When do discussions about sexuality and gender veer into territory which is unacceptable?
It's a live issue at the moment for many in the Church of England following the publication of the 'Living in Love and Faith' (LLF) resources which aim to stimulate discussion about such matters.
For example, according to Rosie Harper, who is chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, 'traditional teaching specially on homosexuality is a safeguarding matter'. And Jayne Ozanne has declared that the orthodox view on sexuality is 'wrong, harmful, dangerous and must be stopped'
These are breathtaking claims. Think about it: what is being said here is that the teaching of the Christian church for the last 2,000 years – be it Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostal or whatever – is wrong and must be banned. The clear majority of the worldwide Anglican Communion remains mistaken on this issue – and must be silenced. Not only that, but it is a 'safeguarding matter'. It is hard to overstate the gravity of the assertions Rosie Harper and Jayne Ozanne are making.
When it comes to issues of safeguarding, we all need to tread very carefully indeed. There are profoundly-hurt victims of all sorts of abuse in many different walks of life – whether in a Christian context or a secular one. They have suffered egregiously. And any of us who have dealt pastorally with the broken lives that result from such suffering know the years of pain that can follow. We all know survivors; some reading this will be survivors. In other words, we are not talking in the abstract here. Words really do matter. I hope and pray mine are helpful and sensitive; please forgive me if I fail at any point in what follows.
Let's first of all pull out quite a wide-angle lens and then start to zoom in a little bit more. So, speaking very broadly, I would hope that most Anglicans of any kind would agree there is some verbal abuse that is completely out of bounds within a Christian context. For example, hopefully just about everyone will concur that for theologian Molly Boot to respond to an article on LLF by Church Society director Lee Gatiss with a Tweet saying 'Absolutely F*** this' (expletive deleted) is wholly unacceptable. In terms of language, it contravenes so much of the New Testament on such a basic level it is hard to know where to begin.
Let's consider another example. Last week two Bishops, Christopher Cocksworth and Sarah Mullally, issued what to my mind was a gentle statement encouraging people to debate the issues raised by LLF with 'respect, love, grace, kindness and compassion'. The response of veteran gay campaigner Colin Coward to this entirely reasonable plea was: 'F**k that, I've been abused, we've been abused, and we've just been abused again. By two incompetent bishops.'
But to accuse these two bishops of 'abuse' must, surely, stretch any reasonable definition of that word well beyond its breaking point. Neither of them has said anything about Colin Coward himself, nor are they encouraging violence or hostility or speaking intemperately; indeed, exactly the opposite. This is not a case of 'abuse' – it is simply a situation where two bishops have said something that he considers to be unsatisfactory. He may or may not be right, but with the best will in the world it is not abuse – by any stretch of the imagination. It is a simple difference of opinion.
And here we start to get to the nub of the problem. Much of contemporary dialogue seems to be framed along the lines of, 'I am a victim, you are abusing me, he/she must be banned.' Since we all agree that abuse is repugnant, it is a naturally powerful narrative which taps into an innate sense of justice. Politically, it is an easy tool – simply take a word everyone hates and apply it to your opponents so often that eventually it will stick, regardless of the complexity of the issues or the nuances of those who hold them.
But society as a whole is now beginning to realise that in general 'over-weaponised' language can quickly lead to dark places – as the widespread opposition to proposed Scottish hate crime laws from a huge variety of secular and religious groups has shown. Not for nothing does the UN's Rabat Plan of Action – which considers the distinction between freedom of expression and incitement to hatred – state that 'a high threshold for defining restrictions on freedom of expression' is necessary.
Moreover, as Christians we are called to do better; indeed, LLF itself calls us to do better. The New Testament has as much as anything to say about being careful about how we speak – and that applies to both 'sides' in the current Church of England debate. None of us are above reproach in this regard; none of us get it right all the time.
And we owe it to the countless genuine victims of horrific abuse to be exceedingly careful in how we use safeguarding language, lest we devalue it for those who genuinely need it most. Language which rightfully belongs to them should not be hijacked by others. As Peter Ould wisely pointed out a while ago: 'We must make sure we do not weaponise our personal narratives and place emotion above truth'.
We also need to be aware that this debate is not a binary narrative. This is not a case of 'liberal gays versus conservative homophobes'. Many of the most passionate voices on the orthodox side come from people who are themselves same-sex attracted. In other words, these are gay people themselves who firmly advocate the established global Christian position that because of the whole sweep of Biblical theology – the 'beautiful story' of Christ and the church, as it was called in the recent CEEC video – sexual relationships are something for heterosexual marriage only.
Nor is it another binary sometimes touted – between the 'identity' of LGBTQi people on the one hand and the 'theology' of conservatives on the other. For one thing, as we have already noted, there are gay people on both sides of the debate. And, more generally, for people on both sides, questions of identity and theology are inter-related. For example, as someone who is 'orthodox' on this issue, I sometimes feel the liberal approach threatens my whole identity as a Christian, as a church minister and that of worldwide Christianity. I simply can't imagine how the church would have any credibility if it effectively said, 'Whoops, we've all been terribly wrong on all this for the last 2,000 years.' It doesn't say much about the credibility of the God we serve that he would apparently rather carelessly leave his church in such egregious error for two millennia.
Finally, let us remember that the Bible does have some clear words about a form of safeguarding that is at the heart of the current discussions. What is the most important safeguarding task we can ever undertake – something even more crucial than the vital importance of safeguarding in the sense that we generally use it today? The most important safeguarding task of all is to 'guard the good deposit' of the gospel (2 Timothy 1v14). This is not some abstract, theological matter. We are to 'guard the good deposit' because the faithful preaching of the apostolic gospel is about the safety and well-being of people not just in this life, but eternally. These are issues of life and death, heaven and hell. Nothing can be more important. This is, indeed, the language of God.
When it comes to these issues, let us all tread carefully. You must forgive me if I myself have been insensitive at any point above. We all have much to learn.
David Baker is a Church of England minister, Contributing Editor at Christian Today, and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now.