Two of the three main Abrahamic world religions have taught for years that sex is for marriage and that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. (For most of human history, society did not define people by their dominant sexual desires, and the word “heterosexual” did not appear in print until 1892.) Unpopular though these and other ancient religious doctrines often are, they’ve never been easier to ignore. Until this week, that is, when the Guardian delivered the news straight from the mouth of Moses that the Church of England considers sex to be “for married heterosexual couples only.” Then, lo! The bowls of Twitter erupted and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But why?
Since British values are now overwhelmingly progressive, institutional Christianity has never been less of a cultural threat. According to recent statistics from the pollsters at YouGov, just 4 percent of Britons believe that sex is acceptable only within marriage, and just 5 percent of those who identify as Church of England do. Meanwhile, YouGov reports, 66 percent of Britons support same-sex marriage, as do 57 percent of those who identify as Church of England. This might suggest that the Church of England is out of step with its flock. Except, isn’t the point of a flock that they follow? So why don’t those unhappy with the direction of their leaders follow a different church, perhaps one with a rainbow flag, instead? Or they might even do what the Church of England’s founder Henry VIII did and start their own.
What’s even stranger about the overreaction to the Church of England’s fairly standard reassertion of Judeo-Christian sexual morality is that the same people often appear to be less exercised by what are — objectively— more consequential clashes between their code of ethics and that of an established religion. Islam, for instance: A 2009 Gallup survey of 500 participants found that zero percent of British Muslims thought that homosexuality was morally acceptable, while another survey conducted in 2016 discovered that 52 percent of British Muslims thought that homosexuality ought to be illegal. This is to say nothing, of course, of the various human-rights abuses of homosexuals and (often female) fornicators in Islamic countries. But no, that requires a tricky conversation, one that’s likely to upset the intersectional stomach. It’s far easier to launch a nuclear missile at a sitting rubber duck.
Brits used to pride themselves in satire, as a way of dismantling beliefs or practices with which they disagreed. In that sense, British comedy was in its prime in the 1980s and 1990s, when Christianity was still a significant cultural presence and when its critics had a sense of humor. One comic, Rowan Atkinson, known for Mr. Bean and Blackadder, had a couple of great religiously themed sketches. In one, Atkinson presents as a stuffy Church of England vicar, dressed in full vestments and reading the Cana wedding story from John’s gospel. In another, he appears as Satan, though politely inviting the damned to call him “Toby,” welcoming new arrivals to hell, including fornicators, to whom he remarks, “My God, there are a lot of you.”
Another irreverent comical success was the troupe Monty Python, a founding member of which died last week, Terry Jones. Their movie Life of Brian (1979) tells the story of a man born in Roman-occupied Judea and mistaken for the Messiah. “It was quite obvious that there was very little to ridicule in Jesus’s life,” Michael Palin, one of the movie’s creators, said in 1979. “Jesus was a very straight, direct man making good sense, so we decided it would be a very shallow film if it was just about [him].” Instead, Life of Brian makes political hypocrites and credulous and bloodthirsty mobs their target.
And herein lies the irony. This scenario has now inverted. The raging irrational and humorless mob — absolutely militant against people and artefacts that challenge their assumptions — are no longer Christians, but progressives.
Editor’s Note: This article has been emended since its initial publication.