Friday, 4 April 2014

Justin Welby, Homosexuality and Unintended Consequences



This morning on LBC the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that African Christians will be killed if the Church of England accepts same-gender marriage. Andrew Brown, writing for The Guardian, reports,

‘Speaking on an LBC phone in, Justin Welby said he had stood by a mass grave in Nigeria of 330 Christians who had been massacred by neighbours who had justified the atrocity by saying: "If we leave a Christian community here we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians."
"I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact," Welby said. If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, "the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world."

I do not doubt Justin Welby’s experience. As noted in a previous blog post I have lived in a country which criminalizes homosexuality. Changing Attitude and other organizations have consistently flagged up how very dangerous it is to be gay in the majority world.

In this blog post I want to examine the underlying logic of the Archbishop’s claims and question and  problematize them. I apologize if my reasoning seems blunt and crude. I am currently fasting as part of EndHungerFast and my mind is not working at full tilt. Equally, I am very open to comments which help sharpen up my thinking in this area.

As I read it, the Archbishop’s argument again the C of E accepting same-gender marriage follows the pattern below:

‘Organization/Institution A cannot commend /accept ‘x’ because to do so would necessarily and logically lead to ‘y’, which is both an unintended consequence and actually constitutes a much worse situation. And ‘y’ is such a terrible thing that it makes ‘x’ seem reckless, wanton and deeply unwise.’

I know that puts it starkly and dramatically, but I do this in order to reveal the clear consequentialist structure of the argument. When put in such stark terms and before adding any content to this logical structure, the consequentialist case can seem both plausible and beyond question.

The power of Welby’s consequentialist thinking lies in our tendency to focus on what might be called a ‘narrow range’ of ‘defined’ consequences. Let me see if I can explain.

Let us suppose for a moment that Welby’s claim is incontestable. That is to say, let’s accept Welby’s claim that if the C of E accepted equal marriage, Christians in Nigeria etc would be killed in great numbers. (Let us be clear, no one actually knows if that would happen.)

The logic of the argument is that even if action/activity ‘x’ has good consequences (e.g. social justice for some, improvement in church’s standing eamong some communities) those consequences will be outweighed by a further consequence ‘y’,’ which is the unnecessary death of large numbers of people.
The deaths of large numbers of people, on this argument, surely has a greater hold over our sense of moral responsibility than the social goods that might be generated by adopting ‘x’. 

I suspect that if this reasoning is appealing it is so only because of assumptions that are dangerously sloppy.

One of the problems created by consequentialism is how we assign value to the terms involved. It sets up the argument on competitive grounds – that is to say, the referent terms of the argument are assigned competing values and a calculation is then made on the basis of those terms. So, in the current case, ‘the social and cultural (positive) value of equal marriage’ is set in competition with the ‘the (negative) value of the deaths of Christians.’ We are then invited to calculate the competing moral worth of the referents.

Again, at first glance, various reactions might be called forth – firstly, that when put in such stark terms, it only adds weight to Welby’s claim. Why? Because surely human beings are always worth more than a ‘social value’ or ‘social good’. Secondly, it invites a troubling question: By what criteria can one ‘measure’ the value of a social good against that of a human life?

‘Human beings are always worth more than a social/cultural/religious practice or value.’

I am suspicious of what is called ‘common sense’.  Yet many will share the instinct that, even if we cannot and indeed should not ‘quantify’ the value of a human life, there is a profound sense in which the lives of human beings are more significant than any social and cultural values or law, even if that value or law seeks to add to the human good. However, there are a number of considerations which problematize this claim.

It is tempting to present ‘social goods’ like freedom or justice as abstracts, but they are also part of our lived reality. If someone claims that ‘equal marriage’ might be a social good, but it is not as significant in value as the lives of [x] numbers of human beings/Christians it ignores the reality that equal marriage is part of a social nexus which affirms and celebrates human lives and changes actual societies and cultures. That is to say, something like ‘equal marriage’ is not an abstraction, but something which (keeping with the logic of consequentialism) has actual positive human effects and may (consequently) lead to less prejudice, less violence and greater human flourishing. Quite how one might reductively ‘quantify’ them is open to serious question.

