Andrew Symes is the Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream. Having accepted Christ as a teenager he has always been concerned for the church maintaining right belief and practice as the foundation of its mission in the world. He is ordained and has wide experience of English Anglican churches, including serving for seven years in a church plant in Northampton. From 1994-2006 he worked in South Africa in pastoral ministry, grassroots theological education and community development. He is married with two children.
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Perhaps two decades ago, new postmodern teachings and ways of doing church began to gain a following among many evangelicals in the English speaking world. They were characterized by calls for “generous orthodoxy”, and their questioning of traditional understandings of the atonement and mission. They appealed to many genuine believers concerned about some aspects of (as they saw it) the culture of conservative churches, for example rigid adherence to doctrinal formulae without nuance or contextualization, an apparent lack of concern for the poor and minorities, a blandness in worship and lack of acknowledgement of the realities of life. The ‘emerging church’ set out a vision for Christian faith based on conversation and journey, messiness and inclusion, downplaying or even rejecting concern for biblical doctrine and disciplined discipleship; developing a spirituality celebrating uncertainty and the validity of different theological viewpoints, incorporating insights from other religious traditions; a focus on community not institution.
In the UK Baptist pastor Steve Chalke, having set up his (largely government funded) ‘Oasis’ organization, in 2003 published “The Lost Message of Jesus” (see review here) in which he denied original sin, labelled the doctrine of penal substitution as ‘cosmic child abuse’, and redefined mission as ‘inclusion’. American Brian Maclaren has gained a large following around the world, and was invited by Rowan Williams to address the Lambeth Conference in 2008 (see here for a review of his book ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’). Rob Bell’s redefinition of heaven, hell, and several other core Christian doctrines in “Love Wins” (2011 – see review here), continued to mirror increasing divisions in evangelicalism between ‘conservatives’ and those moving towards liberal Protestantism. Bell’s communication skills and uber-coolness led to an increased following among non Christians, and he eventually abandoned Christian ministry to become a self-help guru.
Like other ‘emergent’ leaders and thinkers, Bell, Chalke and Maclaren’s often valid criticisms of a particular type of conservative and/or charismatic church culture has led to their abandoning orthodox Christian doctrine, or at least its church package which they see as ‘left brain’, rational, linear, harsh, narrow, oppressive and uncreative. Their own version of Christianity, they claim, is closer to Jesus’ original intention: liberating, gentle, wise, progressive and inclusive. Don Carson’s (2005) careful evaluation of the movement (summarized here) expresses this well.
As more and more evangelical churches in the UK were influenced by ‘emergent’ thinking, I had an unusual vantage point. During the 90’s and early 2000’s I was working in South Africa, focussing on the discipleship formation and bible-based theological education of pastors in the economically deprived townships, while my wife was involved with empowering and enabling church-based community organizations to address poverty and in particular the HIV/AIDS crisis. For us there was no ‘conflict’ between mission as evangelism and mission as social action. Churches full of selfless, compassionate people transformed by the authentic Jesus of Scripture whom they follow and worship, pastored by godly leaders who teach the whole counsel of God, should be the best agents of God’s transformation in addressing the desperate material and spiritual needs of the people around them. To choose either “love” or “truth”, by for example saying that “people don’t need the Bible – they just need anti-retroviral drugs”, or “the church should only preach the Gospel and not waste time in practical help for someone dying of AIDS in poverty” would be ridiculous and unbiblical. As Don Carson says in his book on the Emerging Church:
So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? The left wing of the airplane, or the right? Love or integrity?… Damn all false antithesis to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.
But every time I came back to England to visit local churches who were supporting our work, I noticed that a number of them were being influenced by this ‘false antithesis’ thinking. Some had been clearly evangelical and committed to supporting my Bible teaching ministry in the mid 90’s, but ten years later they were just wanting to hear about the poverty and AIDS work, believing that this was the kind of ‘mission’ they wanted to align with. They had taken on the ‘postmodern’ view that uncertainty about spiritual truth, and liberalism in sexual ethics, was more mature and loving, and less arrogant (although tragically my wife and I had seen firsthand the devastation that liberal sexual ethics can cause in poor communities). Sadly I also noticed that these post-evangelical English congregations gradually declined in number during this period. The same people who admired broad-mindedness were unable to hold together the broad biblical vision of God’s truth contrasted with the enemy’s falsehood, while at the same time being actively involved in compassionate care for the most vulnerable, motivated by biblical faith.
Today Franciscan priest and prolific author Richard Rohr appears to be the current modish teacher for the ‘itching ears’ (2 Timothy 4:3). I first became alarmed when a recently retired well respected evangelical clergyman commended Rohr’s popular book on the second half of life “Falling Upward” to me, and I found what was clearly a version of Eastern and universalist spirituality alongside some very insightful and helpful passages. An Anglican Mainstream reader struggling with the overt promotion of heterodox teaching and dismissal of orthodoxy on a Diocesan Lay Training Course (one of the inspirations for this story) wrote to me a few months ago complaining that Rohr’s books and blogs were being promoted enthusiastically on the programme. Just in the past two weeks I have seen a draft of a major study on Richard Rohr’s teaching by a longstanding member of a large charismatic church in England, who says that his influence is growing in these circles. Jane Krammer’s paper, now published here on Anglican Mainstream, concludes that Rohr often uses “biblical terminology and Christian-sounding language”, which cloaks “a mixed diet of mysticism, self-help spirituality, social justice, biblical inaccuracies and false doctrine. In this way the biblical faith of his followers is progressively and systematically undermined.”
It is significant that this critique of Rohr comes from not from a conservative evangelical clergyman but a charismatic Anglican lay woman, with a strong conviction about the importance of experiencing God’s love and power through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and also deeply rooted in an orthodox understanding of the Scriptures and Christian doctrine. She tells me she has written the critique because of a deep concern about how some dear friends from the same background have moved away from the firm foundations of faith in Jesus as unique Saviour and Lord, and the Bible as the trustworthy Word of God, as they have been influenced by Rohr and his Center for Action and Contemplation.
