Following the recent release of the pastoral guidance on civil partnerships,
(available here ) it is helpful to look at why this particular document has provoked so much anger and why that anger is not going away.
The church of England has long had a problem with ‘the gays’, it goes back decades. It has been going on for long enough that academics have been able to study the phenomenon, both those academics who are LGBTI+ and Christian and those who are not LGBTI+ or Christian.
The model that has proved most useful in studying the issues is the work of French philosopher Rene Girard and his ideas about violence and the sacred and particularly his ideas about the scapegoat.
The idea of the scapegoat first appears in the book of Leviticus, chapter 16, where the people of God put their sins onto the goat and send it out into the desert, purging the people of their guilt. Girard has written about Jesus as the scapegoat, bearing the sins of humanity.
Girard’s ideas go further than that. Societies and groups can create scapegoats who are blamed for the sins and failures of the group or society. The group’s fears may be projected onto them or they may be seen to be the source of unrest or degeneracy which the group must expel. The scapegoat is othered. ‘They’ must pay the price for ‘Us’. Often the scapegoat is expelled or even killed, but if the scapegoat will not go or cannot be killed then the scapegoat is persecuted or abused. This persecution or abuse is seen as perfectly reasonable to the majority of the society or group because it is happening to an outsider who is somehow ‘less’ than the insiders.
It is in this context that the current crisis should be understood. When the House of Bishops produced their 2005 guidance on same-sex civil partnerships or in 2014, when they produced the Valentine’s day statement on same-sex marriage, it was the scapegoat, the ‘other’ who was being told that their relationships were second rate or not what God intended and that the church regarded them as mere friendships, which had to be permanently abstinent.
What has happened now is that mixed sex couples are being told that their relationships are second rate and must be celibate. In doing this the church has gone beyond insulting the scapegoat, it has insulted those who see themselves as ‘us’. People who have always been nurtured and affirmed by the church are suddenly being told that their relationships are outside God’s will and must be celibate, their sense of insult and betrayal is huge. In doing this the church has insulted not only those in mixed sex civil partnerships, but those who are in childless marriages, those who are cohabiting or who cohabited before marriage or those who are divorced or divorced and remarried.
When you expect the church to affirm you then you do not have the coping mechanisms of those who are frequently abused by the church.
This brings to the fore the values disconnect between the powers that be in the church and the young people of our society. We saw at the recent meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod that on the matter of climate change there was a coming together of the church leadership and young people on a matter of importance to all. Preserving our climate is about shared values. However that sharing of values does not extend of matters of sexuality and gender where younger generations are far more understanding and inclusive than the church leaders. The fact that archbishop Justin was apologising for institutional racism in the church showed that values disconnect very clearly. Young people see a church that is racist, sexist and homophobic and do not like what they see. They see meaningless apologies and are looking to see repentance from the church and remedial action. When the church follows up its apologies with real change and inclusion then people will be more willing to join. This is a generation brought up in families that may have a step parent, parents who were divorced and remarried, whose parents may be co-habiting or the same sex or foster parents and who may be married or civil partnered or have no legal relationship. They are just family and the church has insulted them too. It has othered a lot of people.
It was interesting to follow the signatures on the open letter of protest to the archbishops. Available to read here. It may have started with many signatures from LGBTI+ people who did not like their relationships being debased yet again, but it very quickly went straight on the second day. It showed that the church cannot insult its core members like this. They are the PCC members, the church wardens, the parish clergy, the flower arrangers etc. They are not the scapegoat.
There are several ways out of this crisis, the only questions are what will be the price and who will pay it? The apology from the archbishops (available here) was vague and there is real speculation about what the archbishops were actually apologising for. Actions speak louder than words and the actions were that the college of bishops decided not to withdraw the statement. That fatally undermines the Living in Love and Faith project. The bishops cannot lead unless people will follow and they have upset too many people for that to be viable.