It is easy to jump on the bandwagon and have a pop at Tim Farron over his views on homosexuality. During the election campaign he managed to annoy both conservatives and liberals alike.
From a liberal perspective he was far too slow in eventually saying that he didn’t believe homosexuality to be a sin, in fact he was so slow that very few liberals unreservedly believed him . From a conservative (evangelical) perspective he was seen as selling out. The poor bloke couldn’t win! And, let’s be honest neither him, nor his party (my party), ‘won’ in any meaningful sense on election night.
Tim Farron was also slaughtered on the altar of the oughts. Surely, the argument goes, a political liberal should also be a social, and some would argue theological, liberal. For many Tim Farron came to epitomize a distinct lack of joined up thinking and, yet, I have the feeling that there is a positive lesson for Church of England from the way that Tim Farron has conducted himself.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with Tim’s views on homosexuality as he now states them. I think he is wrong. I also understand the political problems that arise when the leader of a socially progressive party holds socially conservative views. However, I also think that Tim Farron has something to offer our theologically conservative bishops.
Tim Farron has a good voting record when it comes to supporting LGBTI rights. He voted in favour of same-sex marriage. He has also spoken from the floor of the house about the appalling treatment of homosexuals in Ukraine (Anglican Primates take note – you did after all pledge to speak out against institutionalized homophobia.) He has been consistent in seeking liberty for members of the LGBTI community. He has managed to relegate his own views to a place of secondary importance. It is others, primarily in the media, that have escalated his views to being of primary importance.
Whilst I fully accept the inadequacy of comparing the challenges of political leadership with the teaching mandate given to bishops I do wonder whether there is something that the House of Bishops might learn from the way that Tim Farron has managed the tension between what we now know to be his own views and, his voting record?
I cannot see, for instance, why a conservatively minded bishop wouldn’t be prepared to support rites of affirmation for same-sex couples, providing there is an opt out on the grounds of conscience.
Why should it be that the view of an individual bishop, or the House of Bishops as a somewhat divided collective should be of primary importance on what is, after all, a second order issue?
If the notions of ‘good disagreement’ and ‘radical new inclusivity’ are to have any real currency I suspect that it rests on the ability to differentiate between first and second order issues. In a very real sense Tim Farron has managed to do this for, despite his own personal convictions, he did vote in favour of same-sex marriage.
‘Good disagreement’ and ‘radical new inclusivity’ will end up being one of two things: meaningless (political) strap-lines, or real and enduring (theological) motifs. Ensuring that they become theological motifs is contingent on the willingness to differentiate between first and second order issues. Good disagreement and radical new inclusivity are, perhaps, most of all an invitation to theologically minded conservatives to accept the principle of subsidiarity in relation to second order issues.
Subsidiarity is, in many ways, the most challenging of all values for it implies the willingness to relegate self, even our own most cherished (second order) convictions and, to re-locate control, power and authority. Subsidiarity is, in and of itself, messy and seemingly inconsistent; just like Tim Farron!
Is there, in fact, something that the Church of England, and her bishops in particular, can learn from Tim Farron?