Editorial Blog

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.

After Pentecost: small miracle, big implications

Posted by on Jun 6, 2017 in Editorial Blog | Comments Off on After Pentecost: small miracle, big implications

After Pentecost: small miracle, big implications

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

A story about healing turns out to be the moment when God takes the Church outside the religious institution.

“Peter and John went to pray…” – we all know the Sunday School song, based on Acts 3:1-10. Of course no miracle, in the sense of a reversal of the laws of nature such as instantaneous healing, can be called insignificant. But while the New Testament insists that many miracles were performed by Jesus (eg Luke 7:21) and by the apostles (Acts 2:43), only a few were recorded. Of these, some are seen as theologically significant (as for example with the ‘signs’ in John), while others are vivid, demonstrating God’s power and Jesus’ compassion, life-changing for the individual who is healed and for the witnesses, but not necessarily game-changing in terms of revealing a new truth or changing the course of the narrative.

It seems at first as if this miracle occurring immediately after Pentecost in Acts 3, is in the latter category. The man himself was severely disabled from birth, unable to walk, and made his living from begging. His life changed in an encounter with the apostle Peter, who commanded him to walk in the name of Jesus; miraculously his legs were strengthened; he not only walked but jumped and danced as he praised God, and the bystanders were “filled with wonder and amazement”.

One could stop there, give thanks to God, reflect on what the man might have felt, and then park this miracle in our minds along with the many others recorded in the Gospels and Acts. We might go further and ask: does God heal today, and if so how should we pray for healing? While these are important applications, they would be consigning this miracle to the category of ‘small’ by which I mean at the level of God’s activity in the life of individuals. To leave this biblical story at verse 10 of chapter 3 would be to ignore the context, to ignore what follows, and so miss the author’s intention that we see this miracle as a turning point in the history of the world.

Writing as someone who suffers from a long term disability, the question “can God heal me?” is very important personally, and not just theoretically. But a question like “can God bring about revival in the nation?” is surely more important in the grand scheme of things. This story answers both questions: the ‘small’, of relevance to the hurting individual, and the ‘big’, concerning the salvation of humanity.

At the beginning of Acts we see the risen Jesus teaching his disciples about the coming Holy Spirit: “you will receive power…and you will be my witnesses”. This begins to be fulfilled ten days later in a house in Jerusalem, with a sound of rushing wind, visible tongues of fire and intelligible languages from around the world praising God, ie a demonstration of power, followed by Peter’s clear witness to Jesus as Saviour and Lord, and Gospel call to repentance and faith.

At the end of Acts chapter 2 we’re presented with a scene of miraculous fellowship of generosity, joy and praise, with unity around the teaching of the apostles, as they passed on what they had seen and heard from Jesus. Now, again, in chapter 3, the demonstration of the Spirit’s power in healing a lame man is followed by Peter’s witness to Jesus (3:12-26), and again, resulting in rapid growth of the new church community, now up to 5000 (4:4). Surely now nothing can stand in the way of God’s intention as the apostles had hoped for when with Jesus: the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel (1:6)?

But there is something that stands in the way of the exponential expansion of the new Jesus community and its peaceful revival of the nation: the religious institutions. As Peter and the apostles minister in the power of the Spirit and preach salvation in Christ, the religious authorities begin by permitting their initially small gatherings in and around the temple (perhaps justified by appeals to ‘diversity’ and ‘mutual flourishing’?), but then as the movement grows they respond with attempts to contain and intimidate, Acts 4:17-18. This begins to have an effect: we see in 5:13 that new believers are afraid to be seen with the apostles in central Jerusalem. But the healings and preaching continue, so the persecution intensifies, culminating with the death of Stephen in chapter 7, and the scattering of believers which follows.

The seeds of this inevitable separation of the new Jesus movement from the old life-restricting religious structures can be seen in the symbolism of the events around the healing of the lame man. Peter and John are on their way to pray at the temple along with many others. It’s the place which, up till now, has been seen as the locus of God’s presence. The lame man is begging at the gate, hoping for money, which he knows people will have, because that is what religion has become for many of them: going to a building, giving some money to sustain the religious structure, giving to the poor. The apostles are not looking to overthrow the system or create a parallel one, but as they go to the temple they know the one to whom they are praying; they have met his Son and are filled with his Spirit.

