The Church’s new flavour

Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen made a truly revealing comment on ABC’s Q&A last night.

It wasn’t when he came out in support of Jim Wallace (and echoed the logic of Todd Akin), stating that a lot of people have told him that homosexuality is bad for your health, and that there’s a lot of literature to support the claim.

It wasn’t the spurious yet menacing statements implying that HIV positivity is the inevitable conclusion of a gay man’s lifestyle choice.

It wasn’t even the reduction of a woman’s worth to her husband’s rib, nor his attempt to make up a new definition for ‘submit’:

Submission comes with a range of meanings. If submission is in view, it’s because key promises [made by the husband] …

This is more about men that it is about women, because there is a concern about men not being men in the community. What men bring to marriage is what they bring to anything: that physical strength, a certain degree of arrogance, a certain determination to be bossy, etc etc etc.

No, the revealing comment that Archbishop Jensen uttered last night was this:

Interestingly, in the churches for years now, we have not been using this language [‘submit’] and we’ve gone down to thirty per cent of the market.

That’s right, market.

As if churches are now selling conservatism. Welcome to the new era of Christianity in the marketplace! You didn’t buy our old brand, the one that focused on compassion and community, and we can’t compete with all this shopping around for gay lifestyles, so we’re changing the language and the brand.

Jensen said we live in a time of ‘sexual identity and identity-finding activities’ – which is where the Anglican Church brand comes in: it resolves all those identity-fittings in the one sale.

Evangelicalism, and Christian faiths more generally, have long rejected the modern world and its ‘destructive individualism’. The modern world has many different forms but commonly manifests in abortion and/or gayness. No other issue, Amanda Lohrey wrote, from poverty to global warming, elicits as much concern or rhetoric from fundamentalist Christians as same-sex relations and abortion, because nothing else undermines the structure of the family and church – and the political beliefs that sustain them – to the extent that they do.

Market influence on religion means that a church can simultaneously oppose pluralism, while selling religion as an appealing and uncomplicated lifestyle alternative. The fact that the face of Christian religion in Australia is right-wing, ultra-conservative and bigoted – and now declaring war on modernity in the public sphere (the Age, Q&A, mainstream media) – is an embracement of the free market. And conservative Christianity has something unique to offer: home-cooked meals, submission and family.

At one point in the show last night, audience member Peter Keegan asked Jensen to condemn Jim Wallace’s statements about the health hazards of homosexuality:

As a Christian, I continually find that the ACL does not speak for me and does not represent the kind of faith I see in the teachings and ministries of Jesus. Archbishop will you say that the views held by the ACL hold a greater risk to the public discourse and the integrity of our faith than the presence of lifestyles or beliefs that may differ from our own?

Jensen replied:

No, I won’t say that. I generally support the ACL. [And this is an] opportunity to talk about something significant: namely health risks.

Later, Tony Jones tried to clarify Jensen’s position:

Are you seriously saying homosexuality is bad for your health?

To which, Jensen replied:

People tell me it is. And they produce literature on the subject. I can’t get a discussion [going] because it’s a forbidden subject.

He then changed tack:

I don’t want to see my friends dying. But I’ve seen my friends dying!

This nasty mortality-link – seemingly introduced by Wallace last week and furthered on Q&A  by Jensen and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (Shadow Minister for Mental Health and Ageing) – is old propaganda for conservative Christians. In the 1980s, Randall Balmer wrote of his encounter with Brother Schmul, a well-known evangelical orator, in Mine eyes have seen the glory:

‘One thing that is happening is good, even though it’s bad. I’m talking about AIDS,’ he said. Schmul dismissed the various education programs directed against the spread of AIDS. ‘The real answer is a change in the hearts of men,’ he said. ‘God’s way of all purity, of all chastity, is the way. God’s plan is the only way! Amen.’ The AIDS epidemic, Schmul suggested, was having a salutary effect. ‘Some people are backing up on this homosexual thing. Some of the gays that had to have sex the homosexual way are changing their minds after seeing their buddies drop off or fall like flies. When they’re sure a person who has AIDS is going to go down the tubes and go out into eternity – they’re really beginning to change their minds a little,’ he said with evident satisfaction.

According to Archbishop Jensen, the Christian representative invited to outline his homophobia on national television last night, ‘Censorship is alive and well in this country’. Yet all appearances suggest that what the Church is censoring are progressive and dissenting voices – and homosexuality within the church (the logical conclusion drawn from Jensen’s friends who have ‘lifelong committed themselves to no sexual relations’). Senator Fierravanti-Wells summarised it thus: The flock listens to the Anglican Church, not the other way around.

When asked what he thought about the correlation between HIV and homosexuality, Minister Chris Evans said, ‘I think this is wrong. The statistics these groups rely on are bogus.’

His eyes flicked to Jensen, and I don’t think I misread the contempt: ‘It’s a debate some people want to have … but I don’t think it was raised for the purpose of debate. I don’t think that was the purpose at all.’

So what was Jensen’s purpose? I suspect it was to let potential buyers know that the Anglican Church has gone back to the original flavour.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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    • It does seem that here though, the right-wing have the public face of these churches. I’ve got no idea what it’s like behind-the-scenes.

      That piece is interesting. Saw a similar study on abortion which said that in Australia, 72% of Catholics and 53% of evangelical Protestants support a woman’s right to choose.

    • Yes, it’s so clearly been distorted!

      Guess the point I was trying to make is that it’s a kind of a veiled threat: the only two options for gay men is abstinence or death. (Gay women don’t even register.)

