The joint statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York is dangerous to all those people navigating their sexuality
Thursday 27th July 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of The Sexual Offences Act 1967 in the United Kingdom, which partially decriminalised gay sex. It’s been hard to avoid – with a flurry of BBC documentaries under the “Gay Britannia” season (including the particularly acclaimed documentary featuring Olly Alexander, lead singer of Years & Years, Growing Up Gay, a vast array of exhibitions, performances across the country – even Eastenders managed to include a reference in their episode on Thursday night.
The Church of England, too, have chosen to mark the occasion, releasing a joint statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York. When I found out that there had been a response from them, a part of me was quite optimistic. I am staunch atheist myself, but I have been following this latest General Synod with some interest. Jayne Ozanne, a leading gay evangelical, brought about a motion which was ultimately backed by General Synod, calling for a “ban on the practice of Conversion Therapy aimed at altering sexual orientation”, and there was another recognising the “need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church”. These kinds of things are never without their inevitable backlash, in this case with opponents accusing the Church of England of “pursuing principles, values and practices contrary to Holy Scripture and church Tradition.”
In this context of debate then, we read this joint statement from the Archbishops. Whilst they do acknowledge that “criminalising homosexual people is wrong”, the thrust of their statement is fundamentally that gay sex is a sin. They never say it explicitly; rather, they invite us not to worry about that too much – “The Church… has very often been defined by what it is against” – and instead they invite us to focus on the idea that “Sin is not a characteristic of a particular group of people, Sin is the same for all of us.”
“… the thrust of their statement is fundamentally that gay sex is a sin”
Ozanne, in an interview with Christian Today puts it far better than I could:
“To talk about sin and “burden bearing” at a time such as this is at best misguided and at worse offensive to those of us who have constantly been told that our sexuality is a “burden to bear” and that any demonstration of it is “sinful”.” – Jayne Ozanne
Although I grew up with fundamentalist Christian parents – or perhaps because of this – I have, as I said, arrived at a point where I would define myself as an atheist. Nonetheless, I did feel a profound sense of disappointment on behalf of campaigners like Jayne Ozanne, LGBT Christians like Joey Knock, campaigner Vicky Beeching and others I know of, who have (very much unlike me) persevered within the church, seeking to engender change from within, and whose expression of sexuality and love are constantly being attacked like this by their fellow Christians.
If I were to sum up the Archbishops’ statement, it declares essentially that we are all sinners, and the sin of gay sex is no more a burden than any other sin. The implication, then, is that for people who have a tendency towards gay sex (or gay love), this inclination – however natural and wholesome it might feel – is in fact an inclination towards sin. As someone who grew up in a very religious environment, I can testify that this implication alone can be incredibly damaging to a young LGBT person growing up in the church, as I did.
I should pause here to clarify that personally I don’t really recognise the concept of sin, even though I am by necessity using the word a lot in this piece! It represents a decidedly religious concept, and I am in no way religious. I feel compelled to highlight this only because I think the instinct of many, when reading statements like this from the Church, is to dismiss it with a roll of the eyes – “Surprise surprise, the church thinks gay people are sinful” – perhaps also with a quip about how all the “interesting people will be in hell anyway”.
Why then should we care at all about what the church says? Well, I’m not really here to tell you that you should care – that’s for you to decide – but I wanted to explain a little about why it is that I care. When I was growing up, whenever I was debating whether or not to kill myself, it was always because of precisely this feeling – that I was in some way inherently “wrong”, that – for me – to love was to sin. What was the point of living if the only way I felt I could be happy, the only way that I could be, was in itself inherently sinful? Adolescence is an age of absolutes.
Something my mother was fond of saying was that happiness was only really worth it if it was “the right kind of happiness”. Growing up in a Christian family (with, for example, no television), I had known nothing else, and so I inevitably took everything they said, and everything the village pastor said, very seriously. While the effect of the Archbishops’ statement today will never truly be quantifiable, its impact on people in similar situations will be profound.
In 21st Century Britain, institutions now make incredibly concerted efforts to be LGBT-friendly. Excellent schemes like the Stonewall Diversity Champions Programme enable businesses to step up and provide a more inclusive workplace, corporations (however controversially) are heavily involved with Pride events all over the country, and the Equality Act ensures that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is illegal.
The Church of England, or at least the Archbishops, continue to sit in stark and ugly contrast to this. The statement released on Thursday will not only put at risk the lives of many LGBT people growing up in Christian families, but also demonstrably contradicts the views of many of their own membership, and alienates many. The writers temper their language so as not to alarm those outside the church, and this is I imagine why no mainstream news organisations have picked it up . To anyone involved in the church, the meaning is absolutely clear and its implications obvious. Lurking beneath its poetic language, this statement still frames a very clear message to me and people like me – “your urge to be, your urge to love, is inherently wrong”.
“The Church of England, or at least the Archbishops, continue to sit in stark and ugly contrast to this”
A message like this can have a profound and devastating effect in the mind of any person navigating their sexuality, especially a young person, and so it saddens me that this is how Archbishop Welby and Archbishop Sentamu have chosen to mark such an important anniversary.
Read the archbishops’ full statement here