Archbishop of Canterbury: The Anguish I Face Over Gay Marriage
Published: 19th April 2014 03:40 PM |
The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that he is powerless to bless gay marriages because to do so would split the global Anglican Church.
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, the Most Rev Justin Welby said that the Church had probably caused "great harm" to homosexuals in the past - but there was not a "huge amount" that could now be done to rectify the situation.
Although indicating that he was sympathetic to calls for the Church to publicly honour gay relationships, the Archbishop said that it was "impossible" for some followers in Africa to support homosexuality. In today's interview, the leader of the Anglican Church, which has 77?million followers globally, speaks movingly of the persecution faced by Christians in parts of the world. He indicates that the Church must not take a step that would cut off these groups, most of them in the third world, however much this angers parts of society in Britain.
The introduction of same-sex marriage in England and Wales last month has brought divisions within the Church of England to a new intensity.
Although the Church is legally exempt from carrying out same-sex weddings, it is about to embark on a consultation on the possible introduction of informal blessing-like services. The Church's attempt to ban its own clergy from marrying people of the same sex has already been openly defied by at least one priest who married his partner last week.
Over the past few weeks, The Daily Telegraph has been given unprecedented access to the Archbishop after his first year in office. In the first half of the interview published today, he speaks in detail about the dilemma he is facing over gay marriage - and the influence of recent visits he has made to Africa over the issue.
"We are struggling with the reality that there are different groups around the place that the Church can do - or has done - great harm to," the Archbishop says. "You look at some of the gay, lesbian, LGBT groups in this country and around the world - Africa included, actually - and their experience of abuse, hatred, all kinds of things." But he says: "We must both respond to what we've done in the past and listen to those voices extremely carefully. Listen with love and compassion and sorrow. And do what is possible to be done, which is not always a huge amount."
The Archbishop adds: "At the same time there are other groups in many parts of the world who are the victims of oppression and poverty, who we also have to listen to, and who find that issue an almost impossible one to deal with.
"How do you hold those two things [in balance] and do what is right and just by all? And not only by one group that you prefer and that is easier to deal with? That's not acceptable."
In the interview, the Archbishop speaks of his pain at travelling to South Sudan in the aftermath of a massacre of dozens of Christians. He speaks of crying with his wife while watching a mass burial in Bor. The town was yesterday the scene of another atrocity when at least 58 people were killed in an attack on a UN base.
However, even in the midst of the horrific situation witnessed by the Archbishop, the local religious leaders asked about homosexuality - making clear that if blessings of gay marriage were allowed to proceed then they would not accept his help in future.
"I do believe passionately that unity is something we have to maintain," the Archbishop said privately soon afterwards. "I may be wrong, but I also believe that to take a step that means that people who desperately need our help - and who we can help - can't take it, feel in their own culture that it is impossible to be helped by us, is something that we can't easily do."
In previous public statements, he appeared to indicate that if the Church did bless gay marriages this could lead to Christians being targeted in Africa.
However, the Archbishop now says that his previous position was misinterpreted, and denies that he is effectively being blackmailed. "What I said is that I have been in places where that has been the reason given for attacking people," he says. "Now, as I said then - and this is where there was misinterpretation - that doesn't mean that you don't do certain things. That would just be giving in to that kind of terror.
"It would be moral blackmail. You can't say, 'We're not going to do X, which we think is right, because it will cause trouble'. That's ridiculous."
Last night, one bishop dismissed his comments as "simply wrong" and said the Church was now being held together simply by people having to "pretend to be what they are not". The Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, said: "I think that relating gay marriage in the West to the activities of warlords and people who practise genocide in central Africa is simply wrong. I don't think it makes sense at all.
"If it is true that the cost of keeping the Anglican Communion together is that people keep getting murdered in nasty ways around the world, I say, what do you mean by keeping the Anglican Communion together?"
The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, who was born in Pakistan, said: "Christians are being persecuted for their faith, not particularly because of what western Christians may or may not say about homosexuality. The persecution isn't about this, it is about the Christian faith, it's about the threat that people perceive Christians to be, that's what causes persecution, imprisonment, exile, killing."
