The Independent reported this story last week:
"The Church of England reopened the most divisive issue in Anglicanism tonight by unexpectedly announcing that openly gay men could become bishops, providing they are celibate. The timing of the decision took both supporters and opponents of gay bishops by surprise and threatens to plunge the Anglican Church into renewed infighting over the thorny issue of sexual orientation. One leading conservative tonight warned that the U-turn would put the debate about women bishops in the shade and "finally divide the Anglican Communion completely". Although liberals largely welcomed the announcement they also voiced concerns that gay clergy would still be expected to answer searching questions about the nature of celibacy - something their straight single counterparts are not expected to do."(1)
The last time this ignited a fire was back in 2003, when the Reverend Jeffrey John was forced to withdraw as candidate for the Bishop of Reading in 2003. There was a noisy outcry by conservative evangelicals in the Church of England. In some ways, it is more divisive than the thorny matter of women bishops.
And so the whole debate opens up again. It is amazing how these debates work. Looking at them, I see that language is often chosen specifically to bias the questions involved, and the arguments given are often a rationale for an emotional position, which is not going to actually be changed by argument at all.
There was the same kind of problem in the States in 2006, when the law was debated on whether or not the age of consent for homosexuals should be lowered to 16, to be on an equal footing with heterosexual relationships; it was eventually passed. Some of the language used was more neutral in tone, but one or two States members just let rip with the most offensive language they could muster.
Senator Len Norman, who is now Constable of St Clement, gave this impassioned piece of vitriol:
"A 16 year-old cannot vote, a 16 year-old cannot get a full driving licence. All of these things - and probably many others - are forbidden or restricted but now the Home Affairs Minister, on behalf of our masters at the European Court, tells us that buggery for 16 year-olds is not only okay but must be allowed because Europe tells us so, no matter what we in the Chamber - the legislators for this Island - think is right. There is no way that I am homophobic in any way whatsoever but I will not support reducing the age of consent at this time. I could do it basing it on religious reasons. I could do that but I will not make that claim. I am content with a difference in age limits for conventional sex between male and female and buggery between 2 males, simply because I know and it is a proven fact, that there are big differences between men and women and boys and girls."
And Deputy Gerard Baudains, another of the worst offenders, gave the States this piece of advice:
"To be absolutely clear, this projet is not about homosexuality. It is about sodomy or buggery, whichever particular term one cares to use....The Bible Sir - Leviticus 22 - tells that homosexual intercourse is an abomination and I think for very good reason because, if the entire population were to engage in anal instead of vaginal intercourse, mankind would cease to exist within about 100 years. We are being asked to approve several things, Sir: to legalise sodomy between heterosexuals; to lower the age at which consenting homosexuals may sodomise each other; and to allow more than 2 people to be present during these acts."
This was hardly conducive to the "an atmosphere of dedicated listening and mutual respect" which the Dean called for in the debate; he added that: "It seems to me that is crucial to our debate today. We do none of those who look to us for leadership any favours if we simply descend to a lower level."
So why do these matters raise such passions? Homophobia has been described as "any belief system which supports negative myths and stereotypes about homosexual people", but I think in looking at beliefs, we are looking in the wrong place. One of the features of our Christian heritage is a domination of thinking about what people believe, rather than what they feel. Christianity is a religion of creeds, of dogma, of what is assented to, and even in a post-Christian society, where many people have a residual Christian folk-belief, that kind of thinking still dominates arguments about gay bishops, or lowering the age of gay consent (as in Jersey).
It's more, I think to do with a fear, disgust, anger, discomfort and aversion that individuals experience in dealing with gay people, which can also be present in a discomfort or dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals and I suspect this aspect of it, rather than an ideological one, may be more common among men than among women. A statistical survey showed a slight bias here:
Men were more homophobic than women on each of the three scales measuring homophobia, although these differences were not statistically significant. (2)
The study showed also that:
The meaning of the association between attitudes and religiosity is complex. Previous studies have found that people who are more religious, have more conservative religious beliefs, and attend church frequently are more homophobic (Cameron & Ross, 1981; Glassner & Owen, 1976; Hansen, 1982a; Herek & Glunt, 1993). Allport and Ross (1967) made a distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic orientations to religion. An extrinsic orientation reflects a conventional, instrumental approach, whereas an intrinsic orientation reflects an internal, meaning-based approach. They found that an extrinsic orientation tends to be positively associated with prejudice, whereas an intrinsic orientation stresses love, tolerance, and acceptance of differences.(2)
The study also showed that education usually didn't have too great an effect on changing attitudes, which is not perhaps surprising as those relate to emotions, and education here is more about facts that dealing with emotional response; conversely, psychotherapy did result in a lowering of the emotional bias against homosexuals, where people were prepared to engage in it - often the same people who have strong feelings against homosexuality - which we can see clearly in the remarks of Senator Norman and Deputy Baudains - are the same people who would reject any need for psychotherapy, or for that matter, anything which would cause them to reflect more critically on their own emotional response.
