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, CEN.
In our annual focus on the Bible’s Christmas stories we’re reminded of a strong theme: God’s kingdom challenging and even reversing our natural human understandings of how things are. Mary, on being told that she is to be the mother of the Son of God, praises him for his agenda of bringing down the rulers from their thrones, and lifting up the humble. Educated foreigners, representatives from a nation of past oppressors, lay their wealth in worship before a baby from a poor family. While the message of Christmas certainly speaks of spiritual change – God entering into the darkness of our sin to forgive and redeem – one cannot avoid the clear implication that there is a political and economic revolution envisaged as well.
I recently read an article which makes this point in a blog on the missioalliance.org website. The writer says that most of us in the West tend to filter out this theme of God’s plan to reverse the current order – ‘the first will be last and the last first’ – because we read it from the perspective of the rich and powerful:
‘When Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” how was that received? Well, it depends on who is hearing it. The poor Galilean peasant would hear it as good news (gospel), while the Roman in his villa would hear it with deep suspicion…“sounds like socialism to me!”’
Because this blogger, like most of us, reads the bible naturally from the perspective of the rich Roman rather than the poor Jew, he or she must consciously work hard at not applying Scriptures too immediately to one’s own situation, perhaps by spiritualising passages that talk about wealth and poverty or human power structures. Rather, we should use our imagination to try to read them from the perspective of those without material resources and social influence, as most of the first believers would have been.
This could be called reading the Bible ‘upside down’ – from the perspective of those on the underside. The danger, of course, is to go too far and reinterpret the biblical Gospel merely as socio-economic transformation. Many ‘liberation’ theologians have fallen into this trap of minimising or even denying altogether the primary spiritual message of salvation through Christ’s saving death, conferred by grace and received through faith, which the Bible makes explicit and obvious.
The article I read veers towards such an interpretation of the Bible which equates the reign of God with humanistic models of politics and economics. But this leaves people in their alienation from God, and perpetuates antagonistic divisions between rich and poor. A genuinely diverse church, on the other hand, unites and levels people from different races and class backgrounds as forgiven sinners at the foot of the cross, but then enables people to learn from one another as part of the discipleship process.
And we need to do more, as those living in the privileged West, to facilitate humble mutual exchange with the poor, the persecuted, those facing violence and sickness and famine. This should help materially comfortable but spiritually weak Christians to understand more about maintaining strong faith and witness in the face of adversity, and relying on God for provision of daily needs. To get a true perspective we need more than imagining we are poor – we need to have genuine fellowship with those who really do look at the Bible from this viewpoint on the underside. How can this happen?
The Anglican Communion is a unique global network which already enables this mutual learning and could do much more. But there is another ingredient that is needed besides just conversation between people of different cultures. There needs to be a genuine shared starting point in terms of understanding of the basics of what it means to be a Christian. What binds the people of God together is not a label such as Anglicanism, certain shared practices for example in worship, or a commitment to the concept of ‘unity’. It is the shared confession of faith in Jesus as Lord, a shared submission to Scripture as authoritative and God-breathed. On this basis an impoverished African woman is able not just have fellowship with a wealthy American or English man, but a miraculous reversal of the world’s order can take place, whereby he serves and learns from her.
The new global Anglican movements which have emerged in recent years, GAFCON and ‘Global South’, are a recognition that the centre of gravity in terms of church life has shifted from the prosperous cultures of the north and West to the less privileged parts of the world. Closer fellowship with them will help us get better at reading the bible and witnessing to Christ.
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
[This work of fiction was composed and published before the Church of England Evangelical Council meeting of January 11-12 2017, so it cannot reflect anything which occurs or has occurred at that meeting.]
It’s January 2019 and a group of Anglican clergy and laity from Britain are meeting to reflect on recent events, and share plans for the way forward. The majority of those present are conservative evangelicals, but there are a smattering of charismatics, clearly uncomfortable at the prospect of being part of a ‘political’ meeting, and also some who describe themselves as ‘anglo-catholic’ or ‘centrist’. On seeing the black clerical shirts at what is an informal gathering, some of the reformed men fidget nervously, looking around to see if any hidden candles will be brought out; the traditionalists, for their part, take deep breaths to quell the rising panic at the sight of a guitar in the corner of the room.
After introductions, reading of Scripture and prayer, the Chair refers to a paper, previously circulated, which summarises the key events of the past three years. The Canterbury meeting of Primates in January 2016 had given new hope to ‘orthodox’ Anglicans across the world, ie those who hold to the historic teachings of the Church, based on the Bible, about God, humanity, Christ and salvation, and in particular the biblical understanding of sex and marriage, under attack for several years in Western culture, and increasingly accepted in the church. Canterbury appeared to state a clear commitment of the Anglican Communion to these teachings, and to exclude revisionist understandings, but it soon became clear that the senior leadership of the Western churches would ignore this commitment, and emphasise instead the maintaining of relationships across difference of theological opinion in an institution with centralized power.
In the USA and Canada, TEC and ACoC continued their liberal trajectory at home and aiming to influence Communion affairs across the world. The Episcopal Church of Scotland began 2017 with Islamic prayers in Glasgow Cathedral, and performed their first same sex marriages before the end of the year. The leadership of the Church of England ensured that Synod was not given a chance to vote on such measures. They preferred to follow the strategy of the Welsh: declaring that there would be no change in doctrine, but then quietly dropping the requirement of ordinands and clergy not in heterosexual marriages to give assurances of celibacy, taking no action against those in same sex marriages, and allowing a very generous interpretation of ‘pastoral prayers’ for same sex couples.
Church services using such prayers, often visually almost indistinguishable from weddings, became increasingly commonplace during 2017 and 2018. Anecdotal evidence suggested (although of course officially denied) that articulating clear conservative teaching on sex and marriage was counting against people in selection for ordination, and in preferment for Diocesan posts. There were increasing cases in the media of lay Christians, some of them Anglican, subject to harassment and discipline in the workplace because of traditional views on sex; meanwhile the relentless propaganda on LGBT issues continued in schools, media and government. Those who raised their voices in public protest continued to be accused of ungraciousness and divisiveness, not just by liberal Bishops and the increasingly well-staffed Lambeth media machine, but by fellow evangelicals who still believed that avoiding public statements about controversial issues, and associating with those who do, was the best way to avoid conflict in their own Dioceses and parishes.
However GAFCON had not gone away: the June 2018 conference in Jerusalem had been successful, closer links with the ‘Global South’ movement had been formed, uniting the majority of Anglicans across the world around orthodoxy, and distancing them from the Anglican Communion Office. There were closer relationships with the orthodox in England. More AMiE congregations had been planted, and the Free Church of England had grown, boosted by an influx of a small but growing number of former C of E congregations. A new body had been formed, SoSWaS-Europe (Society of Spirit, Word and Sacrament) a theologically orthodox network operating within the official Anglican churches, with its own Bishops operating under delegated authority. This had come into existence as part of a negotiation which also resulted in the consecration of the first openly gay, partnered Bishop in the C of E in September 2018, and the first moves towards a debate on same sex marriage in General Synod. Although SoSWaS did not have formal connections with GAFCON, many of its members did affiliate to the global body, which continued to cause tensions in the leadership.
“Well”, said the Chairman, “You’ve all read the paper and in fact we have all lived the history. How have the events of the past couple of years affected us?”