The lives of Christians in some African nations could be endangered if Anglican priests in Britain give their blessing to same-sex unions. There are no easy answers, the Archbishop of Canterbury tells Cole Moreton
The Archbishop of Canterbury was lost for words as he stood beside a mass grave. The bodies of two dozen murdered men and women lay at his feet in bags. The stench of death was in his nostrils, in 40C heat. Those who loved the slain were in tears. "All you could really do was to weep with them," says the Most Revd Justin Welby, describing the most harrowing moment of a five-day trip to Africa that he made with his wife, Caroline, earlier this year. "It was hugely painful."
His throat tightens and his voice becomes clipped as he remembers that day in Bor, a remote town in wartorn South Sudan. Today we are in the back of a car driven by Caroline, passing through the English countryside on the way to Canterbury. This short, trim, bespectacled man looks thoroughly unremarkable in a dark suit and black shirt and says that without the dog collar he can easily go unnoticed in a crowd. "I suspect I have a fairly forgettable face."
But 77 million Anglicans across the world look to Welby as their spiritual leader, by virtue of the office he has held for a year, even if they find themselves at odds with him.
Many want to know what is going to happen about homosexuality. After the change in the law, will the clergy in England be allowed to bless same-sex marriages? Some priests here are already doing so, risking their jobs. The archbishop says no, they should wait for the outcome of a consultation that will be carried out across the Communion.
He insists the Church still believes marriage is between a man and a woman, and any sudden departure from doctrine in this country would be "absolutely catastrophic" for believers in places such as South Sudan.
After returning from there in February, he urged the House of Bishops not to go too far or act too quickly, because of what he had seen and heard. It has even been reported that he thinks the Church should not bless gay marriages here in case it gets Christians killed in Africa. But today he says that is a misrepresentation of his view.
I want to know what his thinking really is on the matter. The answer begins with a heart-breaking account of his trip and the "powerful, profound" effect it had on him.
"We saw the first bodies as we drove off the airstrip," says Archbishop Welby, who was flown to the area with his wife in a single-engine Cessna owned by Mission Aviation Fellowship. "I was being driven by the Mayor of Bor. The best estimate he could give was that they'd had about 6,000 killed, of whom they had buried about 3,000. The bodies were in the road or just in the huts where they had been murdered. The most appalling war crimes. It has been happening in other places as well, unreported on the whole."
Homes had been burnt out or reduced to twists of wood and corrugated iron. Shocked by what he was seeing, the archbishop tweeted a photograph with the words, "shattered vehicles, bodies in streets, looted, a place of evil deeds".
The Foreign Office was telling people to keep away, but the Welbys went anyway, at the invitation of the local church leaders. "We went in with a heavy escort. The place... some bits looked OK, but others were just shattered.
"There was a smell of bodies," he says. "We got to the cathedral and there were bodies there. People had fled there for sanctuary and the rebels had come in and killed them. They killed a number of the priests and quite a number of other people, too."
Among the dead were women who had been raped. "There was one mass grave that had been filled and one that was empty, with the bodies of the clergy lying next to it. They wanted me to consecrate the ground, pray for it, bless it, before they put the bodies in. So we stood there with the corpses of these clergy in body bags and buried them."
Words failed him. "There was a huge sense of trauma. All you could do really was weep with them. As one did so, the fact of being there was the biggest comfort they could have. The heaviest, greatest trauma of conflict is the sense that you are forgotten, or ignored. That was a massive privilege," he says, then adds quietly: "It was hugely painful."
Those who know Justin Welby describe him as "tough" and "unsentimental", but there is no missing the emotion in his voice. He cares for Africa, having visited many times as an oil company executive and then as a peace worker for the Church, risking his life to mediate between warlords.
The Telegraph has been given unprecedented access to the archbishop at home and at work during a joint week of prayer with Cardinal Nichols, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, which has been topped and tailed with Sunday visits to a refuge for asylum seekers in north London and a crisis centre in Folkestone. Tomorrow (Sunday) we will discuss what it is like to be the head of a Church of England that feels a duty of care to the whole nation, whether the nation wants it or not.
But for now, I want to know about those 77 million people. Does he feel personally responsible for them all?
"Yes, I think I do. I am primarily and principally responsible to God, but the fulfilment of that is to be responsible for the people in the Communion." Is that a burden or a privilege? "A privilege. Always. I wouldn't use the word burden. I mean, it is a privilege that feels quite heavy at times."
