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Labour, like the Church, may never reconcile the different views of all its supporters

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This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Something dramatic happened on Good Friday. Not 2000 years ago, but the day last month when it became clear that it was now unacceptable for the Leader of the Labour Party to visit a church which ministers to the Nigerian diaspora if it holds to social and theological positions common to Nigeria.

To recap: Sir Keir Starmer made a Good Friday visit to Jesus House, a glass megachurch in Brent Cross, which is a part of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a denomination founded in Nigeria almost 70 years ago. Jesus House does great things to alleviate poverty and has been at the forefront of encouraging the Nigerian community in Britain to take the Covid vaccine. Sir Keir took the opportunity to praise them for this.

It has long been the subject of outrage and mockery that Labour preaches women’s rights in London while holding sex-segregated hustings in Birmingham

Cue a furious response from many within his own party. Jesus House, it transpires, holds distinctly traditional views on sex and sexuality. The lead pastor had previously written in opposition to the liberalising policies of Tony Blair and David Cameron, and there is a deeply worrying rumour of attempted exorcisms of homosexuals in the church. Sir Keir havered for a day, then duly apologised, deleted his tweet and everyone went back to their bank holiday weekend. But something interesting had just happened.

It has long been the subject of outrage and mockery that Labour preaches women’s rights in London while holding sex-segregated hustings in Birmingham, or that its last leader painted himself as a hero of gay rights while taking stipends from a regime that hangs homosexuals from cranes. Until now, that disjunction has not caused significant tension within Labour. It is the party which has consistently won an enormous majority within ethnic minorities and has been the party most associated with women’s, gay, and trans rights. There was no desire to alienate any of the communities which made up its support base.

This position may just have become untenable. Good Friday heralded a debate which has been shirked for far too long: what does it mean to live in a liberal multicultural society if many of those cultures are not liberal? What happens when progressive concerns about identities of sexuality, sex, and gender come into sharp conflict with progressive concerns about race and white privilege?

Observers of the Anglican Communion will note that this is an issue we have been wrestling with for about two decades. It is no accident that the Church of Nigeria is the de facto leader of the Anglican provinces taking a traditional stance on questions of sexuality. It is no accident that the churches taking the lead on liberalising their theologies around sexuality have been those in western, industrialised and wealthy countries.

While the arguments in what is called the “Global North” have tended to focus around justice towards gay people and questions of intrinsic rights, in the “Global South” much has been made of decolonisation, accusations of “white supremacy”, and whether “white” values should have priority over those of non-white Anglicans.

These questions are not only being raised in Africa: they have been at the centre of debates in the West since the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer. In the West we have presumed that people will become more liberal as they become richer, with more access to education. The last 20 years of Anglicanism has demonstrated this to be a false hope: many countries around the world are not liberalising, even as their economic and academic credentials rise.

This has consequences back home. British Nigerians going to a church founded in Nigeria are likely to hold views which are common to Nigeria’s Christians but not to their white Christian or atheist neighbours. What is it but white privilege to silence their voices and declare their churches places not to be visited?

It is very difficult to see how a politics which rejoices in binaries can negotiate the nuances of this situation

This is where the rubber hits the road of identity politics. Who is it who needs to educate themselves in these scenarios? Who deserves to be cancelled? It is very difficult to see how a politics which rejoices in binaries can negotiate the nuances of this situation.

And it is not just Nigerian Christians. Many minority communities bring philosophical, cultural, personal, and religious experiences to the table that will take them to radically different places than their white neighbours. How is this negotiated alongside another common mantra: “my rights are not a matter of opinion”? How are the rights of sexual minorities protected and affirmed (especially those within these communities) while simultaneously valuing and privileging cultural norms that reject those minorities?

I wish I had an answer for my progressive friends. The Anglican Communion has been debating this very question for decades to no visible solution, aside from an uneasy truce where we do, at least, still speak to each other.

Perhaps, and I say this as a soppy old liberal conservative, it is to remember the importance of still speaking to each other — and assessing each argument on its rational merits, not the identity of its maker — but to do that you will actually have to visit those with whom you profoundly disagree

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