Rid us of the canker of compromise

The Lambeth Conference, a hotbed of division, has an important message for all of us, says Catherine Pepinster
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The Independent Online
WHEN the Right Reverend Emmanuel Chukwuma, the no-nonsense Bishop of Enugu, Nigeria, and his fellow African and Asian clerics let rip at the Lambeth Conference last week, winning the vote upholding traditional biblical teaching on homosexuality and marriage, they did not just signify a defining moment in the Anglican church. It was the moment that also split the emerging nations from the old. And about time, too.

However much we liberals in the West might have been dismayed by the finger-jabbing aggression of some of the Africans as they strove to make their views known, and abhorred their entreaties to members of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement either to repent of their sexual misdemeanours or be damned, we should be grateful to them for teaching us a lesson. For too long we have assumed that, given time, the world would be ours: it would become a melting pot in which we could all live sharing the same values. In a few years, the rest of them would come round to our thinking.

If institutions such as the Anglican communion are ever to succeed in ameliorating differences, then of course negotiation is essential. But too often consensus leads to the canker of compromise, to a bland, hybrid society. It's happened repeatedly in the commercial world: do we really want the ethical and spiritual equivalent of the Coca-Cola culture?

The African bishops proved beyond doubt that if it's up to the Third World, then it won't happen. We can no longer expect the rest of the world to roll over and accept our ways, even if missionaries' teachings and 19th-century European colonialism have made their mark on core values. The cultures of Africa and India are too rich for that. Combine these with a document as opaque as the New Testament and you have an explosive situation.

This is not the first time ecclesiastics have grappled with such an issue. The Catholic church, with a much bigger congregation than the Anglicans, has long recognised the problems of a universal church and struggles with the dilemma of how to accommodate diverse cultures. The arguments continue, but the church insists on the same doctrine and faith across the continents while recognising the need for ritual to express local identities.

While religion may be one of the biggest battlegrounds for the clashing of civilisations, it is by no means the only one. Those who believe in the melting pot have been quick to condemn the legal systems of other countries for being different to ours. The case of the British nurses Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan was used to highlight the Saudi Arabian legal system and what Western observers perceived to be its shortcomings. But any suggestion of a Brit in trouble persuades the press that there is no chance of a fair trial abroad. Even the American system, whose roots derive from English law, was criticised in the treatment of Louise Woodward, convicted of killing the baby Matthew Eappen. Yes, these legal systems may be imperfect, but it is time we realised that we cannot expect other countries or cultures with different histories and heritage to share our values. Nor - with our record on miscarriages of justice, for example - should we be so sure that our systems are the ones to be followed.

The tendency towards belief in our own superiority is evident at home, too. In the last 30 years Britain has become one of the most ethnically diverse countries of Europe. The abiding view has been that immigrants should adapt to the national, superior culture. We like the idea of those diverse communities springing up across Britain if it means we can enjoy treats such as Bhangra music and chicken vindaloo or every variation of reggae we could possibly imagine.

But it's time we were mature enough to accept that living in a multicultural society is much more than indulging in pick 'n' mix ethnic treats. It should mean learning to live side by side - and accepting that there are, and always will be, diverse values.

Our tolerance, inevitably, is put to the test in a multicultural society. When a daughter's best friend is sent by her parents to Pakistan for an arranged marriage rather than to university, the instinctive response of most of us is to believe that they are doing something quite unacceptable. There is a lingering view of Them and Us: they have got it wrong and we are right. Even before we begin the argument, we couch the parameters in our terms, making assumptions from the most prejudiced of starting points.

No one has been more articulate in expressing the arrogance of value judgements than Jack Spong, the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and a leading proponent of the homosexual lobby, who, at the start of the Lambeth Conference said that African Christians had only just moved out of animism and practise a "very superstitious Christianity".

In an interview in The Church of England Newspaper, Bishop Spong described his fellow bishops from Africa and Asia as "just one step up from witchcraft. They've yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we've had to face: that is just not on their radar screen," he blustered. "Scientific advances have given us a new way of understanding homosexual people. In dealing with the Third World this knowledge hasn't percolated down."

When asked whether Africans might feel belittled by his remarks, Bishop Spong said: "If they feel patronised that's too bad. I'm not going to cease to be a 20th-century person for fear of offending somebody in the Third World."

Fighting talk. In this country, where we have enjoyed the benefit of so many diasporas of the last 50 years, we cannot afford to indulge in this sort of rhetoric and offer our fellow citizens such little respect. But nor should we be seduced into believing that the future consists of the melting pot. West is not necessarily best, but nor is living in the kingdom of the bland. It is time we learnt to live side by side with those with different values, and offered them the dignity we feel they owe us.

The moment has come to find a different way of doing things. So as we arrive at the end of the 20th century, we should embrace not Bishop Spong but adapt a little Voltaire: "We may not like what you say, Bishop Chukwuma, but we will defend to the death your right to say it." Men in purple - like the rest of us - it's time you grew up.