The leadership of the Church of England are attempting to hold together those who follow the historic teachings of the Christian Church, and those who see in the views of Rohr, the ’emergents’ and other revisionists a new, culturally acceptable way of being spiritual and Jesus-centred. This can only be done by downgrading arguments about doctrine and ethics to ‘second order’, while making relational unity primary. For the new gnostics, this concept of ‘good disagreement’ fits in well to the idea of generosity and inclusion, where conservatives are tolerated as beloved but immature and needing to ‘grow up’. Biblically faithful Anglicans may soon be faced with having to accept this status as a condition of remaining in the Church of England with its advantages and privileges.
“Richard Rohr – Is his teaching biblical?” by Jane Krammer will be published on the Anglican Mainstream website on 26th April.
More on Rohr: A review of “The Divine Dance”
See also: Richard Rohr – is his teaching biblical? By Jane Krammer, Anglican Mainstream
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
“This Easter season is a time of great celebration. Jesus is risen! Let’s take a few moments to think again about the amazing events which happened on that first Easter day”.
Chris the vicar had spent a lot of time preparing for this sermon with prayer and study. Taking a deep breath he continued:
“Towards the end of the story of the road to Emmaus, as Jesus taught his disciples, like all great communicators he summarized his mission and his message in one sentence. Now before we look at it, just think for a moment: if you were to ask your neighbour or friend who doesn’t come to church, what was the most important thing Jesus did, and what was his message, how do you think they would respond? Perhaps ‘he healed people?’ or ‘He said people should be kind to each other?’
Those things would be true, but they would miss the main point of the good news of Jesus. Let’s look at Luke 24, verses 46-47:
This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
What is the mission of Jesus, the Christ? To suffer and die, and then to rise again.
What is his message? Forgiveness of sins is available in his name to people in every nation, through repentance.
How do we know? It’s written in the Bible.
The heart of the Christian message is the death and resurrection of Jesus, which means our sins can be forgiven and we can be in right relationship with God forever. It’s a different agenda from what most people expect. And so it was in those days as well. Even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand it at first.”
Chris went on to explain the key concepts from this basic message:
The identity of the ‘Christ’, or ‘the Son of Man’, as Jesus also refers to himself.
The purpose of his death: taking God’s just judgement for our sins on himself.
The resurrection: its physical and historical reality, and its meaning – the confirmation of Jesus’ identity as universal Lord and Saviour, and the guarantee of life beyond the grave for all who believe in him.
As he drew to a close, Chris said “I want to mention three more things about the Christian faith from the story of the Emmaus Road.
Firstly, its not just a set of ideas – it’s a relationship with a person. Cleopas and his friend walked and talked with Jesus, and this is what being a Christian is today as well.
Secondly, this is supernatural. It’s God breaking in to our world. A man rose from death, came out of a grave and ate and drank; angelic beings overcame Roman guards and rolled away a huge stone. In our journey with Jesus today, we should be prepared for surprises.
Thirdly, it’s all written down. Do you notice how again and again it says “he explained everything from the Scriptures” and “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures”. This is so that we who don’t see Jesus physically or hear his voice like they did, still have access to the same truth from the same source. It’s not a secret, something we work out for ourselves, or an unsolveable mystery – it’s all in the Bible!”
There was a palpable sense of joy in the congregation, as they went on to say the creed together, responded to the intercessions, shared the Peace, worshipped in song and received the bread and wine. “The penny hasn’t quite dropped for everyone yet”, he thought to himself as he greeted folk at the door, “but a number of people seem to be really growing in their faith compared with when I first arrived here five years ago”.
But after the joy of the Easter service and the thrilling reminders of the Gospel truth, Chris found himself feeling very despondent three weeks later, sitting in his study with his two trainee lay readers. They were all having a debrief of the Lent and Easter season, and Karen and Michael were reflecting on their latest seminar with the Diocesan lay ministry training programme.
“We heard, er, shall we say a very different take on the Road to Emmaus story, from the Dean, Reverend Doctor whatever his name is”, said Karen. “Yes – a good job you warned us beforehand”, continued Michael. “He was very plausible, and he is an eminent theologian after all. The course leader was going on about how honoured we all were that this guy would give up his time to come and speak to us”.
“Go on”, said Chris. “What did he say?”
“Well,” replied Karen, “On Easter Sunday you said that the angels in the story show that Christian faith is supernatural. I looked for myself and saw that in Luke’s Gospel there are angels at the beginning – at the conception of John the Baptist and at the birth of Jesus – and at the end with the resurrection. And yet Luke emphasizes that his story is carefully researched from eye witnesses. Supernatural does not contradict factual. But the Dean said the opposite. For him, the stuff about angels proves that the Bible is historically unreliable, full of myths, he said.”
“That’s right”, continued Michael. “He also rubbished the idea of Jesus’ death being a sacrifice to take away our sins. He – and most of the people there I think – agreed that God’s judgement against sin is a medieval concept that leads to violence and division. And the resurrection – well for the Dean, it’s not important whether it actually happened. He quoted various theologians who seemed to be saying that the resurrection is a symbol for us having love and peace in our heart”.
“The heart of the story, for the Dean, was the meal when Jesus broke bread with the two travellers”, said Karen. I wrote it down here in my notes. ‘In that moment of hospitality, they recognized Jesus. Jesus becomes present when we share a meal with one another in peace. So the role of the church is to welcome all with hospitality, and build community – that is how Jesus is made known’. So he wasn’t saying a welcoming Christian community leads people to encounter Christ, but that the feeling of welcome is an encounter with Christ.”
“Everyone got really excited about this”, said Michael, “but on the way home Karen and I were saying that this is a completely different message to what you’ve been teaching us. You’re telling us about the cross, the resurrection, the supernatural Lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus, the trustworthiness of Scripture. It’s our shared belief in this which brings us together in community. On the Diocesan course they don’t seem to believe in that at all.”
“Sadly I’m not surprised”, sighed Chris, “but I’m very encouraged that you’re both really well grounded in your faith and in the Word of God, so that you can evaluate different views that people have. Where will you go from here?”
“I’ve spoken to the course leader, and explained that I’m coming from a different place theologically” replied Michael. “She said that’s fine, and it’s great to have diversity in the C ofE, and that our orthodox theology is one of a number of options. As long as I show that I’ve listened to other views when I write my essays, I will still pass the course. I suppose it’s just a set of hoops we have to jump through, so that we can have a licence to do the ministry we think God has called us to here.”
