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A divergence of views: attitude change and the religious crisis over homosexuality

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  • H Social Sciences (General)
  • Social Sciences


British attitudes towards homosexuality have changed with astonishing rapidity over recent decades. Society has managed to assimilate these shifts with relative ease. The Christian churches, however, as repositories of tradition and defenders of inherited values, have been finding it increasingly difficult to adjust to the new environment. The Church of England is internally divided in the face of an external crisis: the Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledges that the global Anglican Communion could split over the issue, and the church faces similar pressures domestically. These events raise important questions about how religious institutions come to terms with modernity. The rapidity of social change, the decline in deference to authority, the increase in tolerance of anything that seems a private matter, and the sense that sexuality is fundamental to the free expression of personal identity, all make it difficult for a church to declare that sexual orientation might disqualify one from ministry or even membership.This paper analyses empirical evidence covering two decades from the British Social Attitudes and British Household Panel surveys. It is apparent that no real consensus yet exists on basic issues of sexual morality. Society as a whole is highly polarised over the question of whether same-sex unions are wrong, with significant and increasing divisions between young and old, women and men, and religious and non-religious. Far from being better placed than others to avoid disputes, Christian churches suffer from compounded problems. The attitudes of lay Christians are starkly and increasingly polarised along the dimensions of ideology and religious practice. This gulf presents a particular problem for churches with both liberal and evangelical wings, notably the Church of England.

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