The argument above indicates that it may not be possible, under the logic of consequentialism, to provide a precise and comparable measure between something presented as a social good and what is presented as a human tragedy. Consequentialism is predicated on the idea that a situation/event/act etc can be measured/assigned a value according to controlled circumstances. Yet, it is not clear by what criteria one might assign a definitive value to ‘x’ or ‘y’. Equally, the very notion of ‘unintended consequences’ suggests that it may not be possible to undertake an analysis that is sufficiently controlled.

The problem of unintended consequences.

One aspect of Welby’s claim concerns what might be called the problem of ‘unintended consequences.’

The logic works like this:
Group A think that Action/Practice ‘x’ will have the following positive
consequences ‘y’, but (because consequences cannot be controlled) ‘x’ may also have the following unintended consequences ‘z’. ‘z’ is so terrible as to make ‘x’ and its positive consequences ‘y’ anathema.

+Justin might acknowledge that ‘accepting gay marriage’ would (in broad terms) have good consequences for the church, for UK society and even send out a positive message against homophobia’ Etc.
BUT, these positive consequences are nothing compared to the unintended negative consequences – the deaths of hundreds and possibly thousands of Christians at the hands of those who conclude that the Church of England’s support for gay marriage makes all Christians anathema.

Can the consequences of any action/policy/process be controlled? Crudely, I suggest, ‘No.’ That – alas - is the nature of consequences.  When the Archbishop makes a statement on LBC can he control the reaction and effects of that statement? Not in any obvious way. One of the reasons most sensible people give some thought to both their intentions and their actions is that we recognize that actions have consequences, many of which may be quite unintended. (It should be noted that this consideration of consequences is not of itself a reason for not acting. Indeed, it is impossible not to act.)

To give a very humble example, the House of Bishops (HoB) made a Pastoral Statement on equal marriage. One assumes they intended that statement to be received with grace and love and understanding. They would not have intended it to lead to anger and conscientization among many previously inactive congregations and clergy; Nor would they have intended the further consequence that clergy and congregations have, in reaction to the Statement, become proactively in favour of becoming inclusive congregations, started to examine the possibilities of blessing gay unions and become active dissidents. The Bishops’ statement might lead to expressions of dissent among gay and straight clergy that were never intended. These could (who knows? One can’t completely control consequences…) lead to face offs and legal challenges etc etc.

One supposes that the HoB did not intend these consequences.

And, of course, consequences breed consequences. Perhaps one unintended consequence of the HOB statement is to signal to both our government and, more terrifyingly, to governments like the one in Uganda that the C of E is prepared to make sacrifices of LGBT people in countries that already were exploring the greater penalization of homosexuality ahead of the HoB Statement.

Yet, one assumes that the HoB came to their mind and decision to publish because they believed that to make the Statement was right and was required by their faithfulness to Christ and God. The unintended consequences, which at the same time might reasonably have been anticipated, were not seem as sufficient reason not to do what they thought was right. In that circumstance 'unintended consequences' as and of themselves were not considered sufficient to prevent them from acting for what they believed was right.

A consideration of consequences will always be a factor in decision making at a human and corporate level, but given our inability to actually define the nature and extent of the consequences of human decision making, it cannot be the only one.

Consequentialism as non-Christian

Consequentialism – in the form of utilitarianism – has always been attractive to the economic and commercial mind, because it seeks to remove decision making from the question of human judgment and character and assign a scientific value to any problem.

It would be cheap to suggest that this kind of thinking is at the heart of what Justin Welby is saying. The man is very smart, sensitive and loving. I am sure he would want to stand up for a Christianity that is not beholden to utilitarian or consequentialist logic.

