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This page last updated 29 June 1999
Anglicans Online last updated 1 August 1999

More talk than listening
By Richard Harries

A resolution on homosexuality came to dominate the Anglican Communion's Lambeth Conference, provoking conflict between conservatives and liberals. The Bishop of Oxford reports on the struggle for compromise, and regrets that so many bishops kept their minds firmly closed.

Before the Lambeth Conference began, the media predicted that the question of homosexuality would be the overriding issue. The organisers tried to play this down, stressing, for example, the importance of remitting Third World debt and placing homosexuality within a wider discussion of ethical issues. But the subject was not to be so contained. The media proved to be quite right and the gay issue dominated the proceedings, not just in the reporting but at the conference. This was not, however, because liberal American bishops wanted it that way. They were remarkably quiet. The issue dominated proceedings because evangelicals from the developed world allied with Churches from central, west, and east Africa, and Churches from south-east Asia were determined to get a ringing denunciation of "homosexuality as a sin" out of Lambeth.

The sub-section dealing with homosexuality got off to an appalling start because of clashes of opinion between conservatives and liberals. All agreed on faithfulness in marriage and chastity outside it as being the Christian way. All could agree on pastoral sensitivity to homosexual people. Beyond that there was much disagreement. In the search for a compromise, I proposed a paragraph to be inserted in the Conference resolution. It said that the conference "recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care and moral direction of the Church, and God's transforming power for their living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ."

This sub-clause was accepted, as was another, which said that "this conference cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions, nor the ordination of those involved in such unions."

The final resolution may not have been very startling but the process of producing it, calculated at more than 800 bishop hours, had come to be a real experience of facing serious, deeply-held disagreements within the common life of Christ.

The climax of the conference, so far as the question of homosexuality was concerned, came with the afternoon session of Wednesday 5 August. Potential chaos loomed. For there was not only the carefully wrought resolution which we had worked on in the sub-section charged with dealing with this issue, but a series of much fiercer resolutions and endless amendments from other sections and regional groups.

The first crucial decision was whether our resolution was going to be accepted as the basis for further discussion or the much stronger, more condemnatory ones from some of the African regions. I argued that the concerns of the more conservative Churches were quite adequately met in our resolution and the fact that the leading evangelical Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Revd Harry Goodhew, supported it enabled the conference to vote, by a substantial majority, to accept our resolution. But this was not in fact the critical vote. On our chairs as we came into the plenary session was a new amendment allowed "at the discretion of the chairman of the session" - in other words it had been submitted after the deadline but allowed by the organisers. This amendment inserted the words "while rejecting homosexual practice as being incompatible with Scripture" before the condemnation of homophobia. That amendment was passed by 389 in favour and 190 against. I understand that if this amendment had not been in and accepted, great numbers of bishops from the African Churches would have walked out, and that it was personally brokered by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There were a couple of other significant amendments. The word homophobia was rejected in favour of "irrational fear of homosexuals" and the clause "we commit ourselves to listen to the experiences of homosexual people" was voted in. Eventually the conference approved the resolution by a vote of 526 in favour, 70 against and 45 abstentions.

Most of the American bishops were bitterly disappointed, and the question arises as to why their voice was heard so little. One reason, undoubtedly, was the Spong factor. Because Bishop Spong of Newark is associated not only with a liberal attitude towards gays, but with the rejection of many traditional tenets of Christianity through his recently published 12 theses, and because of his alleged unkind remarks about the lack of sophistication of African Christians, many American bishops did, I think, feel chary about voicing their opinions. Also, there is a very properly Christian self-denying ordinance amongst many Americans about not wanting to dominate the proceedings. But the result was that the American voice was extremely muted.

Ugly rumours went around that African votes had been bought by American right-wing money organised by the more conservative dioceses in the United States. This is an unfair accusation. Nevertheless, there clearly was a concerted effort coming from somewhere - and why not, if the conservatives believed that this was a gospel issue. For months before the Lambeth Conference I had been receiving letters from parochial church councils in the diocese of Oxford, saying that they supported the "Kuala Lumpur statement" and urging me to do the same at Lambeth. The Kuala Lumpur statement was a text adopted by 80 delegates representing the Anglican Church of the South in Kuala Lumpur in April last year. It sets forth traditional sexual norms in clear, unambiguous terms and it expresses concern about teaching and practices contrary to this.

In the event only a moderate acknowledgement of the concerns of the Kuala Lumpur statement was incorporated in section G of the final resolution.

As chairman of the House of Bishops Working Party on Human Sexuality, I went to Lambeth with the primary intention of listening carefully to what was happening in other parts of the Anglican Communion. But experiencing the full flood of conservative opinion organised in ways which could be extremely damaging not only to gay people but to the unity of the Communion, I quickly gave myself over to damage limitation. I believe the worst damage was avoided and that the resultant resolution is one which most Anglicans can live with. It was hugely important for Churches in Africa to obtain a clear condemnation of homosexual practice, not so much for their own pastoral needs but so that they would not be the object of gibes by Muslims. My real sorrow is not so much that the vote went the way it did but that a good number of bishops had made up their minds before they came to Lambeth and were unwilling to listen to other positions.

We cannot even begin to address the issue of homosexuality without listening to the experience of both gay and lesbian people. This should, I believe, include listening both to members of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and to people associated with Christian organisations which aim to persuade gay people to change their lifestyles. I wonder how many bishops at the Lambeth Conference would really have been prepared to listen to both sets of testimonies.

The vote of the Lambeth Conference which was reported in such terms as "Liberal bishops routed" and "Bishops take a hard line on gays" clearly dismayed a good number of American dioceses. After the vote a pastoral letter was composed and addressed "To lesbian and gay Anglicans", which said such things as: "Within the limitations of this conference, it has not been possible to hear adequately your voices, and we apologise for any sense of rejection that has occurred because of this reality…. We pledge that we will continue to reflect, pray and work for your full inclusion in the life of the Church." This was signed by 51 bishops from the United States and 20 from England, in addition to bishops from Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales. It would be wrong, however, whatever some might say or think, to think that this is a white person's question. The Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane and the Archbishop of Central Africa, Khotso Makhulu told their fellow Africans in forthright terms that they could not simply dismiss the issue out of hand or assume that all that was being talked about was promiscuous behaviour.

As far as the Church of England is concerned, the Lambeth resolution represents a conservative interpretation of the Church of England House of Bishops statement, "Issues in Human Sexuality". Where "Issues In Human Sexuality" goes further in the direction of greater acceptance, is the respect for the conscientious judgement of those lay people who before God share their lives with someone else of the same sex. The Church is urged to welcome such people and support them in their life of Christian discipleship.

The debate on this issue is usually caricatured as one between those who uphold the authority of the Bible and liberals who are wrongly accommodating to contemporary sexual mores. One thing Lambeth has convinced me of, if I needed any convincing, is that this is a gospel issue. In the end, it is about our understanding of Jesus as the icon of God. Without the statement in the resolution that gay and lesbian people "are loved by God and that all baptised, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the body of Christ", it would not, for me, have reflected the Gospel at all.

Richard Harries is the Bishop of Oxford. This article was published in the 15 August 1998 paper edition of The Tablet; it was not reproduced on their website.

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