Curtains and convictions: how not to get preferment.
A short story by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Harry had felt a bit out of place ever since he arrived at the budget hotel for the ‘Pipeline’ conference. The other participants (he couldn’t help calling them ‘contestants’ to himself) all seemed terribly nice, but there was a slight aura of unreality about the earnest attentiveness in each conversation. “Well I suppose we’re all pretending a bit”, he said to himself. He didn’t want to go, but his wife had persuaded him. After all, now that there was an evangelical ‘talent pipeline’ for appointment to senior posts, it would be wise to make use of it. Perhaps he could get on the inside track, and influence the organization from within?
Harry’s reverie about his wife ordering new curtains for the Archdeacon’s house was broken by one of the facilitators ushering him and the others out of the lounge where they were drinking tea, into the room where they had been ‘workshopping’ for the past few hours. The ‘contestants’ sat as before round tables in groups of four. The facilitator explained: “on your tables you’ll find a questionnaire for each one of you. Take a few minutes to complete this questionnaire individually, put your name on it and hand it in. Then discuss what you wrote with the others in your group”.
“Not another personality test!” sighed Linda across the table, and the others laughed. Harry looked at the first question:
- The first thought that goes through my mind when confronted with a controversial issue, is a) how do other people feel? b) what do I think?
“Do they want me to be reflective, or empathetic?” Harry mused. “Oh for goodness sake, I’ll have to just go with what I really believe”, and circled b).
He moved on to question 2:
If I am asked to sign a letter or petition on a controversial topic, my first thought is
a) if I sign and it is viewed negatively by some people, how might that affect the church? b) what is the right thing to do?
“As a leader I should do what’s right and not be concerned about what people think”, thought Harry, and circled b) again.
The third question was very much on a controversial topic:
- Which statement do I most identify with a) Our theology should be governed by our love. b) Our love should be governed by our theology.
It was at this point that an unpleasant feeling settled in Harry’s stomach, one he hadn’t experienced since final exams and a question that he knew he couldn’t answer. Only this time, it wasn’t that he didn’t know the answer. It was the implications for his life and ministry if he put the answer that he knew was right. “I’ll come back to that one later” he thought.
On to the fourth:
- If I listen to a debate between a liberal and a conservative Christian on radio or TV, I feel a) embarrassment that Christians are disagreeing in public. b) pride that someone has the courage to promote the Bible’s view in public.
Harry now strongly suspected that he was caught in a trap. Just last week he had been watching TV, scanning the channels, and found a current affairs programme where the topic was compulsory sex education. Harry had some interest in this – last year he had to intervene as a governor in his local school when parents complained to him about their children being given completely inappropriate information which amounted in his view to training in immorality. His wife had begged him not to make a fuss, but he and a number of other parents did succeed in getting the school to change its policy and be more careful.
Now here was a head teacher of a Church school on TV arguing for the benefits of such a programme that clearly went beyond providing relevant information, to actually sexualizing the children. She was opposed by a spokeswoman from a Christian campaign organization who calmly but firmly put forward the view that children should be discouraged from sexual experimentation, and that the best context for sex was marriage and certainly a committed relationship between adults. Sex education, she had said, should be the responsibility of parents in partnership with schools, reflecting the values of the families that the children come from. It certainly should not be contracted out through schools, without parental input, to organizations with extreme liberal values – and yet this would be the result of government legislation on ‘compulsory’ sex education. Harry was so impressed that he had sent a donation, while thinking “why can’t our senior C of E leaders stand up for…ah, OK, they don’t want to be seen as judgemental”.
But now what would he do? The whole emphasis on the “Pipeline” conference was on how evangelicals were welcome in the C of E, but as leaders they should sometimes lay their personal convictions aside for the sake of the whole church. Again he skipped the question, and went on to the next:
- I believe the biggest threat to the Church of England is a) Division – arguments about doctrine, separation into different parties b) Confusion – official acceptance of contradictory doctrines, false unity.
“This is completely unfair”, he thought to himself. ”What I really believe is b). The Bible does not set unity and truth against each other like these questions do. Only two weeks ago, when I was preparing for my sermon on John 17, I saw again how Jesus’ prayer for unity is not just a vague wish that everyone with different views would get along. It’s very specific: that those who believe in him through his message would be one. Those who don’t believe, who haven’t accepted his Gospel, aren’t included. Oh my goodness, did I say that in my pulpit?”
Harry was now sweating. The facilitator gave a thirty second warning, and he realized he had only got to question five out of twenty, and still hadn’t answered 3 and 4. He took a deep breath, said a prayer, quickly circled all the b) questions, wrote his name, and handed in his paper with the others.
In the discussion that followed on his table, the others spoke of how in their younger days they would have gone for b) answers, but now with maturity they saw that people were more important than ideas. Harry tried to suggest, as tentatively as he could, that concern for right doctrine and biblical ethics is not all ‘head’ at the expense of ‘heart’; some kind of harsh and divisive philosophy at odds with warm and generous pastoral care. It is surely the best context for the real care of God’s people. “No I don’t agree”, said Mike. “We can have our own personal convictions – and I hope you’re not suggesting I’m woolly! – but as leaders of the wider church we need to ensure that everyone feels included and welcome, whatever their views.”
“What, even if they are racist, for example?” asked Harry.
“Oh come on! Obviously not!”
Another group member managed to steer the conversation into less troubled waters, and then time was up. The conference came to an end in due course, and the participants were told that they would be informed soon if they were selected for the next stage. Harry knew he would not be on that list. He now had a better understanding of why evangelicals in senior positions seemed so reluctant to speak up for biblical truth, or even abandoned it altogether. And he would have to forget that dream about the curtains in the drawing room of the Archdeacon’s house. In fact the way things were going, should he still be in a vicarage in ten years’ time?
Author’s note: this story is entirely fictional; and is not suggesting that there are no ‘Harry’s’ who have slipped through the net.