Last week two Anglican Bishops issued what to my mind was a gentle statement encouraging people to discuss gay and gender issues with ‘respect, love, grace, kindness and compassion’. The response of veteran gay campaigner Colin Coward to this entirely reasonable plea was: ‘F**k that, I’ve been abused, we’ve been abused, and we’ve just been abused again. By two incompetent bishops.’
But to accuse these two bishops of ‘abuse’ must, surely, stretch any reasonable definition of that word well beyond its breaking point. Neither of them has said anything about Colin Coward himself, nor are they encouraging violence or hostility or speaking intemperately; indeed, exactly the opposite. This is not a case of ‘abuse’ – it is simply a situation where two bishops have said something that he considers to be unsatisfactory. It is a simple difference of opinion.
And here we start to get to the nub of the problem. Much of contemporary dialogue seems to be framed along the lines of, ‘I am a victim, you are abusing me, he/she must be banned.’ Politically, it is an easy tool – simply take a word everyone hates and apply it to your opponents so often that eventually it will stick, regardless of the complexity of the issues or the nuances of those who hold them.
But society as a whole is now beginning to realize that in general ‘over-weaponized’ language can quickly lead to dark places – as the widespread opposition to proposed Scottish hate crime laws from a huge variety of secular and religious groups has shown.
Moreover, as Christians we are called to do better. The New Testament has as much as anything to say about being careful about how we speak. None of us are above reproach in this regard; none of us get it right all the time.
For example, as someone who is ‘orthodox’ on this issue, I sometimes feel the liberal approach threatens my whole identity as a Christian, as a church minister and that of worldwide Christianity. I simply can’t imagine how the church would have any credibility if it effectively said, ‘Whoops, we’ve all been terribly wrong on all this for the last 2,000 years.’ It doesn’t say much about the credibility of the God we serve that he would apparently rather carelessly leave his church in such egregious error for two millennia.
Finally, let us remember that the Bible does have some clear words about a form of safeguarding that is at the heart of the current discussions. What is the most important safeguarding task we can ever undertake – something even more crucial than the vital importance of safeguarding in the sense that we generally use it today? The most important safeguarding task of all is to ‘guard the good deposit’ of the gospel (2 Timothy 1:14). This is not some abstract, theological matter. We are to ‘guard the good deposit’ because the faithful preaching of the apostolic gospel is about the safety and well-being of people not just in this life, but eternally. These are issues of life and death, heaven and hell. Nothing can be more important. This is, indeed, the language of God.