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Book Review: A Church at War – Anglicans and Homosexuality by Stephen Bates

by Simon Sarmiento
Anglicans Online Europe correspondent
18 July 2004

A Church at War Anglicans and Homosexuality by Stephen Bates, London I.B.Tauris June 2004. £17.95 ISBN: 1-85043-480-8 (also to be published in the USA by Palgrave Macmillan September 2004 $24.95)

Some weeks ago I attended an hour-long presentation by the principal author of Some Issues in Human Sexuality: A Guide to the Debate (SIHS), which earlier in the year I had dutifully read from cover to cover and found to be a quite dreadfully badly written, turgid, sleep-inducing book. The “live” and supposedly “neutral” presentation to an audience of clergy and lay leaders was far worse than the book, and left not just me, but the whole of the audience, wide awake and fuming. Was SIHS really the best material the Church of England could offer us to encourage serious study of sexuality issues in the parishes?

A Church at War, which was published in London this month, would be a far better bet for anyone who wants to organise a discussion group, in parish or deanery, on homosexuality. This book is less conservative in its stance than SIHS, which (despite episcopal claims made for it) is arguably not entirely neutral. But Bates is certainly several orders of magnitude more readable, and one does not have to agree with all his conclusions to benefit from reading the book, which will also be published in the USA in September.

In some 250 pages (13 chapters plus bibliography and a good index) Stephen Bates leads the reader briskly through the biblical and historical background, as well as telling in a most entertaining style all the more recent stories of debates and meetings about homosexuality, in England and North America. This book is aimed at the Anglican general reader, and is not only for ecclesiastical professionals. In the preface he first makes clear that “This is a work of journalism rather than theological and historical scholarship.” And he continues:

I hope this book will be read by those in the church who have been left bemused, confused and distressed by what has been going on. This includes many Evangelicals who have struggled both to comprehend the row and to continue to bear witness to Christ by living good and holy lives. If they feel under-represented in what follows, it is because many of their self-appointed leaders have been actuated by altogether more partisan, political, motives than theirs.

Bates writes from a British (sometimes even an English) perspective but those outside the Church of England will nevertheless find much of value here. I particularly hope that American Episcopalians, both conservative and liberal, will read it with care, despite the former finding much in it that annoys them. Americans are notoriously bad at listening to voices from abroad. And many Episcopalians on both sides of the issue seem already to have “ceased talking to each other because they believed they had nothing more to say. It was, as one participant, the South Carolina theologian Kendall Harmon, has noted, as if they were playing tennis on separate courts, serving the ball over the net but with no one on the other side to return it.”

This quote should serve as a clue that the book is far from being “a completely one-sided account”, as one ultra-conservative commentator recently claimed, admittedly without having read it. If conservatives will but listen, this book can help them to understand why neither the majority of the (secular) public, nor moderate Anglicans are hearing them. And liberals also need to listen and respond to the conservative voices represented here.

An Oxford-trained historian (Gary Bennett was once his tutor), Bates has been a professional journalist for nearly three decades, including periods at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail as well as with his current employer, the Guardian. He is a Roman Catholic married to a charismatic evangelical Anglican who declares his personal views on the subject matter this way:

I have had a front-row seat to watch the Anglican Communion’s struggle and have formed what some would say was too decided a view of the merits of the contest. This would have surprised me a year ago before the fight started in earnest. If my views have altered, it is because I have watched the contest being fought in a way that does little credit to many of its participants.

At the core of the research done for this book are some 50 interviews with participants in the events described. Only John Stott and Jeffrey John declined to talk to Bates, each for entirely understandable reasons. A few remain anonymous. Spread throughout the book are excerpts from interviews with such prominent English and American evangelicals as David Anderson, David Banting, Philip Giddings, Chris Green, Nicky Gumbel, Kendall Harmon, Tony Higton, Sandy Millar, William Taylor and Tom Wright. Others interviewed include Colin Coward, Giles Fraser, Frank Griswold, Richard Harries, Richard Holloway, Michael Ingham, Richard Kirker, Gene Robinson, Colin Slee and Rowan Williams.

Two major extracts have already been published on the internet, one in the Guardian on the Reading saga, and the other – a summary of the concluding chapter – in the Church Times. A third extract, dealing with Gene Robinson, was published this week in the paper edition of the Tablet.

