Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury came to work for the official opening of our new building. He spoke with wisdom and grace, he spoke of the need for unity in the church – especially poignant exactly 50 years on from when Martin Luther King declared he had a dream.
He challenged the church to begin with repentance, to recognise the scars that still hurt, and to follow Martin Luther King’s example and set a vision for what society should look like, and how the Church can bring that into being.
He spoke of the contribution churches bring to communities, the places they bring hope to communities in need. He spoke of the power of the gospel to transform people, and through transformed people change society.
Which is slightly ironic given the first question in an impromptu press conference held after the event, coming from the Telegraph, was:
“Is there an extent that Christians sometimes come across as a little bit obsessed with sex, in the best possible way, and that can be a problem?”
To which the Archbishop responded: “I think it’s a bit of a collaborative effort between the media and the church. I think your obsession is as severe as ours. Because whenever one answers questions, does a Q & A, someone in the first four questions asks about sex. Even if I’m quite clear that I don’t want to talk about it.
“I don’t think the church is obsessed with it. I think there is a danger that we at a national level, that this becomes the most interesting thing we ever talk about. Now, I’m not overly worried because recently we’ve been talking about lots of other things.”
And then a couple of hours later the Telegraph splashed with: “Archbishop urges Christians to ‘repent’ over ‘wicked’ attitude to homosexuality”. When you have to quote two single words in separate quotation marks to make a sensational headline I think the Archbishop was probably a bit too kind on the media’s culpability.
The words reported, and these are pretty much the only words being reported, were said in response to a question asked following his address and unrelated to his content, by, a journalist, this time from the Guardian. He asked, and I paraphrase: ‘You’ve spoken about the need for the church to be for things rather than against them, in this context do you regret voting against Same Sex Marriage?’
In response Justin Welby reiterated why he voted against the bill, “what I voted against was what seemed to me to be the rewriting the nature of marriage in a way that I have to say within the Christian tradition and within scripture and within our understanding is not the right way to deal with the very important issues that were attempted to be dealt with in that bill.”
He then went on to consider the wider issue, saying: “As I said at the time in the House of Lords, the church has not been good at dealing with homophobia – it has at times, as God’s people, either implicitly or explicitly supported it, and we have to be really, really repentant about that because it is utterly and totally wrong
“We have seen changes in the idea about sexuality, sexual behaviour. We have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 not only think that what we’re saying is incomprehensible but also think that we’re plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice. We have to be real about that.”
The Archbishop stated what the situation is, that when many young people look at the church this is what they see. The ensuing column from Andrew Brown who asked the question at least focused on the topic of homophobia, which was the subject of what the Archbishop suggested the church needed to repent of.
As the Archbishop said, the Church does need to get real about how many people view the church. And for when it has excluded, cast out and refused to serve, repentance is the right first response.
But whether it is obsessed with sex? I think it is not. I think it makes a good story so will wipe out anything else said. It means the media will miss the stories of reconciliation and unity, it will miss the stories of hope and transformation. It will miss the ways the church is changing communities and leading them into life.
The Church is doing stunning things, it is often the last bastion of hope in communities forgotten. The call is to be interesting and appealing, to model grace and love and truth. And show a world something other than sex to obsess about.
UPDATE Videos from the event and the full audio recording is available at the Evangelical Alliance website