolfenden thesis that sins should not always be crimes, speaking and voting repeatedly for the reform bill. I remember crossing the precincts of Westminster Abbey with the Archbishop’s lay secretary after one of the Lords’ debates when the Archbishop had been castigated by some of the opposing peers and saying “well, I suppose this is one of those cases where the doctrine of the lesser evil has must be applied”, to which I received the lugubrious response: “I can assure you that it has been – copiously!”
One of the most impressive events of that period was the first Anglo-American Consultation on the Church, Society and the Homosexual, held in London in the early summer of 1964 at the instigation of the Rev. Ted McIlvenna of the US Methodist Church’s Board of Education, who was director of the San Francisco Young Adult Project. Encountering many young homosexuals in the course of his social work, Ted had founded the Council on Religion and Homosexual which organised some pioneering gatherings around the topic in the USA. Visiting London, he had met me and asked for the Albany Trust’s co-operation in setting up the Anglo-American consultation. I was privileged to chair the three-day meeting, and it was an inspiring occasion. There were about 60 participants, including a strong American contingent of clergy, sociologists and lay people, and a matching British presence, including Anglican, Roman Catholic, and nonconformist clergy and two of the authors of the seminal Quaker pamphlet Towards a Quaker View of Sex which had been published the previous year and caused a considerable stir by declaring that “homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection, and therefore we cannot see that it is in some way morally worse”.
Not all the participants were liberal – there were conservative voices too – but the atmosphere was remarkably open and people were willing to share their personal views and experiences to an extent unusual for those days. Even so, it was not always easy for them to declare their own sexual preference, and Ted McIlvenna’s opening remarks reflected this when he reassured those taking part that they need not make any personal revelations which they felt were too difficult. “Forget who you represent. We represent the human race. Let’s start there” was his sage advice. Six papers – three American and three British - were presented, and there were several hours of group discussion. In his closing remarks, McIlvenna said that despite all the genuine concern that had been manifested, he was troubled by the difficulty which so many well-meaning pastoral advisers evidently experienced in simply accepting a homosexual. “I happen to believe that the only significant thing Christian faith has to say that is distinctive and significant is an unqualified ‘yes’ to man. Forgiveness is continuous, and does not depend upon our state of righteousness at the moment.”
The issue of acceptance is still the nub of the matter where Christianity and homosexuality are concerned. That 1964 consultation has a surprisingly modern ring about it when contrasted with the casuistic discussions which have wracked the Church of England for the following half-century and which still show no signs of abating or of being amicably resolved. These agonisings started immediately after the law was changed. An Anglican working party was set up which deliberated at great length and to which I and other concerned people gave evidence, but whose report was never published because it was unable to reconcile the opposing views of traditionalists and would-be liberalisers. “We couldn’t publish that, you see,” Archbishop Ramsey remarked to me, “it was neither one thing nor the other”.
This strikes me of an apt description of the Church’s irresolution ever since. Some years later a wider consultation was launched, and this time, I was solemnly assured, the nettle of theological literalism versus Christian charity really would be grasped. The outcome, published in 1979 as Homosexual Relationships: A Contribution to Discussion, entirely failed to do any such thing, at which point I gave up on Anglicanism and vented my spleen in a couple of articles strongly criticising the wishy-washy prevarication yet again on display. Whilst saying that since 1967 discussion had become more polarised and strident, and public opinion more confused, the document did not venture to suggest – as one would have thought it might have done – that the Church had a responsibility to educate a bemused public, or to combat what it admitted was an irrational weight of anti-homosexual hostility. Just as Archbishop Rowan Williams does in his latest pronouncement (which I deal with below), the authors sidestepped the need to analyse the nature and religious origins of the hostility, or to accept the large measure of responsibility which Christians must undoubtedly bear for its existence. As I used to say when addressing religious groups in the 1960s, what Christians owe homosexuals above all is atonement. They still do. It is not bestowed by endless strings of verbal platitudes.
By the time this equivocating document appeared, Michael Ramsey had been succeeded by Dr Donald Coggan, a pedestrian person who was worthy but dull. He was prone to making egregious gaffes such as calling couples who have sex before marriage “second-hand goods” and referring to “the gormless millions who watch television”. When asked why he had used such an insulting phrase, Dr Coggan responded that he naturally regretted any offence he may have caused, and pleaded forgiveness on the ground that he had not known what ‘gormless’ meant!