As the man is healed, a crowd gathers around the word of Christ and people are converted, the locus of God’s presence and power has shifted from the temple and the religious institution, to the apostles and the new body of Christ – just as Jesus had promised. But the religious leaders still assume that they are the ones with the power, and the control of access to God, and they exercise it, persecuting the believers who in worldly terms, have neither money (“silver and gold have I none”), nor power.

This is the beginning of an irrevocable shift. Acts shows us how the new wine of the revolutionary message of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, and the missionary energy of the Spirit working through faithful believers, will not be restricted by unfaithful religious structures, with their compromises with secular power and their suppression of the message that the only way of salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus. It takes forty years for the remnant of Jewish Christians to finally break free from their attachment to the temple and associated structures (during the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD) but in the meantime the Gospel has gone viral and global.

Is division among the people of God always bad? Was it wrong for the apostles to say to the religious authorities “we must obey God rather than men?” Was it wrong later for Paul to insist on conflict with the Judaisers, and for all the apostles to oppose what they saw as false teaching within the church? Not according to Acts and the epistles – it’s inevitable when the Gospel is at stake, and beneficial, in fact essential for mission.

 

We remember this as we celebrate the Reformation this year. And we remember it as new expressions of Anglicanism continue to develop over the next few weeks and months in Britain – ways of doing church which are thankful for the heritage of Anglican forms of worship, but which look back to the apostolic teachings and the original formularies of the Church, and outward to the global fellowship of those united in biblical faithfulness, rather than to human religious authorities which have departed from them.

Manchester terror, the nation’s future, Thy Kingdom Come

Posted by on May 23, 2017 in Editorial Blog, Politics, Prayer, Terrorism | Comments Off on Manchester terror, the nation’s future, Thy Kingdom Come

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Britain’s security services have been on high alert for some years now, anticipating terrorist attacks on the general population. We have felt that we have got off lightly compared to France, but today (Tuesday 23rd May) there is a sombre mood in the nation after the suicide bomb went off last night in the foyer of Manchester Arena, deliberately and cynically designed to kill predominantly teenage girl fans leaving a pop concert, causing devastation, panic and fear, injury and death.

The atrocity comes immediately after well-publicised speeches by Donald Trump in Saudi Arabia, calling on the Muslim world to drive the jihadist ideology and those who carry out these acts out of communities, and indeed rid the world of it. That would appear to be coincidental, as the Manchester attack would have been planned for weeks if not more. Coincidental too that the bombing occurred just after Channel 4’s screening of historian Tom Holland’s documentary analysis of the origins of the ideology behind ISIS.

Experts have been lined up to rehearse the usual lines about security implications; how difficult it is to constantly track all the individuals and groups being watched by police. Politicians and faith leaders have been quick to offer thoughts and prayers for the victims, to praise the swift and professional response of emergency services, and the community spirit of Manchester as posh hotels opened their doors to bleeding and traumatised youngsters, and taxis gave free rides to help people get away from the scene. They have also stressed the need for national unity, saying that the motive of the bomber is to divide and create hatred (See here for report in Church Times).

It is certainly a good thing to discourage feelings of antagonism and suspicion being stirred up towards Muslim people in general, and this has been helped by the swift and unequivocal condemnation of the bombing by Muslim leaders. But the enforcement of a politically correct narrative, that the terrorist act is “extremism” (religious component not mentioned) in the same bracket as a “right wing backlash” is unhelpful: by suppressing the discussion of real issues it may actually lead to an increase of anti-immigrant feeling. Also, as we have seen in this country for some years, it has led in some cases to conservative Christianity being viewed (for example by some over-zealous school inspectors) as another ideology harmful to the common good. In contrast to whatever it was that motivated the Manchester bomber, if a young person thinks Jesus and his way is the best, it does not mean he hates and wants to kill those who believe something different – rather the opposite.