“I’m afraid I’ve come to a different conclusion”, said Karen. “My husband and I have been talking about it for some time now. We really love this church and your faithful ministry, Chris, and we get fed spiritually here. But I feel that my faith is constantly undermined and ridiculed when I go to these Diocesan training events. They talk about diversity but they’re pushing everyone in a liberal direction. I’m thinking seriously about quitting the course. And to be honest, Chris, if it wasn’t for you, Phil and I would be at another church, another denomination. I understand about the sound basis of the Prayer Book and the Articles, but what good are they if today’s Anglican leaders don’t believe in them, and ministers are being trained to contradict them?”
Chris said he was really grateful to Michael and Karen for their frankness. He felt guilty that he had sent them on the course without checking it out properly, but relieved and satisfied that they had been able to evaluate and critique it. They prayed together, thanking God for the death and resurrection of Jesus, and asking for guidance about the way forward.
Afterwards he continued to think about his own position in the Church of England. The living in his parish gave him a great platform for Gospel ministry, but the structures of the denomination being on an increasingly liberal trajectory, undermined what he and his team were trying to do, and would not equip the church to provide a clear witness to Christ in the nation.
[In response to this piece, one of our regular readers has written this:
…your article hits the nail on the head. Just one year ago I was that Lay Reader in training.
Since coming to faith, at age 50 years, I discovered that, although my faith was Bible based, my local vicar was an extreme Liberal – a Sea of Faith apostate – and moreover my Reader training was predominately, attempting to push me in a liberal direction. It was only because some Sundays I was able to attend services in Biblically faithful churches, …coupled with much anguished prayer, which helped me complete my training, under mounting pressures from both our incumbent and the course to conform.
Eventually things reached a head and after licensing, I transferred to a very good orthodox, evangelical parish where I now serve as Reader and I am very happy. It has been quite a struggle ! Let the glory be to God ! So yes “The faithful are deciding!” ]
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
At the beginning of this week I carefully read through Luke’s version of the last few days of Jesus’ life, expecting to find heartwarming devotional material centred on Christ’s atoning death for my sins. Instead I found something else: a series of stories illustrating how human beings abuse money and power. This is not ‘sin’ in the abstract, perhaps crystallizing around my own sense of unease about barriers in my own relationship with God. This account is about the raw badness of people turning away from the weak while selfishly feathering their own nests, and rejecting the rightful authority of their maker with murderous fury often masked as civilized sophistication.
The attitudes and actions which kill Christ are based on a complete failure to understand the true nature of wealth, of the power of God and the identity of his Son. In Luke’s second book Peter says it straight – “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). The Easter story was not meant to be an aid to private piety. It’s not ‘religious studies’, but politics and economics; the ugly spiritual powers behind them; their exposure and judgement, and then redemption – itself an economic term. All this set against what we as readers are privileged to see as the backdrop of the true realities of the universe.
Attitudes to wealth: wrong and right
Lent is often used as a time when Christian reflect on their use of money and consumption of resources. Luke’s Passion narrative gives us several examples of wrong attitudes to wealth. The story of Zacchaeus (19:1-9) shows a man who as a tax collector would have been a by-word for greed and selfish hoarding. By his own admission he cheated others and took more than they owed. Those running the stalls for changing money and selling of items for presentation in the temple (19:45-48) are taken to task by Jesus for focussing on profit instead of prayer and mission. Teachers of the Law are accused of “devouring widows’ houses” (20:47) – one of the many ways in which those with influence can exploit the poor and vulnerable for financial gain. The rich, says Jesus, often give to God for show, and they, we?, give out of our excess rather than sacrificially (21:4). Constantly worrying about money, or using it to lead a life of indolence, are signs that we haven’t got the right perspective on God’s Kingdom and his coming judgement (21:34). Most tragically, Judas, betrayed Jesus to his enemies for money (22:5), perhaps history’s worst example of ‘selling out’.
But wrong use of money isn’t just about selfishness and greed. In the parable of the Ten Minas (19:11-27), to which we will return later, Jesus tells of a servant who avoided any risk with his resources out of fear (v20-21). By contrast the other servants are commended for investing and gaining a return (spiritually, by seeing what we have as belonging to God and investing for the benefit of his agenda), just as the ruler in the story has taken a risk by investing in them.
There are other examples of right use of money in these passages. Zacchaeus’s moral and spiritual transformation results in generous giving to the needy, and voluntary restitution for past wrongdoing. We should pay our taxes, giving to the government what is due, says Jesus (20:25), contradicting the zealots of his day. Finally before taking his disciples out to Gethsemane after the Last Supper, Jesus reminds them of God’s provision, and they agree that they have lacked nothing while being dependent on him (22:35).
Wrong use of money includes lack of generous sharing with neighbour, fear that God might not provide, selfish pursuit of comfort and pleasure. All derive from a faulty worldview . All of these sins were endemic among God’s people and especially their leaders, and they continue to be so among us today. The solution is the same: the cross, which exposes and judges our greed and focus on self preservation, and atones for it.
Game of Thrones?
Concern for power is closely linked to love of money, more corrupting and more devastating when wrongly oriented. At the centre of this compelling drama about power and who is really in charge, is Jesus’ teaching, and the refusal to accept it by those with power in the religious and political structures.
As Jesus and the growing crowd move towards Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, the followers try to silence a blind beggar. For them, Jesus is one with power, to be used for his own and their advantage. But the powerless man links Jesus as ‘Son of David’ with one who has mercy on the poor. Jesus publicly heals him: he sees spiritually and receives physical sight; the people remain blind. Then, on the Sunday, Jesus is again hailed with words of Old Testament hope telling of the King who comes in the name of the Lord, and he deliberately re-creates the prophetic image as he rides on a young donkey. Five days later this King is humiliated, crucified between two criminals. The contrast between visual images of power: healer and triumphant King on one hand, and tortured outcast on the other, is striking, and explained further in Jesus’ teaching.
