A game of two mitres; some sporting analogies for the Primates conference.

Like all analogies it is perhaps a bit simplistic to regard the GAFCON group and the T.E.C. as being the only two sides invited to play at the Primates Conference, with Justin Welby acting as match referee, as each side seeks to maintain possession of the ‘sexuality ball,’ but let’s stick with the analogy and see where it takes us.

In team sports teams that seek to dominate, as their primary strategy frequently gain a reputation for ‘winning ugly.’ They pick up league points but leave fans and spectators feeling as though they have somehow been cheated. It seems, as things stand, that neither GAFCON or TEC are prepared to cede possession. An ugly outcome appears likely.

For many onlookers, whether fans or casual spectators,  the fundamental disagreement between these two ‘teams’ is the real game, the top of the table clash, and, just as at a football or rugby match, it is legitimate to suppose that the majority of the spectators are either explicitly, or implicitly, inclined to support to one or other of the ‘top’ teams, slugging it out for what they perceive to be real glory. (It should come as know surprise to readers that I support the progressive, liberal, or as ‘our’ rivals put it ‘revisionist,’ team – not that I will be attending the conference!)

Let’s pause for a second or two, and focus on the match referee Justin Welby. Many interested spectators will be hoping he has a good game, after all this particular match needs one of the world’s best referees.

Justin has worked extensively in the field of reconciliation and so he is, presumably, highly qualified to arbitrate in the match between GAFCON and T.E.C.?   However, he faces significant problems:

First of all (and perhaps less significantly) he doesn’t have access to the tools of trade granted to a football or rugby  referee:

He doesn’t have red and yellow cards in his back pocket to raise when he gets fed up with particularly aggressive or abusive players. Paradoxically, he can’t send an errant player to the ‘sin bin.’

He can’t tell one of the leading lights from one side or the other that they are banned from the stadium and, when he isn’t clear he can’t delegate decision making to a match official in a TV truck, parked some way from the stadium.

More significantly, he can’t insist on the style of play adopted by the rival teams. Anyone who has watched a rugby game in recent years will have heard the referee encouraging players to be positive. Nigel Owens the (gay) world cup final referee is often heard telling prop forwards ‘if you don’t want to be constructive we will get someone else on and give them a go.’  Justin can’t change the players, he is stuck with what he has got.

Finally, in common with referees in the world of sport, there is nothing Justin can do to prevent pre match verbals. And we all know that the managers and coaches of leading sports teams like to say things to both unsettle the opposition and, to deflect attention away from their own players. Alex Ferguson did it, Jose the ex Chelsea manager did it and, in my own sport, Warren Gatland does it.

So ‘referee Justin,’ even more than premiership officials in the round and oval shaped ball games, has to rely on the good will of the managers and players. He is in reality impotent, he doesn’t even possess a whistle. So if he manages to hold the primates (and later on the C of E) together in something that approximates unity he will have pulled off a super human feat (or maybe a supernatural feat).

Archbishop Justin deserves our respect and prayers. And, if it all goes wrong it won’t be his fault. He can’t insist on a positive style of play, leading to a positive outcome for all; it’s not in his gift.

So a huge level of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the two competing teams and their real challenge is to accept that a score draw can equate to a good result.

As a liberal (on the issue of sexuality) I have no wish to coerce anyone to act against their conscience (if I did I wouldn’t be a liberal).

So what, as a Church of England liberal, would I find it difficult to accept?

First and foremost the idea that churches in England may seek to formally align themselves with GAFCON; seeking alternative episcopal oversight troubles me no end. I am very uncomfortable with the notion that a priest or parish may defer to a bishop who has actively supported the criminalization  of homosexuality in their home country.

Archbishop Ramsey held homosexuality to be abhorrent whilst also leading the debate in the House of Lords in favor of decriminalization. It is a line conservatives can continue to hold with integrity; respectful of ‘our’ Church of England tradition. It is a position that a progressive liberal should accept as legitimate.

However, as a liberal I would want to suggest that time has moved on and that insights from other disciplines mean that we, the Church, no longer need propagate, in Jim Cotter’s words, ‘the impressions made in a young man in the fifties and early sixties by the institutional messages that to be homosexual was at best sick (psychiatry), certainly sinful (church) and, for men, criminal (law).’ 

I am content (again as a liberal)  for this perspective to be challenged theologically, with the exception of the notion that homosexuality should be subject to the full weight of law. If new institutional and episcopal structures need to be found let them  be geographically determined. I think it would also be helpful in our domestic discussions if a leading conservative voice (on this issue) publicly and unequivocally distanced themselves from the likes of GAFCON.

Finally, as an Anglican, I would want to robustly interrogate  Michael Jensen’s statement that:

‘This sin (homosexuality) is spiritually dead and those who engage in it without repentance are outside the kingdom of God.’

This view seems to mark a departure from Anglican orthodoxy in that it implies that salvation is a matter, not of faith, grace and mercy, but of works and conduct. Is this what he means? Have the rules of the game shifted in conservative circles? What has happened to salvation by faith alone? Is sexuality a first or second order issue?

Here are my final set of  questions:

Is Archbishop Justin’s biggest problem that the two mitred teams are, in reality, playing by a completely different set of rules? If they are reconciliation will indeed be impossible, unless Justin can get each team to adopt one common rule book.Will he be able to achieve this? Time will tell.

If he can’t? Well, it won’t be his fault, so whatever the outcome no blame should be attached to the ABC.

If Justin can’t get both teams to play by the same set of rules what will the consequence be? Let me offer two possible sporting analogies:

Either, the split will be akin to William Webb Ellis picking up the ball and running with it, thereby creating a new sport (Rugby) in competition to its founding sport (football). Football and rugby are irreconcilable, there is no way that they could ever be united.   Presumably this is what the conservatives from GAFCON would accuse the liberals from TEC of doing; creating an entirely new and totally different game?

Or, the split could, if there is just a little bit of good will, look like the schism between rugby union and rugby league, whereby a new but highly similar sport is created, one which allows players (with varying degrees of success) to cross codes and where talk of one unified game still takes place from time-to-time.

For the sake of the Church let’s hope that we end up with a future that looks like a rugby union – rugby league separation, but with each ‘sport’ sharing various governance functions and where leadership is exercised locally and nationally. Unless, that is ++Justin pulls of a miracle which should be our hope and prayer.







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