by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury
Sir Roger Scruton died on Sunday. Unrepentant fox-hunter, lobbyist for the tobacco industry, publisher of countless articles attacking the progressive “isms” of our day – feminism, multiculturalism, pacifism – conservative philosopher and public intellectual, it is not hard to imagine that sometimes chose his battles simply to annoy those with whom he disagreed. This was the writer who, even as he battled with cancer, wrote an article entitled “The Art of Taking Offence”, highlighting as he saw it the modern preference to take offence, even when none was intended. He was also a practising member of the Church of England.
Scruton once wrote in his book Gentle Regrets, “it was worth sacrificing your chances of becoming a fellow the British Academy, a vice-chancellor or an emeritus professor for the sheer relief of uttering the truth.” Of his editorship of the Salisbury Review, a conservative journal, “It cost me many thousand hours of unpaid labour… three lawsuits…the loss of a university career in Britain, unendingly contemptuous reviews, Tory suspicion, and the hatred of decent liberals everywhere. And it was worth it.”
Although much of Scruton’s thinking and some of his action is open to proper criticism, what I admire about Scruton was his steadfast refusal to be silenced and his defence of free speech, even when it has the potential to offend. Of course, it is right that we should not set out to cause offence, but when we self-censor to the extent that we do not share our genuinely held views or opinions, we diminish ourselves and we disrespect others.
So far, hardly contentious.
But, in writing again for Via Media I thought I would focus on the forthcoming publication of Living in Love and Faith from the perspective of someone who has followed the progress of the work closely and with considerable personal investment, but without being actively involved. Over the coming months I therefore propose to pick up on a number of themes across several articles.
For those of us who are LGBT+ in the Church of England, Living in Love and Faith (LLF) is a watershed moment. At last our stories are being heard and told. However imperfectly, we are being listened to. From all I have heard about LLF, that will not and must not change.
We have learned to speak of our sexuality to those in the Church who have found it hard to speak to of these things. Some of them, indeed more than I have hoped so far, have respected that speaking and have listened with care; many, if not most, are absorbing what we say. A few wish us to remain silent, but they are destined to be rightly disappointed, not by us but by the wider Church who would not wish us back ‘in the closet.’ So, even when it causes offence to those who hear, we must continue to tell our stories, to share what we bring to the table, because in doing so we bear witness to the ‘treasure in clay jars’ that is ‘Christ in us the hope of glory.’
Such testimony is but the beginning, however.
Being welcomed and included is but the first step to a theological integration of what we have learned of Christ in the life and thought of the Church. Theologically-speaking, we have much to grow into as well as much to share. But, for this thinking to develop, we must never collude with those who would wish us silenced.
But, if Scruton’s experience is anything to go by, we must also fortify ourselves with courage too.
Others will, and should, continue to speak, including those who do not wish to see our insights welcomed into the Church’s life and teaching. Some of what they say will need to be heard by us, weighed, absorbed and integrated into our approach to Christian living. LLF is committed to such conversation. That will be costly, because the gold of what we need to hear from them will be coated in much dross, and we will naturally – in hearing criticism, gold or dross – respond from our long-standing place of hurt and pain. We will need to find the resources to bear with one another, to support one another as well, because it won’t do us or the Church any good if our response to such unfair criticism is to silence others.
Where Scruton and I agree is that our culture is too easy to take offence: when that happens we risk silencing those with whom we disagree. We are not looking to replace a historic conservative hegemony in sexual ethics with progressive domination.
I leave the final word to Professor Scruton:
“By living in a spirit of forgiveness we not only uphold the core value of citizenship but also find the path to social membership that we need. Happiness does not come from the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it guaranteed by freedom, it comes from sacrifice. That is the message of the Christian religion…It is the message that has been lost in the noise of repudiation, but which it seems to me can be heard once again if we devote our energies to retrieving it. And in the Christian tradition the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness. The one who forgives sacrifices vengeance and renounces thereby a part of himself [sic] for the sake of another.”
Canon Simon Butler is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea and Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury. As such he sits on the Archbishops’ Council for the Church of England.