“We have to be very clear about homophobia”, said the freshly enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury to the BBC last week. This quite obviously being the case, the first point on which one ought to be 'clear' is the following: the Church of England is institutionally homophobic.
This kind of statement is controversial only to those wishing to downplay the Church's direct opposition to the rights and the dignity of homosexuals. To the growing numbers of ex-believers and non-believers it is perfectly self-evident; indeed to many believers, who see no conflict between Jesus and marriage equality, it is equally self-evident. But it is not apparently so to the head of the Anglican community. And this, though I commend his eagerness to meet with Peter Tatchell as a genuine advance in this department, is a point on which Justin Welby needs some forthright clarification.
After all, if there is one activity at which the Church of England excels it is euphemism; its spokespersons are known to use language in a frustratingly vague manner, frequently leaving audiences with no clear impression of what they were trying to communicate. The Church has first and foremost a duty to respect the rights of individuals but it is therefore imperative that it respects language and its usage. The word 'homophobic' comes loaded with very negative connotations but it is a word with which the Church will forever be justifiably saddled if it continues to oppose advances like equal marriage, as it so strenuously does either directly or through politicians speaking on its behalf.
The images the Church would quite rightly associate with the word 'homophobic' might be those of hatred and of violence towards homosexuals, and it is crucial to acknowledge that of course Justin Welby, a cuddly possum of a man, does not fall into this category. Were this the only behaviour the word encapsulated, it would be wrong to call the Church homophobic. But the word 'homophobic', like the words 'sexist' or 'racist', clearly covers a wide range of (often subtle) discriminatory attitudes, of which the Church can be numerously convicted.
In his open letter Peter Tatchell spoke directly to Welby with admirable honesty about the Church's need to be clear and consistent in its pronouncements on homosexuality. He did so in part because its clergymen are so hideously conflicted, able neither to condemn homosexuality outright nor say that it is harmless. Tatchell also made clear both in a comment on the New Statesman and on BBC News that he is expecting “more than tea and sympathy” from the Archbishop. I am hopeful but I don't expect miracles; Welby is a man who opposes not only equal marriage but also same-sex adoption.
The much more conciliatory language he has been using since becoming Archbishop will need to be translated into brave and direct action – as Savitri Hensman's article acknowledged – if Christianity wishes to come even close to wiping the stains of homophobia off its robes.
The Church is therefore in grave need of a better dictionary to replace the shoddy one it is currently employing, in which many of its definitions are either out of date or simply wrong. Justin Welby said in the afore-mentioned BBC interview that the Church seeks to go about “loving people as they are” but this is for all intents and purposes a meaningless statement while the Church is explicitly perpetuating discrimination of the very people being discussed in that remark. It doesn't matter how much you “love” someone, they won't take kindly to you if you deny them a freedom for which they are passionately campaigning. Just as we would denounce someone who, while treating them very lovingly all the while, denied an individual equality on the basis of race, we have a duty to highlight the Church's double standard.
In November Justin Welby voted in favour of women bishops being ordained; not to have done, it seems obvious, would have been sexist. Treating homosexuals the same way – denying them a right based on their sexuality – is therefore homophobic. This type of logic could be taught to a schoolchild. Can someone please teach it to the Archbishop of Canterbury?