Hearing What We Want To Hear

The reporting of, and response to, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech at the Evangelical Alliance yesterday is a classic example of people hearing what they want to hear.

John Bingham in the Telegraph told us that Justin made his remarks in an unlikely surrounding.

The Inauguration of the Ministry of the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Portal Welby at Canterbury Cathedral.The Most Rev Justin Welby told an audience of traditional born-again Christians that they must “repent” over the way gay and lesbian people have been treated in the past and said most young people viewed Christians as no better than racists on the issue.

Archbishop Welby, who as a young priest once opposed allowing gay couples to adopt children, said the church now had to face up to what amounted to one of the most rapid changes in public attitudes ever.

While insisting that he did not regret voting against same-sex marriage in the House of Lords, he admitted that his own mind was not yet “clear” on the wider issues which he was continuing to think about.

And he admitted that, despite its strong official opposition to allowing same-sex couples to marry, the Church is still “deeply and profoundly divided” over gay marriage.

The Archbishop, who comes from the evangelical wing of the Church, which takes a more traditional interpretation of the Bible, publicly opposed the Government’s Same-sex Marriage Act while it was being debated earlier this year.

Noting the fact that it is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, he urged Christians to speak out about what they are in favour of rather than simply what they are against.

He praised the Alliance’s work tackling social problems by promoting food banks, working in social care or recruiting adopters and said that it was time for the Church to make “an alliance with the poor”.

But he went on: “One of things that I think is most noticeable where we make a bad impression in society at the moment is because we are seen as against things, and you talk to people and they say I don’t want to hear about a faith that is homophobic, that is this that that, that is the other.”

Asked later whether this meant that he regretted voting against gay marriage, he said he stood by his vote because he did not believe “rewriting the nature of marriage” was the best way to end discrimination against gay people.

He said: “The Bill was clearly, quite rightly, trying to deal with issues of homophobia in our society and … the Church has not been good at dealing with homophobia … in fact we have, at times, as God’s people, in various places, really implicitly or even explicitly supported it.

“And we have to be really, really repentant about that because it is utterly and totally wrong.”

He added: “That discussion [about gay marriage] is continuing and the Church is deeply and profoundly divided over the way forward on it.

“I am absolutely committed not to excluding people who have a different view from me, I am also absolutely committed to listening very carefully to them.

“We are not going to get anywhere by throwing brickbats at each other.”

He went on to describe the shift in public attitudes to homosexuality as one of the biggest social changes of recent history.

“I’m continuing to think and listen very carefully as to how in our society today we respond to what is the most rapid cultural change in this area that there has been, well, I don’t know if ever, but for a very long time,” he said.

“And we have seen changes in the idea about sexuality, sexual behaviour, which quite simply [mean that] we have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 think not only that what we are saying is incomprehensible but also think that we are plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice.

Got all that? Right, let’s see the responses. Here’s Colin Coward.

Colin CowardThe speech shows how carefully and deeply the Archbishop is thinking, how far he has already travelled, and where he is stuck. He spoke on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

I think his remarks yesterday might have been a seminal moment in the Church of England’s journey towards the full inclusion of LGB&T people – but we won’t know for some months or even a year or two just how significant the shift might be.

He calls for repentance, a complete reversal of traditional Christian teaching and attitudes to lesbian and gay people.

Really Colin? In his speech Justin called for “a complete reversal of traditional Christian teaching”? Gosh, I must have missed that. I heard him say that he believed in the union of one man and one woman, but I guess I must have misheard.

On the other side, Matt Kennedy at Stand Firm (who I have the greatest respect for) makes the critical error of believing that what the newspapers report is the entire substance of a speech.

“We have to be real about that, I haven’t got the answer and I‘m not going to jump one way or the other until my mind is clear about this,” he said. “I’m not going to get into the trenches on it”

There you go…the Archbishop of Canterbury who sits where Augustine and Anselm and Cranmer once sat “doesn’t want to get into the trenches” when it comes to a sin that Paul says will keep people out of the kingdom of heaven. Sad but predictable.

Well, when you listen to what the Archbishop actually had to say, he clearly in context is saying that he is not going to get into the trenches right now, because he wants to work out how to move forward. In the very same breath he affirms that he would vote “no” again on same-sex marriage if he had the opportunity – how is that caving in on the issue?