Luke records two similar parables from Jesus, the ‘Minas’ (19:11-27), and the ‘Vineyard’ (20:9-19), which frame the Palm Sunday triumphal procession and cleansing of the temple. Both stories tell of a wealthy and powerful man who is absent from the scene. In both cases his authority is resented, and rebellion is planned. Both have the same conclusion: the one with authority punishes the rebels. Both contain the implicit question to the hearers: are you giving the one with rightful authority over your life the honour and the tribute, or rent, that is due to him? The parable of the vineyard carries an extra detail: the Son, the heir, who is sent as a personal representative of the owner. This story is told in response to the question about power: “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things?” the religious leaders ask Jesus, not understanding his identity or his power, being in rebellion against their own God.
The ruler in the parable of the Minas, like many oriental potentates of the time, or indeed like the Roman emperor, has complete authority over politics and economics, life and death in his jurisdiction. Trying to declare oneself independent of him because he appears to have ‘gone away’ is futile and will just result in punishment and death because he has so much more power.
But then, what is Jesus saying? Is God like that ruler? Should we regard him like a brutal autocrat? In terms of character, clearly not, as the stories of the healing of the blind man, the restoration of Zacchaeus and the choice of the donkey’s colt clearly demonstrate. Luke’s portrayal of the last supper ends with Jesus correcting the disciples’ understanding of power as domination, and says that in the Kingdom of God it is about humble service, following his own example (22:24-27). But in terms of authority and power, God is like that ruler – in fact far more powerful that any human ruler we can imagine. Everything we have in terms of ‘talents’ or ‘minas’ (Luke’s term) comes from God and we are accountable to him for how we use it. But while rebellion and declaration of independence might be justifiable in relation to a cruel human ruler, in relation to God it’s not just ungrateful, it shows we simply have not understood the reality of who he is.
This stubborn and destructive blindness is illustrated by a number of hostile exchanges between Jesus and those who are trying to play the power game. Some Sadducees engage him in a theological debate about life after death (20:27-38), presenting him with an attempt to ridicule the idea of resurrection based on Mosaic laws about marriage. Jesus’ response is to teach about the nature of the spiritual realm, heaven, and the sovereignty and power of God in raising the elect from death. The Sadducees are religious leaders, with a ‘liberal’ attitude to their own Scriptures and traditions, trying to gain advantage by making alliances with secular human government. In their mind, Jesus is an irritating but powerless religious conservative. The implications of Jesus’ reply to them show the reality of the power differential. For all their humanist sophistication, they are unknowingly dealing with the One who controls not just death and life, but time itself: “he is the God …of the living, for to him all are alive”.
Similarly, as the drama reaches its climax, we’re presented with scenes of a trial. In the dock is an apparently powerless itinerant religious teacher. His accusers and judges are those with the power – aren’t they? The priests and Pilate ask Jesus: who do you think you are? They are not interested in the truth of his answer; they just want him out of the way, as his influence over the crowd potentially threatens their carefully crafted positions of status. But as Jesus has made clear in his teachings about the future destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem, we know that he is not really sitting under their judgement. Rather it’s the other way round.
God’s plan for power
The Gospel does not teach, as some claim, that for authority to be concentrated in any one place is inherently oppressive; that even for God, having too much power is always bad, while powerlessness and/or democratic diffusion of power is always better. The answer to the corrupting of power is not ‘equality’ and the abolition of hierarchy, but God’s perfect and righteous rule. The accounts leading up to Jesus’ death show the voluntary submission of the ‘Son of Man’ to petty human power plays. Afterwards, his true position as Lord, delegated by the One with absolute authority, is confirmed by his resurrection and ascension.
But it doesn’t end there. He has a plan for his faithful followers too. At the Last Supper Jesus promises his friends:
I confer on you a Kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
The attitude and behaviour of the religious leaders of Jerusalem shows how the desire for power and authority is easily corruptible, like our attitude to money. In itself it is not wrong. It is the destiny of God’s children to rule in humble service, in right relationship with God and others, in fulfilment of the mandate given to Adam. The transformation of human attitudes that makes this vision possible begins with the cross and resurrection.
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Conservative evangelicals are often accused of not ‘listening’ to other points of view. We’re told that we only engage with each other; we only read or listen to ‘approved’ versions of our faith; we caricature the arguments of revisionists without really hearing them. So I was delighted to receive a press release from Modern Church, summarising the keynote address from the recent annual meeting of their Council, and giving a link to the substantial 12 page text of the talk itself, by Dr Lorraine Cavanagh, which can be found here. ‘Reclaiming the soul of Modern Church’ reads like a manifesto for mission for liberal Christians, and it’s worth reading with genuine enquiry, to ask whether this revisionist version of Christian faith offers a coherent and compelling vision that threatens orthodox biblical faith in any way.
After an opening illustration, Dr Kavanagh begins by defining liberalism in a Christian context. Firstly as “hospitality”: respect for one another around a “central altar” as we “encounter God in one another”. Then ‘freedom’ to encounter God “in a myriad of ways”, particularly through openness to “non-propositional truth” of the heart not just the head. It is also an intellectual freedom, a continual willingness to think in different ways. This can be seen as subversive, but provides a vital different voice against the contemporary tendency to conservatism, according to Cavanagh.
(To me it seems bizarre that the Church of England could be accused of undergoing a “shift to the extreme right” as the Acting General Secretary of Modern Church claims. I’m currently reading Justin Welby’s proposal of a radical Gospel-directed alternative to current models of capitalism, in the Lent book ‘Dethroning Mammon’. Meanwhile Bishops are publicly affirming the Archbishops’ call for “radical inclusion” in the Church, and are regularly critical of government economic and social policies).
Cavanagh sees the gift that liberals can offer is to bring the voice of “the unchurched, the de-churched and the marginalised” to the table. She takes a term of insult, “half-believers”, and turns it into a virtue – believing but with questions, understanding but not tied down to a particular version of the faith. Many liberals feel rejected by the institutional church or representatives of it, perhaps alienated from traditional views of God, but still want to be Christians and C of E. They have much to offer a church that, with clear echoes of Martyn Percy, she describes as “stifled by managerial concerns”. The Church’s inner spiritual life needs insights from “the humanist and the secular”, she continues, claiming that this is the opposite of extremism.
