An Open Letter to the Primates

Dear Primates,

I recently wrote an article commending you for agreeing to work together for the decriminalization of homosexuality in all provinces in the Anglican Communion.

In commending you for this seemingly bold statement of communal, or denominational, intent I suggested that you would be presented with real and substantial challenges in your communal quest, but that your pledge provided some hope that the Anglican Communion may have a real, and meaningful, future.

I also praised Archbishop Justin for taking the Anglican Communion into ‘time added on for injuries,’ and the presiding bishop of the TEC for the dignity with which he accepted his provinces’ marginalization. I would still want to praise Justin and Bishop Curry. However, I would be grateful if you could clarify, what I now believe, to be a substantive ambiguity.

Let me offer back to you some words from your communique; words which I used as the platform for hope in my earlier ‘thought piece.’

‘The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.’

At the time of writing I took this to mean that the ‘college of Primates’ are collectively committed to either speaking out against the criminalization of homosexuality, or, where necessary, arguing for decriminalization. I suggested that if this is your commitment, regardless of any cherished  theological positions  regarding homosexuality per se, or same-sex marriage in particular, the communion may well remain a viable entity.

The question that I now have is this: ‘is my initial reading too optimistic?’ The reason I ask is because several readers have drawn my attention to the sentence I have underlined, and the phrase ‘same sex attracted’ in particular.

The suggestion has been made that some primates may not in fact be unequivocally committed to the eradication at law of punitive sanctions against homosexual activity.

Justice demands that you are active in seeking to repudiate all laws that discriminate against homosexuals irrespective of whether they are sexually active. The standards by which homosexuals are judged at law should be the same standards applied to heterosexuals. 

Can I therefore ask for whether collectively you support the rejection of criminal sanctions on the basis of attraction or action? It is an important distinction.

Put bluntly if your collective commitment is to reject criminal sanctions on the basis of attraction alone, I believe that you have positioned yourselves on the wrong side of salvation history and that the fine words you have written about ‘walking together,’ have all the qualities of a ‘noisy gong,’ or a ‘clanging symbol,’ you will have shown real ‘weakness in your majesty.’

If, on the other hand, you will all actively campaign, as a communion, for the decriminalization of homosexual activity, you will change the course of human (and, to my mind, salvation) history.

That is why I, and many others, crave you clarification.

Your clarification is also important in helping me to understand my own identity. If you are content to simply reject criminal sanctions based solely on attraction, then I can no longer define myself as an Anglican; a member of the Church of England yes, (maybe even an Episcopalian,) but not an Anglican. If your pledge is to pursue the decriminalization of homosexual activity, then I am happy to self define as ‘Anglican’

To vigorously campaign for the decriminalization of homosexual activity does not necessitate changing your theology concerning either homosexuality or same-sex marriage. Why not draw inspiration from Archbishop Michael Ramsey who led the campaign for the decriminalization of homosexuality from the floor of the House of Lord’s whilst still maintaining what many of you would describe as an orthodox or traditional view:

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

However, 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 behavior was considered sinful.

So how did he theologically reason his way 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.’

In coming to the conclusion that homosexuality should not be subject to criminal sanction Ramsey built on the logic employed by his predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher:

‘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.’

Surely the communion and its individual churches are entitled to hope that the Church, through the offices of its Primates, should never be responsible for creating the conditions in which fear and despair reign?

And, that Primates is why your clarification is urgently required.

Yours sincerely,

The Rev’d Andrew Lightbown.



2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Primates

  1. A respectful letter seeking clarification should always be welcomed by the addressee. I would think a number of Anglicans would still view homosexual activity as a ‘special sin’. However, there are many in secular society working for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in those countries where it is against the law. And the Church needs to continue to add its voice as well. In Archbishop Fisher’s statement, as welcome as it was, the words ‘and be helped’ could be interpreted in a couple of ways.

    • I agree that ++Fisher’s statement could be interpreted in a number of ways, but I also think it is important to remember that he uttered those words over fifty years ago.

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