“I don’t think we should be discouraged”, said David, an Archdeacon from the midlands. “There was a lot of doom and gloom around two years ago – people were saying we would have to choose between a totally liberal C of E and leaving to join something related to GAFCON. It hasn’t happened. There are still lots of opportunities for evangelical ministry in the C of E as long as we are loving and not confrontational. It has been a real answer to prayer that we’ve managed to avoid bitter divisions in Synods, and yet the doctrine of marriage hasn’t changed. The orthodox have faced similar challenges in the past, you know, but they’ve stood firm on the teaching of the formularies, and the C of E has pulled through. I haven’t joined SoSWaS because I’ve felt it’s important to be seen as there for everyone in the church, not a partisan evangelical. It gives me a voice in the Diocese.”
“I’ve taken a different view”, said Kelvin. I’ve been increasingly frustrated over a number of years about the trajectory of the C of E and my Diocese’s leadership. Taking part in the Shared Conversations of 2016 made me realize that I was in a small minority as far as believing and articulating what the Bible teaches on sex and marriage – and in fact on other things as well, like the reality of judgement and the uniqueness of Christ. In early 2017 I gave a series of four sermons in our church – I tried to be careful and winsome but also clear. I knew that some people in my parish wouldn’t agree but I wasn’t prepared for the hostility I received. Some people wrote to the Bishop and said they wanted me removed because of the talks and because I’d been the only vicar in the Deanery to say I wouldn’t do the ‘pastoral prayers’, aka blessings of same sex couples. But a number of folk were really supportive and eventually backed the formation of a new church. In our case we did it by joining some Baptists and Free Evangelicals looking to plant on the new housing estate – because a number of Anglicans came across with me, the new church has kept things like some liturgy and even Episcopal oversight – the non Anglicans have loved it when our Ugandan link Bishop has visited. I know there are others here who have also gone the unofficial GAFCON route, with different models, in Scotland and Wales as well as England.”
“How did you, er, manage in terms of housing and stipend?” asked Jane, a lay person who described herself as a ‘non-aligned evangelical’.
“Well it was a struggle”, Kelvin replied. My wife has a good job, and I was able to get some part time work. That plus the rental income we get from our own house meant we were able to supplement the small stipend the new church gave me, and we could rent somewhere, and put something away for a pension. But perhaps we’ve assumed for too long in the C of E that ministry can’t happen unless housing and full time stipends are provided. I’m actually excited by the way this has enabled us to be creative and flexible, remaining Anglican but working hand in hand with others who have the same clear Kingdom priorities and biblical non-negotiables”.
The discussion continued, with a number of different perspectives being shared. Most had stayed in their official national Anglican church, but all, apart from The Ven. David, expressed varying levels of concern about the liberal drift of the C of E in general and of difficult personal experiences as orthodox believers, either in the church, the secular workplace or the children’s school. Many were predicting that things would only get more difficult, and that even membership of the Society would only provide temporary respite from the pressure to conform to the revisionist agenda.
Before a break for tea, the Chairman gave the final word to Herbert, a retired clergyman who had said very little during the conversation.
“For many years”, he said thoughtfully, “most of us have been going through a process in our hearts. It’s simply not the case that this is a choice between ‘in’ or ‘out’ like Brexit. As orthodox believers in a denomination that prides itself on being ‘diverse’ we are always going to feel tension. The first stage is psychological distancing. We are in the organization but increasingly don’t feel part of it. Then we go on to spiritual detachment. We no longer trust the official channels – Diocese, Cathedral – to provide the guidance and spiritual care we need, so we go elsewhere. Fellowships like New Wine and Renew work for a while; there may be older mentors who act as spiritual Bishops while we still recognize the administrative authority of our Diocesan. But from what I’ve been observing, more and more people are feeling the need for visible differentiation.”
“Yes that’s right”, broke in Jane. “If there’s nothing wrong with theological diversity, and the important thing is good relationships within the church and between the church and the culture, then my evangelical faith is no more valid than someone with a liberal view. I don’t need to be at this meeting! But if the official structures have moved away from authentic Christianity, then to stay in them is not being faithful to what’s been handed on to us. It sounds like most people here are already psychologically distanced and spiritually detached, and have opted for visible differentiation, whether now or in the future. We might do it at different times and in different ways, in the Society or not, aligned to GAFCON now or perhaps later, but we should stay together”.
A small number, including David, made their apologies and left at that point, but the rest stayed, and that evening enjoyed some wonderful worship together, led by the guitar with prophetic open prayer and laying on of hands, a eucharist with candles, and a powerful bible exposition.
See also: Ten prophecies re. the church in 2017, by David Robertson, theweeflea
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
I just took one of those online surveys to find out what kind of person I am, based on my attitude to Christmas. And the result came out completely wrong. But the basic premise behind the test is good, even profound.
‘Four kinds of Christmas’ is a series of resources based on a small book, a tract really, by Australian evangelist Glenn Scrivener which reads as if it had its origin in an excellent Christmas talk. His text is from Isaiah 9: “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light”. After an amusing description of typical Aussie festive celebrations, he concludes that “the true context for Christmas is darkness”, spiritual as well as climatic, and posits four ways in which people deal with it.
‘Scrooge’ describes an attitude of pragmatic pessimism. Life is hard, bad things happen, the outlook is bleak, so we act accordingly: Christmas is definitely not seen as the most wonderful time of the year. The Dickens character is a monstrous extreme, but it’s not difficult to find examples of joylessness, lack of generosity, looking after number one in today’s world. If you give too much of yourself you will be vulnerable; if you allow yourself to hope you will be disappointed. It’s unattractive, but understandable; it may come from a correct diagnosis, though the inward-looking, self-protecting solution leaves the individual and those around him shrivelled.
‘Santa’ represents the opposite attitude – one of positivity and optimism, but often involving complete denial of the reality of the darkness. “God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world” might be the motto of the “Santa” attitude. For such people, thinking positively is the key to a happy life, focusing on the good things in the present, convinced that all will be well in the future. I’m reminded of the scene in the Netflix drama ‘The Crown’, where it’s clear that King George VI has terminal lung cancer but as the doctors attempt to keep it secret the King refuses to face reality, while his family and household continue to believe that he will make a full recovery.
‘Shopper’ knows full well that life involves suffering and ends in death. The solution is not to deny this, but to enjoy life in the present: as Scrivener puts it, “the light is going out so lets celebrate while we can”. He points out that like Scrooge, the ‘shopper’ has the correct diagnosis of the situation in the present, but unlike the Dickens character he instinctively knows we are created for fullness of life not joyless survival. The problem though is that when the festivities are over “and the credit card hits the doormat, the valley of the shadow remains”. Western neoliberal economics are of course built on this model: when Maynard Keynes was asked who would pay off the debts in the long run, he famously replied “in the long run we will all be dead”. It is the philosophy of: live well now, die later – no-one will ultimately pay because the world ends with no afterlife.
The fourth way of looking at life Scrivener calls ‘stable’. The image is of course the nativity scene, and the Gospel accounts which fulfil the ancient prophecies. Darkness does indeed cover the earth and is in our hearts, but a light has descended . This comes in the form of a person, not imaginary, like Santa ‘out there’, but a real human being in history who is also the Lord in heaven. As prophesied by Isaiah, a child is born, destined to shatter the yoke of our oppression, to replace conflict with peace. If only the Scrooge would open his heart to the love and hope He brings; if only the shopper would not obsess selfishly and foolishly about today’s pleasure and ‘stuff’, and trade it for a new perspective on riches in the future.
