For the sake of the oppressed, move ahead

By Adrian Worsfold

In his recent lecture on economics, the Archbishop of Canterbury stated:

Ethics, I suggested, is about negotiating conditions in which the most vulnerable are not abandoned.

And later:

The reduction of pain or of frustration, the augmenting of opportunity for human welfare and joy – again, these are obviously good things. They are good because they connect with a sense of what is properly owing to human beings, a sense of human dignity.

And later still:

But the task is to turn people’s eyes back to the vision of a human dignity that is indestructible. This is the vision that will both allow us to retain a hold on our sense of worth even when circumstances are painful or humiliating and sustain the sense of obligation to the needs of others, near at hand or strangers, so that dignity may be made manifest.

I hope that I am not accused of quoting these out of context: applied to the economic crisis they are nevertheless, surely, universal statements.

Recently, referring to bullying in faith schools within England, the Bishop of Manchester also gave some words that are, again, of the character of universal statements. He said :

It is vital that the Church does as much as possible to keep dialogue going between all God’s people. That means everyone – whoever, whatever, wherever we are – including of course the gay community.

I extract them because dark clouds are gathering over Nigeria and it is the Anglican Church there that is helping pushing them into place.

This is the Church’s contribution there :

Same sex marriage apart from being ungodly is also unscriptural, unnatural, unprofitable, unhealthy, uncultured, up-African and un-Nigerian. It is a perversion, a deviation and an aberration that is capable of engendering moral and social holocaust in this country. It is also capable of extincting mankind and as such should never be allowed to take root in Nigeria. Outlawing it is to ensure the continued existence of this nation. The need for doing this is urgent, compelling and imperative. The time is now.

The Most Revd. Peter S. Akinola

Archbishop Primate and Metropolitan

Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion)

This is towards a law that would outlaw same sex marriage in Nigeria, but same sex marriage is not available in Nigeria. So what it actually amounts to is the legalising of a witchhunt against gay people living together, giving the police powers because there would be prison sentences for gay couples and those who assist gay couples.

To call this a moral and social holocaust is itself a perversion of the actual holocaust, that of systematic death carried out to groups and individuals. The effect, to Nigeria, of leaving same sex couples be, of living and let living, is precisely nothing. It is of no impact on all the laws they want to pass on promoting heterosexual marriage, if Nigeria is so motivated. What is surely not acceptable – not locally, nationally and internationally – is instituting a regime of oppression.

Now the time must come when the Churches have to show another way forward. This is another way to be Church, to stand as some sort of beacon or model that flatly contradicts the oppressiveness of the Nigerian Church to its minorities and those who would copy its stance. There has to be a real, material, alternative: a way forward that gives a different vision. The Church clearly most able to do this is The Episcopal Church, closely followed by the Anglican Church of Canada, but also by a number of others once the lead is taken.

Yet we have the Archbishop of Canterbury intending to go along to General Convention 2009 and we know why. He is going to plead for more stalling, more patience. He wants to nudge the Anglican Communion towards centralisation, towards it becoming more like a Church, for it to start making decisions among primates. He is going to put the religious bureaucracy first, as he has all along, asking others to sacrifice themselves for this bureaucracy. The principal people to be sacrificed again are the gay and lesbian community: not him, not bishops, not a communion, but a people for whom inclusion would be like freedom at last. He wants this not because of some prime belief, but simply to wait. Wait for what – Nigeria?

Back in 2006 the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke to the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger and said this:

I’m very struck by what Bonhoeffer writes in the middle-30s about the division of the church over the Aryan laws in Nazi Germany, where he says both that it’s extremely important not to try and work out in advance every circumstance in which it would be necessary for the church to break.

However, when actually you do have to break I have called a Bonhoeffer moment. This is what Bonhoeffer did: he joined the Confessing Church, and although safe in the United States he was effectively called back to Germany by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth and Bonhoeffer met his death at the hands of the Nazi regime. He sacrificed himself in the service of others.

It is time to stop playing games of religious bureaucracy. There is no ethical position of flogging a dying horse of a centralisation project when that is based on sacrificing others. This argument, presumably the purpose of the Archbishop’s trip to the General Convention, simply should not carry, and the Archbishop should be reminded of his own words about what it is to be ethical. Perhaps he might have to be asked if they mean anything in this material world, the world of the body as so identified.

If it was thought that pausing actions of inclusion in the United States, Canada or elsewhere would help the people of Nigeria, then surely it would be done; indeed, arguably, this has been done so far. Patience has been shown, but patience is for a purpose and a goal. The goal is not towards producing a worldwide Church, which is probably acquiring its own dynamic anyway (and thus patience towards building that is patience towards an unwanted project?). The goal is towards the inclusion of people further than one’s own shores. However, that Bonhoeffer moment does come when you need to make the other vision material and real.

Say to the Archbishop of Canterbury when he comes, ‘Thank you, but your argument no longer applies. Please, in this real, even desperate situation abroad, when some people need a vision they can grasp of a tomorrow in their land, refer to your own words.’

Say, ‘It is time to move ahead and we just happen to be the first able to do so.’

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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