By Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow
Let us return once again to the Tim Farron Question.
Oh, I know, I really do know that you’d much prefer it if we could just move on. However, the Tim Farron Question is actually rather important. And trust me anyway, this isn’t [mostly] a post about Tim Farron, who might be expected to have other things on his mind at the moment.
For the sake of those watching from furth of these shores who might be confused by all this, Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats – a political party in the UK which bears upon its weary shoulders the hopes and dreams of many who believe that liberalism is the answer the problems of this wonderful world. Now, a certain journalist, Cathy Newman managed to discern that it might be interesting to ask Mr Farron who is an evangelical Christian whether or not he believed gay sex to be a sin. Over many occasions that the question was put by Ms Newman, Mr Farron refused to answer. The presumption amongst many being that he did indeed believe that gay sex is sinful but couldn’t say so in his position as a liberal leader. His defence seemed to fit with this – he and many others claimed that it was not proper for a politician to determine what was and was not a sin, that whatever he might believe in private he had acted in favour of gay rights (a claim which has been disputed by some looking at his record in parliament), and that yes, it so happens that His Best Friend Is Gay. His defenders than asked why people were not making a fuss about other politicians’ views on whether gay sex is a sin. This led to the Prime Minister being asked directly whether she did or did not believe such a thing and she came out with a commendably clear answer. She did not.
Subsequently, Tim Farron has done an interview in which he said that he did not (or maybe did no longer, it wasn’t clear) believe that gay sex is a sin. This led many to say that this was the end of the matter, the show was over and that we must all move on.
I now don’t know whether Tim Farron ever did or did not believe gay sex to be a sin, I am agnostic about whether he has ever changed his mind about it and it must be fairly obvious that I don’t think he dealt with this matter very well. However, there are perhaps limits as to how much wisdom there is in pursuing the matter with Mr Farron any more. Chris Creegan in particular has written eloquently to suggest that it is time to let go of the matter and move along. And I find myself agreeing in part with Chris in that I think that just pursuing Tim Farron is now rather pointless. However, I am of the view that the Tim Farron Question illuminates other matters that I’m not at all ready to move on from. And that takes me away from Tim Farron and on to the church and in particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Before I get to the point that I now want to make about the Tim Farron Question, which is not in fact about Tim Farron, let me just say that I think that those defending him tended to think that they were defending a Christian from the aggressive bullying of secularists when in fact those most concerned with Tim Farron’s position were actually other liberally minded Christians appalled at what he appeared to be saying. After all, it didn’t seem to show Christianity or LibDemery in a particularly good light. And who on earth ever thought that it was good for LGBT people for commentators to defend the right of prominent people to seem to defend (or be seen to defend) gay rights in public but actually to think them sinners in private?
But anyway, the fact of the matter is that having had a while to reflect on the Tim Farron Question, I think I want to say something about the Tim Farron Answer – or at least one of the answers that he gave whilst being relentlessly asked time and again the same question. He said, rather witheringly that it was not his place to answer such a question because, he was not the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Now then. Now then.
What are we to say in response to this? It would appear that we have someone saying that the church and indeed the Archbishop of Canterbury might be better placed to rule on the Tim Farron Question than Tim Farron. I know that the poor, beleaguered Christian soul was at the end of his tether when he said this but it is worth asking ourselves whether he was in fact right and that Cathy Newman was directing the Tim Farron Question at altogether the wrong person all along. Whilst I happen to think that Cathy Newman’s questioning was legitimate at the time, I do find that I’m considerably more interested in whether the Archbishop of Canterbury believes gay sex to be a sin than Tim Farron.
Now, into the middle of this, steps the Archbishop of York who rather bizarrely, when interviewed at the weekend seemed to suggest that Tim Farron was never qualified to answer the Tim Farron Question in the first place.
So, there we have it. I’m not that interested any more in Tim Farron’s view. John Sentamu doesn’t think Tim Farron has enough theological training to have a view. To whom shall we turn to find the answer to the Tim Farron Question? John Sentamu batted anyone getting close to asking him the question with a strong denunciation of the criminalization of homosexuality. We must be thankful at times for small mercies and I am indeed glad to hear this from the Archbishop’s lips.
But is gay sex a sin?
It seems to me that the Tim Farron Answer to the Tim Farron Question leads us inevitably to the gateway of Lambeth Palace itself.
“I’m not the Archbishop of Canterbury”, Tim Farron wailed piteously.
But someone is.
And that someone ought to be being asked the Tim Farron Question every time he encounters the press.
The question matters because the truth is, Justin Welby probably does have a view and probably does have enough theological training in the matter to satisfy even the Archbishop of York.
And it matters mostly because it is a life and death matter. There are those who would tell us that if the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed the view that gay sex is not a sin then vulnerable Anglicans would be slaughtered by Muslims in Africa and elsewhere. Personally I don’t believe this and think it has more to do with Islamophobia than anything else. Indeed, I’ve strongly condemned the Archbishop of Canterbury when he has said such things in the past. (See – You Condemn it, Archbishop if you want a catch up).
But it is very much a life or death question if the Archbishop remains silent or, even worse, express the view that gay sex is in fact a sin. Silence equals death, for some of us, as the long-standing slogan used amongst HIV activists suggests. Silence in the face of the homophobia that is prevalent in society leads to suicide for some and damaged lives for others. The cost is high.
So here’s the thing. I do still think that the Tim Farron Question was legitimate. However, I have moved on. I now think that the Tim Farron Answer matters too.
Does the Archbishop of Canterbury think gay sex is a sin?
Oh, Cathy Newman – I do hope you get your chance.
The fact that the question has been put at the forefront of public life in the UK at the moment makes it inevitable that it will be asked of other people. Cathy Newman deserves the chance to ask the Tim Farron question of the person Tim Farron thought should answer it. And if she doesn’t get the chance to ask it, I suspect others will.
More than that, I think others should.
“Now, Archbishop Justin Welby, you’ve heard all the debate about Tim Farron – but what do you think? Do you think gay sex is a sin?”