Those familiar with my blogs will know that I often find inspiration in the Guardian Saturday Review. Last Saturday, an essay by Yuval Noah Harari inspired me. Headlined Come Together, Harari argues that, although it may feel as if we live in increasingly divided times in the wake of terror attacks and as Europe unravels, in fact, civilisation is more united than at any time in our history. The real challenges of our future will only bring us closer. As I read the essay, the dynamics of the Anglican Communion and the campaign for LGBTI equality came to mind. I believe the Communion is on an inevitable trajectory, whether it likes it or not, towards the same outcome – we will be brought closer together.
In passing, Harari notes that Christianity is anything Christians make of it just as European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it, and Christians have made remarkably different things of Christianity over the centuries.
Human tribes merge into a single global community
In contrast to animal species which often split but never merge, human tribes tend to coalesce over time into larger and larger groups. Mergers don’t always last:
“But in the long run, history’s direction is clear-cut. Ten thousand years ago humankind was divided into countless isolated tribes. With each passing millennium, these merged into larger and larger groups, creating fewer and fewer distinct civilisations. In recent generations the few remaining civilisations have been merging into a single global community. Political and ethnic divisions endure, but they do not undermine the fundamental unity. “
Harari says the process of human unification has taken two distinct forms: weak heterogeneous unification and strong homogeneous unification. The weaker heterogeneous form involves creating ties between previously unrelated groups. The groups may continue to have different beliefs and practices, but are no longer independent of each other.
Conflicts spread ideas and make people interested in one another
Historians often argue that globalisation reached a first peak in 1913, then went into a long decline during the era of the world wars and the cold war, and recuperated only after 1989. They fear that new conflicts may again put globalisation into reverse gear. Harari says this may be true of economic globalisation, but it ignores the different but equally important dynamics of military globalisation. War spreads ideas, technologies and people far more quickly than commerce. War also makes people far more interested in one another.
This is the point at which I began to see parallels with the Anglican Communion. The conflict over homosexuality which has been threatening to divide the Communion for 20 years has resulted in some fragmentation and threatened schism but has yet to achieve any formal division. Primates still come to meetings in Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council still functions and Diocesan links are still highly effective and valued.
The ‘war’ that is being fought in the Anglican Communion over human sexuality, Biblical teaching, fundamentalism and the place of LGBTI people in God’s economy is having the opposite effect to that intended by Anglican Mainstream, GAFCON and the other conservative fundamentalist pressure groups. It is having the unintended effect of making people far more interested in one another and is spreading awareness of the presence of homosexuality in the human community.
Homosexuality is being talked about in a way that would have been impossible in many parts of the Communion thirty years ago, when it was barely on the radar. I was unaware that there had been resolutions at the Lambeth Conferences of 1978 and 1988. Thanks to the initiative by the Global South Network in 1997, people in every Province of the Anglican Communion are now conscious of the reality of LGBTI identities, and are able to read about it and talk about it, even if the talk in many Provinces is ignorant and prejudiced. Bishops and priests continually remind their congregations of the intense significance of homosexuality by preaching about it. This is extremely uncomfortable for LGBTI people in homophobic Provinces, but they can learn to switch off and ignore the tirades.
Google, Facebook and smartphones
Returning to Harari’s essay, he says that the global unity of conflict is perhaps most apparent on the internet, where Google, Facebook, and the ubiquitous presence of smartphones provide easily accessible information and networking for LGBTI people in parallel with the ability given to conservative Anglican organisations network effectively and spread homophobic misinformation.
Shared political paradigms
Harari says the world of the early 21st century has gone way beyond the heterogeneous unity of conflict. People across the globe increasingly share identical beliefs and practices. He contrasts the dozens of different political models found a thousand years ago when each society had its own political paradigms, and found it difficult to understand alien political concepts, with the single political paradigm that is accepted everywhere. Nearly 200 sovereign states generally agree on the same diplomatic protocols and on common international laws. Almost everybody believes in slightly different variations on the same capitalist theme, and we are all cogs within a single global production line. No group rejecting the principles of global politics has so far gained lasting control of a significant territory.
I suspect this is going to be true of the reactionary groups and networks trying to hold the Anglican Communion to ransom. Our process may be a decade or two behind the global movements but our trajectory is the same. Progress and the evolutionary movement globally lead in one direction.
Shared medical pardigms
Harari cites our view of the natural world and of the human body as an example of the homogeneity of contemporary humanity. If you fell sick in 1016 in Europe, the resident priest would probably tell you that you had made God angry, and that in order to regain your health, you should donate something to the church, make a pilgrimage to a sacred site, and pray fervently for God’s forgiveness. Elsewhere the village witch might explain that a demon had possessed you, or doctors brought up on classical traditions might explain that your four bodily humours were out of balance. Every empire, kingdom and tribe had its own traditions and experts, each espousing different views about the human body and the nature of sickness, and each offering its own cornucopia of rituals, concoctions and cures.
Today, if you are taken ill, it makes far less difference where you live. Doctors will follow identical protocols and use identical tests to reach very similar diagnoses. They will then dispense similar medicines made by the same drug companies.
“Back in 1016, every culture had its own story about the universe, and about the fundamental ingredients of the cosmic soup. Today, learned people throughout the world believe exactly the same things about matter, energy, time and space.”
“People still claim to believe in different things. But when it comes to the really important stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a weapon – almost all of us belong to the same civilisation.”
The people we fight most often, says Harari, are our own family members. Identity is defined by conflicts and dilemmas more than by agreements. What does it mean to be European in 2016? It doesn’t mean to have white skin, to believe in Jesus Christ, or to uphold liberty. Rather, it means to argue vehemently about immigration, about the EU, and about the limits of capitalism.
“It also means to obsessively ask yourself “What defines my identity?” and to worry about an ageing population, about rampant consumerism and about global warming without really knowing what to do about it.”
Global conflicts make us more interdependent
The changes that await us are likely to involve a fraternal struggle within a single civilisation rather than a clash between alien civilisations. The big challenges of the 21st century - climate change, computerisation, biotechnology - will be global in nature. But, says Harari, the arguments and bitter conflicts over these developments are unlikely to drive us apart. “Just the opposite. They will make us ever more interdependent, as members of a single, rowdy, global civilisation.”
This will be as true of our sub-set community, the Anglican Communion, as of the global community. The continuing development of global communications and of a common understanding of the basics of what it is to be human and living in a global community will overcome the present divisions in Christianity around homosexuality. Meanwhile, we have plenty of challenging work to do to speed the coming of that day.