Other chapters cover earlier events in England including the 1987 “Higton debate” in General Synod and the 1998 Lambeth Conference. I myself reported from the latter and can vouch for the accuracy of the description; Bates was then not yet covering the religion beat. Further chapters deal with events in North America leading up to and following the consecration of Gene Robinson and in the Canadian diocese of New Westminster. Bates recalls the attempted ecclesiastical trial in the US Episcopal Church of Bishop Walter Righter in 1992, an unappealed court decision of huge importance, which conservatives at the time seemed not to take as seriously as they perhaps should have done.

Inevitably the book has some omissions and errors, though in my judgement none of these are serious. The Christian name of the then Bishop of Washington is Ronald, not Robert (p. 133) and the erring English suffragan bishop’s see was Jarrow, not Jesmond (p. 100). Many in the US Episcopal Church will be puzzled by a mention of the “white steeples” on their churches (p. 2). Archbishop Venables speaks for a province, not an archdiocese (p. 225). The book’s publication deadline means there is no mention of the more recent attacks on Jeffrey John and the Bishop of St Albans that began in late April this year.

A strength of this book is that it recognises the impact of technology upon the debate:

These points of the compass may be vastly different but one thing brings them closer together – the Internet, which enables the exchange of views, signatures and outrage within seconds. No time for tempers to cool or news to soften. This technology brings a network together in a way that letters never could and with an immediacy that missionary societies would never have dreamt of when they set out to convert the heathen in the nineteenth century.

Many of the book’s endnotes refer to earlier Guardian articles, every one of which can be found online. Bates dismisses the notorious "Anglican Mainstream" Internet petition as “disingenuous nonsense” but is also rightly critical of liberals’ failure in this area:

Evangelicals worldwide have generally been far ahead of their liberal opponents in the efficiency with which they have disseminated and discussed ways of how best to promote their vision of biblical truth. The liberals have lately tried to catch up. But they certainly have some way to go to match the accomplished and self-confident technophilia of their Evangelical Brethren.

And indeed Anglicans Online is not mentioned even once in this book.

What is documented here, quite clearly, is the nature of the threat that, regardless of the eventual effect of the Lambeth Commission on the rest of the Communion (about which Bates is extremely gloomy), now faces the Church of England itself:

What precipitates the split now is that a section of conservative Evangelicals, with a militant and exclusivist philosophy, and a taste for confrontation, has organised an attempted coup to seize the old Church for its own agenda. Theirs is a sectarian, congregationalist Church that can tolerate only one sort of Christian and only the authority of those bishops who agree with them. There is no room for dialogue, doubt or debate – and maybe not for many of the things many Anglicans still value: ancient music, historic buildings, formal worship, hallowed prayers, the Authorised Version, or a sense of stillness and spirituality. The militants hold these things in contempt as outdated painted vanities, and they think everyone else should believe the same. This is a small faction within Evangelicalism – though it claims itself to be the largest grouping – but it is certainly a noisy and rancorous one.

This is not an image invented by Bates. A leading evangelical, Bishop Pete Broadbent said as much in relation to NEAC 2003, and elsewhere in the book an Evangelical suffragan bishop is quoted: “Oak Hill has been taken over by hardliners. They have forced out those who disagree with them…. We wouldn’t recruit an Oak Hill graduate into our diocese now. They have no idea of parish ministry, no idea of Anglicanism and no idea about how to relate to people in the outside world.”

Close to the end of the book, Bates sums it up this way:

The truth is – as thoughtful Evangelicals acknowledge – that Christianity, particularly its Anglican strand, has changed its mind or argued its way around many of the things that are forbidden in the Biblical texts without the sky falling in on belief or worship. It has even half done so over homosexuality, accepting gay partnerships for lay members. True Christians, secure in their beliefs, need no longer fear that their faith will be undermined if others do things slightly differently from themselves. No one, after all, is demanding the compulsory ordination of gay bishops, nor the obligatory blessing of same-sex couples.

But this is dangerous ground for a Bible-believing Evangelical. When I suggested to Philip Giddings that Christians had changed their minds on other things, he suddenly became quite vehement and pink in the face. ‘So what is your point? What is your point?’ he bellowed. ‘What’s the logic? It is simply inapplicable. Homosexuality is a sin. It is different. No one has ever suggested that being a woman is sinful, or being a slave is sinful.’ Well, yes, actually they have, right from the days of Eve – and, anyway, aren’t we all sinners? Or does Dr Giddings have a unique dispensation?

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