Thursday, 21 July 2016

Sex in the Anglican Communion 2

In my last blog post, I set out the ways in which the early Lambeth conferences talked about sex. But there is another side to this: the emphasis that the Anglican Church, as a missionary church in the nineteenth century, put on regulating sex and family life as an essential part of its 'civilising' mission.

This, I realised as I read the sermons, reports and resolutions of the early Lambeth conferences, is still having a serious impact on our conversations today. Here I pair some of what I learned last week in synod with some of what I have learned this week in the library:

At Synod:

In the synod Shared Conversations last week, as some others have already noted, there was a particular contribution that shocked me, and I think shocked everyone I spoke to. A panellist representing the views of the African churches made two statements which caused sharp intakes of breath around the room - even from some of our most conservative members. The first was a (I hope) clumsily expressed statement that although speaker wasn't advocating for FGM, we should understand that the point of it had been to regulate women's sexual activity. The second was a clear statement that the belief of the African Anglican churches was that women had been created for men to slake their desires on.

I hope - and in conversations afterwards was somewhat reassured - that these views had been perhaps expressed with less nuance than they might have been. However, I was shocked at the unambiguous clarity with which these statements were made, and by the assumption that we should sympathise with them and modify our behaviour to accommodate them.

Furthermore, there was an odd dynamic in that contribution whereby the main argument presented against the Church of England changing its views was that we had given the African church those views in the first place, and so we could not now change our minds. It would seem logical that if the only or main reason for these churches holding these views was that they had been ours historically (an imperialist view point that I don't think anyone in the West would dare to make), then they could indeed be changed if our minds changed.

Another contributor made a point which was almost as controversial, and which was received with considerable derision in the conversations I experienced afterwards. This second speaker argued eloquently and with great personal conviction for celibacy for those who experience same-sex attraction, and the argument was broadly, I felt, sensibly expressed and sympathetically made. However, this speaker lost considerable credibility with me when to these arguments was added the idea that same sex relationships were the root cause of poverty, the breakdown of the family, and deprivation on inner city estates.

In the Library:

I have been musing on the points made by these two speakers because as I have read the reports of the early Lambeth conferences such arguments are very prominent. I was rather shocked to discover just how central such ideas were to the faith that the Church of England was evangelising the world with in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

So, first: yes, it is entirely true to say that the Church of England exported these attitudes. And it wasn't just that we exported them accidentally. The faith that the Church of England mission to the world spread was, so the Lambeth conference of 1888 proudly proclaimed, explicitly far more about civilising people by spreading what was considered to be a Christian way of life as it was about doctrine and religious practice per se. (Warning if you read on: this was expressed in terms which most people would, I hope, consider highly offensive, hypocritical, or at the very least patronising, today!)

Here, for example, is the Archbishop of York preaching at Westminster Abbey to the Lambeth conference of 1888:

'Higher ideas of the basis of society, of the marriage union, of family life, of self-restraint, of truthfulness, not only lift the individual but form the people. A recognised commercial morality, an even administration of justice, a conscience in dealing with subject races, public action on principles not merely selfish, the devotion of lives to benevolent causes, are things found under Christian governments and scarce looked for elsewhere. Independent witnesses avow these to be the direct results of Christian faith, and the growth of national character through these, far more than numbers of adherents, or prevalence of observation, assures us that the Church is still the nurse of nations.'

He goes on....

'[God] has placed the Anglo Saxon race at the forefront of the nations. They are carrying civilisation to the ends of the earth. They are bringing liberty to the oppressed, elevating the downtrodden, and are giving to all these divers tongues and kindreds their customs, traditions, and laws.'

It should be pointed out that successive Lambeth conferences made a point of stating that they rejected race discrimination, and they consistently supported the independence of the various national churches. Nevertheless, it is clear that they had a very strong view that the  English/Christian way of life - a somewhat romanticised version of it, to say the least - was what first brought civilisation where there was none before (they saw the case of India and the Oriental cultures as somewhat different) and would develop 'child' nations to maturity and independence.

