The Archbishop, Gay Marriage and Violence: What are the issues?

Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, Archbishop Justin’s excellent and welby1wide-ranging LBC phone-in (transcript here and recording here) in which he talked about food banks, Jesus as defining who God is for us, poverty, church and politics, climate change has, in reporting, been almost wholly reduced to one short exchange responding to one of a number of questions relating to homosexuality.

Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, even that answer has then been seriously misunderstood and distorted in the critiques and led, as usual, to more heat than light (Thinking Anglicans has its usual helpful sample of reactions and less helpful range of comments here and here).  The incident Justin referred to, in which he connected posssible Church of England actions on same-sex relationships to the killing of Christians in Africa, is one which has clearly, and unsurprisingly, impacted him deeply and influences his engagement with the subject.   He has used it before in discussions about sexuality and Church of England policy, but never so publicly.  That it should have hit the headlines when said publicly is unsurprising given the combination of its shocking nature and many people’s ignorance about the reality.  Both elements were captured in almost the final words of the interview:

JO: So, a Christian on the ground in Africa could end up being on the receiving end of violence and abuse because of a decision taken at Lambeth Palace about sexual equality, about gay marriage?

JW: Yes, precisely.

JO: That’s not something I’ve heard before.

JW: I’m afraid it’s only too sadly true.

Thankfully, there does not appear to be any questioning of the truth of his personal testimony as to what he witnessed.  Nor have people disputed the shocking reason he was given to justify the mass murder of hundreds of Nigerian Christians (“if we leave a Christian community in this area we will all be made to become homosexual and so we’re going to kill the Christians”), of which he clearly said “this is not obviously something I think”.   That rationale highlights just how different our contexts are and how serious ignorance and prejudice towards gay, lesbian and bisexual people remains in many parts of the world.  There has, however, been much misunderstanding and unfair criticism of what he said.  There is a need to set it in context, to engage the broader questions of the nature and the rightness of his pattern of Christian moral reasoning and to consider what place his example should have in our thinking.

The Archbishop’s moral reasoning: what he did and didn’t say

Crude consequentialism or neighbour-love?

Some seem to have heard Archbishop Justin offering a crude form of consequentialism, the view that whether an action is right or wrong is determined solely by whether its consequences are good or bad: a consequence of the Church of England accepting gay marriage is that Christians in Africa will be killed, this is clearly wrong, therefore I am opposed to the Church of England accepting gay marriage. This has happened due to a mix of poor reporting of the interview and to the sad fact that consequentialism is often people’s default line of moral reasoning and so assumed to be the form of moral argument being presented.

It is important to locate the argument in the interview as a whole.  It was not referred to in two earlier exchanges on the substance of church teaching on sexuality at the start of the interview.  It arose in relation to a more specific and practical question from a clergywoman called Kes: given clergy have discretion in relation to remarrying divorced people, “why [in relation to blessing same-sex couples] can’t clergy be left to their own conscience while we’re waiting for the synodical process to happen, if there’s going to be a change with regard to equal marriage in church which so many of us want?”.

Justin’s initial response referred rather abstractly to the fact that in the Church of England “we’re linked to churches all round the world” and so “before we make a major change in how we understand what we should do, we have to listen to people, and go through a process of consultation and talking to people, and listening very carefully and praying, and without predetermined outcomes”. To follow the questioner’s proposal and “just do it now” would, he claimed, have an “absolutely catastrophic” impact on Christians far away and “we have to love them as much as we love the people who are here”.

This was, in short, an appeal to neighbour-love that politely suggested the questioner needed a bigger vision of what this fundamental Christian command required.  Justin made clear that we also have to listen to LGBT communities but we could not “suddenly say” (an emphasis on timing again) our position had changed.

Challenging caricatures

The interviewer then played this careful argument back as being heard to say to a gay Christian that they “can’t marry their partner in their church because of the conniptions it would give to some African, dare we say, less enlightened people in Africa”.  This, with its reduction of “catastrophic” consequences to “conniptions” and its dismissive, bordering on racist, view of opponents of same-sex marriage is what triggered the headline-hitting response.  The Archbishop first strongly rejected the description (“I don’t think we dare say less enlightened actually, I think that’s a neo-colonial approach and it’s one I really object to”) and then countered the view that it was all a matter of hysteria and rage rather than life and death:

I think it’s not about them having conniptions and getting irate, that’s nothing to do with it. It’s about the fact that I’ve stood by a grave side in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far far away in America, and they were attacked by other people because of that and a lot of them had been killed.

