Why I blessed gay clergymen's relationship

The rector of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London, in the eye of storm over gay 'marriage

Robustly heterosexual since early adolescence, unable to see that any love surpasses the love of women, and once branded by the odious Daily Mail as 'Dud the Stud', I may seem miscast in the role into which I have now been thrust, that of the turbulent rebellious priest who defies bishop and archbishop to bless two gay men, also priests, in their civil partnership.

Yet there is a sense in which I have been moving towards this point for more than thirty years. The 1970s shaped my thinking. Many factors were combined, among them existential philosophy, the campus war against American involvement in Vietnam, the challenge to apartheid and to discrimination based on race, colour and gender, and the sexual liberation provided by the contraceptive pill.

The Sunday Times in its golden age under Harry Evans was a major influence, creating a critical mindset that no longer accepted authority without question and the blue-back Penguin books provided a theoretical underpinning for future action.

On the bottom shelf of my bookshelf is one such fundamental text, The Death of the Family by existentialist psychiatrist David Cooper. The study of theology at King’s College, London, was rigorous, critical, comprehensive, and above all engaged with a rapidly changing world. As Dean Sydney Evans posed the existential “Who am I?” he taught us not to accept the “I” as a fixed point but a point in motion, always becoming.

For today’s Church of England it is as if the 1970s never existed; the lessons have been forgotten. There has been a retreat from exploring the depths, pushing the boundaries to the point where words strain, crack and sometimes break as we struggle to express in a suffering world the foolishness of God and the all-embracing love found in Jesus Christ.

There has been a return to uncritical fundamentalist use of biblical “proof texts”, ripping verses from their theological and literary contexts. There has been a flight to the safety of rigid law and inflexible dogma and a consequent desire to unchurch those who will not conform.

So on a day late in 2007 when my friend and colleague Peter Cowell asked me to bless the civil partnership that he was to contract with David Lord in May this year I was ready to answer “yes”. I did so not to provoke the so-called traditionalists and to deliberately disregard the guidelines published by the English House of Bishops, not to defy the Bishop of London, whose sagacity I respect, or Archbishop Rowan, who I have known and admired for 25 years, but because to respond in any other way would have been a negation of everything I believe, of everything that makes me who I am, as a man and as a priest.

We were in unchartered territory, seeking to find the words that would express the love of Peter and David and their commitment to each other. New words could not carry the burden and we turned to the old, to words shaped by centuries of use, redolent with meaning.

This bringing together of two men would be like a marriage but not a marriage, for I am clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, and the words I will say must be said with integrity. The words, vow and covenant, binding and union, were put under tension, slipping, sliding, perishing. They were imprecise, transferred from one relationship to another. We could not speak of procreation but we could speak of “the mutual, society, help, and comfort” that the one could have of the other, of loving, comforting, honouring and keeping, for these are good words and not limited to or by marriage.

On 31 May, my birthday and the feast of the Visitation, when Mary said “My soul doth magnify the Lord”, 300 people gathered in St Bartholomew the Great to celebrate the Eucharist, to witness Peter and David commit themselves to each other in an exclusive loving relationship.

Amazing flowers, fabulous music, a ceremony both solemn and oddly homely, familiar words reordered and reconfigured, carrying new meanings. Nothing jarred, nothing felt even vaguely inappropriate. New and untried but not wrong. Not a gay rally or demonstration, but a truly joyful celebration.

It is not we who have whipped up the whirlwind, replacing words of love and inclusion with those of hatred and exclusion. We set out to express, experimentally, pushing at boundaries, a love of a type which is not unusual or perverse but which is perfectly ordinary and accepted outside the Church. Why, then, can it not be accepted inside the community that is based, not on law, but on the loving presence of God in Jesus Christ?

Those who cannot ever accept same-sex unions and would rather divide from those who do, branding them as blasphemous and unchristian, have inevitably turned on us, and especially on me. I am clearly not naïve, so I must have been malicious, politically-motivated, intent on pushing forward my ungodly agenda. Every aspect of my life and ministry is being raked over, the Daily Mail’s old allegations of sexual impropriety, my failure to be elected as an alderman, my writing a book on clergy discipline, even the complaint from neighbouring flats that I will not silence the church clock which chimes at midnight and again at seven as it has for centuries. First discredit your opponent, then defrock him, and, as he is Rector of Smithfield, why not the stake?