This idea of four different attitudes to Christmas, and to life in general, is a clever way of presenting the Gospel to unbelievers. It challenges those who live life with unrealistic wishful thinking, hedonism and pessimistic lack of ambition, to be honest about the state of the world and our hearts, and open to what the real God has done and has called us to. But it reveals something of the mentality of Christians and churches as well. Though we all believe in the truth of the ‘stable’, our personalities, our life experiences, our worldviews, our church and mission policies continue to reflect something of Scrooge, shopper or Santa. When I took the ‘Four kinds of Christmas’ survey, I came out as ‘Santa’, which is ridiculous because I’m closest to Scrooge of course – but the survey was clearly skewed by the fact that I do enjoy Christmas!
What is our response to the darkness, as we in the West are reminded daily on the news of war and poverty abroad, atheism and sadness around us at home? “That’s a very negative outlook”, some will say, and point to answers to prayer and exciting plans for the future while not wanting to dwell at all on stories of terrorist atrocities and church divisions. Others will focus on making things comfortable for their own family and local church, cutting back on giving, believing deep down that there is nothing they can do about the scale of evil and unbelief.
But the attitude symbolized by ‘stable’ is in some ways more aligned to the ‘shopper’ – knowing about the darkness, even experiencing it, but spending recklessly in the face of it. The difference with the Christian, of course, is that the motivation for the giving of ourselves and our money is the self-giving of God, the word made flesh in the manger, and the direction of the spending is outwards, towards family, congregation, community and world, not on ourselves. And unlike the shoppers, who make their own light and party while it is still burning, those who believe in the Light of the world allow Him to illuminate their own lives, rejoice when He can be detected even in the darkest situations, and look forward with certainty to the day when all is light, and the darkness is banished forever.
 Despite the fact that some theologians like to point out that this particular type of building isn’t mentioned in the nativity stories!
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Last Sunday an Oxford-based Anglican priest used a BBC radio programme (here, start at 23.25) to talk about Christian sexual ethics in the South African context. The Church’s continued adherence to the idea that faithful heterosexual marriage is the only correct place for a sexual relationship is harming young people, we were told. “Why should the church, in this day and age, be punishing people for wanting to love?”
Of course the mini-documentary was arguing for full acceptance by the Anglican church of same sex relationships. Listeners were presented with horrific cases of ‘corrective rape’ meted out to black lesbians living in poor urban areas, ostensibly to punish them and ‘turn them straight’. This kind of extreme brutality is really happening; in many communities it is very difficult to be openly gay, not just in South Africa, but, as we were told by a Zambian interviewee, in other African countries with a large majority of Christians. The programme assumed as self-evident that the church’s historic opposition to homosexual practice is linked to cultural disapproval of gay people, and hence violent homophobic hate crime.
One of the interviewees, a South African Cathedral Dean, said the church has changed its attitude to people with HIV/AIDS, from one of fear and blame to welcome and compassion, so now is the time to do the same with gay people. He accused Christians of “using the Bible to perpetuate prejudice”. A Cape Town-based charity worker, described as a “lifelong Anglican’, ended the report with a statement combining gnosticism and ‘gender theory’:
I don’t think the church understands…the social construct of gender. It treats gender as an empirical truth that is not fluid, that is not on a sliding scale…[yet] that is what human beings are…we can’t even wrap our heads around what God has imagined for our lives.
To summarise the message of the presentation: the Church’s traditional teaching on sin, salvation and how to behave is not just old-fashioned and off-putting to young people. It actually causes harm, because it makes gay young people feel bad about themselves, and even incites violence and hatred towards them in some countries. Therefore the church should change its teaching about homosexuality, and more widely about gender, about sin and salvation, about God himself, to make the church more accepting and welcoming.
How do we evaluate this? First, it involves a different Gospel. The biblical message should begin by making us all feel bad about ourselves, because “there is no-one who is righteous”, and “all have sinned”. The Gospel is that God was born as a baby among enemy rebels; while we were still sinners he died for us. The Gospel is not that the Church affirms me in the unconditional welcome of myself, but that after the awful realization of my guilt and separation from God, amazingly he welcomes me on the condition that my debt is paid.
But secondly, it is based on ‘post-truth’. The claim that Christian sexual ethics are responsible for violence against gay people in the South Africa townships simply does not stand up. In England, where the teaching of the Church is the same as in South Africa, we do not see the same things happening. Like ours, that country is liberal in many respects: same sex marriage has been legal for ten years, and there are strong gay communities in the cities – this has happened despite the teaching of the church.
Unlike Britain, though, South Africa is “struggling with a prevalent culture of violence”, according to the Minister of Police in that country. It has one of the highest rates of murder and rape in the world (forty times that of the UK), making the poorer urban areas some of the most dangerous in the world outside war zones, particularly for women. Rape and sexual abuse is endemic, and there is also a lot of consensual, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, as in most countries. Not surprising then that South Africa has experienced a holocaust of deaths from HIV/AIDS over the last 25 years, although mercifully the availability of antiretroviral drugs and the government’s willingness to supply them during the past ten or so years has significantly reduced the death rate.
Many churches have been involved in wonderful work in ministering in fearful communities, caring for the suffering and the families of those killed by disease or violence, while at the same time (in the case of bible-based congregations), continuing to teach of the love of Christ, and following God’s design for celibate singleness and faithful marriage as the best way of avoiding HIV. Some churches have been brave enough to challenge, with the Gospel, the toxic culture of machismo which is partly responsible for the high levels of murder and sexual abuse. While of course there are church leaders and nominal Christians who live no differently to those in the communities around them, there are many thousands of godly, prayerful and compassionate men and women who understand that counter-cultural sexual purity and control of anger is not old fashioned prudishness but a literal lifesaver and a witness to God’s goodness.
This background, essential for understanding any discussion about sex in South Africa, did not feature in the BBC programme, which sought to give the impression that people with same sex attraction are uniquely vulnerable. While violence against gay people is appalling and unacceptable, it is sadly part of a culture where women are abused whether they are gay or not, and people are beaten up and murdered for being foreign, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, for having a phone, for looking at someone’s girlfriend, etc, etc. The Western concept of LGBT rights is simply inappropriate in such a context. The church should be speaking up publicly against all violence and abuse, and developing communities of peace, safety and tolerance (as is doing so in many places), not focusing on one particular minority.
Also, given the prevalence of heterosexual promiscuity in society and even in the church, which combined with the sexual abuse has contributed to the devastating spread of AIDS and family breakdown, what effect would an acceptance and celebration of same sex relationships have in the townships and across Africa as a whole? It would surely send the message that the church is controlled by white Western liberalism (not good for mission?); that the Bible is not reliable; and that only ‘love’, not sexual self-control, is the concern of the church. If a same sex relationship is OK, people will ask, then why is adultery wrong?
The Oxford clergy opinion piece went unchallenged (as did a similar item on the same programme two weeks earlier), and was followed by the grilling of a South African Bishop who defended the clear teaching of Scripture, while rejecting unloving attitudes towards and mistreatment of gay people and affirming the need for pastoral care. But why was this included on a national radio show? The agenda was clearly less about eliciting the concern of English listeners for ordinary South Africans living in a context of violence and sexual abuse, and more about using emotive memes to continue the campaign to change the teaching of the Church of England on sexual ethics.
No individuals have been ‘named and shamed’ in the writing of this article.