(This idea of ‘reverse mission’, of the Church learning from the world about some of its core principles, is a familiar feature of liberal theology and ethics. It is unintentionally ironic that liberals are attacking the C of E leadership for borrowing from secular management principles to improve efficiency, while at the same time themselves openly advocating the taking on board of other secular ideas.)
Modern Church stands for a fellowship with no “criteria for membership” which are divisive and sectarian. Cavanagh links the “recruitment” emphasis on evangelism and discipleship in the C of E’s Renewal and Reform programme with “dangerously emotive worship”, fundamentalism and the rise of Donald Trump. By contrast liberals look for something of the sacred, found in contemplation, with more “theological substance”. People returning to church after a long absence, including some evangelicals, are finding this helpful, says Cavanagh, although there is no evidence to indicate how many.
The worshipping community and the “life of the spirit” prevents the intellectual explorations into religious philosophy from “running aground”, and provides the liberal Christian alternative to the atheist Assemblies. Referring to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Cavanagh describes God’s pneuma as “a new and life-giving force at work in any number of human contexts”, insisting that understanding of God should be “non-dogmatic”, relevant to the 21st century, and not “protectionist” (which I take to mean framed by doctrinal boundaries).
A radical new vision of Christian faith based on these principles will result in transformation of the Church, Cavanagh believes. Biblical interpretation should be based on the primary hermeneutical keys of justice and love; the authority of divine revelation is found not in Scripture but in “respect for one another, including those of other faiths”. While God “is known in different ways, as part of different and still evolving stories”, there is agreement about a quality of “loving kindness”, and that the Kingdom of God is coterminous with “reconciliation and peace in the world”.
The mission of a Modern Church is to be a “bearer of hope”, voicing liberal thought in contexts of neo-conservatism, not seeking to convert, but to liberate; challenging injustice and abuse of power in the Church, and fundamentalism in religion generally. While conservative versions are “literally unbelievable”, liberalism sees concepts of God as sacred, holy, open to a process of questioning, combining the rational and the spiritual.
Cavanagh appears to recognise the problem that the account of faith that she describes, a combination of vaguely left of centre philosophical musings and spirituality free of any biblical anchor, is seen by many as “not really Christian”. Orthodox Anglicans, confident in the authority of Scripture, and of basing theology and ethics on the Bible’s coherent and thrillingly inspiring vision of God’s relationship with humanity past, present and future through Christ, would find it difficult to see anything in Modern Church’s presentation which could offer anything helpful, or be a challenge to evangelical understandings of faith and mission.
But this kind of revisionism still remains a threat. Many Bishops see their role as referees between different theological positions rather than guardians of the faith once delivered, and liberal theology still appeals to a small but influential number of those who have rejected biblical truth but want to be involved with Church leadership. Modern Church may feel that the C of E is moving in a conservative direction, but the Synod’s House of Clergy has voted against a document advocating caution in moves towards affirming same sex marriage. Revisionist ideas have got a hold in theological colleges, Diocesan training schemes, parish pulpits and Cathedrals.
In response, orthodox Anglicans need to continue to teach the truth and refute error, and resist appeals to settle for ‘good disagreement’ when it means accepting that Modern Church’s self-confessed humanistic theology is as validly Christian as robust biblical faith.
See also: Gnostic liberalism, by Robert P George, First Things
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
After months of planning and prayer, earlier this month the little village church that I attend opened a ‘Festival’, a nine day outreach to the local community.
Growing populations, declining church attendance.
It’s a small parish (population around 3000, growing rapidly with new housing), with one full time vicar who also looks after two other churches in the benefice. The church is statistically ‘average’ for the C of E: 45 regular worshippers means fewer than 1.5% of the population. Of course there may be the same number living locally who attend church in the bigger urban centres ten miles away. But the fact remains that fewer than one in thirty appear to be living life with any reference to Christian faith.
This is a challenge to our theology, and also to our understanding of the church. Are we deluding ourselves when we speak of the ‘Church of England’, when it appears to be so irrelevant to all but a tiny fraction of its people? What is going on spiritually in the nation, and in the hearts of its inhabitants, when God is ignored or not known? What will the future hold? Can we do anything about it?
Getting the whole church on board
The vicar had been talking about a mission to the village for some years, and praying with a small group of trusted friends in the church who understood and had experienced outreach initiatives in other contexts. But there were potential challenges. This church has only recently over the past few years been exposed to evangelical, bible-based ministry. Would some of the older folk, preferring a more traditional expression of private faith, be nervous about or even resistant to the idea of mission and evangelism? Also, while faithful and hard working members of the congregation could run events, help from the outside would be needed in terms of gifted communicators of the Gospel. And then, what is the Gospel? There might be strong voices, concerned mostly about community relations, who would want to stress the church as glue that holds the village together, and helping the needy in practical ways. They might see talking about Jesus, the Bible and faith as dividing rather than uniting.
Preparation, teaching, prayer
That’s why it was a significant moment when more than a year ago, it was one of the ‘traditional’ 9am communion members who suggested the idea of a ‘Festival sharing faith through fun and friendship’. He and the PCC understood that the future of the church depends on new people finding faith and taking responsibility for the church, and despite financial constraints, backed the project. So, back in early 2016, a retired clergyman living locally with experience of a number of missions began providing training and encouragement. We started a series of regular prayer meetings; the vicar geared the teaching in Sunday services to issues of discipleship and mission. Practical planning began in earnest. A lecturer and team of students from a nearby theological college were booked to help during the week itself. And a leading evangelist, well-known nationally, who happened to be related to a member of the congregation, agreed to speak during the first weekend.
For such a small congregation, the plan to run more than 25 events over a ten day period might seem a bit ambitious. But with a lot of careful and thorough preparation over several months, and hard work from an amazing group of individuals, now enjoying a rest, it all worked: the faith of many in the church has been strengthened, and dozens of people on the fringes, and even those who have never previously darkened the doors, have heard the Gospel and socialized with Christians.