Secondly, it is no accident that marriage and family life head the list of civilising influences that the Archbishop lists. Successive statements by the conferences make it explicit that marriage and stable family life were indeed seen as the bedrock of stable societies and nations. The contributor to the Shared Conversations who suggested that anything that challenged marriage was destroying stability and creating poverty could have been quoting one of these nineteenth century reports verbatim. Then, as now, rapid urbanisation, job insecurity, mass movement of people away from stable family units and the existence of stark inequalities were recognised as huge social problems, and the conferences continually plead for marriage to be upheld as the most effective bulwark against social chaos.

For example, the 1888 report on Purity - and I'm pretty sure that by impurity they mean any sexual activity except that in marriage, but most particularly promiscuity and the widespread use of prostitutes - argues that, though they are nervous about talking about the subject, they need to speak out because:

'sins of impurity] are not only a grave public scandal, but are also festering beneath the surface, and eating into the life of multitudes in all classes and in all lands'.

Sexual sin is seen as catastrophic, not simply or even primarily for individuals, but for national life, and this is described in apocalyptic terms:

'wherever marriage is dishonoured and the sins of the flesh are lightly regarded, the home-life will be destroyed, and the nation itself will, sooner or later, decay and perish'.

It is striking that no arguments are given in support of this view - it is presented as self-evidently the case. This is particularly notable in the context of two other reports presented that year, on  Temperance and Socialism. These demonstrate that the bishops were by no means naive about the complexities of poverty and the issues facing society. Furthermore, the Socialism report not only goes careful through various arguments, but also makes a clear distinction between what is obviously the gospel imperative, and what is pragmatically possible in the current context. Funny how money has always seemed much harder to criticise than sex.

So - where does this take us?

First, it is certainly true that we - the Church of England - exported to Africa the conservative attitudes that some of us now find so problematic. We did so very deliberately, convinced that such attitudes were a key component of a civilised society, and convinced that what was currently in existence was not a civilisation worthy of the name. Personally I find that a cause for repentance rather than an argument for their continuation.

Secondly, the idea that marriage is the bedrock of society  - and that sexual promiscuity is an urgent and catastrophic threat to the fabric of existence - is certainly not new. (And in fact you can find people saying this at all times and in all places. The morals of a younger generation have always horrified their parents). However, whilst the social problems being diagnosed are very real, then as now, I think the cause and cure have been misdiagnosed. It is not the decline of marriage per se that is/was the problem, but the chaos caused by the rapid industrialisation - and now, of course, the collapse of industries - rapid urbanisation, labour exploitation, poverty, the decline of neighbourly communities, the estrangement of production from relationships and so on - all the things which, even then, the report on so-called socialism identified. To put all this on the shoulders of sexual promiscuity - let alone on same-sex relationships - is a clear act of scapegoating. To tell people that all would be well if they would just work harder at marriage is a sticking plaster for nettles that are too hard to grasp (to mix my metaphors with gay abandon!).

Thirdly, and finally - I think I begin to understand why for some people, any suggestion of change to marriage law or sexual morality is felt to be so threatening. One of the things that took me by surprise at Synod was just how high emotions ran amongst conservatives. I had expected the conversations to be emotionally charged for gay people, but I learned how threateningly personal this issue is felt to be for conservatives. I understand more now - though I still disagree with the proposition - why for some people - particularly in the African churches - this is felt to be a deeply doctrinal issue. That's our fault. We, the Church of England, told the African churches, repeatedly, that sexual morality was a key part of the faith when we first evangelised them. I do find is frustrating and bizarre that we can be accused of cultural imperialism for wanting to change something when it is clung to on the basis that we first taught it, but I can also understand more deeply how, when something was received as an inextricable part of a new faith, that is a deeply threatening thing to begin to try to unravel.

Some light relief:

And finally, on Renewal and Reform and Clergy MBAs.... I can't resist ending on the note that the 1888 Report on Socialism recommends that clergy should be required to have 'some knowledge of economic science'!