Andrew Symes is an Anglican clergyman who lived in South Africa from 1994-2006, working with pastors in disadvantaged communities.
 Oxford Dictionaries has released its 2016 word of the year: “Post-truth,” which they define as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
According to Bishop Philip North, writing in last week’s Church Times, the poor might hear the Church’s good news (not defined) when their voice is heard by the Church and amplified in the nation. Sadly, though, the Church hasn’t been listening, and so was surprised, even appalled and embarrassed when the poor finally spoke up and expressed their frustrations and aspirations by voting for Brexit.
Working class identity and focus revolves around family, place and work, says the Bishop. The educated middle classes who make up most of the C of E’s leadership take work for granted, are embarrassed by patriotism, and individualistic rather than family or community-oriented. The Church’s obsession with the sexuality debate is not the agenda of the poor. The solution is for the Church to re-engage with the neglected sectors of society, by setting up and revitalising churches on council estates with “the best leaders”, and put listening to the urban poor at the centre of its mission strategy.
Before I comment on this analysis, I ought to mention something of my own background otherwise I might be accused of pontificating about a subject of which I know very little [some would say that hasn’t stopped you before! – ed.]. I come from a relatively privileged background but have spent most of my ministry working among the less privileged, in South Africa and in England. In South Africa my wife and I walked with leaders of small churches in villages and townships as they sought to enable their congregations to be salt and light in contexts that would make anyone hesitate before talking about ‘poverty’ in Britain. In Northampton I was vicar on a small outer estate regarded as dismal and rough by the rest of the town. It’s for others and for God to judge success and failure in these ministries, but I can say that what Philip North is talking about from his own experience, I have also experienced.
I believe he is right in urging the Church once again to put into practice what David Sheppard in a previous generation called ‘bias to the poor’, with a concern for social justice not just in speeches and articles but in downward immersion, ‘incarnation’, ensuring that Christians are in the unattractive areas in their worship, witness, pastoral care and just being with people. It is a challenge to the more comfortable suburban churches to regard the poor not as a problem to be solved by someone in government, or worse still ‘out of sight out of mind’, but as people who need salvation in Christ and the basics of life. The under-resourcing and lack of encouragement for churches trying to survive and grow in these areas is an issue.
It is also true, as Bishop North says, that there are unfashionable values associated with what he calls the ‘working class’, which could provide a bridge for the Gospel.
But there are some points where his narrative about “the Church hearing the voice of the poor” needs to be challenged. First, there seems to be an assumption that “the Church” is the Bishops, and/or the central institution. It is only they, he seems to suggest, who can make sure the nation hears, or perhaps speak to the middle classes about what the poor are saying. This conjures up an image of Bishops sitting earnestly in focus groups on council estates hearing the locals moan, then going off to make a statement to the media and talking to local and national government about financial investment. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, is it addressing the real problems, including the spiritual malaise at the heart of our nation? Is there a danger of selective listening, and seeing the solution in research and funding? Is that not in itself a very secular and middle class approach?
Second, the strengthening of parishes in areas of urban deprivation, and planting of new congregations, can’t just be a centralised project. A Bishop can’t just look at a map and ‘deploy’ a few ‘good’ vicars to troubled areas. To put it in the language of the missionary heroes of the past, it only works when God (often miraculously) calls individuals with humility, faith and resilience to a place and a community, and when there is a network of local support. Of course a Diocese can facilitate this process, but a wise Bishop takes no credit if things go well, and doesn’t apportion blame if things go badly (just as a vicar having a hard time in a parish should avoid the easy option of blaming the Diocese, as I confess I have done in the past).
Thirdly, Bishop North is wrong to say that the sexuality debate is irrelevant and a distraction from the priority of mission to the urban poor. Casual sexual promiscuity, family breakdown and toxic relationships on council estates are not hidden by the veneer of sophistication found in middle class communities. Poor educational achievement and low self esteem cannot forever be blamed on Mrs Thatcher, but are partly a product of fatherlessness and lack of wholesome role models. The Church can send a positive message that faithful man-woman marriage, and singleness with sexual self control, is good for families and children. Any change to the Church’s teaching and practice on sexuality and marriage will undermine this.
So I believe that Philip North’s appeals to the Church to remember the urban underclass is an important corrective to the idea that we should just focus on evangelism in university towns with an eye on future leaders and funding. We need to encourage and nurture sacrificial ministry in rough areas, with humility, compassion and listening.
But what is the good news? It is not that my sinful, unregenerate voice is being heard by others. While there must be justice and equality for all, and while politicians in particular need to accurately understand the needs of their constituents, there is no special grace or wisdom in certain feelings being expressed, whether the educated with better access to power or those ‘at the bottom of society’ per se. The Gospel is not that I can have a say, but rather that God wants to speak to me! That I am valued enough to be able to access his friendship despite my sin and failure. So the Church’s main role is not primarily to get the voice of the urban poor to the nation, but to get the voice of God to the poor.
If this is the case, then as a predominantly middle class church we are floundering. If we see the poverty in our nation as only the visible and material manifestation, this tends to lead to mission with a theologically liberal, social justice agenda, focussing on raising money for projects rather than evangelism and disciple-making. If we see the solution to spiritual poverty as church-planting with the right techniques, this can to the few evangelicals who attempt ministry in these areas often feeling frustrated and with a sense of failure. Rather, it would be better to look at the problem the other way round: the struggle of both churches and social services to make a transformational impact in the British urban estates is a result not a cause of ingrained spiritual malaise. We need help from those experienced in ministry among the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted, the forgotten, the hungry at a much lower level than anything we find in Britain. Where can we find such wisdom? Outside our shores, perhaps?
See also: The church must reconnect with the poor and deprived: a Bishop’s swing and a miss, by Stephen Kneale
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Mission through the local church.
At our local village church we are preparing for an evangelistic mission which will take place next year. We don’t call it that, because some of the more traditional members who attend the 9am Communion service, and many of our friends and neighbours in the village who we are seeking to reach with the Gospel, might find talk of ‘mission’ a bit threatening. So it’s going to feature a familiar week of social activities, events with talks, and worship, but it will be called a ‘Festival’.
As part of the preparation we have had a sermon series about prayer, and we’ve been trying to get more people involved in consciously drawing close to God and praying for the community during the week. Christmas gives us an opportunity to intentionally remind churchgoers – regular and occasional – of the message about Christ and how to share it, which will continue into the New Year. A number of prayer meetings have started up.
Occasionally on a Sunday evening we have an informal time of praise and prayer – an opportunity to worship using some new songs which haven’t yet made it into the repertoire of the morning services, and to spend some unhurried time with the Lord and interceding for world, village, church and one another. Last Sunday, the first of Advent, we spent some time reflecting on Simeon and Anna who waited on the Lord and for the revelation of his Messiah. He comes in a way that is not expected; those who miss his coming are the comfortable, the powerful, even the religious leaders; those who receive him are the patient, the humble, the outsiders.
To me it’s a great strength of the Church of England that a small village church can host a service of Holy Communion with sung responses in the morning, and then an informal time of worship and intercession in the evening (even followed by a short prayer walk!) attended by many of the same people, with the exposition of Scripture pointing to Christ at the centre of both.
