By Andrew Brown
Two bishops have condemned as “harmful” a video by the hardline evangelical group Christian Concern in which LGBTQ+ Christians were mocked for telling their stories.
Ben John, who works for Christian Concern, had taken to YouTube to commentate on a film for the church project “Living in Love and Faith”, which aims to encourage discussion and understanding of different views.
He took apart stories from LGBTQ+ people featured in the film and described homosexuality as “evil and wickedness”.
The Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, and the Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, issued a statement saying: “Specific and harmful targeting and personal insults and attacks are contrary to the respect, love, grace, kindness and compassion to which we are all called.”
The archbishops of Canterbury and York had hoped that the project would make a space for honest and open conversations about gay and transgender people within the church, which has been arguing these issues since 1987.
Mr John is development officer at the Wilberforce Academy, a project of Christian Concern’s, which trains and encourages conservative evangelicals to become active in public life. This is not to be confused with the Wilberforce Alliance, a broader-based body with a more liberal agenda. But evangelicals of all sorts are eager to claim the mantle of William Wilberforce, a great 19th-century reformer who campaigned successfully against the slave trade and with equal vigour, if less success, against “vice”, by which he understood “excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord’s Day, and other dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices”.
There is no doubt he would have been horrified by gay marriage, because he campaigned fiercely against adultery at a time when divorce required an act of parliament.
Wilberforce’s contested legacy remains in the evangelical movement today. His name stands for social and political action, but whether this is for left-wing causes such as the ending of slavery or right-wing ones like the suppression of personal vices remains disputed.
Mr John in his video condemned the appearance of gay people in the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith film. “The process was compromised from the beginning by having people we should not associate with contribute to it,” he said. He does not believe that anyone is born gay or lesbian. “I don’t identify as straight,” he says in the video, but as “holy, blameless, washed, and sanctified.”
Reached for comment, Mr John said that the video had been made two weeks ago, when the LLF material first came out: “We thought maybe we should put up a response. I put together a few thoughts because I had the time.”
In contrast to this spontaneity, the other major evangelical response had clearly been long in preparation. The Church of England Evangelical Council released its video demanding no change very soon after the publication of the main LLF report.
It is fronted by Jason Roach, who was a member of the co-ordinating group for the Living in Love and Faith process. The news line in that video was the threat by the Bishop of Blackburn, Julian Henderson, that those who take a conservative line on sexuality might need “alternative arrangements” if the Church of England were formally to recognise gay relationships.
This echoes the demand made decades before by the opponents of women priests for their own province. That was never granted in principle, but in practice the conservative evangelical opponents of women priests now have their own theological college, their own funding arrangements, their own bishop — but neither their own pension fund nor their own seats in the House of Lords.
Ian Paul, one of the people behind the CEEC film, denied it was a campaigning video in any way. It was produced, he said to give traditional Christians “who feel that their voice is being silenced both inside and outside the church . . . confidence in articulating and understanding the church’s current doctrine of marriage”.
Dr Paul argues that this is an entirely different kind of issue to the “headship” argument over whether women can be priests, as is shown by the presence on the video both of Bishop Rod Thomas, the leader of the headship faction, and the Bishop of Lancaster, Jill Duff (whom Bishop Thomas, of course, does not believe can be a priest, still less a bishop exercising authority over men).
“The debate here is not between different views,” he says. “We have been clear for 20 years ago on that. The debate now is solely about whether or not this is one of the adiaphora, that is, can we agree to disagree or not!”
And that is where the disagreement now stands. One of the authors of the Living in Love and Faith report says that in the whole 450-page package of words and video: “The really significant part is in the opening letter that says the bishops don’t agree.”