The example then is not offered as a determining or even significant factor for defining church teaching on sexuality.  It is a robust counter to a crude and (as the interviewer subsequently confessed) ignorant – though not uncommon – caricature of his appeal to neighbour-love as a reason why the Church of England cannot immediately let clergy bless same-sex marriages.

It has, perhaps, been heard by some as implying that if they support the questioner’s  call for rapid changes they would be the cause of – or at least morally complicit in – any consequent suffering among African Christians.  This is, however, not what was said (although it should be noted that parallel accusations are quite often made against conservatives who are told that their moral teaching is the cause of – and they thus bear some responsibility for – the persecution, murder and suicide of LGBT people).

Open to change?

In fact, the Archbishop did not rule out the Church of England changing its views and practice.  He did make clear his own views, first to Anne Widdecombe (“My position is the historic position of the church, which is in our Canons, which says that sexual relations …should be within marriage and marriage is between a man and a woman”) and then, after his reference to African Christians, to the interviewer who asked about same-sex marriages in Anglican churches: “personally I look at the scriptures, I look at the teaching of the church, I listen to Christians around the world, and I have real hesitations about that”.  He also made clear – in response to Kes – what had to be involved in moving to such a decision, referring not only to listening to Christians in other parts of the world and to LGBT communities but to the fact “we have to look at the tradition of the church, and the teaching of the church, and the teaching of scripture, which is definitive in the end, before we come to a conclusion” (italics added).

In other words, Archbishop Justin is very far from offering a consequentialist argument that the cruel, wholly unjustifiable infliction of suffering on African Christians should determine and fix the church’s stance.  Rather, in the face of a call for a sudden change in church practice, he appealed to the classic Anglican process of patient corporate, reasoned ecclesial reflection which listens to a range of human experience and studies tradition and Scripture, with Scripture as definitive.

Thinking about consequences

The example the Archbishop gave does, however, present a real challenge to those pressing for change, particularly rapid change: what weight should be given to such unintended and unjustifiable but foreseeable and very negative consequences of an action which they judge to be good or permissible?

Without embracing consequentialism, Christian moral reasoning does take consequences seriously in determining whether an action is wise and prudent.  The tradition of double effect reasoning (for example in relation to targeting in war and treatment at the end of life) holds that once it is clear an action is good in itself or not absolutely prohibited, there is still a decision to be made as to whether it is morally justifiable in a particular case where its effects are both good and bad.  If the evil consequences are great (eg the medical treatment has serious damaging side-effects while only doing limited good) then the action – though not wrong and forbidden in itself – may be judged disproportionate and so unjustifed.

The Archbishop’s example is, of course, an even more complex one.  The negative effect here is not caused by our action (in the way a medical intervention causes both negative and positive consequences).  It is caused by others responding to our action with unambiguously evil acts. This is a significant difference and cautions against placing too much weight on this scenario in moral deliberation. Weighing foreseen but unintended and undesired consequences of our own actions is complex enough in moral deliberation.  Factoring in negative consequences we foresee as arising from likely evil actions by other agents in response to our good actions adds in yet another level of complexity.  Clearly here the level of our responsibility and possible moral complicity significantly diminishes, although the question cannot be totally ignored, particularly if the consequences are likely and as serious as mass murder.

Real and difficult moral questions and decisions

Two questions post-Pilling

Having clarified the Archbishop’s own position and noted the place of considering consequences in moral decision-making, what role should scenarios such as that he cited therefore have in our ethical thinking?  They open up at least two important questions for the process of our moral discernment.

First, at what point and with what weight should such negative consequences be considered in relation to the appeal to Scripture, tradition and reason?  The danger is that –particularly now they have been given such a high profile – such circumstantial and consequential factors will be given too prominent and formative a role in the church’s deliberation on the substantive issue.  Such factors should not, I believe, come into play in determining whether the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage is right or wrong (the current focus).  Their place is rather in deciding what, if the church concludes its current prohibition is wrong or at least uncertain, it should then say and do as a result.

Second, we need, therefore to being thinking about what weight should be given to the sort of example cited by the Archbishop if the current post-Pilling process leads the Church of England to discern that Scripture does not require the church to maintain its traditional teaching and practice (and so could perhaps allow clergy the freedom Kes sought) or even that it should change its teaching because it is wrong, unjust and a denial of love of neighbour.

