Saturday, January 16, 2016

Diarmaid MacCulloch on Anger of Heterosexual Men Driving Religious Conservatism, and Mess Anglican Leaders Have Made for Themselves

I've shared these observations with you in the past. I think it might be helpful now to gather them together in one posting, following the recent decision of Primates 2016 to discipline the Episcopal Church USA for its full embrace of LGBT human beings as children of God equal to other children of God. These are three incisive statements by a member of Oxford's Faculty of Theology and Religion, historian Diarmaid MacCulloch. MacCulloch grew up in the household of an Anglican parson. He also happens to be openly gay.

Throughout the world at the present day, the most easily heard tone in religion (not just Christianity) is of a generally angry conservatism. Why? I would hazard that the anger centres on a profound shift in gender roles which have been traditionally been given a religious significance and validated by religious traditions. It embodies the hurt of heterosexual men at cultural shifts which have generally threatened to marginalize them and deprive them of dignity, hegemony or even much usefulness – not merely heterosexual men already in positions of leadership, but those who in traditional cultural systems would expect to inherit leadership. It has been observed by sociologists of religion that the most extreme forms of conservatism to be found in modern world religions, conservativisms which in a borrowing from Christianity have been termed "fundamentalisms," are especially attractive to "literate but jobless, unmarried male youths marginalized and disenfranschised by the juggernaut of modernity’ – in other words, those whom modernity has crated, only to fail to offer them any worthwhile purpose" (Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years [NY: Penguin, 2009], pp. 990-1, citing B.A. Brasher, Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism [NY and London, 2001], p. 18; and G.M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism [Grand Rapids, 1991], p. 1). 

Behind the passing conflicts of the moment lies a debate throughout Christianity about whether the Bible and Christian tradition can be wrong and can be changed. It is also a debate about whether God’s plan for the world centres on the supremacy of heterosexual men. "Male headship" is one of the overriding concerns of the Sydney variant on Anglicanism, and worldwide, those Anglicans opposed to any change on attitudes to same-sex relationships overlap fairly snugly with those opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood or consecration to the episcopate, who use the same sort of arguments (Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, pp. 1009-10).


All this threw a spotlight on the mess that the Church of England leadership has gotten itself into, and the disconnect between the bishops and the rest of the country, even from many in the church pews. Nationwide there is a majority in favor of same-sex marriage, and that percentage is not significantly lower among those who declare themselves to be churchgoers. Yet only one diocesan bishop, Nick Holtam, bishop of Salisbury, has declared that same-sex marriage is a good thing. The rest have hidden behind a statement commending traditional marriage prepared for the church’s theological think tank, the Faith and Order Commission.  
The Church of England bishops have been caught between trying to conciliate noisy conservatives in the church and wanting to be nice to the gays, because (to episcopal surprise and alarm) gay people have ceased to lurk in the shadows and have entered mainstream society, demanding to be treated as ordinary human beings. Some are even clergy in same-sex partnerships ("Same-Sex Marriage Leaves the Bishops Behind," NY Times, 14 June 2013).

The photograph of Diarmaid MacCulloch is from his Oxford faculty page.

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