Sunday, July 13, 2008

As I Was Saying to the Bishop of Atlanta...

I went to a Deanery discussion in a local church this evening. I went to listen to two bishops from opposing wings of the Anglican church discuss current theological/ecclesiastical controversies - namely the ordination of gay priests and female bishops. Now as I am mostly atheist you might be surprised that I should want to attend such a meeting - but I am, after all, the country's leading bishop-spotter and therefore simply couldn't pass up this opportunity to cross two exotic specimens off my list and I am, furthermore, quite interested in the current faction-fight hoo-hah in the Church of England and allied international churches between 'liberals' and fundamentalist conservatives.

Unfortunately the African bishop scheduled to speak (a conservative) wasn't able to attend. The only speaker was the liberal Bishop of Atlanta. I didn't agree with everything he said (i.e. all the metaphysical, mystical stuff - or, in other words, most of it) but I did like what he said, find it very interesting and end up liking this guy very much. He was clearly very active in the campaign to get Western governments to drop 'Third World' debt. He was also strongly committed to gay partnerships, the ordination of openly gay priests and bishops and to the ordination of women. It was interesting (if a little bizarre) to hear someone justify these positions in relation to religious faith and scripture. He said, for example, that there was no word for homosexuality in the language in which the Bible was originally compiled and that, in fact, the word itself was a 19th Century invention (I shall have to chase this up). The implication, he suggested was that there was no proscription against homosexuality in the Bible until recent translations/rewritings of that text. He argued that heterosexual marriage was presented simply as a kind of 'model' relationship - that is an ideal type of partnership that most people (given the fact that most people are straight) would encounter/experience. This 'model' however, was not intended as a one-size fits all kind of relationship - other forms of partnership including gay partnerships were just as valid.

He also had some quite interesting things to say about African Christianity. He argued that, although usually depicted as basically literalist and fundamentalist, most African Christians were traditionally anti-literalist in their reading of scriptures and that they often altered the details of particular parables in the Bible for example in order to make them relevant to their own particular cultural context. A little example he gave here was that the Masai alter the biblical passage about sheep and goats so that the goats, not the sheep, become the metaphorical representatives of the faithful - this is because goats not sheep are the most prized form of livestock in some areas of Africa because sheep aren't well adapted to the environmental conditions. The fundamentalism that exists in Africa, he said, was entirely imported from outside recently by fundamentalist Western missionaries and was in many ways quite superficial rather than well rooted. He mentioned that some African tribes originally had valued socially allotted roles for gay people - suggesting that homosexuality was seen as entirely normal in these communities. This acceptance of homosexuality, he said, though not immediately obvious, can often be discovered under the surface in African Christian communities - though it is hidden because it contravenes the official teachings of church leaders and missionaries. It would have been interesting to hear what the African bishop had to say about this.

There were some pretty ugly contributions from the floor as you might expect. At least two speakers argued that homosexuality was a form of evil and one referred to 'buggery' in a manner which didn't suggest an attitude of Christian love. I was most interested, however, in those attendees who said that they didn't feel as if they could continue to belong to the Church of England if female bishops were ordained. The most interesting thing about these contributors was that they were all women - this was a great demonstration of the way in which people can internalise and come to identify with social relations and sets of beliefs that actually structure their own social oppression/repression. I was talking to a very nice old lady who suddenly informed me that she didn't think that women were capable of being bishops. It's sad that 90 odd years after women won the vote there are still people who think that men and women are not of equal worth. But then that's patriarchal capitalism for you innit.

I was hoping to make some kind of 'left-wing contribution' to the debate, but in the end remained silent. For one thing it's quite hard to make a contribution to a debate in which some of the referrents and taken-for-granted bases of discussion are, if not entirely alien, ones that you are unused to and which you do not yourself accept. The discussion of gay priests for example was premised on the idea that the rights and wrongs of the issue had to be deciphered from, or justified in relation to, scriptural texts. Another reason I didn't contribute, however, was that I became unaccountably nervous during the debate and didn't feel like I'd be able to make a very good point. I sometimes get this in contexts in which the airing of left-wing politics is not an everyday occurrence. I'm all right on a university campus, but away from that, and in the company of relatively conservative and/or 'apolitical' people, I often feel like I'd make an idiot of myself if I mentioned the 's' word, let alone the 'M' word. I get this in the school staffroom, too, actually. I must try to get over it - but as someone somewhere once remarked it's much harder to explain left-wing political positions to people than it is to rehearse the everyday trite and/or platitudinous position on 'current affairs', or indeed to come out with Jeremy Clarkson type reactionary chauvinist bullshit. This is because the left-wing political outlook is (in most cases) quite a sophisticated one which runs against the grain of everyday 'common sense' and which, therefore, takes quite a lot of explaining.

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