Rural congregations, as we all know, are under threat; there are debates about whether to rationalise and reorganise, reducing numbers of clergy and services, or whether resources should be taken from central Diocesan funds to subsidise the ministry because of the heritage value and community symbolism of the old buildings, even though services are increasingly poorly attended. But are all rural parishes the same? My experience is that a few are thriving, others, like mine, are small in numbers but with prayer, planning and basic Gospel ministry are seeking to grow and reach out, despite the competition of larger, better resourced urban churches within ten miles. Sadly, we all know that many are struggling.
Rural Church of England ministry will continue as long as people turn up for services and are able to contribute some funds towards the building and the parish share. While that is the brutal economic truth, I would want to argue for a more positive, evangelical vision for local church: people who gather to pray and worship and study the Bible in their locality, with a vision for the Kingdom of God where they live, and a longing for their neighbours to come to Christ. At present, as my church is demonstrating, it’s still possible to carry out this vision in an Anglican village church.
Mission in other parts of the global church
At this time of year when the frantic purchasing of goods obscures the real meaning of the Advent season, many churches want to consciously set aside time, thought and resources for the less fortunate in other parts of the world, and have an appeal for a special project which they support. Readers might like to consider making a contribution towards an excellent scheme which Anglican Mainstream has been assisting over the past 18 months. The Youth Drop-In Centre in Athi River, Kenya, is a ministry of the Anglican Diocese of Machakos. Over £10,000 has been raised so far, and used to purchase equipment for the centre and contribute to the salary and expenses of a full-time youth worker. In one aspect of the ministry, young men suffering from serious trauma resulting from extreme poverty, sexual abuse and drug use receive shelter and counselling, and in conjunction with local churches have the opportunity to rebuild their lives. If you would like to know more, please read this information leaflet here: machakos-youth-centre
A divided Church. Come, Lord Jesus.
We began this piece with an example of how it is still possible to carry out orthodox Christian ministry in the Church of England. But for how long will this be the case?
If the Church continues to embrace or condone doctrinal innovations at odds with the historic understanding of the faith, at what point will it no longer be faithful to ‘the apostolic deposit’ of the unchanging Gospel? When will it have ‘crossed the Rubicon’, putting itself out of fellowship with the majority of Christians worldwide? A paper commissioned by the Officers of the Church of England Evangelical Council and published in October argued that a ‘mixed economy’ church, in which the official doctrines remain orthodox but in practice other views and practices are tolerated and encouraged, would no longer be faithful, and a negotiated schism may be necessary (see also here).
GAFCON UK has gone further, listing several well-publicised instances where the agreed teaching of the church on sex and marriage has been transgressed and not sanctioned, as evidence of the revisionist trajectory. A huge furore ensued; an official response from a Church of England spokesman played down the importance of the Lambeth I:10 resolution and appeared to open the door to a very liberal interpretation of ‘pastoral prayers’ for same sex couples in church. Others have responded to this in turn. A (regularly updated) compendium of the most important articles on this issue can be found here.
In my village church it sometimes feels as if we are far away from these global theological controversies. But then a conversation with a church member who can’t accept the doctrine of sin or the uniqueness of Christ reminds me that every human heart is a microcosm of the clash of views being played out in Dioceses, theological colleges and the Christian i-space: a war between what I want and think is best, and what God requires.
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Is it really true that Jesus had no opinion about homosexual practice? Can we be sure that the children of same sex couples suffer no disadvantages from their parents’ lifestyles and ideologies? Is ‘transgender’ mainly about individuals who need compassion, or an altering of reality for all of us? Should Christians spend time analyzing and countering the effects of the sexual revolution, or does this detract from ‘Gospel ministry? These were some of the questions being asked at “The New Normal”, a conference organized by Christian Concern which took place at the Emmanuel Centre, London on 11/12 November.
The effects of the sexual revolution on children
The work and personal testimony of American academic Bobby Lopez (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) was the central feature of the gathering. Raised by his mother and her female partner, Lopez began a promiscuous gay lifestyle in his early teens . A crisis of identity followed in his late 20’s, based on his experience of fatherlessness and dysfunction: he subsequently fell in love with and married a woman, and fully embraced faith in Christ. This story was displayed in a powerful drama on the Friday evening, entitled ‘Sunlight’.
When Lopez started to reflect on the realities of growing up with same sex caregivers in the LGB subcultures and tell his story publicly, he was immediately vilified, accused of homophobia, and suffered professional disadvantage. He began to collect testimonies of people from similar backgrounds, challenging the assumptions that parenting by same sex couples and related issues of surrogacy and adoption have no negative effect on children.
The right of people in society to have same sex relationships is not being questioned, nor the genuine love and commitment of some gay couples towards their children. However even in the best cases (as with single parent families), children in these contexts lack at least one of their biological parents, and miss close care and role modelling from one of the sexes. With same sex parenting, however, there is often pressure on children to publicly validate their parents’ lifestyle and ideology, and cases of abuse are more often overlooked for reasons of political correctness.
A UK version of collected accounts was released at the conference, entitled Jephthah’s Children: The Innocent Casualties of Same Sex Parenting (Wilberforce – soon to be here). In his preface to the book, Lopez asserts that same sex marriage, which has had the effect of providing respectability to a hasty social experiment and shielding it from proper scrutiny, is “premised on falsehoods”, and has taken “protections away from the most vulnerable people in the world…children, and empowered the most privileged people in the world, particularly but not exclusively wealthy white men”.
Brittany Klein, co-editor of Jephthah’s Children and another speaker at the conference, agreed that sexual identity politics is essentially in conflict with the rights of children. As a result of this and the wider sexual revolution, the traditional cultural pathways for enabling children to grow into adults with psychological health are being removed in our society. For Lopez, the Christian faith, which teaches sacrifice of self to others and to God’s will, is now directly set against Western consumerism, based on the immediate satisfying of desires. Only one of these worldviews offers a beneficial environment for children.
The presentations at the event, which drew about 200 delegates, used biblical exegesis, literary criticism, drama, social science and philosophy to address some of these issues which have sharp contemporary relevance.
The Bible and early Christian teaching
New Testament scholar John Nolland from Bristol, in his usual calm and reasoned style, summarized the teaching of Jesus and Paul about sexual immorality. It’s true that Jesus talks more about the Kingdom of God than he does about sex, but he talks more about sex than he does about care for the poor, for example. When he warns of the polluting effect of sexual immorality (eg Matthew 15:19), he and his hearers would have in mind all sexual acts outside of covenant marriage between a man and a woman, as clearly taught in the Old Testament. The apostle Paul, operating in a Gentile culture without the strict Jewish sexual ethic, has to be more specific about different kinds of sexual activity that transgresses God’s clear boundaries. For both Jesus and Paul, the teachers of salvation by grace, a profound concern for sexual purity comes from God’s desire to protect humanity, especially the most vulnerable.
Dr Carys Moseley, a theologian from Cardiff, gave a perspective on contemporary ideas about gender from church history. Androgyny and blurring gender distinctions is not new, but goes back to the Gnostics and further back into the cultures surrounding early Israel. The teaching of Genesis about humanity made in God’s image as binary male and female, some Old Testament references to eunuchs and cross dressing, , and writings of the early church fathers may be examples of ‘contextual theology’, countering commonly held views of the time. Just as in that era, so today when people do not have a Judaeo-Christian understanding of God and the universe, there is a collapse of boundaries around sex and gender.
