Sunday 6 April 2014

Gay Marriage 1: The Church of Obfuscation

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gay marriage became legal in England and Wales on 29 March this year. Personally, I think this is great news. The Church of England disagrees, and their response was remarkable. It is not plain and simple ignorant bigotry, but the rarefied stupidity of highly trained theologians.

The law has been changed to permit civil weddings for gay couples:

The law prohibits the Church of England from performing same-sex weddings, and allows other religious organisations to refuse to perform them.

The most senior member of the C of E's clergy is Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby discussed the issue in a radio phone-in on 4 April.

Justin Welby.
Source: The Guardian

He started off as one might expect. He opposes homophobia, but doesn't think gay marriage has any place in the C of E. If he left it there, the rest of us would shrug our shoulders and move on.

Instead, Welby felt the need to share this:

"I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact," Welby said. If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, "the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world."

Welby is concerned that if the C of E endorses gay marriage, it will have a negative impact on Christians in other parts of the world.

The Most Reverend And Right Honourable The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury (to give him his full official title), educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge, must imagine this sort of dialogue will take place:



FIRST KILLER: Let's go and massacre those Christians! They want everyone to be gay!
SECOND KILLER: No, we shouldn't. Their big boss in England tolerates gay people, but won't have gay wedding ceremonies.
FIRST: Isn't tolerating gay people a reason for us to kill them?
SECOND: No, it has to be marriage.
FIRST: Can we kill them because we want their land?
SECOND: No, no. It's very simple. We can only commit mass murder if the Church of England supports gay marriage.
FIRST: We're not in England.
SECOND: That's not the point. Anything the white man says goes around the world, and the English aren't being gay enough to justify a massacre.
FIRST: Oh, all right. That village is lucky the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't hold with gay marriage.
SECOND: Yeah, it is. Let's go get a beer instead.


Welby's education has failed him. His statement is one of the most ridiculous and naive things I have ever heard from a public figure.

Not only that, it is more than a little racist. It is unclear which specific massacre Welby is talking about; it may be the 2009 Boko Haram killings in Nigeria. The Wikipedia page on massacres in Nigeria makes instructive if depressing reading. Christian-Muslim violence has been taking place there for years. The Miss World beauty contest was used as an excuse for riots which killed over 200 people in 2002.

Does Welby imagine he has a meaningful effect on this situation? Does he suppose Africans are simpletons who will be provoked into murderous rage by a gay wedding in England, when they would otherwise be calm and peaceful?

If criminals and fanatics want an excuse to kill people, they will find one.

Conversely, why is a mass murder relevant to the nuances of doctrine on gay marriage?

Imagine the Christian God decided to get tough. Anyone who tries to kill a Christian is instantly struck down by a bolt of lightning. Welby is free to say whatever he likes. He could express his real, genuine opinion on gay marriage, which must be one of the following:

  1. He believes it is wrong. In that case, he could have simply said so, without mentioning any massacres. However, saying it so bluntly would anger his more liberal clergy, and he doesn't want that inconvenience, so he pretends the threat of massacres has forced him to reject gay marriage.
  2. He believes it is right. He would like to say so, but is afraid to for the reasons I have discussed.
  3. He doesn't know what he believes, but thinks talking about massacres will distract everyone.

In the second case, Welby is a pathetic fool. In the first and third cases, he is a cynical villain who does not care if he looks like a pathetic fool. This much is certain: Welby is a coward, and he is using the horrific murders of 330 men, women, and children in Nigeria to obfuscate his real beliefs on gay marriage.

By way of contrast, consider Archbishop Desmond Tutu's courageous stand against apartheid in South Africa. Many white racists responded with greater fear, hatred, and violence towards black people. Welby's words will have little or no impact on people's safety; this was not so for Tutu.

Tutu knew this, and he stood up for what was right. Something which is right does not become wrong because people hate you for it. Anyone who calls himself a Christian should be capable of understanding that.

Welby should be ashamed of himself. The Church of England is swiftly declining into irrelevance, and with leadership like this it deserves to.

Part 2: Some more personal thoughts on gay marriage.


  1. Iain, interesting reading as ever. I can't agree fully though; let me explain...

    Bizarre though it may seem, there are a number of churches in Africa that set a lot of store by what the CofE leadership say. While it's simple to say that Welby should simply have the courage of his convictions to say what he thinks, one has to remember that he is appointed as the primate of all churches in the Anglican communion. A remark from him may very well not have any direct effect on those who actually perpetrate massacres of the type, the words of their local church leaders can have an extremely profound effect on such activity, and they will have a line fed down to them by their superiors who may react very poorly to a pro-gay-marriage line from the Anglican leadership.

    Welby is dancing on the head of a pin - trying to remain relevant to the dwindling congregations on home soil, while trying not to anger Anglican churches in Africa to the extent that they will incite homophobic violence. In a sense, it's an impossible position, so it's not so surprising that he's making a pigs ear of it.

    From my time spent working for the international wing of another 'mother church' (the Church of Scotland - mother church to a great many of Presbyterian congregations from Southern Africa through Israel, India to northern China), it was staggering how much store these churches set by so much as the content of a newsletter that I produced - I had to field more than one biblically angry international call due to the tiniest nuance of a piece of prosaic puffery.

    It's a preposterous situation really, that the Primates of such predominantly African denominations should still be bumbling British theologists. What's worse though is that the policy position driven by these African situations winds up influencing UK law through the presence of clergy in our parliament. Better for all concerned, I would suggest, if the CofE were completely divorced from the state; that way they could fully set their own position out to placate the African churches and drag them to a more enlightened position at a pace that hey will tolerate, while at the same time being compelled by UK law to act in a more liberal fashion with their 'hands tied' and their theological integrity intact.

    1. Very interesting points. I knew the Archbishop of Canterbury had some vague authority over the African churches in his capacity as head of the Anglican communion, but I didn't realise they took it so seriously. And yes, I entirely agree the C of E should be cut loose from the state.

      I don't think it's any excuse for Welby's remarks though. If he said he didn't want to endorse gay marriage because it would upset the African churches, then fine.

      But he didn't say that. He said (or at least strongly implied) if the C of E endorsed gay marriage, Christians would be killed as a direct result. He was explicitly referring to anti-Christian violence, not homophobic violence. The African churches are already inciting homophobic violence, eg. by backing anti-gay laws in Uganda. Personally I would have moral difficulty with being the figurehead of such a group, but that's Welby's problem, not mine.

      Anyway, Welby had a clear choice:
      1) Back gay marriage for the C of E, and accept the African churches will be angry, maybe become more viciously anti-gay than they already are, and potentially leave the Anglican communion.
      2) Do not back gay marriage, in part because he values Church unity (such as it is).

      He has every right to choose (2), but he should at least stand up and take responsibility for it. He can discuss his reasons, or if he feels that would be impolitic, he can keep his mouth shut. That's not heroic behaviour, it's the minimum I'd expect from the head of any large organisation.

      I'm not demanding the C of E endorse gay marriage. It would be nice if they did, but I'm not part of their church and their doctrine isn't really my business. However, pretending they were forced to reject gay marriage by the threat of anti-Christian violence is just incredibly stupid and offensive.

  2. Considering Alex's comment above, there is a fourth possibility for what Welby believes:

    4) He thinks gay marriage is right, but doesn't want to endorse it at this time, because it would further disrupt the unity of the worldwide Anglican Church. He doesn't want to admit this out loud and thinks talking about anti-Christian massacres is a good distraction.

    For practical purposes, this is very similar to (3).