Community building with intentional evangelism
The first weekend set the tone for what was to come. A breakfast in the village hall on the Saturday morning was attended by 70, and rounded up with a talk by the evangelist based on Ecclesiastes 2, asking ‘what’s the point of life?’. A late morning fun run which ended with participants and supporters packed into the church for the prizegiving, followed by hot dogs and chat, also gave an opportunity for a short message on life’s priorities. That evening, after a social time in the pub with beer and curry, the speaker talked about sport as an illustration of human existence, how the hard work and triumphs show one side, but the cheating, corruption and disappointment show another. There is only one way of dealing with the reality of human sin, and the ephemeral nature of victory and pleasure in the face of old age and death.
On the Sunday morning both 9am and 10.30 congregations were more than double the normal size. The earlier service heard a message on salvation by grace and not by works, while the younger crowd were treated to a powerful exposition of the story of the Prodigal Son. The evangelist slipped away at that point, having given five talks in 28 hours. He had preached the message of the cross and resurrection with humour, clarity and urgency to unbelievers, but also he had reminded the Christians there of what we are trying to say and do as we witness to Christ in our locality.
The outreach continued on for the next week with a number of different events around the village. The visiting team of ordinands joined the vicar and the youth worker in school assemblies and special messy church-type events; they gave their testimony at home-based meals and in community cafes. The second Sunday ended the Festival with the Bishop preaching and presiding at Holy Communion, followed by a lunch. Meanwhile members of the congregation have been inviting friends and neighbours who have attended Festival events to follow-up meetings and courses which will begin after Easter.
The C of E and New Testament mission principles
Time will tell whether this mission has been ‘successful’ in terms of increased Sunday attendance. But certainly seed has been sown, the Gospel has been preached in the village, and many contacts have been made and strengthened, through genuine fun and friendship. What is clear is that there is no need for a dichotomy between a Church of England understanding of being responsible for the whole parish in terms of pastoral care and community building, and a New Testament mandate for evangelism, bible-based Christian education and the expectation of supernatural transformation. The village Festival proves not just that it’s possible to do both with very limited resources, but essential. The Church cannot ascribe to itself a role, as some are suggesting, of binding up all the wounds of every person, physical and psychological, or of redefining the task of mission as inclusion based on baptism. But we can worship the One who does meet humanity’s deepest needs, invite others to enter into his Kingdom through repentance and faith, and watch and pray as his Spirit brings change to individuals and communities.
by Andrew Symes, Church of England Newspaper.
All Souls, Langham Place was packed on Monday 13th March as hundreds of men and women, young and old, gathered to worship God and give thanks for the life and ministry of Mike Ovey, the dearly loved former Principal of Oak Hill College, who died on 7th January aged 58. Hugh Palmer led the service, featuring hymns with All Souls’ trademark uplifting music. Current students at Oak Hill read the opening biblical sentences; there were four outstanding tributes to Mike and a sermon based on Philippians 1:21, “for me, to live is Christ, to die is gain”.
All the speakers emphasized how Mike Ovey combined robust love for truth with compassion for people. For Efrem Buckle, former student at Oak Hill and now pastor at Ecclesia Church, Lewisham, Mike used his “awesome intellectual processing power” to explain the wonders of God’s love expressed, for example, in the doctrine of election, and yet he will also be remembered for being kind, patient, keen to listen and learn from those he ministered to.
“Mike prepared me theologically so I was able to cope with the news of his death”, said Nick Tucker, another former student, now a Church of England vicar. Mike had a brilliant mind, yet was always working hard to explain biblical truth as simply and clearly as possible. A humble man dedicated to the learning and growth of the next generation of Gospel ministers, he wasn’t interested in the status he could have gained in academic circles had he published more. Despite the massive workload of teaching and administration, he always found time for pastoral care of students.
Before his theological study and ordination, Mike was a highly regarded lawyer. He continued to offer support and advice to Andrea Williams and the Christian Legal Centre up to the time of his death, especially in the area of lobbying around government legislation on issues such as fertilization and embryology and same sex marriage. Andrea spoke of how Mike predicted that secularism would gradually force biblical Christianity out of the public space, and was deeply concerned about working to preserve the freedoms for sharing the Gospel that we have taken for granted for so long, but are now under threat.
Dan Strange, Mike’s colleague at Oak Hill and now acting Principal, spoke about the vision for theological education that is Mike’s main legacy. This is to steer a course between the ‘whirlpool’ of theology as an academic exercise detached from apostolic truth and the Gospel of Jesus on one hand, and the ‘monster’ of anti-intellectual pragmatism on the other. According to Ephesians 4:11-13, Jesus gives gifts to his church in the form of leaders, who need to be formed intellectually and spiritually around the Word of God for Christ-like character and with the ability to teach and shape Christian communities. Such training is costly and needs support, but the alternative, said Strange, is a church that is “unsafe”.
“Mike Ovey would have said, with Paul, that to live is Christ, to die is gain”, said Former Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen as he preached on the text in Philippians 1, and continued to emphasise the importance of excellent theological education, showing the link between this text and the vital role of the Church.
For many people, death is the end, “to die is oblivion”, so striving to please self in this life is all there is. Or perhaps they think they merit life after death by their goodness. By contrast, said the Archbishop, the apostle Paul saw himself as previously spiritually dead in his sins, and now alive in Christ forever having been redeemed and forgiven. While he loves the people he is with, and longs to serve them and see them grow in faith, he knows that life is often a struggle (he is writing from prison). He sees that his citizenship is in heaven, and his hope is in a Person whom he will see face to face in glory.
This is the same attitude that Mike Ovey had, said Jensen. Although he was gifted, hard working and much loved, he knew that he was a forgiven sinner, and was motivated by God’s amazing grace. It is vital that this message is proclaimed through healthy bible-based churches in a society where most people think that death is the end. Hence the importance of training church leaders in rigorous programmes that enable them to discern truth and refute error. The aim is pastors who know God and be equipped to make him known; who experience and replicate loving Christian community. This vision is not just for Oak Hill College, but for England and beyond. “Our thanksgiving for Mike’s life must include the resolve to extend his legacy”, concluded Archbishop Jensen.
Special thanks to Mike’s bereaved family, and to All Souls for making this event possible.
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream
In his Presidential Address to Diocesan Synod on Saturday 11 March 2017, Bishop Stephen Cottrell has given one of the clearest indications yet of the next stage of major change in the Church of England’s approach to sexual ethics.