  1. In the past, both Anglicans and Catholics would have been quite suspicious of the pentecostal churches who form the main basis of the ACL, in part because such groups have a different relationship with the market. The evangelical churches represent, after all, a form of religion that is much more individualised than either Catholicism or High Church Anglicanism, both of which have their own institutional sources of authority which don’t translate quite so easily into market form.
    Of course, what’s been happening in recent years is that what we might call the neoliberal forms of Christianity are growing and the older forms are not. Jensen and Pell are positioning themselves with the strength.

    • Exactly. Even as he hid behind a ‘rational and serious conversation about the nature of marriage’ last night, Jensen’s espousals mirrored the evangelicals.

  2. Melbourne people may not be aware, but Jensen is definitely not high church Anglican. I’m not an Anglican myself, but if I was I think I’d be seriously asking by what right the Jensen’s keep control of the Sydney diocese and its wealth, given that they are so very out of step with the rest of the Anglican church in Australia.

  3. Worth remembering that the Catholic conservatism represented by the Movement was anti-market. Santamaria’s early articles were often attacks on capitalism.

  4. Interesting post. I’d argue the opposite, in regards to ‘market share’, however: that the Church is losing people because it is failing to exhibit compassion in everyday words and actions. The words of a Sunday homily, when read from and responding to the Bible, speak of a faith of love and loving. When a minister, particularly those of high esteem and media profile it seems, speak outside of service their language is too often greased in hatred and bile.

    It’s a pity, really. While not religious myself, I believe religion can be a truly good force and the vast majority of people I know who identify as religious reflect as Peter Keegan, that groups such as the ACL do not speak for them.

  5. ‘No other issue, Amanda Lohrey wrote, from poverty to global warming, elicits as much concern or rhetoric from fundamentalist Christians as same-sex relations and abortion..’
    What exactly does Lohrey base this claim on? Does she know any ‘fundamentalist Christians’? Has she regularly attended a church to hear what they are constantly banging on about? I doubt it. The simple fact is that it is these subjects which the media picks up on. The message of God’s grace doesn’t sell newspapers.
    Sexuality is a peripheral issue for most Christians. But this doesn’t suit the caricature secularist commentators wish to draw.
    And on submission: this is only an issue in the media at the moment because the wording in the Anglican Prayer Book has changed from ‘obey’ to ‘submit’. And yes, as Jensen said, it comes down to the translation from the original Greek which the scriptures are written in. It’s an optional vow for Christian couples. If one isn’t a Christian there is about as much sense in getting in a twist about it as there is in getting upset about vows in a Muslim marriage. If I want to make the vow to submit to my husband, in the full knowledge of what this means in a Biblical context, it’s my friggin’ right to do so.

    • In my experience, sex isn’t a peripheral issue for many Christians – from Catholics to evangelicals. I can’t speak to the changes to the prayer book (though I understand there’s several books?) but I can say that I thought Jensen’s comments on homosexuality were horribly offensive.

      As for Lohrey, I have no idea how much firsthand experience she has of Christianity, but she did write the Quarterly Essay on the conservative Christian right in Australia.

  6. What you said was taken completely out of context, Peter Jensen was the most respectful person on Q and A last night.And yes market, having a market doesn’t imply the selling of a service, merely that you have an auduence for the message you are preaching.

  7. Thanks for this post. I have been horrified and enraged by Jensen and the ACL’s comments and think that the media reporting on them has (unsurprisingly) failed to address their truly menacing (as you say) overtones.

    The real point they are trying to make is that if you are same-sex attracted and lead an active sexual life then you deserve to die (young). It was the same attitudes which led to the widespread institutional failure (especially in the US) to address the AIDS epidemic and the avoidable suffering that caused.

  8. His cloying closing lines were straight out of a sales pitch as if developed in a pre Mad Men era, an unremarkable attempt to engage those that bought into the marketing message. You hear what you want to hear, and if people want to engage on such a base level then the Church can have them. Its the Tea Partyisation of the Church, his was an incongruent distraction from the day’s more tragic and appalling news about Anglican child sex abuse in the Newcastle archdiocese including allegations of gang rape of an underage child by three priests including a “revered” former Dean of Newcastle. The Church has defrocked them and now the criminal investigation can proceed.

    One supporter of the former dean said:

    “I think they can’t make a priest not a priest, and the people who look to Father Graeme Lawrence for their counselling and religious instruction and so on will continue to do so, myself included.”

    So get it in jail.

    Its hard to decouple the Church hierarchy’s infantilisation of homosexuality from the Church hierarchy’s infantilisation of sex. Jensen wove them together:

    “I’m living in a world where a number of my friends have life long committed themselves to no sexual relations…I don’t want to see my friends dying and I’ve seen my friends dying.”

    The cloth; a death camp for barren homosexuals and pedophiles? Its no surprise that the clergy is distant from the flock, fumbling its way thru a new sales pitch directed at its new target market.

  9. I would just like to note that the view of the Sydney diocese, which does not even ordain women as priests, is hardly representative of Anglicanism in Australia generally.

    Michael Kirby recently launched a book of essays on sexuality and scripture by various Anglican theologians in Canberra in an Anglican church, as he has elsewhere in Australia. http://www.changingattitude.org.au/2011/11/five-uneasy-pieces/

    I hope that in not too long, there will be marriages of gay people in the Anglican church, at least in some areas of Australia. Performed by priests of all genders and sexualities. And that neither partner will have to swear to obey, or to submit, to the other!

    How Sydney became so feral in its radical conservatism is an interesting question.

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