At the same time, I sense +Justin ought to be cautious of the logic of consequentialism. For ethics – Christian or otherwise – is hamstrung if reduced to a consequentialist (so-called) ‘evidence-based’ analysis. Considerations of conscience, intention and character as well as duty and principle will surely always significant to any rich conception of ethics. The instinct that humans are of fundamental value – a Christian conclusion for sure – is not based on a consequentialist analysis, but (I suggest) on an onto-theo-logical claim.

Given that no reasonable person would welcome the death of anyone as a consequence of ‘our’ actions, even when those actions are presented as good, it is very difficult for a reasonable person to commend an action or set of practices that would make a situation worse. Yet a community of character and love is invited, I suspect, to demonstrate how the reductive consequentialist way of thinking is a red herring and relies on a failure to appreciate how human ethical reasoning works.

Welby is seemingly saying that if the CofE commended equal marriage it would have blood on its hands, by proxy. We – the church - would be cited as the reason why a group like Boko Harem would justify killing others. That this would be the excuse for their repulsive behaviour.

Yet as +Justin indicated in his interview, people are already being killed by the likes of Boko Harem on utterly spurious grounds.  And surely just because someone cites ‘x’ as a reason for their actions does not mean that ‘x’ is either a reasonable and justified basis for their action. A man might say that he commits atrocities because his religious book/tradition/beliefs requires it, but that doesn’t mean we treat it as a reasonable or justified reason for doing so. (It may not even be the operative reason, that is, it may be the reason being cited but the actual motivation for doing ‘x’ lies at a deeper level.) Nor – if we are careful – do we blame the book/deity or tradition for the person or group’s actions. The person or group is responsible.

Let us for the moment rework the logic of the claim under consideration.
Justin Welby strikes me as saying:
We will not support or adopt ‘x’ because it will enrage/upset/lead to yet more morally reprehensible behavior by group/person ‘a’ whose actions have already been morally reprehensible.

In Real Politik this happens a lot. Some governments and institutions, for example, chose not to criticize Russia ahead of the Sochi Olympics because they didn’t want to make things worse. Perhaps some of the same situation applies around Russia and the Ukraine at the moment. Our own government and the EU do not adopt certain sanctions and actions against Russia for fear of losing Russian oligarch money or having gas disrupted.
The intended consequence of this runs as follows: by not standing up publicly for what is ‘right’/morally correct means we can control and manage a group/organization/nation or individual we disapprove of, but are frightened of.

There is something seemingly irenic about this approach. Haven’t we all sought to be cautious in complex, threatening situations in order to reduce harm? Haven’t we done so in the hope of achieving something more reasonable in the longer term?

I shall not bore you by outlining the questions raised by this approach. At various levels we’ve all adopted this logic – whether with a work colleague, a PCC, Etc. Etc. Yet this approach can lead both to paralysis and also, sticking now with consequentialism, to some awful unintended consequences.

Our ‘policy’ of seeking not to make things worse runs the constant danger of ignoring the facts of reality: that, yes, we might be trying not to make a situation worse, but that situation may already be intolerable for those being persecuted by a morally reprehensible government or group. We seek to control the morally reprehensible by not giving them one more reason to be morally reprehensible. Meanwhile the moral reprehensibility continues. All we have deprived group A or person B of is another spurious reason to destroy people’s lives.  All we have sought to do is keep our hands clean. Yet, as we have seen again and again, through history, culture and literature and indeed in the Christian faith itself, there is no such thing as a clean pair of hands.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Having fun on Radio 2

I'm really chuffed to be contributing to the current tranche of 'Pause For Thought' on BBC Radio 2. For night-owls, my thoughts can be heard on Wednesdays during both the Janice Long &, on repeat, in the Alex Lester Show for the next eight weeks.
I'm especially chuffed that this week I managed to mention my dear old mum, ahead of Mothering Sunday, & also talk bit about God as Mother. Though, as you will appreciate, it's not easy to do theology in two minutes!
If anyone wants to 'listen again', this week's contribution can be found on iPlayer during Wednesday's JL & AL Shows. It crops up c.1 hr 34 mins in Janice's show & 1 hr 29 mins in Alex's show. For some reason Janice's stand-in calls me Rachel Parry. But I assure you, it's me.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Personal Response to the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement


"The House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives."

