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08 August 1998

The Last Of The Homophobes

On the last day of the Anglican bishops conference, Sandy Starr explains what the refusal to accept gay priests and same-sex marriages reveals about the modern church

The media was all to quick to read a 'gay backlash' into the overwhelming vote against ordaining lesbians and gay men and against blessing their union at the Lambeth conference of the Anglican Church. After a highly-charged debate at the conference - which is held only every 10 years and has no legal binding - the 750 bishops from around the world voted (526 in favour, 70 against with 45 abstentions) to declare homosexual relationships "incompatible" with the Bible.

The bishop of Lahore, Alexander Malik, compared gay marriage to bestiality and accused reformers of being "mischief mongers who disrupt and disturb the church". And the bishop of Maryland, Donald Hart, was booed when he admitted he knew practising gay priests and administered to gay couples in his diocese. Commentators were particularly shocked by the blustering Rt. Rev. Emmanuel Chukwuma, bishop of Enugu, Nigeria, as he yelled fire and brimstone at all who tentatively challenged his old-fashioned interpretation of Biblical scripture. At a time when bigoted opinion is forced to shroud itself increasingly in political correctness, this blatant Bible and gay-bashing bishop was an irresistible sight. He seemed to incarnate the very essence of the seemingly omnipresent homophobia so feared by today's queer. That it was possible for Reverend Chukwuma to give this impression was not because he was a product of British culture, but precisely because his opinions were cultivated in the specific context of a culture completely alien to Britain and thrown into sharp relief when transplanted here.

Those who were shocked by his bile may have been surprised to read the actual wording of the motion that was passed at the conference. "All baptised, believing and faithful persons," it reassured, "regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the body of Christ." Moreover, "while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with the Scripture", the conference called "on all our people to administer pastorally and sensitively to all, irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn an irrational fear of homosexuals". Or as the latter condition is more commonly known, homophobia.

The motion was just as critical of homophobia as it was of homosexuality, if not more so. But even if it had been a full-blown condemnation of homosexuality by the Anglican church, one would initially expect it to be of negligible concern to queer activists. It has no bearing on legislation and practically no bearing on popular opinion. All that it does is serve to emphasise the antiquated status of the Church, and to distance the opinions of its dwindling supporters still further from those of mainstream society. The gaggle of queer Christians that were seen protesting on the evening news (the only people who would be genuinely afflicted by a crisis of conscience were the Bible to constitute a condemnation of their lifestyle) represent only a small minority of Britain's lesbian and gay population.

The attempt to apply ancient sections of proscriptive Jewish scripture to any aspect of life at the end of the twentieth century is a tricky business at the best of times. As has often been pointed out, a strict adherence to literal Biblical interpretation would prohibit the clergy from eating pork or from wearing clothes made of more than one cloth, so some leniency of interpretation must always be justified. More liberal denominations such as the Metropolitan Community Church engage in remarkable interpretative contortions in order to justify the sexual practices of their members. These contortions amount to what is practically a complete rewriting of Scripture, meddling with one of the monuments of literature in a spurious attempt to invest it with contemporary relevance. It is less disconcerting that the Anglican church succeeded in maintaining some semblance of continuity with its traditional hostility towards homosexuality, and more disconcerting that it succeeded in incorporating so many concessions into its motion.

The outcome of the Lambeth conference that has been mistaken as the sign of a homophobic backlash is actually a defensive mechanism by a conservative mindset in retreat. The church offers one of the few remaining havens for this conservative mindset, as does the House of Lords in the UK, which is why the effective discrediting of conservative values by the recent lowering of the age of consent for gay men has been felt particularly acutely in both camps.

The prejudice of the Anglican bishops, which seems so out of touch with recent developments, is that of a few traditionalists, led by Britain's Archbishop Carey, supplemented by a selection of irate clergymen imported from the developing world. As most of the latter preach in countries where Islam or Hinduism are predominant, they feel particularly defensive about the foundations of their Christianity, and understandably so. The threat of a split by African and Asian dioceses were the conference to concede wholeheartedly to queer activists reflects the fact that what is primarily a matter of public relations for the Church in Britain and the United States is a vital matter of sustaining credibility in Africa and Asia.

It is eminently possible that the Anglican church will eventually succumb to public pressure and incorporate further concessions to the gay rights lobby in the future. The fact that queer activists feel free to concentrate on such peripheral matters as official recognition by the Church indicates that lesbians and gay men enjoy a greater acceptance in mainstream society than ever before, and are themselves, largely, preaching to the converted.

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