Christianity in a time of revolution – Archbishop Justin’s presidential address

At the end of yesterday afternoon’s opening session of General Synod in York the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered his first presidential address. His theme was revolution.

He began by thanking all the staff who, he said, “…have been so effective and kind in dealing with the frightening and unsettling impact of a new Archbishop. Taking on a new Archbishop is as demanding as it gets.”

I felt uneasy. Why should he portray the impact of a new Archbishop as frightening, unsettling and demanding? Why shouldn’t it be experienced as inspiring, energizing, loving and safe? Or any other positive feelings about a new arrival. Archbishop Justin doesn’t come across as a frightening or demanding person. I wish he had launched his speech on a positive and confident tone rather than this apologetic note that didn’t ring true. I think the Archbishop was speaking from an anxiety (which I fully understand) that he hasn’t yet resolved.

Later he came to the main theme of his address – living in a time of revolution. “You don’t want a lot of baggage in a revolution,” he said, “And the trouble with revolutions is once they start no-one knows where they will go.”

That is absolutely true of the revolution taking place in the global church in relation to the place of women and the diverse nature of human sexuality. What Justin didn’t seem to be confident about is that God might well be part of the revolutionary process. From my experience, I think God is absolutely part of the revolution in the understanding of human gender and sexuality.

It’s good to hear him state categorically that “…we are custodians of the gospel that transforms individuals, nations and societies. We are called by God to respond radically and imaginatively to new contexts – contexts that are set up by revolutions. The revolutions are huge.”

I took that as an acknowledgement that the revolution about gender and sexuality in Christianity is what God is calling us to respond to radically and imaginatively because we are custodians of the gospel that transforms individuals.

The Archbishop has developed from where he was 3 months ago when I met him as a member of the LGB&T Anglican Coalition. Having listened, as he did,

“… to much of the Same Sex Marriage Bill Second Reading Debate in the House of Lords could not fail to be struck by the overwhelming change of cultural hinterland. Predictable attitudes were no longer there. The opposition to the Bill, which included me and many other bishops, was utterly overwhelmed, with amongst the largest attendance in the House and participation in the debate, and majority, since 1945. There was noticeable hostility to the view of the churches.”

I’m relieved to hear the Archbishop recognizing that overwhelming change has already taken place. The cultural and political ground is changing. There is a revolution.

As he listened in the Lords, he felt that some of what was said by those supporting the bill was uncomfortably close to the bone.

“Lord Alli said that 97% of gay teenagers in this country report homophobic bullying. In the USA suicide as a result of such bullying is the principle cause of death of gay adolescents. One cannot sit and listen to that sort of reality without being appalled. 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.”

“… sometimes [people] look at us and see what they don’t like. I don’t like saying that. I’ve resisted that thought. But in that debate I heard it, and I could not walk away from it. We all know that it is utterly horrifying.”

I heard the Archbishop using dramatically powerful and truthful language about Christian attitudes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I have no doubt he was shocked by his own recognition of the deeply damaging effect this has on LGB&T people and on people’s perception of the Church. I wondered whether he also recognizes how incredibly damaging the Church’s stance is to God, the very nature of God as infinitely creative and loving.

The Archbishop referred to reports of gay people executed in Iran this week for being gay. He talked about a determination to take action to stamp out stereotyping and bullying in schools.

He didn’t refer to the ant-gay marriage bill in Nigeria or the anti-gay bill in Uganda, nor, critically, to the anti-gay teaching and rhetoric in the Anglican Communion. It is present in every Province of the Communion but is at its most extreme in those affiliated to the Global South networks; FCA, GAFCON, AMiE and others.

I know how difficult it is for the Archbishop to say more, both because of his own theological convictions and because of the power of the voices in this country and around the Communion who pounce every time anything affirming of the place of LGB&T people in the Church is made.

There is only one word for Christian attitudes to LGB&T people that cultivates prejudice and homophobia. It is EVIL. One day, if the Archbishop is sufficiently moved by his experience in the House of Lords and elsewhere, he will name prejudiced Christian teaching and attitudes towards LGB&T people for what it is – evil. The Anglican Communion is living in a time of revolution about gender and sexuality. The majority has created a powerful coalition designed to frustrate what Archbishop Justin clearly understands is happening and must be encouraged to happen – the call by God to respond radically and imaginatively to new contexts.


  1. David@Montreal says

    Colin, thank-you for this. Hopeful yes, however the fact that Justin can still get away with using “hinterland” bespeaks a patriarchal/dualistic take on reality Spirit has yet to free him from. To quote a dear friend “did it ever occur to them (referring to the vested interests of the ‘official Church’) that the Holy Spirit just might have grown tired waiting for the ‘official Church’ to engage with the sacrament of Life itself?” Thank you Colin.

  2. Kate says

    To pick up on the least important part of this: I think the opening paragraph is interesting in someone’s who has come from industry. There (and actually in much cosier professions) it’s a reasonable assumption that the incoming new boss will want to reshape jobs and responsibilities and tactfully retire some people — as indeed Welby has already done. He’s also made some very sensible sounding new comms appointments so that they have someone on board who understands social media.

    Rowan Williams by contrast didn’t sack anyone, and so famously ended up surrounded for his whole tenure by the con evos put into place by George Carey – it’s at least an interesting question to ask, whether that in turn meant he was strangely stuck with George Carey’s policies.

    There’s a lot to be said for an organisation having longstanding faithful servants – and if you’re constantly throwing people out of post in search of something better, there’s a knock on effect for your relationships with everyone else. All the same, I think Welby will be a lot less nervous than Rowan in making a few staff changes where he feels it is needed – the apology upfront is both a very British way of saying ‘see, I’m not that scary’ but also acknowledging that he might come bearing unwelcome change. And that does have significance for the more important parts of his speech.

  3. says

    He’s using revolution in the sense of everything being tossed up into the air, and thus for women he wants people of every viewpoint welcomed and flourishing, so long as they are ineffectual for a woman treated as a man in terms of inclusion in ministry (hardly acceptable for the resistance) while he wants to be anti-homophobic whilst finding arguments to keep gay relationship people out of ministry (hardly acceptable to the inclusionists). If there is a revolution, he may not get his own way on one or the other or both, but in the end revolutions don’t allow for everything but involve actual decisions and events taking place that satisfy some and not others.

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