Andrew Starkie on the misuse of language

LANGUAGE is a battleground because it is used to transmit ideas. The recent centenary of George Orwell’s death has brought before the public imagination again the spectre of the official language of Newspeak. The Nazis had to `purify’ the German language in order to impose their modem paganism upon the German people. Today the illiberal guardians of political correctness, especially in the secularist educational establishment, are similarly revising our own language.

The wrong neologism

One of their most successful inventions of recent years is `homophobia’. It is a word which is used promiscuously to damn anyone who adheres to a traditional understanding of human nature and sexual morality, which in the West has been based on both Christian doctrine and natural law. The old orthodoxy is the new heresy.

The Bishop of Oxford, defending his attempt to short-circuit the Church’s process of discernment about homosexuality, has also larded his pronouncements with the word, to great effect. The bishop’s deputy scribblers have, moreover, employed the word in an even more immoderate fashion. One hired clerical pen who writes for the Guardian abused the nine diocesan bishops who had had the insolence to write in defence of the traditional teaching of the Church, and accused the Church of England of being `institutionally homophobic’.

Homophobia is a queer word, and for two reasons in particular. First of all, why phobia? Presumably, it is apeing the term `xenophobia’. But the use to which the word is put shows that it means not `fear of’ but `hatred for’ something. `Miso-‘ would be better here than `-phobia’. And secondly, usage shows that the word is meant to mean `hatred of homosexuals’. But `homo-‘ used as a prefix means `the same’, and not `of homosexuals’. So homophobia, if it means anything at all, must mean `fear of the same’, and not `hatred of homosexuals’. The appropriate word for the latter phenomenon would be something like `misosodomy’.

Church crimes

Our author should therefore have accused the Church of England of being `institutionally misosodomite’. It would not be true, though it would be closer to the truth, to say that the Church of England, or at least an opinion-forming elite within it, is institutionally sodomite. It is questionable whether an institution can be guilty of hatred, but its public teaching is as clear a guide as any to its ethos. The teaching of the Church is unequivocal in condemning hatred of people, even when it has enjoined hatred of erroneous doctrines, immoral lifestyles and the sin which clings so closely to all men.

Christians must love sodomites, not only when they have repented of their lifestyle, but even before they desist from it. The same applies to child sex offenders, murderers and rapists, and to all others whom we think it is acceptable, even obligatory, to hate. There is no place for hatred of people in the Christian religion, and all churchmen who adhere to traditional teaching are under the greatest obligation to deal with the Bishop of Oxford, Dr John and others of their party with the utmost charity. There must, however, be hatred of sin – and our own sin most of all, for we are all capable of the greatest evil.

Despite the dodgy etymology, the word `homophobia’ remains a useful grenade in the armoury of those who wish to change what has been the consistent teaching of the Church for a couple of millennia. We should expect to hear it from the lips of the `usual suspects’ in the coming months. It should not go uncontested.

Those within the Church who are foaming at the mouth over the courageous decision of Dr John to withdraw from the Reading job are fearful that the Church will be seen to be out of touch if it does not change its mind about the lawfulness of homosexual practices. They are afraid of looking narrow and bigoted. They are afraid that the Church’s message will not be relevant. They are afraid of causing anyone `pain’ and there are many people clamouring for us to `feel their pain’. There is a potent mixture of pity with their fear. And because of all this they are afraid of sticking to the `same old teaching’ about human nature and sexual morality which the Church has always taught, teaching which the Church claims it received from the Apostles, and they in turn from Christ himself. The Harriesites would prefer to preach another version of Christianity, one with the difficult bits left out.


There are two myths which are used to support this proposed change of doctrine. The first is that we know more about human sexuality now than people did in previous ages. This is merely a narcissistic and selfconfident assertion of modernity, not a fact worthy of exchanging the Christian faith for. The second myth is that the teaching of the New Testament which condemns sodomy was culturally conditioned. This is clearly not the case. Sodomy was an accepted part of some societies in classical antiquity; it was condemned unambiguously by the Christian Church nevertheless. The New Testament’s teaching went against the prevailing social conditions, not with them.

The Harriesites are afraid of maintaining the same doctrine which has been upheld by the Church for countless ages. `Homophobia’, by all the demands of reason and etymology, should mean fear of the same thing’. If so, it is the Bishop of Oxford’s supporters, and not his opponents, who are (in this revised sense) `homophobic’.

Ironically, Dr John himself condemns most homosexual activity as sinful, since, he insists, to be licit it must be carried on in a committed, lifelong relationship, akin to marriage. So, if he is in earnest, Dr John can be no friend to those who wish to promote what is often regarded as a homosexual lifestyle. Giving oneself up to reckless debauchery with all and sundry is still not allowed-that is not a gift from God (at least, not yet). The disciple of Dr John, if he is to be free from sin, must find someone like-minded and they must live as though they were two old maids all their sexually active life.

In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil explain that his great aim in temptation is to use as little pleasure as possible to lead a man away from God: `To get a man’s soul and give him nothing in return’. To give up one’s soul for the excesses of worldly pleasure, that is a great folly; but to give up one’s soul for a pale parody of Christian marriage, that is truly pitiable. The Church of England should be afraid, not of adhering to the same old teaching about human nature and sexual morality, but of departing from it.

The Reverend Dr Andrew Starkie is assistant curate of St Bartholomew’s, Long Benton in the Diocese of Newcastle.