And now the analysis from yours truly as to what Justin was intending when he made the statements he did. When you actually read what the Archbishop actually said, it strikes me that he is trying to tread a careful balance between two positions. First, he nowhere capitulates on a biblical sexual morality. He’s very clear he believes marriage is between a man and a woman and that’s why he voted against the same-sex marriage bill (and indeed would vote so again). At the same time, he wants to recognise that the way that some Christians have treated gay people is nothing short of homophobic. There has to be a way to express the good things we believe in rather than being seen as always berating the bad things we disapprove of.

As to the Archbishop saying his mind is not clear, well the context of that is clearly that he is not clear yet about the way forward (rather than not clear that the Biblical moral for sex is in marriage between a man and a woman) in articulating the truth in a culture that seems to reject it. For me that’s a healthy place to be in. It means that the Archbishop wants to have a serious conversation in the Church about how it expresses the truth of the transforming Gospel in the 21st century western world. It wouldn’t surprise me though if the Archbishop waited until the women bishops issue was sorted out before he turned his hand to coming to a conclusion on the sexuality debate. So there might be a trench to jump into at some point, but at the moment Justin is working out where and how to dig it rather than entering one now.

And the bottom line my conservative friends is this. Don’t condemn Justin because he doesn’t say everything you want him to say. Condemn him if and only if he backtracks on the traditional Christian sexual moral. But frankly, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Here’s a complete transcript of the question from Andrew Brown of the Guardian and Justin Welby’s response.

Q Andrew Brown, Guardian

In the light of your comments of the duty of the church to be for things rather than against things, are you still happy that you voted against gay marriage?

A Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Thank you Andrew, that’s really helpful, I was just so hoping not to talk about that today.

Yes I am, to be clear. What I voted against was what seemed to me to be rewriting the nature of marriage in a way that was, I have to say, within the Christian tradition, within scripture, within our understanding, is not the right way to deal with the very important issues that were attempting to be dealt with in that bill.

The bill was clearly, quite rightly, trying to deal with issues of homophobia in our society. And as I said at the time in the House of Lords, I think I said it then, but I can’t quite remember, and Andrew can probably remember better than I do. And as I said on other occasions, I think in General Synod of the Church of England, the church has not been good at dealing with homophobia, it’s one of the areas in fact, we have at times, as God’s people, in various places really implicitly, or even explicitly supported it and we have to be really, really repentant of that because it is utterly and totally wrong.

But that doesn’t mean that redefining marriage is the right way forward, I think. That discussion is continuing and the Church is deeply and profoundly divided over the way forward on it. And I am absolutely committed not to excluding people who have a different view from me and I am also absolutely committed to listening very carefully to them. We are not going to get anywhere by throwing brickbats at each other.

And I want, so yes, I would, if the same thing happened again I would vote the same way as I did then. But I am continuing to think and listen very carefully as to how in our society today we respond to what is the most rapid cultural change in this area that there has been, I don’t know if ever, but for a very long time. And we’ve seen changes in the ideas about sexuality, sexual behaviour which simply, we have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 think not only that what we’re saying is incomprehensible, but also think that we’re plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice.

We have to be real about that. I haven’t got the answer and I’m not going to jump one way or the other until my mind is clear on this. I’m not going to get into the trenches on it. I don’t know, that probably doesn’t answer your question very well.

You can watch a full video of the speech plus the audio of the Q&A here.

17 Comments on “Hearing What We Want To Hear

  1. Always true, we hear just what we want. That probably applies to you too, dear Peter!
    As people look at what Justin Welby says about marriage might his clear and repeated view expressed in his speech at the Second Reading of the new Marriage Bill be of the greatest importance. Surely your much respected free church minister might start here:
    This is not a faith issue, although we are grateful for the attention that government and the other place have paid to issues of religious freedom – deeply grateful. But it is not, at heart, a faith issue; it is about the general social good. And so with much regret but entire conviction, I cannot support the Bill as it stands. – See more at: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5069/archbishop-justins-speech-to-the-lords-on-the-governments-gay-marriage-bill#sthash.n9h7naVm.dpuf

