Blair versus Benedict over homosexuality?

I don’t believe that Tony Blair is the Antichrist, nor that Pope Benedict is. But I won’t be surprised to see accusations of this kind being thrown around in the wake of an astonishing interview which Ruth Gledhill reports, in an article in The Times (also picked up by Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream) and a blog post. At least according to Ruth, the world’s highest profile Roman Catholic convert of recent years has publicly criticised the Pope’s and the Roman Catholic church’s teaching on homosexuality. She reports on her blog that

In an interview with the gay magazine Attitude, Tony Blair says he wants to urge religious figures everywhere, including the Pope, to reinterpret their  religious texts to see them as metaphorical, not literal.

But what did Blair actually say? Did he really call on the Pope to reinterpret the Bible? Not quite. Here is the only part of the full interview, almost at the end, in which the Pope was even mentioned – the interviewer Johann Hari’s questions in bold:

But why do you think so many of the world’s most senior religious figures disagree? The Pope said in a speech that ‘homosexuality is a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder’, and even compared the tolerance of homosexuality to the destruction of the rainforests.

Again, there is a huge generational difference here. And there’s probably that same fear amongst religious leaders that if you concede ground on an issue like this, because attitudes and thinking evolve over time, where does that end? You’d start having to rethink many, many things. Now, my view is that rethinking is good, so let’s carry on rethinking. Actually, we need an attitude of mind where rethinking and the concept of evolving attitudes becomes part of the discipline with which you approach your religious faith. So some of these things can then result in a very broad area of issues being up for discussion.

That’s when I understand why religious leaders are very reluctant. But I sometimes say that organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances. You can either hold to your core vote, basically, you know, say: “Look, let’s not break out, because if we break out we might lose what we’ve got, and at least what we’ve got, we’ve got, so let’s keep it”. Or you say, “let’s accept that the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change, and actually reach out”.

Can you foresee a situation where in your lifetime or mine, we would have a pro-gay Pope, for example?

I don’t know, is the honest answer. I don’t know. Look, there are many good and great things the Catholic Church does, and there are many fantastic things this Pope stands for, but I think what is interesting is that if you went into any Catholic Church, particularly a well-attended one, on any Sunday here and did a poll of the congregation, you’d be surprised at how liberal-minded people were.

That’s quite a radical line for a Catholic: to say that the average Catholic congregation speaks for the Catholic Church more than the Pope does?

Well, I’m not going to say that! [Laughs] On many issues, I think the leaders of the Church and the Church will be in complete agreement. But I think on some of these issues, if you went and asked the congregation, I think you’d find that their faith is not to be found in those types of entrenched attitudes. If you asked “what makes you religious?” and “what does your faith mean to you?” they would immediately go into compassion, solidarity, relieving suffering. I would be really surprised if they went to “actually, it’s to do with believing homosexuality is wrong” or “it’s to do with believing this part of the ritual or doctrine should be done in this particular way”.

So not really a declaration of war by Blair on Benedict, much more a call for rethinking on this issue. And he is probably right. I doubt if my own position would please Blair, and certainly not Attitude magazine, but it would also be strongly opposed to the anti-gay prejudice and unwelcoming attitude found in many churches. Blair certainly makes a good point that to maintain its membership the church has to keep up with the times, not to retreat into conservatism for fear of upsetting some of its core members – but I would not take that principle as far as Blair seems to, allowing it to influence central areas of doctrine and ethics.

Will Blair be able to remain in the Roman Catholic Church after this? I guess the Vatican authorities, already hit by recent bad publicity about another British convert, Bishop Richard Williamson, will pretend not to have noticed this interview. It certainly won’t make them happy, but nor will it infuriate them as much as it would have done if Blair had really called on the Pope to change his teaching. Maybe it will actually stimulate some rethinking and appropriate changes of attitude, although I trust that it will not lead to a change in the church’s core teaching on homosexuality.

0 thoughts on “Blair versus Benedict over homosexuality?

  1. I agree with you Peter. It does seem he is still more the politician than the man of faith.
    I read with interest what he said when he opened the Baptismal site in Jordan recently;
    He said, “It took courage and leadership for Jordan to facilitate this site of baptism, here by this ancient river. But it took more. It took the same spirit that animated John and Jesus, and the Prophet Mohammed and all the Prophets of old. Each took the world as it was — alienated from God — and tried to make it how it should be — reconciled to God Justice, mercy, compassion, the ‘us” not the ‘me’, pure unselfish love. This is what they stood for.”
    Again a line of thinking I’m sure does not fit with catholic doctrine.

