Long gone are the days when we could see the Church of England as the Conservative Party at prayer. Indeed a convocation of clergy is more likely these days to look like a sub-set of the Labour Party (the Fabian Society at prayer?). And they are more likely to be arguing about women bishops and homosexual clergy, than praying.
At first sight the two debates, on women clergy and homosexuality, seem only loosely related. They both reflect current social debates, but they seem to be separate. But I think at a deeper level they are part of the same debate, and reflect two fundamentally different views on the nature of religion.
Either you believe that religion is a direct reflection of the will of God. Or you think it is simply a human cultural activity.
If you think that religion derives from God, then it is a pretty fair conclusion that what He thought two thousand years ago is pretty much what He thinks now. There are perhaps as many understandings of God as there are believers, but a strong common thread is that God is in some sense “outside of time”. The phrase “The same yesterday, today and forever” springs to mind.
You can then have a debate about how we comprehend the will of God. Fundamentalist Christians will take the revealed word of scripture and interpret it literally, struggling to rationalise the apparent contradictions, and choosing to ignore the fact that the cannon of scripture seems to have been assembled in the Fourth century, but only finalised (by the Catholic Church at least) at the Council of Trent in 1562 – a mere 448 years ago. Others take a more liberal view, and are prepared to interpret the strict text. For example they accept that the Genesis Creation story – which after all is the Creation Myth of a single nomadic tribe from 4000 years ago – is allegorical rather than literal.
Some churches – the Catholic Church, for example – put much greater emphasis on the teachings and traditions of the Church itself. But they still insist that the body of doctrine handed down the generations represents the immutable will of God.
However, if you think of religion as simply a human cultural expression, it ceases to be immutable. It becomes a reflection of the attitudes and standards of the day. And this is the point at which the Church of England’s debates about women bishops and sexual orientation coalesce.
If faith and doctrine are immutable and divine, then what was true 2000 years ago is true today. I am not aware of any Biblical text that states explicitly that women may not be priests, but traditionalists are right to point out that all of Christ’s disciples were men (as was Christ himself – and Christianity has always seen God as “God the Father”, and male). Modernisers argue that the choice of men as disciples was merely a sensible precaution in the face of ancient prejudices which were relevant in Palestine in 30 AD, but have ceased to be relevant now – but this smacks of special pleading. And if you need a Biblical text, Saint Paul wrote “Let the women keep silent in the Church”.
Similarly, at the time of Christ and through most of the history of the Church, the view on homosexuality has been clear. It was, quite simply, a sin. It was abhorrent to God and to man. Modernisers argue that it is the calling and mission of Christians to welcome sinners, and so it is. But the Church welcomes sinners who repent, not those who promote and celebrate their sin. Yes of course thieves and adulterers and even murderers should be welcomed into the Church, but only when they truly repent.
So the lines of debate are the same on both issues. If you believe that the rules of religion are set by God, and that God doesn’t change His mind over time, then neither women nor homosexuals can be priests (and practising homosexuals cannot be welcome in the Church). But if you believe that religion is merely a human cultural activity, if you embrace cultural relativism and modish causes, then the Church can be whatever you want it to be. The Church of England has broadly taken the second view.
For my own part, I hope I understand the difference between right and wrong, but I don’t find the concept of “sin” very useful. Sin, I suppose, can be defined as action in opposition to the will of God, which in turn depends on a belief that you understand the will of God. For myself, my affinity to the Church of England is cultural, not spiritual. I love the buildings, the traditions, the liturgy (in the Book of Common Prayer – I’m with Prince Charles on that!) and the wonderful stirring prose of the King James Bible. And I am sorry to see the Church tearing itself apart over what, in the end, is a deeply theological debate about the nature of religion itself.