Difficult choices – the costs of doing what we think is right

For those already convinced the church needs to change this is where more work is needed.  During the Reading Crisis, Bishop Richard Harries, in defending the appointment of Jeffrey John, took the admirably anti-consequentialist approach that he was doing what was right even if it was costly: fiat justitia ruat caelum – let justice be done, although the heavens fall.  The difficulty here is that the heavens will fall most heavily not on us but on fellow Christians a long way away from us.  Most of them are clearly committed to such a principled approach to Christian discipleship.  They know – much more than any of us – the reality that a commitment to doing justice and being faithful to Christ may lead to their death.

If – as seems likely – the Church of England changing its stance increases the risk of incidents such as those recounted by Archbishop Justin then, as he stated, love of neighbour must weigh heavily on us.  This reality may lead us to conclude – weighing the good and evil consequences – that we cannot change our stance even though we would wish to do so and believe we are permitted to do so.  Even though the bad consequences are not the consequence of our actions but of evil acts by others in response to our good actions we may consider they are so serious that we must refrain from doing the good we can do because of the greater evil others will then do.  The danger here is that this appears to amount to letting the most morally corrupt succeed in a form of moral blackmail.

We may, therefore, conclude that we have a moral obligation to embrace same-sex marriage or that this is permitted and on balance the suffering which indirectly results for others elsewhere is less significant than the suffering we ourselves directly inflict on people we refuse to marry them to a same-sex partner or to bless their relationships.

Minimising negative consequences of doing what is right

If we do reach such a conclusion, we nevertheless need to take responsibility to minimise, as far as possible, the negative consequences for fellow Christians who will suffer as a result of our moral judgments.  Similarly, if we decide to uphold the current position we must continue to seek to minimise the potential negative consequences on bisexual, gay and lesbian people.  Although often not welcomed as doing so (much as we can expect scepticism or hostility from suffering African Christians were we say to we are doing all we can to mitigate the consequences for them of blessing same-sex marriages) this is perhaps partly why, while upholding traditional teaching, bishops have become more vocal about the qualities of gay relationships and supportive of civil partnerships and made clear that lay Christians who enter same-sex marriages should not be refused the sacraments.  Archbishop Justin in his interview also once again spoke repeatedly, clearly and strongly against the sin of homophobia, with his final words being that the experience of the Nigerian mass grave “burns itself into your soul, as does the suffering of gay people in this country”.  Combating hatred and violence that leads to suffering and murder – under whatever guise – must be the primary response to scenarios such as those he described, but that cannot be all that is done. If we foresee our actions could trigger such wrongs, then the situation of potential victims must also be considered.

What options if we proceed with change?

The Archbishop’s horrific example of likely consequences seems to offer the following possible ways forward were the church at some point to change its position.

On the one hand, we could successfully persuade those who will suffer most to see this as another example of their righteous suffering at the hands of evil people because of the church’s faithful pursuit of justice and their solidarity with the marginalised.  On the other hand, if, at least in the short-term, this is unlikely to succeed we must find, with them, a new way of articulating and expressing our ecclesiology and re-defining what it means to be the Anglican Communion.  That will mean enabling them to dissociate themselves from our actions both because they believe the actions are fundamentally wrong in themselves and because they should not be expected to suffer the negative consequences that would follow from their association with us.  As Justin made clear in the interview, that too will not only damage Christian unity but will also have serious negative consequences: “I was in the South Sudan a few weeks ago, and the church leaders there were saying, please don’t change what you’re doing because then we couldn’t accept your help, and we need your help desperately”.

Can we have a conversation about this?

Those pressing for change therefore need seriously to attend to these complex realities and questions even though they are not as obvious and pressing for most English Anglicans in their parishes as they are for bishops whose ministry connects them with the wider church.  Those of us upholding the current teaching and discipline similarly have seriously to address the complex realities and questions we face here and now with the introduction of same-sex marriage and ask those in other parts of the Communion to understand our context as we seek to understand theirs.  If we can honestly and humbly acknowledge and wrestle with these challenges then the forthcoming facilitated conversations could, rather than being a belligerent stand-off, still become fruitful dialogues where we might discern together what it means for us to love God and to love our neighbours, both near and distant.

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