The leaders in South Sudan expressed gratitude that the "Mother Church" had come to them in their hour of need. But to his surprise, even in their troubles they asked about homosexuality. They had read the Pilling Report in November, which proposed that priests in England be allowed to bless gay marriages. The Anglicans in South Sudan were adamant that if such a thing did happen, their own beliefs and culture would make them unable to accept help from the Mother Church any more. The archbishop reported this to the House of Bishops a few weeks later, urging caution.
"I do believe passionately that unity is something we have to maintain," he said privately, soon afterwards. "I may be wrong, but I also believe that to take a step that means that people who desperately need our help - and who we can help - can't take it, feel in their own culture that it is impossible to be helped by us, is something that we can't easily do. Certainly not in a one-day meeting of the House of Bishops."
The immediate result was a restatement of the Church's traditional position, with the threat that clergy would be disciplined if they blessed gay marriages or married their own same-sex partner. Some were furious. A hospital chaplain has just become the first priest to marry his male partner. "It's best if I do not comment on that," says the archbishop, sounding relieved that it is the Bishop of Lincoln's issue.
So where does Justin Welby stand on all this? Just before flying to Africa, he sent a joint letter with the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, urging the heads of Anglican churches around the world to "demonstrate the love of Christ" to same-sex couples. It came after Nigeria and Uganda introduced harsh new anti-gay laws.
In this country, he has taken care to listen directly to people who have suffered discrimination and persecution because of their sexuality.
"One cannot sit and listen to that sort of reality without being appalled," the archbishop told the General Synod last summer. "We may or may not like it, but we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality and we have not fully heard it. The majority of the population rightly detests homophobic behaviour or anything that looks like it. And sometimes they look at us and see what they don't like."
All this would suggest he thinks the Church of England should react to the shift in our culture in some way, but how? "How you do something has to be thought through very carefully," he says. "That's why we get into the conversations, the thinking, which is what we are doing at the moment and which I don't want to pre-empt."
He's talking about those "facilitated discussions" that are due to take place across the Anglican Communion, once the ground rules have been published next month.
The dead in Bor were victims of a war that was nothing to do with homosexuality. But on LBC radio last month, Archbishop Welby recalled another atrocity, where the killers claimed they were acting to prevent Christians forcing them to become gay. "I've stood by a graveside in Africa of a group of Christians who'd been attacked because of something that had happened far, far away in America... and a lot of them had been killed."
That massacre was not in Bor, but he won't tell me where it is, for fear of endangering those who remain. The LBC host asked him whether he believed a Christian in Africa might suffer violence and abuse because of a decision made at Lambeth Palace about gay marriage? "Yes," he said. "Precisely."
So in what sense was he misunderstood? "What I said is that I have been in places where that has been the reason given for attacking people," he says. "Now, as I said then - and this is where there was misinterpretation - that doesn't mean that you don't do certain things. That would just be giving in to that kind of terror." To argue that you should not bless a gay marriage here just in case it might cause a killing over there would be a kind of moral blackmail, wouldn't it? "It would be. You can't say, 'We're not going to do X, which we think is right, because it will cause trouble.' That's ridiculous."
Instead, he is trying to acknowledge the need and suffering on each side and look through consultation for a way that will allow the Church to serve them both - however unlikely that may seem.
"We are struggling with the reality that there are different groups around the place that the Church can do - or has done - great harm to," he says. "You look at some of the gay, lesbian, LGBT groups in this country and around the world - Africa included, actually - and their experience of abuse, hatred, all kinds of things.
"We must both respond to what we've done in the past and listen to those voices extremely carefully. Listen with love and compassion and sorrow. And do what is possible to be done, which is not always a huge amount," he says.
"At the same time, there are other groups in many parts of the world who are the victims of oppression and poverty, who we also have to listen to, and who find that issue an almost impossible one to deal with. How do you hold those two things [in balance] and do what is right and just by all? And not only by one group that you prefer and that is easier to deal with? That's not acceptable."
In some ways it would be easier for him to yield to campaigners in this country. But Justin Welby believes that to shift doctrine too quickly or too far would be to turn his back on those in South Sudan whose tears he has shared.
So for the moment he is putting his faith in the consultation - and presumably praying for it to work a miracle.
"The job is to love each individual as Christ loves them, which is infinitely," says the man with 77 million people on his mind. "Sometimes that leads you into very difficult choices indeed."