Sex, sex, sex. Do church leaders think of nothing else? Well, of course they do. One of the smaller injustices of our time is that, with the media dominated by a secular and often sneering agenda, almost nothing is written or broadcast about the Church as a force for social fairness, as a comfort to the lonely and counsellor to the distressed, as one of the institutions still binding local communities together, and as a catalyst and a channel for charitable gifts and deeds. It is all of those things, as even fair-minded atheists admit. Yet we rarely hear about it.
But whose fault is that? If the Church had appointed the well known City PR firm of Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer & Old Nick to handle its public image, it couldn’t have made a better job of bringing Christianity into disrepute than the clerics have managed by themselves. And all because they seem obsessed to the point of clinical neurosis about knowing (and making a huge fuss about) who’s doing what to whom in the bedroom.
The latest row — into which the Archbishop of Canterbury has stumbled like a blind man into a bog — is over the “lesbian bishop” elected by the American Episcopal Church (the equivalent of the Church of England). According to Ruth Gledhill, The Times’s reliable Religion Correspondent, this single appointment places the future of the entire Anglican Communion “in jeopardy”. Such is the froth of hysteria about sexuality in the upper echelons of the Church that this astonishing claim seems quite plausible.
I’m not a theologian. I may be overlooking something in the recorded sayings of Jesus Christ. But as far as I can recall, the founder of the Church said nothing whatsoever about sexuality — either his own or anyone else’s. We don’t know whether he was gay or straight; celibate, monogamous or promiscuous. Nor what he expected his followers to be — if he expected anything. Mercifully, perhaps, the gospel writers — compiling their chronicles 30 years or more after Christ’s death — lacked the ruthless digging skills and insatiable prurience of today’s biographers. Had Kitty Kelley rather than St Mark been around in 1st-century Judaea, the story might have been racier. But as things stand, there is no justification in the pronouncements of Christ for anyone in the Church to pontificate (I use the word advisedly) about harmless activities that go on in private between consenting adults — even if some of those adults are the Church’s own clerics.
What Christ did apparently say (and, as a soundbite, it’s as potent as anything from the silver tongue of Barack Obama) is: “Let him without sin cast the first stone”. Let’s recall the context. A bunch of zealots were about to stone to death a woman for adultery (they would pick on the woman, naturally). Christ was asked if he would approve this punishment, since it was laid down in the law of Moses. It was a trick question, of course. He neatly sidestepped it. Instead he turned the moral searchlight on the zealots. Such was the force of his argument, we are told, that the persecutors decided to slink off and leave the woman alone.
To me, that’s a clear indication of what Christianity should not be: spiteful and punitive, especially in the field of sex. That’s not a licence for licentiousness (after all, Christ told the woman to “go and sin no more” — quite a challenge!). But it does send a signal that the Church, and society at large, has no business prying into private lives, unless there are compelling signs (child abuse, domestic violence) that someone is being harmed.
Yet the impression gathered by the outside world is that prying into people’s sexuality, and discussing it endlessly, is what the Church’s leading lights do all day. Never mind their core business of saving souls. To judge from some of their public statements, it’s as if the evils of the modern world — genocidal wars, Third World exploitation, grinding poverty, abandoned children and old people — are minor issues compared to the vital matter of whether the new deputy bishop of Los Angeles cuddles her girlfriend at home.
That irritates me. The Church of England into which I was baptised, half a century ago, had many faults. But it was “a broad church”. Spoken or unspoken, its guiding tenet was that theology shouldn’t get in the way of decency and tolerance. It tried to accommodate people who varied hugely in spirituality and lifestyle. To that end it was unwilling — admirably unwilling — to issue Vatican-like diktats and proscriptions about doctrine or morals. If the phrase “live and let live” wasn’t actually written into its creed, it was certainly its modus vivendi. You didn’t judge the person sitting next to you in the pews. You embraced them (albeit in an embarrassed, British sort of way). Why? Because if Christians didn’t embrace each other, how on earth would they convince the rest of the world to do the same?
That tolerance seems to have vanished. The endless sex’n’gender slanging-match tearing the Church apart has revealed real hatred — to say nothing of appalling discourtesy and Machiavellian scheming — among the very people, the senior clerics, who should be setting an example.
They need to get a grip. Down in the grass roots there are thousands of priests and lay people — Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Nonconformist, some ebulliently evangelical, some staunchly High-Church — doing great work among the dispossessed and the distraught. If that were the image of unstinting service that the Church presented to the world — an image of an organisation galvanising the consciences and positive energies of the quarter of the globe’s population that professes to be Christian — it would be harder for the rest of humanity to dismiss it as pointless, perverse and prudish.
I can’t help wondering, as a humble churchgoer, why my spiritual mentors do get their garters in such a twist about sex. Whether it’s the Catholics insisting on priestly celibacy (in spite of the mountain of evidence demonstrating what ghastly perversions can grow out of such unnatural repression); or the hardline Anglican evangelicals determined to drive out homosexuals, rather as ancient communities drove out lepers; or the diehard misogynists fighting tooth and nail to stop the “monstrous regiment” of women from rising in the clerical ranks — one has to to ask: what exactly are the reactionaries afraid of? That their own intellectual inadequacies will be exposed, and their “God-given” authority diminished, by an influx of bright priests of different genders and sexual orientations? Or that, in a more inclusive, forward-looking church, they will be exposed as the bigots they are, rather than glorified as spiritual leaders?
The tragedy for the Church is that it is missing a huge opportunity. There are millions of young people out there who are disaffected from mainstream politics but equally dissatisfied with the mindless consumerism and callous selfishness of modern life. You can see that from the numbers flocking to espouse green causes, or to work for charities this Christmas. With so many youngsters thinking deeply about what’s right and wrong for the world, this should be a golden age for Christianity — the most revolutionary of religions. But while the Church renders itself a laughing-stock over sex, it hasn’t got a hope of converting the young. At the moment some leading clerics come across as befrocked weirdos with one-track minds. And I’m not talking about their belief in God.
My thoughts exactly. God is love, and we are to love the world as He loves us. Everything else is besides the point.