  2. Thank you, Georgina. Yes, I guess the Vatican would have trouble affirming that the same spirit animated Jesus and Mohammed, and so would I. But I think it is fair to say that each of these people tried to reconcile the people of the world to God, although with diverse methods and varying success. Sadly not all of the followers of Moses, Jesus or Mohammed have continued to work for reconciliation and love. I hope that Tony Blair, through his Faith Foundation, will be successful in his work of leading and encouraging such work.

  3. Not sure I can be so affirming of Blair’s approach here. It stinks of arrogance. Basically Blair is saying that on this issue he is right and the Pope is wrong. But on this issue the Pope aligns himself with most biblical scholars, and with most Christians I would have thought, in affirming that homo-erotic sexual relations are not appropriate for Christians, and are sinful before God. By boasting that the congregations he knows disagree with this, he is only affirming the state by which said congregations have been compromised by the world, rather than any “progressive” virtue.

    If that was not bad enough, he equates Jesus and Mohammed. To insist that the same spirit animates them both is practically blasphemy. If this is the “progessive” church that Blair is promoting, God help us all.

    Blair seems to be a classic liberal who doesn’t realise that as ambassadors of Christ, Christians should always be distinct from the world, reflect a higher ethical standard, and take a prophetic stance in terms of calling the world to repentance in Christ.

  4. Peter, politicians never say anyone is “wrong”! But if you read between the lines, he is saying that the Pope is out of touch the regular religous people, who don’t give a fig about homosexuality. We could expand on what Blair is saying to this:

    “regular catholics don’t care about sexual ethics or personal holiness — they care about sharing love and compassion with a suffering world. The Pope is out of touch”

    My point is simply that it is Blair that is out of touch with biblical Christianity.

    On a related note, did anyone see that TV programme on channel four recently, presented by Cherie Blair? She was exploring the future of the Christianity in Britain, and she basically pointed to the megachurches of America. It was amusing as these megachurches are themselves seen as examples of a less-than-cutting-edge approach, and not as the way ahead within Christianity (certainly in the circles I frequent). Although I would perhaps argue that these megachurches are more relevant to the Boomer generation than to others, and are somewhat in captivity to suburban captialism and modernity, at least Cherie was picking a good orthodox example of Christianity as the way forward. It looks better than Blair’s future church.

    At the end of the day, I am very glad that neither Tony or Cherie have any real influence in the church today, as neither really seem to get it (is that really mean to say?)

  5. Well, Alastair, maybe megachurches are not seen as cutting edge in your circles. But isn’t Mars Hill on its way there? Small churches grow into megachurches if they attract lots of people, and have the structures in place to cope with them. Or I suppose they split themselves, but that doesn’t often work well. Well, Cherie Blair is a suburban Boomer rather like me, so perhaps we just like the things you say we are in captivity to.

    Yes, of course Tony is a politician. That was clear in what he said about Mohammed in Jordan as well as in this interview. And obviously he doesn’t see eye to eye with the Pope on this matter. My point is that he didn’t come out in open opposition to the Pope and so it is wrong for us to portray him as doing so.

    I hope you are not saying that it is not biblical Christianity to “care about sharing love and compassion with a suffering world”.

  6. When I say “megachurch” I am not referring soley to the size of a church, but to the ethos and style of the seeker-sensitive, Boomer megachurches found in the United States (e.g. Willow Creek, Saddleback Church, etc). Mars Hill often used to remind people that they were not a megachurch (referring to the ethos and culture). I know some people define megachurch as any church with over 2000 attendees, but that was not my intended meaning.

    I think you know that I believe biblical Christianity always had good works at its core of its practise. Its just that holiness and community ethics are also just as important, as a cursory reading of the NT shows.

  7. Well, Alastair, I thought there were lots of different megachurches with rather different ethoses. If your criticism was meant to be of two specific well known churches rather than all churches over a certain size, then I think you need to be more clear.

    I share your concerns, if that is what they are, about Sunday services becoming “seeker-sensitive” in ways which detract from proper worship and teaching for believers. On the other hand, I admire those two churches for what they have done in bringing many people to a deep and living Christian faith. If they are good for Boomers, then let them be, and let other churches do things which appeal to other generations, as long as they remain orthodox on the basics of faith and morality, on the principle of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

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