Campaigning for the General Election, now only just over two weeks away, has been suspended. While the politicians should be able to resist the temptation to use the Manchester horror for overt political purposes, the main parties will major on national unity, and downplay the religion and ideology aspect. Grassroots Christians can play a part in shaping the nation going forward. Many churches and halls are used as venues for hustings, and people can use the opportunity to ask the politicians specifically about the implications of ignoring jihadist ideology, treating it as simply one of a number of ‘extremist’ beliefs, or whether it should be dealt with as a unique problem. Churches can take the lead in showing how it is possible, imperative even, to demonstrate love and welcome to one’s neighbour, especially if they hold to a different faith or no faith, and yet not brush very serious differences in worldview under the carpet for the sake of a false ‘unity’. It should be possible to address and debate these differences, not pretending we are the same, not being afraid to explain why we see the way of Christ as the best foundation for individual life and for society; understanding the beliefs that make us different, but also finding common humanity in desire for peace, security and protection of the vulnerable.

 

Before the issues of Islam and community relations have been forced onto the political agenda, the talk leading up to the election has been about the management of Brexit, and domestic issues: the funding of tertiary education, the health service and care of the elderly perhaps top of the list of priorities. The Labour Party has been written off by most of the media as ‘loony left’ and unlikely to trouble the serene march of Prime Minister Teresa May to a landslide victory. But Labour’s unashamed advocacy of a return to ‘big government’, promises to provide whatever public services are required, especially for the poorest, funded by a huge increase in borrowing and taxation of the wealthy, has begun to gain traction.

The Conservatives are historically vulnerable to accusations of putting fiscal discipline and commitment to low-tax, free market economics before care of the needy. Last week’s Church Times featured a number of letters from clergy [£] insisting that Labour’s policies align best with the teaching of Jesus, while others suggest that it is better for the Church to remain neutral on party politics. If something good can come out of the Manchester attack, perhaps it could be a shift towards a “what can I do for my country and community?” sort of attitude, with churches leading the way, as opposed to the tedious bidding war among politicians, trying to out-promise the other side on how much they can provide for us.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for a united initiative of worship and prayer during the season from Ascension to Pentecost was launched last year, and had already been promoted for some months in 2017 before the announcement of an important General Election. This year’s publicity has emphasised that “Thy Kingdom Come” (see also here) is not a C of E thing, but a way of encouraging as many Christians as possible to make prayer a priority, to focus on the risen and ascended Christ, to ask the Holy Spirit to renew, refresh and send out in witness.

The gatherings that will occur round the country, big and small, will take on extra significance now as people join in prayer for the outcome of the election, the new government and the issues facing the nation. The appalling scenes at the Manchester Arena could help draw more people to focus on and cry out to God rather than would-be human messiahs, and motivate repentance, spiritual warfare, and evangelism.

Transgender liturgies? Why are we even asking the question?

Posted by on May 16, 2017 in 2-Important Posts, Book Reviews, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Transgender | Comments Off on Transgender liturgies? Why are we even asking the question?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

If a destructive, anti-Christian, revolutionary ideology is taking over society and even sections of the church, how should it be effectively countered? Whose responsibility is it to do so? Should Christians address the ideology itself and its dangers to society, or should they focus on its symptoms and effects, as encountered in people in churches? Is it counter productive to talk negatively about cultural trends at all, and should Christians instead seek to simply tell ‘a better story’ in a positive way? Will it be enough in terms of being salt and light in Western culture, for theologians to write books and essays for an audience of educated conservative Christians, by carefully and graciously explaining biblical truth and pointing out error?

Martin Davie has certainly carried out this latter task very well in his latest piece of work, a Latimer Monograph which goes beyond the title’s brief of merely answering the question “Should the Church of England develop liturgical materials to mark gender transition?” to address the subject of transgenderism much more comprehensively. In the book he outlines the arguments of the pro-transgender apologists, refutes them graciously but firmly and in detail, and provides a clear and up to date re-statement of the biblical doctrine of humanity as male and female, grounded in the creation narratives through to the teaching of Jesus and the promise of the new creation. He addresses the question of pastoral care in the church for people who present as transgender, stressing, of course, the need for welcome and compassion to individuals, but also not being afraid to talk about underlying problems connected with the Fall: disorder, sin, rebellion, and the need for repentance, faith and a new start in Christ.