I did not seek the role, the interviews, the publicity, but more than thirty years ago I began a journey, a process of becoming, that focuses on Jesus the Christ, not as lawgiver and judge but as the one who loves us and holds us and will not let us go until we know ourselves as loved by him despite our foolishness and imperfections, and because of that, when Peter Cowell asked me, I did not hesitate, not even for a moment to answer “Yes, I will.”

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The spread of Wahhabism, and the West’s responsibility to the world

In 2013, the European Union declared Wahhabism the main source of global terrorism. But it's not just a “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too.

François Hollande’s declaration of war against Isis (also known as Islamic State) was, perhaps, a natural reaction to the carnage in Paris but the situation is now so grave that we cannot merely react; we also need sustained, informed and objective reflection. The French president has unwittingly played into the hands of Isis leaders, who have long claimed to be at war with the West and can now present themselves as noble ­resistance fighters. Instead of bombing Isis targets and, in the process, killing hapless civilians, western forces could more profitably strengthen the Turkish borders with Syria, since Turkey has become by far the most important strategic base of Isis jihadis.

We cannot afford to allow our grief and outrage to segue into self-righteousness. This is not just the “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too. Our colonial arrangements, the inherent instability of the states we created and our support of authoritarian leaders have all contributed to the terrifying disintegration of social order in the region today. Many of the western leaders (including our own Prime Minister) who marched for liberté in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre were heads of countries that, for decades, have backed regimes in Muslim-majority countries that denied their subjects any freedom of expression – often with disastrous results.

One of these regimes is Saudi Arabia. Despite its dismal human rights record, the kingdom has been central to western foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1970s and western governments have therefore tacitly condoned its “Wahhabisation” of the Muslim world. Wahhabism originated in the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century as an attempt to return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, Wahhabis came to denounce all later developments – such as Sufism and Shia Islam – as heretical innovations.

Yet this represented a radical departure from the Quran, which insists emphatically that there must be “no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256) and that religious pluralism is God’s will (5:48). After the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis used their immense wealth to counter the power of Shia Islam by funding the building of mosques with Wahhabi preachers and establishing madrasas that provided free education to the poor. Thus, to the intense dismay of many in the Muslim world, an entire generation has grown up with this maverick form of Islam – in Europe and the US, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Malaysia.

In 2013, the European Union declared that Wahhabism was the main source of global terrorism. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that the narrowness of the Wahhabi vision is a fertile soil in which extremism can flourish. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wahhabi chieftains did indeed conduct violent military expeditions against the Shia but, during the 1930s, the Saudi kingdom abandoned military jihad and Wahhabism became a religiously conservative movement. Today, some members of the Saudi ruling class support Isis but the Grand Mufti has condemned it in the strongest terms. Like Osama Bin Laden, Isis leaders aim to overthrow the Saudi regime and see their movement as a rebellion against modern Wahhabism.

Military action in Syria will not extirpate Islamist extremism elsewhere. In order to be fully successful, President Hollande’s campaign must also include a review of domestic policy. France has signally failed to integrate its Muslim population. Most of the terrorists responsible for the atrocities of 13 November appear to have been disaffected French nationals. So, too, were the Kouachi brothers, who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Amedy Coulibaly, who hijacked the Jewish supermarket in January. All three lived in notoriously deprived suburbs of Paris and – evoking France’s colonial past – were of Algerian and Malian descent. Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning. 

As they debate the feasibility of British air strikes in Syria, some MPs have insisted that they must be accompanied by negotiation and diplomacy. Again, these cannot be conducted in a spirit of superior righteousness. There must be a recognition that the West is not the only victim of Muslim extremism. We seem curiously blind to this. Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Isis, yet this is rarely mentioned. Two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in January, the Taliban murdered 145 Pakistanis, most of them children; two days after it, Boko Haram slaughtered as many as 2,000 villagers in Nigeria. Yet, compared with the Paris attack, the media coverage in the West was perfunctory. There has been little acknowledgment that the refugees whom many would seek to exclude from Europe have experienced the horrors we saw in Paris on a regular basis in Syria or Iraq. Already we seem to have forgotten that more than 40 people in Beirut were killed by two Isis suicide bombers on 12 November.

This heedlessness – a form, perhaps, of denial – does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world. The Iraq War showed that a military campaign cannot succeed if it fails to respect the sensibilities of the local people. Western governments must understand that their ­nations bear considerable responsibility for the present crisis – Isis is, after all, the product of the ill-considered Iraq War. And, as long as we mourn only our own dead, we cannot escape the accusation – frequently heard in the developing world – that the West has created a global hierarchy in which some lives are more valuable than others.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State