17 Jan 2016
January 17, 2016

Bad language at the Church of England

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The Archbishop of Canterbury apologised yesterday for the way the Church of England, of which he is head, has decided to keep hurting gay people. This seems to me dangerously close to domestic abuse – “I’m so sorry for what I’ve just done and plan to keep on doing”. At the very least, it’s like when an employee of a big organisation you’re unhappy with uses the third person plural – “yeah, they’re always doing that” –  in order to show empathy with your plight and stay personally in your good books. Justin Welby didn’t use the third person, of course, because he chose the different linguistic device of not actually apologising for the thing gay equality campaigners give him credit for apologising for but something much more opaque and generalised; that is, “the hurt and pain, in the past and present, that the church has caused and the love that we at times completely failed to show, and still do, in many parts of the world including in this country”.

Welby also insisted that the US Episcopalian Church wasn’t facing punishment for its gay equality stance, just “consequences”. Very Tony Soprano, except the dress thing made the visual effect very different. The 6th paragraph of the Guardian piece I’ve linked to above is quite telling – it describes as “punitive” the measures the Archbishop says he is “careful not to call punishment”. You literally can’t make it up. The Archbishops words are so nakedly sophistic they’re almost comedy parody – like Armando Iannucci might be helping with his lines. Sadly, we know Iannucci isn’t involved because nothing’s funny at all here.

Instead, Welby’s use of “consequences” is reminiscent of that time the US Ambassador to Kenya tacitly warned Kenyans not to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta by noting that; “elections have consequences“. Naturally, the Kenyan people responded by voting for Uhuru in droves and Carson, along with the similarly-intended actions of the International Criminal Court (ICC), were credited with the great election win for Uhuru – the exact opposite of what their threats had meant to achieve. Similarly, Welby’s words are designed to hold the Church together in some form, but they won’t do that because it’s the church and so, almost ironically, people will in the end do what they think is the right thing. So Chris Bryant’s action in leaving the Church is both principled and coherent, while the African Bishops will understandably feel they have won an important victory rooted in the scriptures and reflected in the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of practising Church of England members.

Most white Church of England members implicitly, often even explicitly, accept the notion that pretty much all religious language is metaphorical. This often applies even to the resurrection. The opposite is of course true of most black members, who tend to hold that Christianity is literally the belief that Jesus became Christ through the miracle of the physical resurrection. I’m with them, insofar as once that ultimate pass is sold by pseudo-clever, linguistic gradations, what you have is just decent churchfolk trying to interpret mid-range (at best, and if you disagree take a quick gander at the Upanishads) Pauline outpourings in a way which keeps the faith alive without offending too many people. And that’s a dying brand right there, darling, as any number of ex-advertising Tristrams now serving as clergy might say.

The Africans haven’t sold the pass. Their faith is simple and authentically Christian. That’s why they’re winning. The white folk who don’t like that, mainly good people doing their best for communities everywhere of course, and who wish to rescue themselves from that domain of darkness, know where they will have to put their metaphors.  Lament surely beckons.