Sex is over for 2005:
George Austin proposes an unlikely Sabbatical

Could it be that Mary Whitehouse, in her 1960s and 70s criticisms of television and the permissive society – much derided at the time by progressive voices in both the secular and the ecclesiastical world – was right after all? Two recent reports suggest that this might be so.

One disclosed new data indicating that 27% of people with HIV in the UK were unaware they had the disease. (But if they don’t know, where does the 27% figure come from?) Alongside that the major sexually transmitted infections were said to be rising in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2003, where already no less than 708,083 people were diagnosed with an STI (sexually transmitted infection).

About 10% of UK adults have had an STI and 13% have visited a genitourinary clinic, and most of the new cases, it is claimed, are occurring in people aged 16-24. A team from the John Moores University told the scientific journal in which their findings were published that poor sex education and sex on TV was to blame.

There was more on the HIV epidemic, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where someone dies of AIDS every fifteen seconds and where 25 million people are infected. That figure is expected to double by 2010.

The Church is, it is often said, obsessed with sex. Well, it’s New Year and a time for resolutions, so let us in this column get sex out of the way for the rest of 2005. Mind you, resolutions are made to be broken, but let us try anyway, and first of all get rid of three more media stories – somewhat lighter ones this time.

In the excellent TV series Himalaya by Michael Palin, we were taken on a fascinating tour of the world’s highest mountain chain, with the stunning scenery beautifully captured on film. But this was not simply a tourist trip round places most tourists would not dare to venture, for Palin met the people who lived there, talked to them (and a surprising number in the most out-of-the way places seemed to speak English) and brought us their customs.

So where is the sex in that? Is it not anyway too cold at 20,000 feet? Not for one isolated tribe apparently, where the custom is for the women to not to marry. Instead they can and do have sex with anyone they want, and if pregnancy is the result the girl’s brother must bring up the child.

Now there’s a thought for the 2005/10 agenda of the General Synod, though perhaps that is too soon – maybe it should be left to ECUSA to try out first. Of course, one cannot be sure they would be all that happy if the abortion option were not included, but it could be used to solve the problem of gay brothers who might want a child.

And it won’t be easy to avoid sex with stories like this one in The Times, headlined ‘Bishops turn blind eye to gay wedding ceremonies in church.’ The report went on to suggest that the ‘practice appears to challenge the compromise’ put forward in the Windsor Report, which ‘called for a moratorium on same-sex blessings and ordinations of gay bishops.’

Well, of course it does. But do The Times not realise that the purpose of such reports in today’s Anglican Church is not to prevent actions that cause orthodox Christians unease (to say the least) but to produce sound theological reasons why such unease is reasonable and in accord with the doctrines of the Church – and then, perhaps in the small print, to provide a get-out and allow others to ignore those findings in the ‘real’ world of the liberal Western Church.

‘But surely that is dishonest?’ an outsider might ask. Yes, of course it is, but honesty and integrity must never be allowed to interrupt the progress of the liberal agenda. It hasn’t done yet, so why start now? After all, the much-trumpeted principle of ‘reception’ in the women priests debate was in reality never for a moment accepted by the majority in order to allow time for both sides to savour the rights and wrongs of the issue, and then come to a final decision.

Bonds of Peace too became merely oil to ease the process, not to give real equality and recognition to opponents of the ordination of women. Rather these were merely self-styled generous actions on the part of supporters to allow the deluded misogynist dinosaurs to see the light and to be lulled into a sense of false security in the meantime. And then to get out anyway.

No wonder David Beetge, the Bishop of Highveld in the province of South Africa, now calls for the same process of reception in the gay debate. ‘I long,’ he says, for a Church that is courageous enough to extend the boundaries.’ Quite.

The Times report claimed that ‘hundreds of priests and bishops are expected to bless same-sex unions’ and that indeed many are doing just that; and moreover that the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement ‘is increasing its print run of same-sex liturgy in anticipation of a thousand such blessings a year when the law changes.’ No doubt it will provide Church House statisticians with the opportunity to trumpet a vast increase in such church activities. We hear the cry, ‘The Church of England is not dying after all!’

A married London priest – pictured having his breakfast boiled egg while, for some surely good liturgical reason, wearing an alb – was reported as having conducted 12 such blessings with no rebuke from any bishop. It was claimed that ‘one prelate, the Bishop of London,’ had even gone so far as to endorse a new book of prayers – called intriguingly The Naked Year – which ‘includes a prayer for the blessing service of a lesbian couple.’ And there I naively thought that The Naked Year was the calendar promised by the choirmen of Portsmouth Cathedral.

And now in the Sunday Times, Christopher Morgan reports that Archbishop Rowan Williams has ‘issued a strong rebuke to conservatives in the worldwide communion for the hostility of their language towards homosexuals.’ Nothing wrong with that where homosexuals, as Williams puts it, ‘feel condemned not for their behaviour but for their nature.’ But what of the hostility of liberals’ language about the orthodox who are simply upholding biblical principles about the kind gay activities that are contrary to scripture?

What next? Shall we in the end become like Sweden, where a priest was imprisoned for preaching that homosexual sexual activity was a sin?

Anyway, that’s that – no more sex in this column in 2005.


George Austin is a writer, broadcaster and journalist