Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Church of England's Perfect Storm

The tea and cake of the Broad Church, or the fire and brimstone of the High and Low ones

The last month has been the beginning of a hurricane season for the Church of England. Already facing an existential crisis as an established Church which only represents 20% of the population of its country and not even a plurality of the Christians, it has faced a twin-pronged assault on some of its oldest values. Not only has the Church faced a wholehearted media and political assault on its decision not to approve female bishops, but it also faces the inevitable equality of same-sex marriage in the near future.

In the present political climate, with liberal positions building momentum in western states, the Church of England's rejection of female bishops and the decision by the British government to ban the Church from conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies has created a huge outcry against the Church. Disestablishment is on the agenda for the first time in history. However, the entire British media have taken the bizarre move of attacking the Church as if it were another political body or corporation with changeable ideological leanings. Not, strangely, like a religious institution which has outlasted any single British political order since... ever. This is not a body which can turn face and declare "sorry we were wrong, this whole Adam and Eve thing? Complete rubbish. Jesus? Not coming back. Homosexuality? A-Ok." This is a religious institution with fixed beliefs tied to a two-thousand year old book, and whose ideas are impossible to understand without an understanding of the bible.

With that in mind, a brief, and not overly analytical  glance at what it is the bible says about women leading congregations and homosexuality:

  • "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. [...] For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man" (I Corinthians 11:3-9) - It is very clear, both in the Old and New Testament, that the creation of women second is very important when it comes to religious practice. Praying and preaching must be done with the head covered for a women, but uncovered for a man.
  • "Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression." (I Timothy 2:11-14) - This passage forms the basis for the position of only-male bishops, along with that Jesus himself was male as were all of his disciples. It is very clear in both testaments that preaching the word of God is entirely a man's position. Also, together with the prior passage Timothy dictates the modest clothing of women in prayer and having given their lives to Christ, such as nuns. In some Churches is is extremely insulting for women to enter with extensive jewelry and uncovered heads.
  • "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." (I Corinthians 14:34-35) - It can not really get much clearer than that.
  • "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." (Leviticus 18:22) "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death" (Leviticus 20:13) - But let's be honest, no Christian group even slightly pays attention to Leviticus in its entirety.
  • "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the lord thy God" (Deuteronomy 22:5) - As some think that only those who commit Sodomy are targeted, the bible has many limitations on what it sees as unnatural acts.
  • "I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together." (Luke 17:34-37) - In case anyone thought lesbians were safe, or that these ideas are restrained to the Old Testament.
  • "The men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another, men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet [...] Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them" (Romans 1 1:27,32)
  • Strangely the idea of Sodom being among the anti-homosexual passages probably is not true, and is a later creation. Instead the sins of those in Sodom seem to have been pride, greed, laziness and lack of charitably. (Ezekiel 16:49)
These are brief glances at the bible, and are no means an exhaustive look. The entire book is, should you believe it to be the holy word of God and therefore infallible, convincing in its attack on women as second to men and on homosexuals as evil abominations deserving of death. It is absolutely clear on the status of women as subservient to their husbands, but most importantly in this political situation - as completely without the right to preach God's word in places of worship. 

The position of homosexuals is equally clear. It is common for both believers and nonbelievers to concentrate their attack on Leviticus as the most famous passage but also the most ridiculous, for all its restrictions on things such as eating shellfish, having a bowl haircut or wearing clothing made of more than one material. However, this is the top of a very large anti-homosexual iceberg of the bible. Throughout the old and new testament homosexuality and all things the bible sees as linked to it (sodomy, wearing women's clothing and being effeminate) is rejected and often underlined as punishable by death.

This is the background of the conflict facing the Church of England. It is surrounded by the building momentum of liberal rights but is based on an extremely conservative, strict and believed-to-be infallible text. It is not a political manifesto which can be changed to fit the political and social climate of the time. It is this background which lead women in Church of England voting Houses to make up half the votes which defeated the measure to allow female Bishops. It is not a political issue, it is "an issue of theological conviction". This week's declaration that the Church of England will be unable to conduct same-sex marriages produced a media assault, but similarly it is entirely theologically sound. Not only would it be a rejection of swathes of the Bible to approve of same-sex union of any kind, the Church of England is a unified body, individual Church leaders or entire Churches simply do not have the right to act in whatever way they see fit, they must abide by the rules of the Church as a whole. Otherwise there would be no Houses to have votes, it would be a religious free-for-all.

None of this is to say I approve of the subjection of women to second-class-citizenship, or the stripping of rights to homosexuals, let alone the killing of them. I reject all the stances of the Church. However, I do so from a position of having no faith in the bible as either an infallible or even historically accurate text. I am not religious and so have no reason to believe such positions are correct more than any other book on my shelf. This is likely true of much of the government, as it is true of the majority of British society. However as the western world is secular it has no right to enforce any beliefs one way or the other. A church cannot, and should not, be forced to carry out ceremonies towards which it is fundamentally opposed, to do so is religious persecution of a different vein. The bible is clearly fundamentally opposed to women as religious preachers and to homosexuality of any kind at all, and to force different values upon a church which takes the bible seriously could only cause a serious crisis of identity for the church and a moral dictatorship of the state.

The two stances I cannot possibly understand are those of Christians who support the reforms to permit female bishops and same-sex weddings, and those of homosexuals and women who would want any part in this. The bible is so clear on its stance on both groups that any Church-of-England Christian who stands in support of reform is either deeply hypocritical or has no knowledge of the text they worship. Similarly any women who would wish to be a bishop or same-sex couple who would wish to be married as part of the Church face the same difficulties.

These are the difficulties of a text which, as infallible, cannot change in the midst of a society whose values are constantly progressing. Those who fully accept the Bible as absolutely infallible will become ideologically isolated and it is this isolation which is causing the crisis in the Church of England. It is a unique institution straddling the gap between the absolute belief of the Catholic and Evangelical churches and the liberalism of the protestant ones. Caught in between it cannot fully embrace either the laws of the text it believes to be infallible nor the society it relies on for support. This perfect storm will destroy the Church of England, the swiftest collapsing religious institution since its own creation. What will remain will be the bipolarity of the absolute moral conservatism of Catholicism and the vague, barely biblical, interpretations of the liberal Churches open to any code of morals as long as it is clear that Jesus loves us. The Christian Church is heading in two directions, the Church of England simply can not decide which.

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