Few in the Church of England can be surprised by the tenor of the House of Bishops’ pastoral statement, though many will be sad that it was issued around St Valentine's. For as a statement of ‘love’ about ‘love’ it is at best equivocal.

I want to flag up one aspect of my reaction to it. I accept that this reaction is visceral and emotional. This is precisely why I want to mention it – to remind anyone who reads this blog how it can feel to be on the wrong end of something like the House of Bishops' Statement. Such things are not mere paper but have human consequences.

I actually cried when I read the statement. Weeped. I am an emotional person but I was surprised. And then I realized where my own particular pain was coming from.

Members of my church have often said to me, ‘Rachel, we want you to be happy.’ They know I can be a miserable so and so (:-)) and they know that I am alone, without a partner. They want me to have a partner. They also know that this will not be the solution to everything, but who does not want the joy, challenge and reality of a loving relationship?

The last time I was in a relationship my dream was that we might get married one day. That it would be possible for two women to marry each other. Because – and call me old-fashioned – I wanted that covenanted expression of our love. Alas – for many reasons - it was not to be and our relationship ultimately came to an end.

But now if I and another woman fell in love and became deeply committed to each other we could – in the eyes of the secular state – get married. And there would be much rejoicing! There would even be bishops who’d be invited along to share in our joy. My congregation would no doubt want to come and throw confetti.

And yet…the church qua church might ask me to leave a cherished ministry. In truth, if it wanted me and people like me so little, I’d probably just go. But the joy of being married to one’s beloved would bleed into the pain of being seen as one who is failing in God's love as it is being shown in the Church.


I weep for all my sisters and brothers – good, ordinary and faithful LGBT Christians and clerics – who are in committed relationships and yet are being pushed ever to the outside where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. I sense God is weeping too.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Reflections on Changing Attitude's Unadulterated Love

‘I come before you empty-handed.’

Even for a hardened preacher and speaker like me it’s always tempting to prepare what you plan to say to death and then stand at a lectern clutching your notes like a comfort blanket. But when I stood up to speak at Changing Attitude’s Unadulterated Love event in Manchester on Saturday 08th February 2014, my opening words ‘I come before you empty-handed’ were true in more ways than one. I had no script, no notes and – lacking a pulpit or lectern – nowhere to hide. And, in hindsight, this was precise how it should be at an event like Unadulterated Love.

The fact that I stood before the people at Unadulterated Love empty-handed was – in the nicest possible way - all Colin Coward’s fault. When he asked me to speak I said, ‘Great. But what would you like me to do?’ His answer – essentially – was, ‘Speak from the heart.’

One of the temptations anyone faces – whether we are liberal or conservative, queer or straight, and so on – is to try and control situations. At every level of life this happens. Sometimes it feels like the church is obsessed with stage-managing ‘God’ and ‘faith’ for its own questionable purposes. In taking Colin’s invitation seriously and standing up in front of the audience/congregation basically ‘empty-handed’ I wanted to offer space for concepts, ideas and words to emerge from my unconscious. I’ve often talked about how God is ‘spacious’ and I wanted – insofar as a control freak like me ever can – to let the Spirit speak into the silence.

The only ‘prop’ I had was a list of three dates – 1946, 1865 and 1918. It was probably not a promising place to start for a group of people looking to challenge the church to properly welcome and respect LGBTI people in the here and now. But sometimes you have to go back to go forward. And all these dates link into moments of hope, challenge and possibility.

I’m not going to bore you with a precise re-run of how I linked these dates together primarily because I was so caught up in the moment that I cannot reconstruct the precise details of what I said. In outline however: 1946 was the year the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty published ‘The War Has Taken Place’; 1865 the year America managed finally and irrevocably to outlaw slavery and 1918 was the year a group of Swiss Quakers went out to post-Great War Poland to help in the reconstruction of that shattered land and died serving others.

