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:
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'!