The emotional factor came out most strongly in that States debate with a very good contribution by Senator Mike Vibert, who showed that he was aware of his own gut feels of discomfort and disgust, but also aware that those were not necessarily a justification for following them. It was an extremely honest reflective statement about his own innate prejudice, and why he felt it important to not be driven by it:
"I would like to return to the matter at issue; a very serious matter, a very emotional matter. It is one I wrestled with, with some difficulty on this issue. I think we all have our own emotional inclinations. By genetic accident - for want of a better word - I happen to be heterosexual, I am married, I am a parent, I have 2 grown-up children. My emotional inclination is against homosexual activities but I hope I recognise that for what it is - which is a prejudice and a wrong prejudice - and I strive against it. I think it is very important we do not let our own emotional inclinations influence the way we represent all the people of this Island and a number of people of this Island will, through their genetic make-up be gay, and they have every right - just as much right as heterosexuals - to our representation in this Chamber. So, I urge members to put their own prejudices aside to recognise their prejudices when considering this issue."
There's a wonderful exchange in a Star Trek episode about warfare which I think is pertinent to this. It's a different subject, but the way we behave, and whether we are driven by our instincts or can see them as driving us comes over very clearly, and I think the same is true - as outlined in that speech by Mike Vibert above:
ANAN: There can be no peace. Don't you see? We've admitted it to ourselves. We're a killer species. It's instinctive. It's the same with you. Your General Order Twenty Four.
KIRK: All right. It's instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes. Knowing that we won't kill today.
There was a very good article in the Independent about the subject of gay bishops, and I think it again highlights what is important, which is seeing the people, not seeing the label. Once the debate becomes one about labels, in the realm of ideas, more abstract, we lose sight of what is important, which is how people behave to other people. If we can't see beyond the labels, as Reverend Halzehurst did, the debate will never get anywhere, and gay people will continue to be seen through the dark glasses of hate and fear:
In Britain the prime mover in promoting pro-gay evangelicalism is Accepting Evangelicals, a group that was started by the Anglican priest Benny Hazlehurst. Like Jeremy Marks, Reverend Hazlehurst spent much of his life fervently convinced that homosexuality was wrong. And his conversion is no less dramatic. Sitting in a café in Dorchester, where he now works as a prison chaplain, he charts his dramatic volte face.
Born into a relatively liberal high Anglican family, he became evangelical in his teens and decided to enter the church. Throughout theological college and his early working life he remained convinced that the scriptures insisted all forms of homosexuality were sinful. The discovery that friends and colleagues were gay confused him. He could see so much of the good they did, but every time he returned to the Bible - principally two verses in Leviticus and four verses in the New Testament - he saw what he felt was a clear cut theological position.
Over time he began to describe himself as an affirming evangelical - someone who tolerates and welcomes homosexuals but nonetheless believes scripture clearly forbids same sex relationships. Then in early 2003 he had a revelation - one that came from the depths of personal tragedy.
One April morning his wife Mel was struck down by an articulated lorry while cycling near their home in South London. She survived but for months it looked like Mel would remain in a coma and even when she looked like she might just pull through she was hit by an infection. Rev Hazlehurst's faith was shaken and, he says, he might have lost it altogether were in not for one man: the now Dean of St Albans Jeffrey John.
At that exact time Jeffrey John - one of the few senior Anglicans to be open about being in a same sex-relationship - was made the Bishop of Reading. The reaction from the conservative evangelicals was swift and brutal. John was vilified and condemned as a sinner who could not possibly be a leader. Some even threatened to split the Anglican Church in two if his appointment was continued. Eventually the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pushed for Jeffrey John to back down and he reluctantly resigned his post.
"Two months after the accident it looked like Mel was dying and I was in pieces," Rev Hazlehurst explained. "Jeffrey was there for me at that time, even though that was exactly the same time he couldn't go home at night because of all the press camped out on his lawn and he was being torn apart by one half the Church."
He added: "It felt like to me that the fruit of his life was so profound and he was being Christ to me in such a profound way that I needed to go back to the Bible and re-examine what it said. It didn't feel right that God said this person was being sinful. And when I went back the blinkers were gone, I suddenly saw things in a new way."
(2) Homophobia and Heteroxism in Social Workers. Cathy Berkman, Gail Zinberg, Social Work. Volume: 42. Issue: 4 1997
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