Inclusion doesn’t represent the weakening of tradition, but the fraying of evangelical controlby Linda Woodhead / February 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
“Church of England could split over homosexuality” is a headline that occurs with the reassuring regularity of the shipping forecast. As with the boy who cried wolf, we hardly listen any more. But last week’s vote in the General Synod, in which the clergy voted against a bishops’ report that said only a man and woman can marry in church, is a genuine turning point.
The Economist followed a well-trodden path by presenting what happened as the triumph of modern liberalism over a “traditional” Christian view of marriage. It’s more illuminating to turn this view on its head. In effect, clergy rebels returned the Church of England to the position it had reached in the 1980s before it was diverted into a “family values” agenda—one which owes more to modern culture wars and the rise of fundamentalism than to tradition.
Traditionally, Christianity has supported vastly different kinds of family structure and taken a rather grudging view of sex and marriage as second-best to celibacy. The Church of England was founded on reason and tradition, not just the Bible, and was embedded in the universities and other institutions of learning. It has been a societal Church for the whole nation, not a sectarian one for purists.
By the 1960s the Church was, not for the first time, rethinking its attitude to the family and sexuality. Like its cousins, the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia, it had accepted contraception, played a role in the liberalisation of the law allowing divorce (1969), and was reconsidering its position on “gays.” In response to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, a Church working group chaired by the Bishop of Gloucester recommended modest reform.
Looking askance at these developments was a cadre of male conservative evangelicals with close links to American fundamentalism. Many of its leaders were trained by the Iwerne Trust, a charity which ran holiday camps in the 1970s and 1980s. Iwerne recruited boys from the top public schools and prepared them to enter the Church and parliament to spread their influence. Archbishop Justin Welby, an Etonian, was one of their number. The Trust hit the headlines this month for allegedly covering up grooming and physical abuse by John Smyth.