Education policies based on manipulation of myth and emotion
Sex education material, increasingly explicit and designed to encourage children to think positively about same sex relationships and transgenderism, is being introduced into schools; parents and teachers who complain are branded as ‘bigots’. Researcher Brian Hadley gave a detailed overview of some of the materials being used in primary schools, from organisations such as Equalities Primary and Educate & Celebrate. Common themes include what Brian referred to as ‘love confusion’, where the lesson plans involve a dangerous blurring of romantic love, friendship, family connections and sexual arousal, and ‘gender confusion’, where young children role play the opposite gender, and are taught that being a boy or a girl is just about ‘ how you feel’.
Patricia Morgan, who has written a number of books of social research including ‘The Marriage Files‘, explained how the unquestioned narrative of bullying of LGBT youth is used to drive education policy. A certain proportion of the population is ‘gay’ from birth, probably 10%, the argument goes. The ‘heteronormativity’ of society makes this minority feel like outsiders, indeed many are bullied simply for being gay. This is the reason for low self esteem, sexual promiscuity and even suicide among gay young people. The solution is to make all schools and workplaces completely accepting of LGBT behaviours and attitudes, and to downplay and minimize traditional family structures.
But as both Hadley and Morgan showed, all of these arguments are based on myths. Sexual orientation in young people is notoriously fluid, rather than an innate characteristic like race. The 10% figure was first put forward by the ‘sex researcher’ discredited paedophile Alfred Kinsey in the 1950’s, and has consistently been refuted by more recent research. Rhetoric about ‘homophobic bullying’ being more prevalent and nasty than bullying for other reasons, is not backed up by facts. In particular, data on tragic cases of youth suicides is being falsified to claim peer disapproval about sexual orientation as a major factor, when every suicide has a much more complex background.
Morgan traced the origin of this theory to gay activists in San Francisco in the 1980’s, whose assertions about suicide were based on ideologically driven research without proper controls, but whose results are still used today. The ‘suicide’ argument is emotionally powerful and shuts down debate. But if it is actually not true that external disapproval is causing distress to young people identifying as gay (disproportionally to other forms of bullying), then it needs to be challenged. Bullying should be countered by the promotion of civility, not unreality and immorality.
Many other thoughtful presentations continued the theme of a ‘new normal’ of thinking about sex and gender affecting government, media, education and church. For example, Dan Moody (author of ‘The Flesh Made Word’) spoke on the crisis of identity and language that results when a male legally becomes a ‘she’. Mike Davidson from Core Issues Trust showed a clip of a soon to be released documentary film ‘Voices of the Silenced’, which compares our current situation with that of the first Christians in sexually anarchic Rome. Lisa Nolland gave a snapshot of what is being taught in secondary schools, and also highlighted the imposition of the LGBT agenda on developing countries, through the UN. There were opportunities for discussion in plenary and in breaks. Special appreciation was shown at the end to Andrea Williams of Christian Concern who co-organised and chaired the event.
Four reasons to care
Why should this issue matter to Christians? Firstly, truth. As with all wars, in this clash of worldviews it’s the first casualty. It’s not just the suppression of the Bible’s teaching, but deliberate denial of reality for ideological purposes. The role of the church should not be simply to create community around faith in Jesus, but establish the foundation of a counter-cultural worldview based on God’s word.
Secondly, love. Christians should care for all, especially for the most vulnerable. The ‘rights’ of adults to pursue certain sexual and family lifestyle choices are now accepted in the West, driven by compassion for those previously persecuted. But the rights of children affected by these choices appear to be ignored. True love and compassion would place the needs of the ‘little ones’ above the desires of adults.
Thirdly, freedom. For many decades we have taken for granted the blessing of religious liberty in this country. This freedom is increasingly under threat, as children are compelled to accept and celebrate LGBT dogmas, and registrars, bakers, prison chaplains and others are punished for expressing their Christian beliefs.
Lastly, hope. It can appear as if orthodox Christians have lost the battle, and all around us is confusion and the darkening of minds. The church does not need to capitulate to the world’s thinking, or retreat into a ghetto. Conference delegates were challenged to make our communities places of truth, and compassion for people loved by God and needing rescue and care. We can have confidence in the Gospel of transformation, standing with the majority of the world who have not conformed to the ‘new normal’ of the West.
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
I went through a ‘pacifist’ phase as a teenager. Wilfred Owen’s angry words summed up my feelings at the time. His familiar poem ends with a description of a soldier’s death in a mustard gas attack, and concludes that any witness to that awful scene
… would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Owen’s poem challenges and undermines the idea that dying for one’s country in a patriotic war is sweet and glorious. I went further – I even had doubts about my country as an entity worth fighting for or dying for. It was the era of the cold war, American nuclear weapons stationed in the heart of England, the Falklands conflict – for me at that time Remembrance Day was embarrassingly jingoistic– in fact I couldn’t see how Christianity could be in any way compatible with the military.
I was a Christian but was perhaps paying more attention to my own brilliant ideas than to the Bible and the wisdom of the ages. Looking back I realise that the suspicion of unthinking aggressive patriotism and the gut horror at violent conflict may have been godly, but my attitude to those involved in war was not. My pacifism may have owed more to ignorance, arrogance and cowardice than to noble principles. Remembering past wars does not have to be a proud praising of the nation and its military power while ignoring the plight of the poor and suffering. It can have real psychological and spiritual benefits, for humility (reminding us of how sinful human beings are, and how courageous and selfless they can be), and community (motivating us to resolve conflicts and seek peace).
But also in war there is sometimes a genuine case of right versus wrong. Assisting those desperately defending their land and homes against unprovoked aggression, and preventing the global triumph of an evil philosophy – did Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” apply to that? Maybe its not so simple.
Jesus taught about war his sermon by the temple in Jerusalem, in the last week of his life. This is looking at Luke’s version (chapter 21).
Firstly, human beings will always fight. He said “wars and uprisings…must happen” and “nation will rise against nation” (v9-10). Perhaps he had in mind the rage of the nations of Psalm 2, as he foresaw how much of human history would involve war. At the end of the 19th century many genuinely believed that science would solve humanity’s problems and a utopia would result. Two horrific global conflicts followed, within 50 years. In 1992 commentators proclaimed ‘the end of history’ after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the apparent triumph of liberal capitalism. Less than ten years later the ‘war on terror’ began, and continues to this day. There will be war because of human sin.
Secondly, there’s a sense that war is reflecting a wider unseen conflict in the spiritual realm. Verses 10-11: There will be wars, earthquakes, famines “and great signs from heaven”. Jesus goes on to give descriptions of the persecution of the church which started soon after his death, and the destruction of Jerusalem (40 years after his death), and he sets these events next to talking about global disasters and strange things going on in the sky. The terrible evil that’s unleashed in war is part of the groaning of creation that’s a constant battleground between God patiently working out his purposes, and Satan and his invisible forces trying to disrupt them and cause as much havoc as possible.
Third, war is an outworking of God’s judgement. “There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people” (v23). The appalling picture of pregnant women and nursing mothers “falling by the sword”, and Jerusalem being “trampled by the Gentiles” does not negate the fact that in some way that we cannot fully understand, even the worst situations are under God’s control and part of his just purposes. Unless one takes the view that violence is always wrong, most would accept that there are some circumstances when military force is necessary to defeat evil, such as fighting against Hitler or ISIS. In such cases there is collateral damage and innocent people suffer. Jesus seems to be saying that the same happens in “the time of punishment” (v22). While we may rebel against this idea of God’s wrath against evil, the alternatives are not consistent with the Bible’s descriptions of God – that he is nowhere to be seen when there’s a war, or that he is sitting with the suffering and dying but powerless to do anything about the conflict and its outcome.
