Ut Unum Sint

One of the most attractive features of the Church of England (the Anglican Communion, or the Episcopalian Church for the less Ango-centric ) is that it is a broad, inclusive and remarkably tolerant church. I have always felt that as long as I did not overtly worship Zeus, I would be welcome there.

The parish church my family used to worship in when we lived in the Isle of Dogs, is a good example of what a church should be. It was founded it the 19th century as part of the Oxford movement-inspired High Anglican ‘missions’ to the East End. That Anglo-Catholic tradition endured. If the church had been any higher, it would have been in orbit. There were bells and incense and priests in colourful garments. We prayed to the virgin Mary and to the saints (something viewed as idolatry in my Dutch Reformed church of origin). There were crucifixes galore and we were asperged occasionally. The priests chanted part of the liturgy (or tried to).

But there was never any pressure to conform. Many worshippers crossed themselves. Some did not. I never figured out whether the correct order was Up-Down-Left-Right or some other permutation. Some knelt during prayers, some sat. These differences were not divisive. Coming from a protestant tradition without priests (according to the protestant doctrine of the universal or common priesthood of the believers, every believer is a priest in Christ, and therefore no-one is), the very notion of third party interposing himself/herself between God and me seemed outrageous at first, but on reflections of no great significance .

Even more important than this liturgical tolerance was the social inclusiveness of the Church. The congregation contained the remnants of the old Isle of Dogs (or rather Millwall and Cubitt Town) working class. Their way of life had been destroyed by the closure of the docks, and they tended to be resentful of newcomers and often bitter. It also contained a fairly large number of yuppies who moved in as the redevelopment of the docklands picked up steam and as Canary Wharf expanded just to the North of the Island. Then there were a variety of recent and second-generation immigrants from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Asia, and from the Caribbean. The largest ethnic minority on the Island are immigrants from Bangladesh, but as they are overwhelmingly Muslim, they did not figure in the life of the Church.

Among the yuppie contingent were a number of gay and lesbian church goers. They shared pews with traditionalists who considered homosexuality to be a sin and with others who clung to the traditional British working class disdain for poofters and woofters.

Despite this difficult and at time awkward mix, the church ‘worked’. It was a genuine community of faith, and a source of practical, emotional and spiritual support for those in need of such. This was due in no small part to the personality and efforts of the Vicar, the Rev. Martin Seeley, now Principal of Westcott House in Cambridge, and of his wife Jutta Brueck, now chaplain of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, who also had been ordained to the priesthood.

Having experienced such an inclusive, supportive faith community in the Anglican church, I was appalled and distressed at the news that a group of so-called conservative Anglican priests and other Anglican faithful are getting desperately close to a schism with the main Anglican Communion over what I consider to be life-style and cultural issues rather than matters of faith. These issues are: (1) female bishops (for some, I assume even female priest are an issue); (2) gay/lesbian priests/bishops; (3) the blessing of same-sex unions.

When faced with matters of Church doctrine, dogma or articles of faith, I follow a very simple procedure. I become the US Supreme Court (or rather what the US Supreme Court ought to be but seldom is) and test the doctrine, dogma or article of faith against the ‘Constitution’. The ‘Constitution’ of the Christian faith is the shortest in the world, and you don’t need an IQ in triple digits to understand it fully. It is: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. For the literalists among us, the full text is, from Matthew 22: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.[1] This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.[2] Both commandments are straight from the Tanach. [1] Deut. 6:5. [2] Lev. 19:18.

I am not pretending that these two commandments permit the easy resolution of most ethical/moral dilemmas, let alone of the most important ones. Questions of just wars and the legitimate use of violence in self-defence or in the defence of loved ones or of persons who depend on you remain fraught with moral ambiguity. For me, abortion falls into this category also, as it may involve not just the rights, duties and well-being of the pregnant woman, but also the rights and well-being of the unborn, of the father or even of other relatives such as (potential) grandparents and siblings.

But the three lifestyle issues under consideration are a no-brainer from the perspective of the Christian faith. Let’s take them in turn. Female priest and bishops. Why on earth not? To say no to that diminishes women. It discriminates against them and puts them down. It is offensive and humiliating. Arguing against female priests and bishops clearly violates the second commandment. It is loveless. It is a sin.

To the argument that Christ did not take female disciples among the twelve, I say: “so what?” The poor guy lived in a patriarchal society. Give him a break. Anyway, Mary Magdalene was always hanging around and in many ways plays a more important role in the early stages of the faith than any disciples barring Peter, John and Judas. More to the point, Jesus did not ride a bicycle either. Does that mean bicyclists cannot be Christians? No doubt someone will point out that bicycles had not yet been invented in the first century AD, and they are probably right. But Christ did not take any Romans as disciples either, and they were all over Judea and Galilee at the time. Does the fact that Jesus did not take Romans for disciples mean that Italians cannot be priests or bishops today? Once more, give me a break. Don’t let the mores and prejudices of a particular and in many ways very peculiar society thousands of years ago restrict the way we obey God’s commandments today.

Gay/lesbian priests. To condemn and/or discriminate against people either because of their sexual orientation or sexual conduct clearly violates the second commandment. Judea at the time of Christ may well have been a deeply homophobic society, and the Hebrew Scriptures are pretty bigoted towards homosexuality as well, but such ephemeral and superficial cultural preferences and prejudices don’t stand up against the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.

It is unfortunate that a vocal part of the most rapidly growing segment of the Anglican Communion, the African one, is deeply homophobic and full of bigotry towards and contempt for the homosexual life-style and for people engaging in homosexual acts. These new African bigots have to be confronted head-on about their prejudices and profoundly unchristian attitudes and statements. Again, the origins of this homophobia are regional and cultural in nature. It is not uncommon, for instance, for the same person who considers homosexuality to be the mark of the devil, to be tolerant of polygamy or even to practice it. We should never turf the bigots out of the church, but we should confront them with their unchristian nature of their loveless prejudice and intolerance at every opportunity.

The blessing of same-sex unions is a direct implication of the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. Whether same-sex unions should be called ‘marriages’ is, in my view, a semantic issue of supreme unimportance. The key thing is that it is, or should be, a civil contract to share a home and a life and to agree to some pooling of assets and incomes. The care of children may or may not be part of such a contract. If it is, the right of the children should figure prominently in the contract covering the union, and the lifelong obligations for financial and emotional support for any children should figure prominently.

Such quintessentially civil contracts should never be the province of a church, synagogue or mosque – it’s a serious breach of the separation of church and state. The sooner all religious institutions lose the power to marry people, the better. But the civil union in question can be blessed by the church, both for male-female couples and for same-sex couples. What greater joy than to have two people commit to love and support each other before God? To stand in the way of that because of some Middle-Eastern or West-African prejudice, one that is furthermore in direct violation of the second commandment, is deeply unchristian.

Christ did not say “love your neighbour as yourself, except when it comes to boy-boy or girl-girl love. With same-sex unions, you are entitled to forget about your duty of christian love and you can dump on homosexuals to your heart’s content.” I cannot find that in my Bible in any case.

The Anglican Church should fight the bigots every inch of the way. Never stop arguing. Never stop loving the bigots either. But never give in.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website