  2. It’s become respectable for people who have these kinds of tricky jobs to announce or imply that they are ‘on a journey’ and haven’t really sussed it out yet — and I suspect this is genuinely the case with Welby: he has the double problem of deciding what he thinks himself which from multiple speeches and actions looks far from gelled to me – and secondly how he presents that. Taken in partnership with the speech he just made in Mexico, it looks to me as though he’s headed for a peace treaty where the liberals and conservatives make space for each other – which effectively means rolling back the conservatives a bit. I just don’t think that he’d be underlining so trenchantly and with such relish ‘what the under 35s think’ (which presumably includes all his kids) if he was so very certain that they didn’t have a point. I think it’s all being softened up in the direction of liberalism – and Andrew Brown, who did the interview, clearly thinks so too.

  3. What is clear enough is that he recognises that the current position of the church is pretty much untenable, but that he isn’t going to rush into any sort of kneejerk response (and how unconvincing would that be if he did?).I think the problem he will face is how an established church will be able to maintain a conservative position when same-sex marriages have become blandly uncontroversial in the mainstream of society, which has already happened with civil partnerships. The church may end up declining until it becomes a very small, counter-cultural group, but it would be hard to maintain established status in those circumstances. James Jones of Liverpool came to believe that the two points of view will simply have to learn to live alongside each other and i think that will be the likely outcome, as messy as that might be

    • The trouble with this argument – that the church will (continue to) decline if it does change its mind on social change – is that it is the churches that are more socially liberal that are declining most. The large growing churches in the UK are generally conservative or very conservative.

  4. The simple truth is that the end of this year will see a Pilling Report-led capitulation on Civil Partnership blessings, with the insistence that they should be open to all orientations, and based on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ presumption of celibacy. Politically, this will be scheduled to take place before the first same-sex marriages can take place

    For a recent history lesson, look at how the Church of Scotland Theological Commission carefully scrutinised both traditional and revisionist positions and made its recommendations, only for them to be brushed aside in favour of devolving the choice to apply church policy on allowing active homosexuals to participate in holy orders to parish level. The fall-out was a few principled abdications.

    Politically, it gives a filip to the liberal wing of the Church, while assuring conservatives that the episcopate themselves are not enacting changes to canon law relating to marriage itself.

    Take your side now and let’s not play ‘make-believe’ any more.

    • I wish I could predict with such confidence and authority. It must be marvellous to be gifted like that with paranormal powers of precognition.

      • Not really, since the liberal zeitgeist will always overrule dithering Anglican ambivalence.

        Even if I’m right, I’m an obscure layperson who just got lucky. There’s always a rationalist explanation.

  5. Fair comments on the EA speech. It would be interesting to know what you think about the anger expressed in conservative US blogs about Justin’s speech in Mexico, where he appeared to make quite disparaging remarks about conservative Anglicans doing “dark deals in a corner”, not caring about the poor, and not prepared to adapt their Gospel to the modern world. Perhaps he wasn’t referring to GAFCON/ FCA at all, but some other people?

    • Your quote is incorrect. Here is the full section.

      Walk in the light with each other.

      The Christians in Rome are to be alive emotionally to their fellow believers. Chapter 14 is not principally about life and death, but about living lives that see the light in others within the church – even where we disagree with them.

      Walk in the light with the world around. The householder is to keep the light ready and the slave to keep his life alight with integrity so that the return of the Lord is reward and not fear. The gospel passage is full of the realistic fears of those times where every life was at risk always, and every householder his own police force. Many here know the reality of that in their own experience. Walking in the light sets a pattern of courage in a fearful world, a pattern that is deeply attractive to those in darkness.

      Light is the answer to the troubles of the Communion, to enable us to find our true way and to serve our world. There must not be politics in dark corners, but love expressed in the light, even love expressing difference. In that light we will be secure enough to be churches that reach out, serve the poor, and draw others to light, as a lighted house draws the weary traveller.


      I think that’s a call to transparency isn’t it? I like the expression “love expressing difference”. That’s an openness to say to someone “You are Wrong”.

