The African and conservative bishops won the day at the big Church of England showdown a day or two after I wrote the piece below. This piece has had an unusual number of hits – a thousand in the first few minutes after it was posted – and they’re still coming in. That the sort of figure I usually get if I write about Scottish matters or, in the past, that other stuff….. I hope this all means that the issues involved are as important to people as many others in that heady sphere where politics and religion mix.
I studied religion a long time ago, and when I was in politics, I was gripped by the how religion and politics interact. I still am. This week, it’s all about the Church of England’s coming world rift over gay equality.
We British introduced anti-homosexuality to Africa. We ensured, via our missionary and colonial domination, that it was codified in law across African nations, just as it was in the UK. Over the last half-century, we’ve painfully-slowly changed our position at home. Gay marriage was legalised only a few months ago for most parts of the UK, and remains illegal in one big chunk of it.
Meanwhile, people in Africa have had other worries, many created by the way we ‘gave them their independence’. So war, and famine, and violence, and rape, and need, have had a larger part to play in the lives of Africans than ours over the last half-century. And even where people are emerging from all that horror, which many Africans are, they tend to prioritise not slipping back into it, thank you very much.
African leaders are often described as monsters for failing to deal with their anti-gay ‘problem’ – but given the strong anti-gay consensus across their countries, there isn’t much that a democratic leader – who can only legislate with consent – can do. One senses that when it comes to anti-gay laws, what UK campaigners want is a bit more dictatorial behaviour on the part of those ‘failing’ leaders.
That African anti-gay consensus, of course, is today partly the outcome of the work of Church of England leaders in Africa today. But rather than condemn them for that, and demanding that the Africans in general do what we tell them pronto, perhaps we should at least consider the possibility that the quality of argument put out by the pro-equality camp isn’t especially strong?
The central texts of the Semitic traditions all reflect the dim views on homosexuality that the societies which produced them are said to have had. And religious belief is obviously a leap of faith, not an intellectual process. So whether you ‘update’ sacred texts for ‘modern times’ – accept modernity, if you will – is really simply a matter of choice (or insert a religious euphemism, if you prefer).
What passes as ‘intellectual’ theological debate always end up with the leap of faith – that’s why theology itself has always been viewed by philosophers are a subject not really fit for university-study status (like, say, Astrology). Meanwhile, most secular folk arguing the case for gay equality don’t by definition accept the notion of strict set of received beliefs, even one made ‘up to date’ by trendy vicars. So that usually means they don’t have any structure at all for their argument about why some ‘equalities’ are right and others… aren’t. Ironically, their appeal is therefore also simply to a notion of ‘belief’ – i.e. ‘I believe gay equality is right’.
If you ask theologians or bishops to tell you why there should or shouldn’t be gay equality, their answers will relate to the Bible, and ultimately turn around that anti-intellectual leap-of-faith. But if you ask secular equality campaigners, you’ll usually get little something even less intellectually satisfying – that is to say, their own leap of faith that a particular ‘equality’ is morally correct, while another is not. And why would intelligent Africans be convinced to change their mind on their bishops’ invocation of God by a Tweet from some famous white guy telling them which equalities are good and which aren’t?
I’ve met a lot of big names in African politics. Their personal views have mainly been pretty liberal on the issue of gay equality, but for them it’s like when we wonder whether we should get rid of the monarchy or not — there are bigger fish to fry.
Some gay equality campaigners give the impression of not having got used to the idea that Africans get to decide their own moral values for themselves; that white Europeans don’t get to literally lay down the law for Africans any longer. That’s modernity too.
Intelligent engagement’s allowed, though. Just don’t get cocky, rich white, pro-equalities guy. Get a smarter argument.