Bishop Josiah and the ‘Ramsey Formula.’

I have been following the announcement that the Nigerian Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon has been appointed Secretary General of the Anglican Communion with interest.

The appointment, and the statement issued by Bishop Josiah defending his position in relation to Nigeria’s homosexuality laws, leave more questions open than answered.

In his new role Bishop Josiah can legitimately be asked to clarify how he responds, theologically, to political manoeuvrings in countries with an active Anglican presence. He is no longer a bishop with a national, but rather one with a pan national, mandate. The job presumably demands an interest in, and response to, global issues.

I hope that during his time in office Bishop Josiah speaks out against institutionalised state sponsored injustice. The fact that he will be domiciled  in London (he starts his new ‘job’ on 1st July) provides him the sort of distance from immediate context frequently required by those seeking to exercise the prophetic voice.

Bishop Josiah says that he has never endorsed Nigeria’s anti homosexuality laws and has stressed that he has on various occasions been misinterpreted. My own reading of his statement and the quotes attributed to him lead me to accept what he says.

I wish he hadn’t used the unhelpful ‘love the sinner hate the sin,’ line but that’s just personal antipathy to the phrase. (It is not clear he is actually referring to homosexuality per se).

But the lack of clarity in his statement leads to one important, and unanswered, question:

Do the demands of justice require Church leaders to speak out against injustice, as opposed to simply the withholding of active support? 

I suspect they do.

So I hope that Bishop Josiah is loud and vocal in speaking out against homophobic laws. I hope that he will be equally outspoken on issues of poverty and that, he will seek alongside other church leaders to hold western governments to account when they fail to make, or seek to reduce, commitments to poor countries.

Bishop Josiah may well hold homosexuality to be a sin.

If he does, would this be a problem in taking a stand against some of the cruellest laws passed in recent times?

I don’t think it would, and I would cite a giant of the Anglican tradition Michael Ramsey in making my case:

Archbishop Ramsey’s theological reasoning was central to the decriminalization of homosexuality in this country, for without the support of the bishops Lord Arran’s bill would have failed, but at the same time he never wavered from his conviction that homosexuality was sinful (it is futile to speculate what Ramsey’s position would be in our current Church of England debates) as can be seen by his opening remarks in the House of Lords:

‘I would uphold the belief that just as fornication is always wrong so homosexual acts are always wrong.’

Ramsey also theologically reasoned  that it was wrong –unjust– that the law should be used to discriminate against a particular group of people irrespective of whether their behaviour was considered sinful.

So how did he get to this position. His replies to Lord Brocket (in a speech) and Suzanne Goodhew,the wife of an outraged Conservative M.P., in a letter provide the answer:

To Lord Brocket:

‘My support of this Bill has been increased by hearing, among those who have opposed it during these debates, what I can only call a really lopsided presentation of morality—a presentation which quotes the Old Testament, which takes the line that sexual sins are apparently the worst of all sins, and that homosexual sins are invariably the worst sort of sins among sexual sins. I think that such a presentation of morality is lopsided and is going to be rejected by the people of the new generation, who need a better presentation of morality to win their respect and admiration.’

And to Suzanne Goodhew:

‘When we look at the list of sins there given, one or two of them have to do with sex: but the rest have nothing to do with sex at all. It seems to me that an enlightened Christian morality does require that we avoid suggesting that sexual sins are necessarily more terrible than others because Christ does not suggest that. Equally, we need a well thought out principle as to which sins should be crimes and which should not.’

Ramsey in referring to remarks made by his predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher also said in opening the debate in the House of Lord’s:

‘He (Fisher) argued that the existing state of the law creates fear, secretiveness, despair, and deeper involvement in some homosexual practitioners, who would like to be free to make themselves known and be helped, but dare not, lest they expose themselves and their friends to criminal proceedings.’

Ramsey’s decision to lead the debate in the House of Lords was based on four strands of ethical reasoning:

  • Bad law creates fear and despair, leading to terrible consequences
  • Sexual sins are no worse than other forms of sin
  • If it is valid to legislate against a particular category of sexual sin – homosexuality – it follows that all other forms of sexual sin (fornication being Ramsey’s example) should also be legislated against
  • Selective cherry-picking of Old Testament texts

Whether or not one agrees with Ramsey’s view on homosexuality (and clearly I don’t – although I probably / possibly would have done in the mid 1960’s) his reasoning has stood the test of time.

It should be the minimum standard that we expect from all Anglican leaders, not simply as an intellectual process, but also as an exercise in prophetic ministry, irrespective of their personal views on the ‘sinfulness’ of homosexuality

It would be my  hope that when announcements are made about people promoted to senior positions in both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, it is made clear that the appointee both affirms and will seek to actively apply the ‘Ramsey Formula.’ There should be no room for ambiguity.

And, that brings me to my final complaint:

The way that senior appointments are made and, their ‘elevation’ communicated.

There seems to be an attitude of ‘we know best.’ There is little transparency and an absence of accountability. It should be clear that an appointment from the global south will be treated with caution by many in this country. No attempt was made, at the time of his appointment, to reassure the LBGTI community and those who stand alongside them in solidarity, that Bishop Josiah may turn out to be a friend. The response from the Church has been entirely reactive and, this must be wrong.

Across the entirety of the Anglican Communion we need leaders who actively, demonstrably and prophetically pursue the demands of justice. Don’t we?

Transparency and accountability should sit at the heart of the appointment process. Shouldn’t they?

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