Referring to the Archbishops’ call for “a radical new Christian inclusion”, he says:
LGBTI+ people are welcome in the churches of the Chelmsford diocese… we want to listen to them and work with them so as to find appropriate ways of expressing their love – for it is not good for human beings to be alone – in permanent, faithful, stable relationships…there is no reason why prayers of thanksgiving for these relationships – perhaps a Eucharist – cannot be offered.
Earlier he justifies his call for this change by referring to the “missiological damage” caused by the Church’s teaching on sex, and also that we need to “look again” at the Scriptures, “for what we know now is not what was known then”.
The Bishop recognizes the validity of the “principled objection” by those who “are remaining faithful to the church’s traditional and canonical understanding of marriage and human relationships”, and appears to genuinely believe, despite the Philip North fiasco (to which he refers), that two integrities can coexist peacefully within the Church of England.
A brief response.
- This is a further indication that Archbishop Justin Welby’s call for “radical inclusion” has given a green light for Diocesan Bishops to publicly express a preference for abandonment of more than 3000 years of Judaeo-Christian anthropology and sexual ethics. Chelmsford follows Manchester, Hereford, Portsmouth and Liverpool in recent weeks.
- Bishop Stephen’s call is the most explicit yet, and comes as part of his Charge to Synod, formal and authoritative, focused on his role as the focus of unity and guardian of apostolic teaching to which he refers at the start of his address.
- He expresses lack of confidence that Scripture’s teaching can be relied on today. These arguments are not new – in fact they are restatements of the old heresies which have been refuted over and over again – but they are, significantly, coming from the Bishop’s Chair.
- He says clearly that the church must change its message to fit in with what non-Christian culture believes and approves of. It is difficult to see how his role as guardian of a distinctive, counter-cultural apostolic truth has not thereby been forfeited.
- He devalues the sacrificial lifestyle of celibate singleness displayed by our Lord and many thousands of godly men and women down the ages. By taking “not good to live alone” out of context, he suggests that a sexual relationship is essential for happiness and even being fully human, ignoring the fact that loneliness can be experienced in cohabitation and marriage, and complete fulfillment can be found by single people living in relationship with Christ, in non-sexual relationships of love, friendship and community with others.
- He is sending a message to those holding to the traditional position, that while he apparently respects their position, they will not be allowed to block change any more. The implication is that if progress is not made towards celebrating same sex relationships in church, it is the conservatives who are not “listening”, and they are the ones responsible for continued conflict by not being willing to live with diversity.
[Charles Raven of Gafcon makes these comments:
1. Bishop Stephen says: “…let me be loud and clear on this issue: whether you believe there should be same sex marriage or the blessing of same sex unions or whether you do not, you are still a faithful Anglican.” Here we have a straightforward denial of Lambeth I.10. Same sex marriage is relegated to a secondary issue, and Cottrell appears to be giving this as principle of the Church of England, not as a personal view.
2. The Bishop continues: “I have my views and opinions, of course I do, but I am also ‘Father in God’ to all of you; and all clergy and licensed ministers make an oath of canonical obedience to me, regardless of disagreement on some issues.” This very direct statement flows from the logic of the first. There is no recognition here that SSM could be a first order issue of conscience. He is attempting to bind conscience and this tough line may be an indicator of real fear that post General Synod and Philip North, unity can only be maintained by force.]
It is now over to the orthodox clergy and laity in Chelmsford Diocese, first, to see what they will do. Some will be talking about looking for some form of differentiation, perhaps alternative oversight, whether informal or more visible. Some, especially laity, will be looking for another denomination. We hope that those who continue to recognize the Bishop’s spiritual authority and do nothing, will see the need to join others in taking principled action. This pattern will be repeated in other Dioceses in coming months.
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.
By Andrew Symes, Church of England Newspaper.
Christian Concern’s Wilberforce Institute hosted the second ‘Cultural Leadership Symposium’ on 7-8 February. The 2016 conference discussed the biblical mandate to create a Christian ‘culture’ rather than submit to the prevailing secular humanism and accept its values in public life. Last week’s event dealt with the challenge to the church of religious pluralism in general, and the growing influence of Islam in particular.
The first three speakers, Dr Joe Boot, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, Rev Dr Dan Strange Acting Principal of Oak Hill College, and former Islamic jurist turned Christian apologist Dr Sam Solomon, all made the same central point: in the West most Christians have been conditioned to view ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ as a compartment of life.
We tend to see our cultural and religious differences as a small element of who we are, part of our ‘diversity’. Because of this misunderstanding, many Christians are either ‘pluralists’ (believing that all religions contain a component of the truth and lead to the same divine goal), or ‘inclusivists’, holding to their own faith in Christ, but accepting that salvation can be found in other faith traditions. The main task of the church, then, according to this view, is not to try to change the small ‘faith’ aspect of the stranger to align with ours, but instead to build understanding and partnership through what we share in our common humanity.
But Muslims or Hindus, for example, do not see things this way. Here, the life of the individual is a part of a much bigger whole. Islam is not a ‘faith’ in the sense of a private belief or a set of activities of worship and good works; rather it is a whole social and political system, the ‘deen’, in which the life of the individual is a small part.
This has enormous implications. When a well-meaning local authority grants permission for the building of a mosque and school, or a Cathedral invites a reading from the Qu’ran in one of its services, the Western view sees it as an act of humanity and bridge-building to those who are different culturally. But according to a classical Muslim perspective, this may be viewed rather as an act of political and religious submission to Islam.
The conference speakers advocated a robust biblical theology of world religions, based on confidence in Christ as the only Lord and Saviour, to be recovered and proclaimed in the churches of the West.
Apologist and evangelist Beth Grove showed how orthodox Christians have answered difficult critical questions about the historicity and coherence of the biblical accounts. However this process has not happened in Islam with the Qu’ran and the other texts about Mohammad. So many Muslims have a romanticised and hazy understanding of their own faith which has never been challenged, while uncritically accepting myths about what Christians believe.
So it really is possible in Britain today to engage Muslims with love and respect, sharing clearly the hope that we have in Christ, and explaining his role in history and his rule over all nations, ultimately fulfilling the desires of all religions. But how can we do this, given the febrile atmosphere of the conversation about immigrants, and the desire to avoid controversy? “Yahweh is the only God, and God is Trinity; Allah is not God, and to follow him is idolatry” – is it possible to believe and communicate this without appearing ‘bigoted’? Such questions produced lively discussion among the participants.