Davie writes with his customary clarity and logic, and does not fall into the trap catching some theologians, of being so keen to be fair to opposing arguments that they end up sitting on the fence or being overly complex and nuanced. As an introduction to the topic, and as a handbook for clergy, those involved in pastoral care and interested lay people, this book has to be highly recommended.

Returning to the questions we asked at the beginning, we might say that Davie has more than fulfilled the task given to him, and it’s not his job to do more than help orthodox Christians, and particularly Anglicans, take a stand on a clear biblical position on sex and gender identity as the church begins to debate the issue alongside that of sexual relationships. ‘Transgender Liturgies’ certainly hints at philosophical and even political currents affecting wider society that oppose the orthodox Christian worldview. Davie quotes (p40-47) from online articles which suggests a sinister change in the way new sex and gender theories are being taught as facts in schools, ‘transitioning’ is being encouraged, and information about the mental health consequences are being suppressed. He gives space to the major 2016 study by Meyer and McHugh published in the New Atlantis, casting doubt on all claims of a biological basis for gender dysphoria.

Davie uses these points to strengthen his case against the arguments of those proposing changes in the Church’s teaching and liturgy. He does not explore the implications of what they mean for society as a whole, how they illustrate the power and reach of the ‘sexual revolution’ (for example he doesn’t mention that the New Atlantis study mentioned above has resulted in the authors being vilified), or what the origins and main aims of this revolution are. That may not be his brief – but where are other senior Anglican leaders carrying out this prophetic task of cultural critique?

One way of doing this, perhaps, would be to ask a different question. In addition to: ‘Should the Church develop liturgical materials to mark gender transition?’, it would be good to ask ‘why are people in the Church even asking this question?’ What changes have happened in wider society which have meant that the historic Christian position outlined by Martin Davie, though true and clearly presented, is simply dismissed and rejected by increasing numbers of people? Given the recent incidents involving politicians and LGBT ‘orthodoxy’, is it possible any more for anyone holding public office to oppose the ‘popular’ view? These questions force us to look beyond theological debates and policies within the church, to the way people are thinking in the culture, and its implications not just for the church but for the world as a whole.

So while it’s important to get clear in our minds how the church might care for transgender people from a biblical and pastoral perspective, it’s surely right to go further than this; to be concerned about the ideology of ‘gender in the mind’ and the rejection of binary male/female norms that is being promoted in the media and education, and is slipping into law. For example, what are the implications if, as is being proposed, people can be legally recognized as a different sex simply by filling in a form? How can we support those who speak out against the sex and gender revolution in public? Should we take more seriously in our intercession the dark and demonic aspects of this idolatry which is keeping people in bondage, and is part of a package of secular and neo-gnostic thought which, as it takes hold in peoples’ minds, will make the preaching of the Gospel more difficult? Can we more effectively form counter-cultural Christian communities of rebels against this new ‘empire’, drawing especially on young people, some of whom see through the lies and deceit and bullying of LGBT ideology.

Many people in our culture have either completely rejected biblical Christianity and embraced a new vision of what it means to be human, or they have attempted to synthesise this new vision with aspects of Christianity. The phenomenon of transgender and the distressing and painful experiences of ‘trans’ people are merely a symptom of a wholesale conversion to this vision, in the same way as the presence of churches and Christians and biblical principals embedded in laws and customs is a result of earlier generations being converted to whole life discipleship.

One of the features of this new vision is the determination of those who follow it to enforce it with soft and hard power: providing teacher training and books in schools, portraying heroic transgender characters in TV soap operas, and getting churches to adopt transitioning liturgies is one way; bringing the force of the law against teachers who won’t use this material, or people who refuse to bake cakes, or who deny ‘trans women’ entry to toilets, is another.