  1. Thank you Miranda, for your thoughtful expose of the reason some African (and other) Primates of the Anglican Churches are still content to live with the outdated understanding of gender and sexuality that was imported by the Victorian era CMS missionaries of the 19th century Anglican colonial expansion. With the reluctance of the Church of England to proclaim the fallacy of such teaching, then perhaps naturally the heads of the GAFCON Provinces are stuck with their establishment understandings of this important issue in the Church in modern times. We have only ourselves to blame!

  2. Thank you Miranda, for your thoughtful expose of the reason some African (and other) Primates of the Anglican Churches are still content to live with the outdated understanding of gender and sexuality that was imported by the Victorian era CMS missionaries of the 19th century Anglican colonial expansion. With the reluctance of the Church of England to proclaim the fallacy of such teaching, then perhaps naturally the heads of the GAFCON Provinces are stuck with their establishment understandings of this important issue in the Church in modern times. We have only ourselves to blame!

  3. Miranda,
    It is interesting how people gain insight into diversity and begin to understand one another (although not to agree). For you it is by reading historical documents. For those on Continuing Indaba journeys it was actually visiting one another - especially if they go to stay in homes with one another rather than hotels near by. I think you have the right analysis. I wonder if you have read 'The River Between' or 'Things Fall Apart' as these offer the insight from African perspectives. Phil Groves

  4. Miranda, thanks for your observations about the SC, but I fear you are adding two and two and making about 222. Several things here.

    Firstly, I too was shocked by the comment from the African church leader, who appear to argue that we could never change teaching that we were given as long ago as 1932. What was doubly shocking is that this is not (to my understanding) the primary shaping view of many of the African churches. In debate, we are supposed to listen to the best arguments of those we disagree with, so yet again we were faced with a process which was skewed and ill-advised in much of the organisation and planning.

    Secondly, I agree that Vaughn's comments (he has given permission to be named and quoted) were unhelpful in the way he expressed them. I am not sure, if you were to talk to him, that he would argue what you have stated above. I think he believes that the moves that lead to the case for SSM are the same moves which undermine family stability, and that indeed does damage people, and disproportionately the poor.

    I think you are mistaken to assert that industrialisation caused problems of itself; it was industrialisation and the growth of cities which undermined the stability of the family, and it is this which causes a vast array of ills in our society. Come and visit my wife's practice area in a former mining town in Derby, or inner-city Nottingham, or the Meadows area where my children went to school. Endemic breakdown of family structures leads to poverty and low educational attainment, and I think that is a primary reason why Victorian evangelicals were concerned about it.

    (On the missionaries, research shows that parts of the world evangelised by Protestant missions have largely experienced greater prosperity, stability and democracy than other majority world countries. So perhaps they did have someone worthwhile to take with them.)

    On Synod, the two reasons why evangelicals felt strongly about the process, and which you don't address at all, were short term and long term.

    In the short term, many people (and not just evangelicals) have agreed that this has felt like a dishonest process that is aiming to reach a particular goal without admitting it. In the long term, evangelicals are concerned that the C of E is forgetting its roots in the apostolic tradition as part of the catholic Nicene church.

    These are not points of emotion, or visceral response, or anything Freudian. They are about deep commitments—to honesty and transparency of process, and to rooting ourselves in the apostolic witness of the New Testament in the way we do our theology.

    I hope that you can understand that—and I would be interested in your response to these concerns, and what you would say to evangelicals to address them.

    1. I think you make some fair points, but I am trying to honour the process by only reflecting on what I myself have learned rather than speculating too much on what other people who weren't in the room would say!

      It took me a while to grasp what was going on in the conversations - like you, I imagine, I am much more used to debate and trying to get to 'the truth'. It felt very odd and frustrating being constantly told to reflect on how the process felt rather than just getting on and debating! And yet I am aware - or rather, I think I have learned - that at least some of that discomfort was precisely the point of the conversational process. It was a non-Western mode of discourse which we are not used to, so of course it felt alien - it was!

