C of E revisionists use the BBC and the South African church to continue campaign
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Last Sunday an Oxford-based Anglican priest used a BBC radio programme (here, start at 23.25) to talk about Christian sexual ethics in the South African context. The Church’s continued adherence to the idea that faithful heterosexual marriage is the only correct place for a sexual relationship is harming young people, we were told. “Why should the church, in this day and age, be punishing people for wanting to love?”
Of course the mini-documentary was arguing for full acceptance by the Anglican church of same sex relationships. Listeners were presented with horrific cases of ‘corrective rape’ meted out to black lesbians living in poor urban areas, ostensibly to punish them and ‘turn them straight’. This kind of extreme brutality is really happening; in many communities it is very difficult to be openly gay, not just in South Africa, but, as we were told by a Zambian interviewee, in other African countries with a large majority of Christians. The programme assumed as self-evident that the church’s historic opposition to homosexual practice is linked to cultural disapproval of gay people, and hence violent homophobic hate crime.
One of the interviewees, a South African Cathedral Dean, said the church has changed its attitude to people with HIV/AIDS, from one of fear and blame to welcome and compassion, so now is the time to do the same with gay people. He accused Christians of “using the Bible to perpetuate prejudice”. A Cape Town-based charity worker, described as a “lifelong Anglican’, ended the report with a statement combining gnosticism and ‘gender theory’:
I don’t think the church understands…the social construct of gender. It treats gender as an empirical truth that is not fluid, that is not on a sliding scale…[yet] that is what human beings are…we can’t even wrap our heads around what God has imagined for our lives.
To summarise the message of the presentation: the Church’s traditional teaching on sin, salvation and how to behave is not just old-fashioned and off-putting to young people. It actually causes harm, because it makes gay young people feel bad about themselves, and even incites violence and hatred towards them in some countries. Therefore the church should change its teaching about homosexuality, and more widely about gender, about sin and salvation, about God himself, to make the church more accepting and welcoming.
How do we evaluate this? First, it involves a different Gospel. The biblical message should begin by making us all feel bad about ourselves, because “there is no-one who is righteous”, and “all have sinned”. The Gospel is that God was born as a baby among enemy rebels; while we were still sinners he died for us. The Gospel is not that the Church affirms me in the unconditional welcome of myself, but that after the awful realization of my guilt and separation from God, amazingly he welcomes me on the condition that my debt is paid.
But secondly, it is based on ‘post-truth’. The claim that Christian sexual ethics are responsible for violence against gay people in the South Africa townships simply does not stand up. In England, where the teaching of the Church is the same as in South Africa, we do not see the same things happening. Like ours, that country is liberal in many respects: same sex marriage has been legal for ten years, and there are strong gay communities in the cities – this has happened despite the teaching of the church.
Unlike Britain, though, South Africa is “struggling with a prevalent culture of violence”, according to the Minister of Police in that country. It has one of the highest rates of murder and rape in the world (forty times that of the UK), making the poorer urban areas some of the most dangerous in the world outside war zones, particularly for women. Rape and sexual abuse is endemic, and there is also a lot of consensual, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, as in most countries. Not surprising then that South Africa has experienced a holocaust of deaths from HIV/AIDS over the last 25 years, although mercifully the availability of antiretroviral drugs and the government’s willingness to supply them during the past ten or so years has significantly reduced the death rate.
Many churches have been involved in wonderful work in ministering in fearful communities, caring for the suffering and the families of those killed by disease or violence, while at the same time (in the case of bible-based congregations), continuing to teach of the love of Christ, and following God’s design for celibate singleness and faithful marriage as the best way of avoiding HIV. Some churches have been brave enough to challenge, with the Gospel, the toxic culture of machismo which is partly responsible for the high levels of murder and sexual abuse. While of course there are church leaders and nominal Christians who live no differently to those in the communities around them, there are many thousands of godly, prayerful and compassionate men and women who understand that counter-cultural sexual purity and control of anger is not old fashioned prudishness but a literal lifesaver and a witness to God’s goodness.
This background, essential for understanding any discussion about sex in South Africa, did not feature in the BBC programme, which sought to give the impression that people with same sex attraction are uniquely vulnerable. While violence against gay people is appalling and unacceptable, it is sadly part of a culture where women are abused whether they are gay or not, and people are beaten up and murdered for being foreign, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, for having a phone, for looking at someone’s girlfriend, etc, etc. The Western concept of LGBT rights is simply inappropriate in such a context. The church should be speaking up publicly against all violence and abuse, and developing communities of peace, safety and tolerance (as is doing so in many places), not focusing on one particular minority.
Also, given the prevalence of heterosexual promiscuity in society and even in the church, which combined with the sexual abuse has contributed to the devastating spread of AIDS and family breakdown, what effect would an acceptance and celebration of same sex relationships have in the townships and across Africa as a whole? It would surely send the message that the church is controlled by white Western liberalism (not good for mission?); that the Bible is not reliable; and that only ‘love’, not sexual self-control, is the concern of the church. If a same sex relationship is OK, people will ask, then why is adultery wrong?
The Oxford clergy opinion piece went unchallenged (as did a similar item on the same programme two weeks earlier), and was followed by the grilling of a South African Bishop who defended the clear teaching of Scripture, while rejecting unloving attitudes towards and mistreatment of gay people and affirming the need for pastoral care. But why was this included on a national radio show? The agenda was clearly less about eliciting the concern of English listeners for ordinary South Africans living in a context of violence and sexual abuse, and more about using emotive memes to continue the campaign to change the teaching of the Church of England on sexual ethics.
No individuals have been ‘named and shamed’ in the writing of this article.
Andrew Symes is an Anglican clergyman who lived in South Africa from 1994-2006, working with pastors in disadvantaged communities.
 Oxford Dictionaries has released its 2016 word of the year: “Post-truth,” which they define as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”