So thank you, Martin Davie, for an excellent book – please can it be followed up by “Part 2” – perhaps entitled: ‘Transgender Liturgies: what they tell us about the sexual revolution, its threat to our society and the Church in the West, and what we can do about it”?

See also

Church of England faces calls to condemn gay cure and hold transgender renaming ceremonies, by Harry Farley, Christian Today

Archbishops’ election letter – is it ‘pastoral’?

Posted by on May 11, 2017 in Church of England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Archbishops’ election letter – is it ‘pastoral’?

Archbishops’ election letter – is it ‘pastoral’?

by Andrew Symes, Church of England Newspaper.

Just over a month until the General Election, and a ‘pastoral letter’ is distributed via the Bishops to all clergy. We’re told that we’re “welcome to use it in services on Sunday”, but is it actually for parishes, or for a wider audience?

Many of the points the letter raises are important. There is a reference to politicians being hounded for their faith: “if we aspire to a politics of maturity and generosity, then the religious faith of any election candidate should not be treated as a vulnerability to be exploited.” Political leaders should be able to be “open about the impact of their faith on their vocation to public service”, the letter continues.

This comment comes as part of a section stressing the value of religious belief in society as a whole. “The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works”. Secularists will be annoyed by that, and by the assertion that faith is not just one of many possible motivators for altruistic behaviour, but is “the well-spring for virtues and practices that make for good individuals, strong relationships and flourishing communities”. Because of this, religious communities, especially the churches based on the deep-rooted Christian history of the UK, have a lot to offer, for example, delivery of education and social support, and the ability to offer “compelling counter-narratives” to violent religious extremism.

The letter also addresses problems in society of alienation, apathy and cynicism, “questions of identity” and challenges for the future. Although Brexit isn’t mentioned, it’s clearly alluded to, and in this letter the leaders of the Church of England are making a pitch to be taken seriously as contributors to the debate on what kind of Britain we want going into the future.

Specific political and social priorities are mentioned: housing, healthcare and overseas aid; business, education and the environment. In all these areas the Archbishops urge a continued commitment to care for the most vulnerable. The letter calls on the government to stand up for those persecuted for their religion; it warns about over-reliance on debt, and even mentions marriage and family as something to be “nurtured and supported”, but in such a brief document doesn’t attempt to define or explain this.

The beginning and the end of the letter seem to be addressed to Christians, asking us to pray, to participate, and to “renew love of God and love of neighbour”. But despite the fact that this is billed as a pastoral message, it’s trying to find common ground with people of good will, rather than being specifically biblical or Christian. Most of it seems to be speaking to the nation as a whole, and particular to politicians and opinion formers, about some important broad general issues to do with nation and community which can be agreed on by people of all faiths and none, rather than seeking to bring specifically Christian prophetic insight for the benefit of disciples and worshippers of Christ.

And this perhaps encapsulates the difficult task that the Church of England faces, trying to balance the roles of chaplain to the nation and pastor-teacher to the faithful. As a Christian and a member of the Church, I would like to hear, for example, that the season of Easter reminds us of more than an invitation to love God and neighbour – it’s about the victory of Christ over evil and death, and his sovereignty over life itself. Our citizenship of any nation and submission to earthly rulers is conditional on the understanding that our primary allegiance is to the higher Lord.

While there is no doubt “common grace” of values and virtues shared by believer and unbeliever alike to which the Archbishops’ letter appeals, biblical theology takes seriously the reality of sin, and powers of evil, which would consume us if God did not hold back the worst of lawlessness, and provide, through the cross, a means of atonement and forgiveness. At a time of uncertainty in national vision, I would like to hear a clear trumpet call of repentance, faith in Christ alone, and being filled with the Holy Spirit as the only reliable foundation for the good attitudes and deeds that the letter speaks of.

But of course such sentiments would be dismissed as irrelevant by the politicians, and vilified as odd or even extremist by the media; they would also cause division on theological grounds among church leaders. So our national church can apparently now only speak publicly in generalities about the helpfulness of faith communities and the need to care for the vulnerable. In its desire to keep a voice at the table of power for laudable motives, it has to mute other distinctive aspects of its message which are needed as leaven in the national discourse.