My reasons for bringing together these seemingly unconnected events is more interesting I think. For I wanted to emphasize that in so many ways – in ways which both we in the progressive LBGTI community and the wider, often backward-looking church community sometimes fail to appreciate – the ‘war’ or ‘battle’ for equality has already taken place. I know it doesn’t often feel like it, but there is hope in the truth that our society is radically changing. There has been a revolution in society’s attitudes towards LGBTI people in the past two decades. We are here now and we are not going away.

But we should not be children. That is what 1865 reminds us of. If slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865 – if ‘slavery’, in Lincoln’s words, ‘was done’ - then it is important to remember that segregation lasted another hundred years and even now equality and respect is a live issue. If for LGBTI people like us certain battles are ‘done’, then the call to live out God’s hope is predicated on how very far we still have to go to transform prejudice and hate. And I sense the church – as institution – has got a lot of repenting to do before we get anywhere near the inclusion and equality we all dream of.

And what might this dream of inclusion look like? Well maybe the parable I told from 1918 might help. The Swiss Quakers served the sick and the dying in a Polish village. They served patiently and lovingly and, inevitably, they too succumbed to cholera and Spanish flu. But the villagers they’d served recognized love when they saw it. And though the Quakers were not Roman Catholics they petitioned the parish priest to have them buried on holy ground. But, with regret, the priest turned them down. They were not Roman Catholics and, therefore, not of the church. And so the Quakers were buried in a plot just outside the graveyard. However, the following day, as people got up they witnessed a quiet miracle – over night the fence of the graveyard had been moved to bring the Quakers inside.

I don’t know if this actually happened. Does it matter? The important thing is that is captures a hopeful truth. It invites all of us whether we are LGBTI or not to be attentive to the way boundaries can both be policed and moved, for good or ill. So often we have been like people kept outside and rightly we are angry when those who have the power to ‘move the fence’ (or sit on them!) actively exclude us. But perhaps because we have been kept out we are precisely the ones who can expose these arbitrary borders and barriers for the traps they are.


We are impatient and hungry for change. We know that there are gatekeepers who will work hard to keep us out. Some of us, quite understandably, will walk away and only a fool would not be tempted to do so. But the Spirit is impatient for change too. And if she will not be stage-managed into second-rate roles or being less than she is, nor should we. The fences will fall. And God will help us tear them up.

Monday, 10 February 2014

'Practicing' vs 'Expert' Homosexuals in the Church - Response to Church Times Survey

At what point does one become an expert in something? If memory serves the journalist & ex-table tenis player Matthew Syed suggests about 16000 hours. 16000 hours in order to become a top quality basketball player or kick-butt artist.

Such a calculation is always questionable, but – in this very brief blog post (no time today) – I feel moved to respond to data in a recent Church Times survey about attitudes towards ordaining ‘practicing homosexuals’. When I read these results I asked, via tweet, how those of us who are fully-trained or expert ‘homosexuals’ (when I say that word I forever say it in an RP/1950s whispery voice emphasising the 'homo' bit) are seen. 

Ok, it’s an old joke and it’s a joke grounded in a deliberate misreading of the word ‘practicing’. But as dear old Jacques Derrida reminds us it is often in jokes and puns and ‘mis-hearings’ of our systems of writing that the problems and aporias in our language are revealed. The very notion of ‘practicing’ or ‘non-practicing’ gay folk reveals the attitudes and prejudices implicit in church discourse about people like me.


I don’t blame The Church Times as such. I am very fond of it and it has been incredibly supportive towards my writing. I take that as a token of its breadth. Yet when we talk about practicing or non-practicing LGBT* people we have already decided how being queer is seen. It has been trapped in terms of an expressive/non-expressive account of gender and sexual being. Once again –and I’m rather sick of pointing this out – it places identity in a category of lifestyle choice. And it will not do.