But then all through this passage, where Jesus sees various kinds of conflict and suffering and natural disasters over the centuries ahead, there is good news! There will be an end to war when Jesus will return and all sin and evil will finally be removed and destroyed. In the meantime, God is going to look after his special people. Those who are faithful to Jesus will be safe even if they die physically (v16-18), and today we have constant reminders of the terror faced by Christians in many countries across the world, and are challenged and uplifted by their faith. Cataclysmic events will be a sign of the end, of redemption drawing near, a time to stand up and lift up the head (v28). The process leading to the event that brings about this salvation, the death of Christ on the cross, begins shortly after the conclusion of Jesus’ sermon.
I’ve never fought in a war. I have never had to face what soldiers on active service or civilians caught up in war have faced. For those who have fought, war must dominate their thinking for the rest of their lives. Honouring the great courage and self sacrifice of those who have fallen in war is an essential part of our humanity. But according to Jesus, its not how much we have suffered or how much courage we’ve shown in the face of war that matters ultimately. Rather it’s how we face that day of judgement, whether in the heat of battle, or in a civilian life of partying and “the anxieties of life”. The words of Jesus are sobering: “be careful” because that day will come – pray that you will escape the worst suffering, but whatever happens, make sure you can “stand before the Son of Man”. That depends on our faith in him, not on our courage on the battlefield or any other good works.
The time of Remembrance reminds us of many lessons for our discipleship: the value of putting oneself on the line in defence of others, the reality and imminence of judgement, the good news of God’s sovereignty and the promise of his complete protection for those who trust in Christ, and the need to be prayerful, spiritually like the soldier who is always “on watch”.
See also: From Remembrance to Faith and Hope (2014) by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Recent articles give a variety of perspectives on evangelism and the Church’s relationship with contemporary culture.
The C of E recently released the annual Statistics for Mission for 2015. The figures show continued decline in overall regular attendance at parish churches, although numbers for Christmas show a slight increase. In the view of the media, this serves as yet another reminder of the Church’s continued struggle to retain members and attract new ones.
Make evangelism the main thing
A report in the Church Times, entitled Thinking about Evangelism, includes interviews with members of Archbishop’s Task Force on evangelism, and other clergy. According to Chris Russell, a renewed and more urgent focus on evangelism should not be “motivated by anxiety about numbers” but because “people do not know Jesus Christ”. While the Archbishops of York and Canterbury have recently led high profile initiatives in prayer, witness and mission, at the local level it seems that many clergy are not giving priority to evangelism in parishes. Why is this? Its clear from the interview quotes that for some, there is an aversion to speaking about faith outside of the regular liturgy of worship and the church doing good in the community and caring for the poor; the work of priesthood is seen as ‘witness through presence’.
Among those interviewed in the report there is no clear agreement on what evangelism is, and a coyness about defining the message. One Diocesan official talks about churchgoers making friends and inviting people to “explore who you are as a spiritual being” (which might at best be described as pre-evangelism, not sharing good news about Jesus!) There is an assumption that provision of love, authenticity, family, examples of “real” alternative values (not defined) will draw people in to the faith community. An inevitable comment from sociologist Linda Woodhead concludes the piece: the church should stop being a moral judge, and offer experience of God through silence and mystery.
Do evangelism in the hard areas
There are similar vague sentiments expressed in an article by Malcolm Brown from Church House. He begins by making some good points: there needs to be more support for intentional evangelism through the local church in historically neglected areas of the country for mission: low cost housing estates. The Renewal and Reform programme wants to enable this, believing that the Church must not retreat but engage and grow in these areas, linking evangelism and “the transformation of people’s lives…building bonds of community around shared faith in Christ”. The parable of the sower teaches us that the seed of the Gospel should be sown everywhere, not just in ground we think more likely to be fruitful ie economically viable, or areas where it is easier to attract clergy to live and minister.
As someone who spent seven years as a vicar in a periurban estate I would agree with this. But in terms of the crucial questions of method and message in the toughest areas, Brown can at the moment only suggest facilitating a conversation among existing and would be practitioners. Again there is a tiptoeing around any definite statement about Christian faith (such as repentance from sin, conversion to Christ, the power of the Spirit), or about possible causes of urban deprivation and associated church struggles. The official line seems to be: we want church growth, so evangelism is necessary, but it’s up to each of us to define it according to our different theologies.
Change the church’s image and message, and the people will come
Some church leaders are prepared to come off the fence, and believe the key to mission is to make the church more attractive to the general public, specifically by being fully “welcoming” to the “LGBT community”. The now familiar method of bringing this to our attention is by commissioning a survey, interpreting the results to say what you want to say (“some people think the church is unwelcoming”), and releasing a press statement.
Setting aside statistical detail of this recent poll (leave that to Peter Ould) and the totally un-newsworthy, ‘Pope-is-Catholic’ revelation that Jayne Ozanne, Martyn Percy and Alan Wilson want the church to change its teaching on sexual ethics, it is worth making the point that their ostensible reason for doing so is evangelism. The Church’s continued ‘injustice’ against gay people “will continue to impede all efforts to evangelise future generations”, says Percy.
The assumption seems to be that the Church should change its views to align with how a particular group of non-believers think, in order to be seen as “there for everyone”. It is difficult to imagine a philosophy further removed from the teaching about mission in the NT, and bizarre that some people persist in the line of thinking when all the evidence shows that it is theologically orthodox parish churches which are most committed to, and effective in evangelism.
Inspire, pray, unite, accentuate the positive
Other influential leaders want to turn the tables and give a different narrative altogether from the continual focus on church decline and the need to reverse it. This view says: let’s be positive not negative. Don’t bemoan decline but get excited about pockets of growth. Don’t pander to the media cliche of old C of E church buildings with a handful of elderly worshippers – rather tell stories of new church plants, young people worshipping and praying, and initiatives by non Anglican denominations. Look at the growth in London, and in Cathedrals. Not “a generation away from extinction” but “on the cusp of revival’. Focus on unity across denominations in prayer and worship as a sign of the Kingdom.
Pete Greig, founder of the 24/7 Prayer initiative, author and inspiring charismatic speaker with strong connections to Holy Trinity Brompton and Archbishop Justin Welby, sets out his vision for mission along these lines. He concludes his ‘Letter to the UK church’ by suggesting the Nicene Creed as the basis for Christian unity, and insisting that differences of opinion on such issues as Israel, spiritual gifts, church governance, marriage and sexuality are secondary – they should not “define orthodoxy or divide the Church” as we recommit to making disciples throughout the land.
Don’t compromise on the authentic message
A very different view is taken by the authors of the recent document ‘Guarding the Deposit’ released on 25th October by the Church of England Evangelical Council. It argues that the basis for evangelism must be a church based on “apostolic norms”, with doctrinal and ethical teaching going back to the Lord Jesus himself. The original apostles, and their successors as leaders of the church, should “not only preach the gospel message about him [Jesus] but have authority to shape the life of the congregations that were formed within the surrounding pagan culture as a result of their preaching”. The document goes on to state clearly that if the Church of England were to capitulate to cultural pressure and either relegate key issues of doctrine and ethics to “things indifferent” (as Pete Greig suggests above) or to actually deny the apostles teaching and promote the opposite, it would no longer “retain apostolic continuity”.