Unofficial Bishops, non-C of E Anglicans: fragmentation and schism, or new reformation?

Posted by on May 9, 2017 in Church life, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Schism | Comments Off on Unofficial Bishops, non-C of E Anglicans: fragmentation and schism, or new reformation?

Unofficial Bishops, non-C of E Anglicans: fragmentation and schism, or new reformation?

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

“We are on the cusp of a new reformation”, says Gavin Ashenden in an article about conflicts and new initiatives in Anglicanism in Britain.

The original Reformation, which we remember particularly this year, 500 years after Martin Luther’s famous public protest against the Church of Rome, was characterized by often bitter conflict but also led to amazingly fruitful initiatives in mission throughout the world. It involved not just schism between Catholic and Protestant, but the fragmentation of Protestantism into thousands of denominations. We’re often told that this ‘disunity’ is a terrible stain on the body of Christ, and yet there is often far more warm fellowship and productive cooperation between believers in different denominations sharing the same commitment to basic Christian truths, than there is between people of the same denomination together on paper, but internally divided by adherence to different teachings and even opposing fundamental worldviews.

Jesus warned that not everyone who calls him Lord will be included in his family; he also made clear that human ties of kinship and institution don’t unite us as closely as sharing the same faith in Christ and commitment to obedience to his Word. But even among those who believe the same fundamentals within the same denomination, there can be disagreements, for example over how we understand events, over strategy and timing, over personality clashes – even over matters which come down to personal taste. This was true in the 16th century Reformation, and it’s certainly true in contemporary Western Protestantism in general and Anglicanism in particular.

For example, a brief look at the recent history of the Anglican Church in North America reminds us that there was never a single bloc of faithful orthodox Anglicans who separated from the official structures at one time. Rather, over a period of years, different groups coalesced around particular fundamental doctrinal concerns, shared tastes in church culture (charismatic, catholic, Reformed), and relationships with overseas churches. So the ‘Common Cause Partnership’ which was to evolve into ACNA consisted of those who had left to form their own separate Anglican denomination decades earlier, groups who had over the past few years sought Episcopal oversight from other Provinces in the Anglican Communion, and others who did not make the decision to leave TEC until after the consecration of Gene Robinson. All of these groups were led by Bishops and were validly Anglican. Sometimes they disagreed sharply with each other.

In time some of these groups came together to form a single ecclesial body, others stayed out. Of crucial importance has been not so much the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ (“is it a proper church or a schismatic sect led by difficult people?”) but the ‘why’: a response to the crisis of Gospel faithfulness in the ‘official’  church, and the ‘how’ – the ability to work together based on shared faith and values, streamlining effort and avoiding duplication, and the relationship with, and support from, the global fellowship of confessing Anglicans known as Gafcon.

 

It looks very much as if a similar pattern is emerging in the UK. The Free Church of England is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year as an independent Anglican Church with its own Bishops, Canons and fully developed ecclesiology. Anglican Mission in England is a different model; less than ten years old, it began when Anglican congregations, planted outside the jurisdiction of the Church of England, came together for support and oversight from Gafcon. As Gavin Ashenden explains, the Gafcon Primates will some time this year consecrate a Bishop to minister to these congregations and any in Scotland, and possibly Wales, who seek faithful oversight as a result of abandonment of orthodoxy by the official Anglican leaders.

Meanwhile, a small number of anglo-catholic clergy linked to Gafcon have been ordained into other Episcopal churches based in Europe and north America. Now a large evangelical church and its satellite congregations in the north east of England, Anglicans who for some time have been in impaired communion with their ‘official’ Church of England Bishop, have witnessed one of their own leaders consecrated as a Bishop under the oversight of a South African denomination which self identifies as Anglican, and is part of Gafcon, but not part of the Anglican Communion (see statement here).

