Listening to the Stranger 0

A universal belief is that any sort of victimization of a human being based on their sexual orientation is wrong and unjust.

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Interview with the Venerable Mark Oakley, Archdeacon of Germany and Northern Europe

What is your understanding of the term ‘inclusion’?

The Church sometimes is a little too good at what we call navel-gazing. And yet, in the Christian tradition there is a very clear message that actually we learn some of the greatest lessons by listening to the stranger, to the outcast, to the people outside the structures. You can “welcome angels unawares”. We know that we are guilty of not always being able to have the confidence and faith to listen to people who are outside our comfort zones. We have come here[1] to begin self-critique and to examine what kind of Church we actually want. Is it a comfortable one where we have lots of people just like us or is it a Church that sometimes accepts people who are radically different from us?

What are you hoping to achieve by starting such a discussion?

I hope that some of us, including myself, will be made uncomfortable, maybe challenged a bit to rethink some of our basic assumptions about what the Church is and what we are here for. I would hope that at the end of the day we will go away trying to work for the Church with a little more generous a spirit.

The Anglican Church seems to position itself as one that tolerates differences, welcomes them. Yet there is one particular type of distinction that the Church has problems with, namely, gay marriages and gay bishops. Why is that?

This is not a subject we, across the Anglican Communion, are of one mind on. We have Anglican Christians who think that same-sex partnerships are good and where love is God is, and we have some Anglican Christians who think that it is sinful and needs repentance. The question that we are going through is — can we still have a house big enough that everybody feels at home? Or are we going to have to separate into apartments? Our Archbishop is working hard to make this a Church we can all belong to, but it is yet to be seen whether he will succeed.

But if you are in favor of tolerating differences then the Church should be able to accommodate different opinions on this issue, should it not?

That would be my line. But there are some people for whom this is such an important criterion for Christian belief that they would say — [accepting gay partnership] would mean denying Christian understanding and interpretation of the Bible. Many Anglicans take this view. The question is whether this is a secondary issue or a primary one. If this a secondary issue then we can accept our diversity. If it is a primary one you cannot do that.

However, a universal belief is that any sort of victimization or diminishment of a human being based on their sexual orientation is wrong and unjust and ought to be declared to be so. All the archbishops of the Anglican Communion have made that very clear.

What would you say a church’s role should be in promoting tolerance?

It seems that the globalized world is going to struggle for identity, because we are all being leveled out into having very similar lives, very similar shops. And yet people need identities. At the moment people are struggling very hard to find them. When that goes wrong it very quickly becomes ‘us’ and ‘them’. I often think that one of the best models for the Church is as a school of relating, a place where human beings learn how to relate to one another, how to listen to one another beyond the surface, beyond the superficial. Therefore I do believe that, at its best, the Church can offer an understanding of human relating that does not look for scapegoats, for someone to victimize or to banish, but instead tries to draw in.

I was in New York when 9/11 happened. And I was very moved by an event in Chicago — the local Christians and Jews went to the mosque and stood around it holding hands to protect praying Muslims from very angry people. For me, it is a very profound image. If my Christian faith is so important to me, then, of course, their faith will be precious to them. We have a duty to recognize and, if necessary, protect that. Which is what they did.

Would you say it is important for a church to be proactive in spreading such welcoming attitude?

Yes, it is important. But also acknowledging that there must be some sort of creative dialogue with others that can teach us how to do it. I often think that some churches I have been to could learn a lot from secular organizations at how to welcome people better.

You can sometimes go to a church that you have never been to and feel that it is rather frosty. But there can be social clubs where a newcomer is very welcome and sat down and talked to in a way that does not always happen in churches. This is not rocket science; this is about making space for people, welcoming them, being hospitable. And that has always been at the heart of the Christian understanding of who we are. But we are not always very good at it.

Is ecumenical movement essential in a globalized world?

Yes, I think it is important and for the very reasons I mentioned before —to stop churches from becoming ‘us’ and ‘them’. Once you say, as an individual or as a church or as a group, “I have nothing to learn”, you have in actual fact died. We always have something to learn. It seems to me that when Christians meet, there is no such thing as an observer. We are all participants. Therefore we make space for one another and tend to one another. If ecumenical movement allows, or even forces us to do that, then it is a good thing.

Let us imagine a country where churches have been very active in promoting intolerance towards homosexuals. What is the starting point for changing the attitude?

There is no one answer to that. Let us make an analogy with England —when I was a student there was a very strong view against promoting any teaching about homosexual relationships. Mrs. [Margaret] Thatcher put forward a controversial bill, Section 28[2]. And the Conservative Party in general took the view against homosexual relationships. Now, twenty years later, all the main parties in the UK support gay relationships. You ask yourself, how did that happen? I think, in large part it was down to the bravery of some individuals. They were honest, open and talked to the media about how it felt to be a gay person, how you sometimes lived in fear. It took courage on some people’s part. I think it also meant some self-awareness from people and institutions that, if you scapegoat and point fingers at the gay community, then, next time, it could be somebody else.

And then human rights need to be upheld, spoken about and not taken for granted. That is what we are actually talking about. Although we can differ about the idea of homosexual behavior, the upholding of human dignity and rights, particularly in the European Union, seems to me to be absolutely vital. But you cannot take anything for granted. You know the old saying, “evil thrives when good people do nothing”? Well, one needs to be vigilant. Politicians have to be vigilant about upholding human rights. That is very important.


[1] Deanery of the Nordic and Baltic Countires, Synod “Voices from the Margin — Does the Church want to hear?”, Riga, 11-13 May, 2007

[2] Section 28 was an amendment to the United Kingdom's Local Government Act 1986. The amendment stated that a local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

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