According to Tim Dieppe of Christian Concern, we can no longer pretend that there are only minor differences between the religions, that Islam is entirely benign, and that ‘Islamophobia’ is the main problem we face. Even secular human rights analysts Trevor Phillips and Louise Casey have admitted, in high profile reports, that our nation faces a challenge with segregated Muslim communities. They have pointed out that informal Sharia courts oppress women, schools keep children ignorant of key aspects of British culture and history, a small but significant number of young people are being radicalised. In response, Christians can be involved in local or national politics, to ensure principles of justice and democracy are applied in all communities without fear or favour, and that we do not see ‘no-go areas’ for the Gospel.
But ultimately, according to Joe Boot, the fundamental challenges we face as a society are primarily religious and philosophical, not technical, legal or political. Christians in the West have allowed their faith to be boxed into the private sphere, while the public space is dominated by secularism and increasingly, Islam. Could God use a faithful remnant, gripped by the truth of his word, to once again transform society, based on sacrificial witness to Christ motivated by love of neighbour?
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream
I can already hear the shocked gasps from some as they read this title. “Oh, can’t we have a nicer tone in this debate?”, some are thinking, as they cover their ears, desperately thinking happy thoughts and hoping the whole nasty issue will go away.
It has been said to me that just as Jesus was silent before his accusers, so that should be our example. Well, he was silent at key moments in his trial, but in his ministry there were plenty of times when he confronted and exposed the falsehood and hypocrisy of his opponents. And he did it publicly, not quietly in a corner. Peter and John courageously looked their accusers in the eye and told them that Jesus, whom they crucified, was risen, and was the only Saviour and Lord. Later, the apostle Paul was not afraid to confront those in Galatia who were following a false Gospel, and told of how “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face”. This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther who called out the corruption and heresy in the church leadership and teaching of his day.
In all of these cases and many more, when the people of God are being led astray by “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8), the sad but necessary requirement is not “peace, peace, where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14) but conflict: Ephesians 6:10-18. It is true that our battle is not against flesh and blood in the sense of physically taking up arms against individuals, but as the previous paragraph has shown, this cannot mean avoiding all contact with human opposition, nor that we should just engage with tea and empathy. “Stand your ground…with the belt of truth…and the sword of the Spirit” says to me that there are times in the Christian life where strong words and combined principled action are needed as well as the essential of prayer.
The revisionists are still pretending on one level to be operating in a very reasonable way, in the domain of mild disagreement resolved by polite conversation within the church. The LGBT activists on the TV and radio are saying “we just want the church to recognize diversity and different theologies – can’t we just be neutral about same sex blessings and gay marriage, and allow churches which want to conduct them to do so?” But then, often in the same breath, they show their own contempt for diversity, insisting not just that the Church’s teaching on marriage is discriminatory, but that conservative theology per se causes harm to gay people.
Examples of this can be found in the ‘Open Letter to EGGS Members’ (EGGS = Evangelical Group on General Synod). This begins with an appeal to evangelicals to think again about their biblical interpretation, and ends with a denial that the issue of sexuality is “first order”. But then it goes on the attack. Evangelicals are complicit in ‘homophobia’. They all support “sexual orientation change efforts” despite “mounting scientific evidence that sexuality is not chosen nor changeable” (both assertions are patently false: most evangelicals are not aware of counselling programmes for sexual orientation change, and recent evidence shows sexual orientation to be often fluid rather than fixed). Evangelicals are apparently damaging the mission of the church because of being perceived as lacking in love and welcome – a very serious accusation for Gospel-minded followers of Christ, and hardly a second-order issue!
In this exchange on TV, Rev Andrew Foreshew-Cain (prominent member of General Synod, married to his same sex partner) claims that he is simply asking for toleration of his views and quiet acceptance and blessing of same sex couples as part of ‘diversity’, and yet within the same five minute period is insisting that the conservative view of sex and marriage causes young people to self-harm and even to commit suicide, despite the fact that research disproves this.
Others have gone further, widening the attack. Bishop Alan Wilson has called the universal Christian belief in the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross a “secretive and violent theology”, and has explicitly linked the appalling and inexcusable actions of John Smyth, a unique case dating back more than 35 years, with all who believe that Christ took the penalty for our sin. In this he has been followed by Angela Tilby on the Radio, and Martyn Percy and Giles Fraser in print.
So what we have seen over the past few days, and particularly now during Synod, is that pro LGBT activists have embarked on an attempt to force the Church of England to change its teachings on sex and marriage, firstly by means of appeal to the rational and reasonable middle ground in the church, branding conservatives as extremists and proposing an alternative conclusion to the Bishops GS 2055 report (eg here).
And then, the fist inside the velvet glove: an all-out assault on the tenets of basic Christian orthodoxy in the public domain outside the church, through the parading of pain and fury at every opportunity on the floor of Synod, and through the secular media. The aim here is to appeal to the public at large, particularly the powerful and influential figures in Government, law and the media, to force change on the church from the outside.
How can this powerful lobby with its emotional force be resisted? In the short term, we can perhaps pray that the Bishops and the majority of Synod members would see through and refute the hypocrisy of the campaigners, who claim to want diversity, when in fact they want to eradicate orthodox faith; they claim to be powerless victims or standing on their behalf, when in fact they stand with the most powerful lobby in the nation. They speak with the language of Christian faith but have imbibed a philosophy that is implacably hostile to the teachings of the bible about the human person, sexuality, marriage, self-control and chastity – and ultimately, as we have seen, hostile to the idea of a Saviour who takes away sin’s deserved consequences.
But what of the longer term? It should be obvious that a church which allows such views with their bullying tactics to flourish as part of legitimate theological diversity, has abandoned any concept of apostolic deposit based on divine revelation. Such a church will soon be forced to reflect the secular ideology of the powerful lobby group more and more, as has happened in north America. The orthodox can agree to being one view among many, and be gradually erased. A better option: stand firm and if necessary force a schism, and at the same time plan for an alternative jurisdiction.