 

The large majority of orthodox Anglican believers continue to remain in the C of E for the moment. A proportion continue to be unconcerned about theological liberalism and are more vexed about disagreement, disloyalty and disunity. But an increasing number have already distanced themselves spiritually and psychologically from their Diocesan leadership which they see as going in a different theological direction, and operate more in networks of local churches. The ministry of the Bishop of Maidstone was established to oversee congregations within the C of E which do not agree with the ordination and consecration of women from a conservative evangelical perspective, but of course all of these churches would also be conservative on other key issues. Among charismatics, historically more averse to ‘church politics’ and currently generally more loyal to the institutional leadership, there is already division over sexual ethics; among those who agree about the bible’s position on this and other fundamental theological issues there would be different views on whether Gafcon is seen positively or negatively.

It’s like a variation on the old Jewish joke: put ten orthodox British Anglicans in a room and you’ll get eleven different opinions! It looks messy, and it is at the moment, just as it was in America fifteen years ago.

Regarding the Jesmond consecration, it’s true that Gafcon has not been involved, although Gafcon UK has been informed of developments leading up to this point. It would be easy to be critical; to question something that could seem un-Englishly hasty and disrespectful, to bemoan the apparent divisions among the orthodox (picked up with glee by commentators on ‘Thinking Anglicans”), to highlight the narrow theological and cultural axis of Jesmond/REACH compared with the breadth of ACNA and GAFCON, to challenge Jesmond’s inaccurate dismissal of the entire Anglican Church in South Africa as ‘heterodox’, to speculate about motives of individuals, and so on.  No doubt in north America in the 1990’s and early 2000’s every time a new grouping sought Episcopal oversight from overseas and actually broke with the mother church, similar criticisms were applied by friends and enemies, some of which were valid. Mistakes were no doubt made, but lessons were learnt, relationships healed, and in a remarkably short time the different groups came together in the fruitful and biblically faithful partnership that is ACNA.

Hopefully something similar can occur in Britain and Ireland as groups which want to stop arguing endlessly about basic theology and ethics, pushed on the defensive within their own Anglican denomination, and instead just get on with mission under the banner of a shared faith based on apostolic Christianity, can do so freely, linked to orthodox global Anglicanism.

In time, as the Church of England continues its drift away from Christian orthodoxy, pulled by the values of an increasingly secular culture, more of those orthodox currently committed to remain in the official structures will find the tensions increasingly difficult to handle and will continue to loosen the ties to the mother church. Many will look for alternative structural models of being Anglican such as currently exist or are coming into being, or they will simply join non Anglican denominations as many young people from Anglican backgrounds are doing.

This may not be a sign of the shattering of unity among the orthodox as some are saying,  but rather the beginnings of the new Reformation that Gavin Ashenden has described.

 

[This is a personal view, not necessarily the shared view of any organisation].

The ongoing influence of ‘new Gnosticism’ among C of E evangelicals

Posted by on Apr 25, 2017 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Heresy, New Age | Comments Off on The ongoing influence of ‘new Gnosticism’ among C of E evangelicals

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”

A review of “Falling Upward”

See also Bill Muehelberg’s warnings about the new book by another key figure in ’emergent’ neo-gnostic evangelicalism“The Shack” author William Paul Young here and here.

 

See also: Richard Rohr – is his teaching biblical? By Jane Krammer, Anglican Mainstream

 

Easter meaning. C of E training. The faithful are deciding.

Posted by on Apr 18, 2017 in Church life, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Revisionism | Comments Off on Easter meaning. C of E training. The faithful are deciding.

Easter meaning. C of E training. The faithful are deciding.

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!” ]

Easter: Power and Money, Judgment and Destiny

Posted by on Apr 11, 2017 in Easter, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Easter: Power and Money, Judgment and Destiny

Easter: Power and Money, Judgment and Destiny

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.

Dramatic actions

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.

Parables

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.

Dialogues

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.

Encountering contemporary liberal theology – in its own words

Posted by on Mar 28, 2017 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Liberalism | Comments Off on Encountering contemporary liberal theology – in its own words

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

 

Small village church punches above its weight with parish mission

Posted by on Mar 21, 2017 in 2-Important Posts, Church life, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Mission | Comments Off on Small village church punches above its weight with parish mission

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.