Pray lift your eyes above the belt

By Libby Purves (THE TIMES, 20/02/07):

Oh , the heart sinks! The Times revealed yesterday some radical proposals to reunite the Anglican Church — or part of it — with Rome. Twenty years ago this outbreak of ecumenicism might have caused unaffiliated Christian believers like me to cry “Halleluiah!” and whirl thuribles round our heads in glee: it is a scandalous absurdity, in an increasingly secular age, to have the loving simplicities of the Christian faith fragmented into squabbling cliques.

The obsession with authority structures and ritual quibbles always was irritating, so moves towards unity and cooperation were once welcome. One fondly remembers the twin bishops of Liverpool, Worlock and Shepherd, and their kamikaze attacks on the nastier aspects of 1980s market capitalism.

But this time, we know what it’s all about, don’t we? Not joyful, simplified Christianity but a pulling-up of drawbridges. Anglican archbishops in Dar es Salaam are struggling to avoid “schism” in their vast communion over the issue of ordaining, or indeed tolerating, Christians whose unsought orientation is to pair up with others of their own gender. And it will be the illiberal, genitally-fixated wing of Anglicanism that sidles towards unity with Rome. It will do this because it thinks — accurately, more’s the pity — that Rome is where you find the most intolerant attitudes towards homosexuality.

We have seen this crab-scuttle towards Rome before. When the Anglican Synod accepted women priests in 1992 numbers of high-profile Anglicans turned Catholic in disgust. The other theological differences — the Real Presence in the Eucharist, Papal infallibility, priestly celibacy — seem suddenly no longer to matter, compared with the horrible prospect of women priests. That weaselling flexibility was echoed by the way that Rome accepted Anglican priests even if they were married with children; meanwhile, lifetime Catholic priests continue to suffer (and sometimes give up) because of the strict enforcement of celibacy. Neither side covered itself with glory.

And now we have the threatened schism over homosexuality, and another drift towards Rome. For the detail of the leaked report — some of it, in fact, quite encouraging — I can only direct you to Ruth Gledhill’s blog on The Times website . For myself, as an irritable cradle Catholic on the run, all I can express for now is frustrated rage at both Churches’ incurable obsession with genital sexuality. It cripples every good intention, impedes every good work.

You can see why the obsession began. Nomadic Old Testament Judaism had to differentiate itself from ritual pagan and Greek practices; even so, translations of the interdict in Leviticus are uncertain. In the Christian era various earthy, bundling peasant values needed to be corseted and codified, as much for the sake of social coherence and property law as for any moral reason (priestly celibacy has its origins in the difficulty of providing for large Catholic families on priestly stipends: the theology is merely bolted on). Cruelty, snobbery, avarice and injustice have been tolerated (at times practised) by clergy and their cohorts, while sexual sins were berated with unholy glee.

It would be refreshing if the Churches would step back from this stance, and make it clearer that the evil in adultery is not the sexual act but the betrayal of trust, the cruelty, the endangering of children’s happiness. The deep wickedness of rape and paedophilia is not about desire but about misuse of power, invasion, oppression and injury. The sinfulness of promiscuity and prostitution is not about sex but about using another human being for transient pleasure without caring for the physical and emotional damage you do. The Church’s ministry to gays could preach only honesty, gentleness, and commitment, rather than agonising about genital practices. Christianity could just grow up, and stop treating sex as if it were innately toxic or radioactive and yet irresistibly interesting.

Science is trying harder than religion to make sense of the genuine mystery of why some people are hard-wired to love their own sex, in defiance of biological usefulness. From the study of gay penguins in Bremerhaven zoo to numerous psychobiological, genetic and neurological findings, we edge ever closer to an explanation of gayness: the conviction grows that being homosexual is not “unnatural” but just something that occurs in creation, whether we like it or not. The present Pope’s use of expressions such as “objectively disordered” is not only cruel, but unfounded in any solid fact. Nor is real homosexuality, as evangelicals love to claim, “curable”. You can persuade, inspire or bully people out of committing crimes, but not out of perceiving a particular kind of beauty, loveability, caressability and companionableness more in one sex than another. You can condemn people for doing bad things, but you cannot dictate where they will see beauty, a reflection of divinity.

Let the Churches concentrate on condemning promiscuity, infidelity, exploitation, predation — whether gay or straight. Nobody asks them to go the full Gay Pride, bathhouse-culture route; but let them recognise kindness and mutual support as virtues, and bless all honest unions. Let them condemn proselytising from either side, making it clear that there is nothing cool or clever about random sexual tourism, any more than there is anything evil in being born gay. It just happens. Being gay can, without doing any violence to the Gospels, be accepted as a potential route to holiness.

It won’t be. They’ll squabble and fudge and cling to their hierarchies and their terrors, and some will scuttle to Rome and Rome will feel smug. And the rest of society will sigh and turn away, thinking that Christianity has nothing to offer. Howl, howl, howl!