Coggan was succeeded throughout the 1980s by the more sophisticated and worldly-wise Robert Runcie, who found himself in the thick of the intensifying skirmish between traditionalists and liberals over homosexuality. By this time the Gay Christian Movement, which included some ordained priests, was growing in strength and assertiveness. While I admire the courage of openly gay Christians, and sympathise with their desire to be accepted by their co-worshippers, I am more than somewhat baffled why anyone who is homosexual would wish to remain within homophobic church structures, and they bring to mind Groucho Marx’s famous quip: “I don’t care to belong to a club that will have me as a member.”
Dr Runcie was obviously sympathetic to their predicament, and finessed the internal Anglican conflict with some skill. His successor at Lambeth during the 1990s, George Carey, was an evangelical traditionalist and held out fewer olive branches. The appointment by Tony Blair of Rowan Williams in 2003 was widely seen as a return to the more sophisticated liberal tradition of Ramsey and Runcie, and – as with Blair himself – high hopes were stirred, only to be sadly dashed as his talent for cloudy tergiversation was displayed. By the first 21st century decade homosexuality had become an even more burning issue for the Church of England than the ordination of women. The strident voices of African and other conservative overseas bishops who seemed to view the Old and New Testament strictures against same-sex love as the most compelling of all the Almighty’s injunctions were loudly raised at successive Lambeth Conferences and other venues, and when the modernist US Episcopalian Church ordained an openly gay bishop the threat of schism loomed.
Dr Rowan Williams, though personally sympathetic to and privately supportive of gay Christians, deems it his prime duty to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion, and all his recent efforts have been bent to this end with the result that he has virtually made himself a hostage to bigotry. In his latest “Reflections on communion, covenant and our Anglican future”, while he casts a cautious and reluctant eye towards the prospect of a two-tier solution – a sort of holy apartheid – he completely fails to grasp the nettles of prejudice and ignorance which bedevil the issue. He makes a perfunctory nod towards “the fundamental human rights dimension of attitudes to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people, and the impossibility of betraying their proper expectations of a Christian body which has courageously supported them” (since when? I ask myself; for the most part the Church has stubbornly clung to its traditional psychologically naïve and uncharitable attitudes towards human sexuality), and then piously intones that “no Anglican has any business reinforcing prejudice against LGBT people, questioning the human dignity and civil liberties or their place within the body of Christ. Our overall record as a communion has not been consistent in this respect and this needs to be acknowledged with penitence.” Not much penitence to be seen from the traditionalist bigots as yet, though.
The rest of his dissertation is a long rambling rumination about whether the church is ‘free’ to recognise same-sex unions by means of public blessings that are “seen as being, at the very least, analogous to Christian marriage”. Any change in this direction would need to be based on a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding, neither of which currently exists.
As Dr Williams rightly says, “a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences”. For a Christian homosexual, the consequence remains, as it always has, celibacy as the only proper course. Having spelled this out, the Archbishop bemoans “the particularly bitter and unpleasant atmosphere of the debate over sexuality, in which unexamined prejudice is still so much in evidence and accusations of bad faith and bigotry are so readily thrown around”. But is this really surprising in view of the official Anglican – and still more Roman Catholic – reluctance to move forward an inch after so many years of futile debate and empty promises? When Dr Williams smugly intones that “prejudice and violence against LGBT people are sinful and disgraceful when society at large is intolerant of such people; if the church has echoed the harshness of the law and popular bigotry – as it so often has done – and justified itself in pointing to what society took for granted, it has been wrong to do so” the key fallacy in his utterance is the word “echoed”: the Christian churches have not merely echoed harshness and bigotry towards homosexuality: they have been the fount and origin of such attitudes down the ages, and their penitence, if genuine, has to be shown not in mere words but in practical deeds. The aim, says the Archbishop, is “not to shut anyone out, but to intensify existing relationships”.
Whatever gay Christians make of all this, it doesn’t convince me. The Christian churches remain the prime culprits where bigotry, intolerance and mistreatment of homosexuals are concerned – witness their recent strenuous efforts to exempt themselves on grounds of ‘conscience’ from equality legislation. As I told them half a century ago, their imperative duty is atonement, which means standing up to and if necessary expelling the primitive bigots from their midst. Fine words butter no parsnips.