Should the Church split?

A personal view by Jonathan Clatworthy

As the Anglican Communion braces itself for the forthcoming meeting of primates to discuss homosexuality, liberals are wondering what to expect and how to respond.

Soon after Jeffrey John's appointment to Reading had been announced, the opposition mobilised and with remarkable speed presented two major threats - to split the Church and withdraw quotas. Quite clearly, the intention was to frighten the rest of us into toeing their line. Very successful it was too: it was a game of power politics, which in Dr John's case they won, despite their failure to produce rational justifications good enough to convince the wider Christian public.

From the perspective of the MCU Office, it seems that the initial reaction by liberals was to take these threats very seriously indeed. We did not want the Church either to suffer a financial collapse or to split, and the evangelical movement seemed strong enough to achieve both. Since then, however, we have been wondering whether we should meet their boldness with greater courage. Perhaps a split would only formalize the divisions which are there anyway; and once the split has been made, what future can there be for a sect whose only defining characteristic is their hostility to gays and lesbians?

The opposition to gay bishops has a committed mouthpiece in the Church of England Newspaper . Columnists are now noting that evangelicalism has made itself unpopular over this campaign. Unfortunately, although it is by no means shared by all evangelicals, its leaders claim that it is, and evangelicalism as a whole gets tarred with their brush. In an article on 18th September, Andrew Goddard laments that they are now accused of being 'Taliban', 'Neanderthal', 'witch-burners', 'sex-obsessed homophobes'.

Well, are we accusing them of all that? My accusation would be of a systemic bigotry, so much part of their tradition that its perpetrators often cannot imagine any other way to be a true Christian.

I have plenty of personal experience of it. As a vicar's son at university in the 1960s, I was astonished to find myself denounced as a non-Christian by the Christian Union, who even sent a delegate to spend an evening convincing me. Since then I have spent 12 years in Higher Education Chaplaincy, finding the same story repeated many times. Students were being warned not to believe anything I taught, nor to study theology, but to believe only what they were taught within their group, whether it be the Christian Union or Navigators or whatever, and to treat all other Christian traditions as suspect.

This mindset explains why Calvinism is characterised by endless splits. If there is a single supreme authority, fixed in text for all people in all ages and uninterpretable by human reason, then anyone who disagrees is just plain wrong and should not be heard. For example, despite evangelicalism's much trumpeted commitment to the supreme authority of the Bible, the pages of the evangelical church press tell a radically different story. In practice, the idea of a decisive biblical condemnation of homosexuality is taken as read, while the wide range of contrary opinions by specialist biblical scholars is not given space to challenge it.

Back in the 60s and 70s, such was the disdain for Anglicanism in those sectarian and counter-cultural student groups that my ordained contemporaries often avoided calling themselves 'Church of England curates', preferring to think of themselves as 'Christian ministers who happens to be paid by the Church of England'. Some of these are now in senior positions - perhaps even bishops - and instead of being embarrassed by their Anglican identity are now claiming the titles of 'orthodox' and 'mainstream'. This may be quite legitimate, provided that they have abandoned their sectarian ethos.

The Anglican tradition has a different view of revelation. If only God is infallible - and scripture, tradition and reason balance each other as God continues to inspire us - then respectful dialogue within the believing community is easier. Each individual can learn from those who disagree. When debating an issue, we draw on the available resources, whether they be from Anglicans, Catholics, humanistic social scientists or whoever; and allow the contrasting views to be judged in the light of our Christian faith.

Liberals would therefore like to retain within a broad church those evangelicals currently campaigning against gays and lesbians. But we cannot have genuine dialogue with those who refuse genuine dialogue with us. Sadly all too many senior evangelicals have been brought up in that sectarian tradition with its narrow range of those from whom they are prepared to learn. Unless they broaden that range to include at least the whole of Anglicanism, they have no business calling themselves 'mainstream'. Meanwhile the rest of us know their loyalty is not to Anglicanism, because we feel only too acutely how we are being excluded from their charmed circle. This is the real split in the Church. If they were to leave, they would be doing the classic sectarian thing, and the Church of England would retain its Anglican ethos. But if they impose their will on the rest of us - as they are trying to do - they will turn the Church of England into a bigoted sect only too ready to split into countless splinter groups. If only they could recognize the element of truth in the accusations of bigotry, and accept that non-evangelical Anglicans are just as Christian as they are, the disagreements about homosexuality would be no cause to split the Church.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.