      I understand that evangelicals are concerned that they may be being hoodwinked into accepting changes that they believe are against scripture, but I don't think that is the point of the conversations. I do actually believe ++Justin and the team when they say that there is no pre-determined outcome - except, perhaps, that we understand each other better. I understand too that is very frustrating - both for those who want a definite restatement of the Church's traditional teaching, and feel that a failure to restate that quickly implies a potential weakening, and for those who want change and feel frustrated and annoyed at being constantly told to talk some more!

      So what would I say to evangelicals on your last two points? Well, I don't think it is a dishonest process, though I can understand why, if you are convinced the current position is the truth, any 'conversation' process feels threateningly liberal. Perhaps it would reassure you to know that (as a liberal) I did not find the conversations liberal in the slightest! In fact, I found myself rather taken aback at how conservative a view of the Bible and doctrine the balance of opinion that I heard was. Are we forgetting our roots? Well, I suppose that is why I'm doing research on this now - because it seems to me that yes we are indeed forgetting our roots, but perhaps in a rather different way to that you mean!

      I don't mean references to emotion and visceral responses as a criticism or 'Freudian' - rather I was trying to capture the point that your (and my) deep commitments are somethign that we feel viscerally about. That doesn't mean they are not true! Indeed, it is precisely because we are convinced that they are true that we find our emotional response to them being challenged so strong, don't you think? If I wasn't bothered about the truth of the gospel I would hardly care if you had a different view to me!

    2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment—but I cannot help wondering whether your comments highlight the problem!

      What can you offer evangelicals? Er, not very much more than a subjective reassurance 'Don't worry--I believe it will be all right!'

      In my blog post on the conversations, I point out a number of quite serious process and content issues which have given material substance to evangelical—and orthodox Anglicans—concern about the process.

      If you don't feel able to offer concrete responses to these concerns, I hope you will understand why many of us find your general reassurances, well, not very reassuring!

      The fact that this is not a very 'Western' process is not in itself a value-neutral thing, and those organising the whole process are, I think, kidding themselves if they think it is—or if they hope we will agree!

      Is there really nothing more to go on?

    3. I don't see why I should be expected to offer any reassurances - it's not 'my' process! I'm just commenting on my experience if it. I am not surprised my experience of it was different to yours - I'd have been surprised if it were the same, given how different we are!

      I am rather mystified that you seem to expect me to be able to 'offer' something other than my own thoughts and feelings! This isn't a hostage negotiation....

    4. Not quite sure why you infer 'hostage' from 'offer'…?

      I only make that comment, because you yourself observed the strong feelings amongst evangelicals, but didn't really offer much understanding of it, in terms of the actual events of the process.

      Why might that be of any importance to you? Erm, because this was supposed to be a process of mutual understanding and listening.

      I quite understand if you don't feel any obligation to engage with why people 'on the other side' feel the way they do—but that in itself will contribute to the future direction of travel.

      Hope that makes sense.

    5. Sure! I simply mean that my understanding of the process is that it is about listening to others - the other 'side', if you like - and not seeking to persuade. So that's what I'm trying to do, and I'm resisting getting engaged in argument about the substantive issue to try to really live with the tension of that process.

    6. Sure. What I meant was simply that, as my understanding of the process is that it is about listening and offering my own reflections, but not engaging in argument, that's what I'm trying to model here!
      I found the word 'offer' odd, as it sounded like this was some kind of bargaining game!

    7. Sorry, didn't realise the first one had posted.

  5. I wonder if there is a deep scarring in the (esp) African Psyche, from Western imperialism: not the kind that came w/ bullets and bureaucrats, but emotional scarring:

    "You're Uncivilized, Be Like Us!", Africans (1888's "subject races") were indoctrinated, in ways both brutal and subtle.

    Now, the descendants of the very same Western imperialists are looking at their indigenous laws and churches, w/ the same throaty horror: "You're Uncivilized [and an at least implied] Be Like Us!"

    I can think of a MILLION reasons why I---queer, female, liberationist American---am *not* an Anglican Father from 1888 (justifying my national and religious imperialism).

    But I can see why I might LOOK like I am. Kyrie eleison!