The history of organized religion has been replete with schisms. The Sunni split from the Shia. The Orthodox Christians splits from the Catholics. Now, in 2015, a crisis has been temporarily rescheduled in the global Anglican community with a statement of commitment that men cannot marry men and women cannot marry women, and Anglican churches that go against this will be punished. The agreement, overwhelmingly supported by bishops in the face of a crumbling communion, reiterated support for the “traditional doctrine” that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and imposed sanctions upon the liberal US congregation that had moved in contravention of this. Conservative churches of the Global South have been appeased, the liberals are pretty upset, and LGBT Christians the world over have been, once again, pushed out into the cold, or at least pretty resolutely ignored.
Crisis over? Hardly. This problem is only going to become more insurmountable as opinion in the North goes further and further one way, while in the South opinions are being further entrenched in the opposite direction.
Homophobia is an irrational embarrassment to human reason, but from the perspective of Gafcon the liberal approach to sexual morals that is developing in the Global North is an affront to the word of the Bible, and therefore the word of God. This point I fully understand. While some of the contested verses are certainly ambiguous, you’d have to squint pretty hard to find ambiguity in others. The Bible is absolute in its condemnation of homosexuality, and no amount of interpreting, arguing or reading between the lines is going to make this uncomfortable truth go away. For liberal Christians, it’s simply a case of ignoring these passages, and instead focusing on Jesus’ much broader (and more vague) message of love. Christians already quite happily ignore many of the Bible’s more unsavoury (or merely inconvenient) passages, from the keeping of slaves to the wearing of woven cloth, so there’s no reason why this can’t act as a further extension of this theological blindness. For people like me, there is no contradiction between a homophobic bible and the acceptance of gay marriage; I’m simply not religious, and reject the ancient moralising of a brutal historical culture of no relevance to my own. But it’s easy to see why the homophobic Gafcon churches feel so impassioned that their formal colonial masters are tearing up their Holy Book and launching into a wholly ungodly sexually deviant new era.
A split may have been avoided for now, but it’s difficult to understand whether the holding together of the already fragmented and divided Anglican community was a price worth paying for the tortured agreement that has been reached. For LGBT Anglicans the world over, the commitment that has been made will be deeply disappointing. For gay Africans, this decision has provided further legitimacy to the church’s current crusade against homosexuality, including their significant lobbying for harsher punishments and the criminalisation of homosexual behavior. The African churches would never have accepted a theological rule-change concerning sexuality, but it might have at least been reassuring to LGBT Africans that there were congregations abroad that were unwilling to stomach their continued persecution, rather than tacitly endorsing it for the sake of cohesion.
And while in the Global South, religious congregations are growing, you can’t help but hear an increasing death knell sounding for the Anglican Church in the Global North. Last week passed a moment where the number of people taking part in organised worship in the Church of England fell below one million for the first time. Fancy prayer websites aren’t enough to engage a younger generation in the church. The reality is that for most young Britons, the Church of England embodies an old-fashioned, often prejudiced moral structure that fails to resonate with their way of life. Church congregations are plummeting. Religious marriages are in a death spiral. Old Christian morality is being increasingly overwritten in modern legislation, and religious opposition to these changes is increasingly at odds with public opinion. The overwhelmingly elderly Church of England congregation is dying at an alarming rate; if the church doesn’t do something soon they are going to find themselves without a flock upon which to moralise. Their rejection of gay marriage, and homosexuality by association, is an ugly mess that is totally off-putting to most people in modern Britain.
The Church of England has totally lost its way. For the elite clergy, desperately clinging to the wreckage of the global Anglican web might seem like the most important objective, but for both everyday Africans, and British congregations, falling out of step with moral thinking is of a far greater importance. The Church has compromised on homosexuality to appease it’s foreign congregations, but compromises on fundamental human rights are a tacit involvement in these abuses, and the British public knows this. Wherever you are in the world, God has an incredible ability to endorse whatever the social moral of the era happens to be; Jesus himself clearly condemns divorce but this hasn’t stopped the Church’s evolving theology on the subject. Like all the great denominations before it, the Church must splinter as evolving social morals dictate, or face annihilation. Standing up to African homophobia, by disassociating from it, might just be enough for it to cling to a semblance of relevance in modern British life. Endorsement, on the other hand, is merely another nail in the coffin for this archaic institution and its anachronistic approach to LGBT rights.