      • OK “politics in dark corners”. Sorry my paraphrase was completely off the mark! Back to my question. To whom is Justin referring with this comment? or when he says: On the other side there is a vast fall into a ravine of intolerance and cruel exclusion. It is for those who claim all truth, and exclude any who question. When we fall into this place, we lose touch with human beings and create a small church, or rather many small churches – divided, ineffective in serving the poor, the hungry and the suffering, incapable of living with each other, and incomprehensible to those outside the church.

        • I think he’s referring to everyone. For example, there is a tendency on both sides (liberals and conservatives) to exclude those who don’t fit the paradigms they hold to. We see it as much in the tendency of some evangelicals to exclude liberals as we do in, for example, the leadership of TEC literally throwing out those clergy and bishops who won’t follow the line on the new liberal orthodoxy.

  6. A pet peeve, but it doesn’t seem very respectful to refer to the Archbishop of Canterbury as Justin.
    Just sayin’.

  7. Ah I do hope yu’re right Peter.. whilst I agree with the Archbishop that homophobia (as I would define it) is wrong, I’m not sure how he would define homophobia.. and like some other contributors I’m deeply concerned Justin’s language about social change and homophobia is a softening up for more concessions to the liberal desire for some form of blessing for same sex unions. I was heartened to hear Bishop Paul (now of Dunelm) state that he didn’t think same sex union blessings were right, but even that was couched in very sensitive, ‘for the moment’ type language. I wish, I pray that the Bishops would just be clear and plain in their speaking and say this is the BIblical line, we are part of Christ’s church, the end.. I can dream, can’t i? Look, I don’t want to exclude anyone, gay or otherwise from Christ’s mercy, but I am rather concerned about the direction and tone that AB Justin is using.. I know it cannot be easy to tread the line he has chosen to tread, but communicating with a society that has changed its views does not mean conforming our views to those of society, and Justin surely knows that.. I hope that his areas of reflection are about how to communicate gospel truth, not how to make it fit the current social norms. I keep praying for him, he’s a godly man with a tough job, I don’t deny it.

    • “a softening up for more concessions to the liberal desire for some form of blessing for same sex unions”?

      Well that would be nice, certainly.

  8. What the Pilling Report has to discover is a theological consensus before any liturgical overtures towards same-sex relationships can take place. That does not mean unanimity, mind you.

    It was this lack of consensus that informed the 2005 Pastoral Statement of Civil Partnerships:

    ’16. It is likely that some who register civil partnerships will seek some recognition of their new situation and pastoral support by asking members of the clergy to provide a blessing for them in the context of an act of worship. The House believes that the practice of the Church of England needs to reflect the pastoral letter from the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Pentecost 2003 which said:

    ‘The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites’.

    However, when we compare the ecclesiastical developments in relation to the remarriage of divorcees in church, there is some wiggle room.

    In 1981, General Synod passed bya large majority a private member’s motion that declared: ‘there are circumstances in which divorced persons may be married in church during the lifetime of a former partner’.

    Four years later, the House of Bishops approved a service of prayer and dedication after civil marriage that could be used in the case of people who had been divorced.

    So, this is the most likely tack as the good ship, Pilling navigates the dire straits of the church’s revised approach to homosexuality. The recommendation of a House of Bishops-endorsed post-registration service of blessing and dedication does not require any real scrutiny into the nature of the civil partnership itself, assuming that they might even be celibate. Of course, it was this very ambiguity over the sexual nature of civil partnerships that led the House of Bishops to insist that clergy do not perform any services of blessing for those in Civil Partnerships.

    However, Pilling is not the House of Bishops and a General Synod motion in favour of those recommendations may yet demonstrate the theological consensus needed to authorise a public rite after Civil Partnership registration. In contrast, there is no ambiguity about same-sex marriage, so this cannot be treated in the same way.

    Such a service may be a public rite, but it does accept, in line with Issues in Human Sexuality and the 2005 HoB Pastoral Statement that ‘the Church did not want to exclude from its fellowship those lay people of gay or lesbian orientation who, in conscience, were unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was required of them and instead chose to enter into a faithful, committed relationship.’

    Notice that this is also in line with the 2005 Pastoral Statement on admission to other church rites and sacraments, ‘The House considers that lay people who have registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and communion.’

    So, why would civil partners have to give assurances before an officially endorsed CofE post-registration service of blessing and dedication can be conducted?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.