‘Guarding the deposit’ rejects the idea that fence-sitting, accommodation and compromise over sexuality would make the church more successful in its evangelism. It would mean “a return to the pagan patterns of sexual conduct from which Christ came to redeem us”. It would lead to a serious break with the vibrant churches of the Global South who are far more successful in evangelism than we are, and from whom we need to learn about how to share faith and grow the church. It would result in “a new church – a non-apostolic version of Anglicanism” from which orthodox believers in England would be justified in seeking an alternative and more faithful ecclesial jurisdiction (the document goes on to outline various options for “visible differentiation” in the event of a decision to abandon apostolic norms).
Niebuhr revisited: Christ and culture
These different understandings of evangelism illustrate different perceptions of the Church’s relationship to the surrounding society, and how Christians view Jesus in relation to culture. Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic of missiology from the 1950’s, portraying the pros and cons of five different perspectives, has often been referenced in this discussion. A helpful recent summary by Trevin Wax can be found here.
The approach of those who want to mould the church to fit society’s values aligns with Neibuhr’s ‘Christ of culture’ model. Wax comments:
Despite the appeal of this position to the elite and powerful groups within a civilization, Niebuhr sees it as inadequate… allowing loyalty to culture trump loyalty to Christ, to the point the New Testament Jesus gets replaced with an idol that shares his name.
The viewpoint outlined above by Pete Greig would be described by Niehbuhr as ‘Christ and culture in synthesis’. Focussing on the differences between the ways of thinking and behaving in secular society, and the faithful church, is negative and judgemental. Rather, Christians should always look for points of contact between church and culture, always affirming the good, so that the world views the church favourably. However, an over-emphasis on the positives downplays clear Scriptural themes and can end up obscuring truth, for example on sin and judgement. A merely optimistic analysis may be inspiring in the short term but does not provide a foundation for resilience during periods of discouragement and difficulty in evangelism, or for how to interpret negative news and current cultural trends with honesty and godly understanding.
‘Christ and culture in tension’ is a view that observes culture somewhat dispassionately as if from a distance, as we seek to be faithful to Christ. We acknowledge differences between culture and the Christian community, but do not criticize it or seek to change it. Rather the concern is on preventing unchristian elements from the culture from infiltrating the church (note the regular New Testament warnings about ‘false teaching’). Evangelism and discipleship will involve offering people a clear choice between the way of Christ and the way of the world; the resulting church will be counter-cultural, but not seeking to criticize or change culture outside the walls of the church.
But another view would say that some aspects of culture cannot be observed dispassionately or treated as background wallpaper to our lives. Non-Christian society cannot simply be seen as an open door for the Gospel, as if evangelism is easy, and failure to grow the church is only due to fear or lack of winsomeness in presentation. While humanity is made in the image of God and made up of redeemable individuals whom Christ came to save, there are ugly and hostile aspects of culture, consisting of powers actively seeking to destroy the church. These must be named, described and faced by believers, through prophetic analysis (pointing out what is wrong in the culture from a Christian point of view), and spiritual warfare as a basis for preaching of the Gospel. This ‘Christ against culture’ thinking has usually avoided by the Church of England with its ‘gospel of niceness’, but in other parts of the world Anglicans have employed it with godly courage, standing up to oppression, injustice, corruption and error in government and society.
Such is the crisis of confidence that declining attendances and divisions over doctrine have caused in the C of E, that there are few people arguing in the style of Niehbuhr’s fifth model, ‘Christ the transformer of culture’. The idea of the church shaping the values and policies of government, law, education, media seems for many people too close to a ‘Christendom’ model. But there are good examples of this working in history, as Joe Boot argues in this article.
According to this view, evangelism is not just about leading individuals to Christ, and church growth. Nor can it be content to speak against the destructive powers and protect the church from false teaching, important though this is. The vision that Jesus gave in the ‘Great Commission’ is to disciple nations, to lead communities and societies out of wrong thinking and practice, so there is closer alignment in society with right belief, worship and behaviour. Is it possible for the redeemed people God to provide cultural leadership even to those who have not yet accepted Christ? That is another debate.
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Our thinking about sex and gender is being shaped, not by philosophical discussions, descriptions of a way of thinking, abstract point-by-point reasoning. Rather, we’re being presented with stories about people, whether it’s fictional characters on a soap opera who we come to admire and identify with, or real individuals, like the woman I heard being interviewed on the radio some weeks ago. Megan, from Brighton, was talking about Alice, her daughter. Alice was born with male accoutrements and so was originally, ‘mistakenly’, called “Adam”, but as she grew up she showed a preference for a female persona. “When she said she wanted to be a girl, I was delighted”, gushes Megan, “and we’re now beginning the process of transitioning, so eventually Alice’s body conforms more to who she really is. I know the risks: she’ll have a higher chance of mental health problems later, but that’s because of stigma in society against trans people”.
The interviewer asks gently: “and how are friends and family responding?”
“Everyone is completely supportive. We’ve had so many ‘likes’ on social media. In the school, Alice is Alice, she plays with the girls and uses their toilets, and all the children are being taught that we are all free to be who we want to be. A couple of parents did question it but I’m glad to say they’ve been firmly put in their place and told that bigotry will not be tolerated”.
A story closer to home has reached the national media this week. A fourteen year old girl has decided she’s a boy. Her parents will not let her begin the process of transition, believing that they are responsible for her welfare, and that their daughter has been influenced in this direction by others including a social worker. The girl has complained to the local authority, who are backing her wishes against those of the parents, and are threatening to take the girl away from her family so she can be free to pursue the search for her gender identity. The parents, we are told, are committed Christians, and are being supported in their legal case by Christian Legal Centre.
There are several important questions that need to be asked when confronted with the new social reality that has nurtured the transgender phenomenon. Depending on our personality, our life experience, our understanding of Christian faith, some questions may resonate more than others:
- how should I, and the Church, respond to transgender people?
- What does the Bible say about sex and gender, and about suffering, sin and salvation?
- What does ‘gender theory’ (the idea that our gender identity is in our mind, not our body) mean for all of us when it is promoted in society and enforced in law?
- Where has this new thinking come from?
- What will happen to freedom to believe and practice orthodox Christian faith in the West?
- What should we do?
Many of these questions will be addressed at the Conference led by Christian Concern on 11-12 November in London.
Two recent books explore some of the questions in more detail. Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, takes on the issue of Transgender as part of the new ‘Talking Points’ series from the Good Book Company. His main concerns are summarized by the first two questions on the above list. Some people suffer from ‘gender dysphoria’; the science is unclear why; these are suffering individuals coping with interior stresses rather than actively representing an agenda or ideology. They are not just people ‘out there’ like the media stories at the start of this piece. Adam/Alice may be in our church or our workplace or family.
Christians should not respond with disgust, “yuk”, but nor can we simply endorse with a “yes” the worldview of someone who has rejected their body’s sex and is creating a new gender identity. Vaughan then takes the reader through an overview of biblical theology of personhood from creation to revelation. Sin has brought about sickness and disorder; human thinking is corrupted (there is a clear exposition of Romans 1:18ff), but the good news is about God’s rescue plan through Christ. Unlike contemporary thinking which locates me as the centre of the universe, and authenticity coming from affirming my desires, Scripture tells us that Jesus is the hero and the centre, my identity comes from union with him, and by conforming my desires to God’s will.
While Vaughan’s book does mention the need for some Christians to contend for public truth in these areas, the main emphasis of the book is pastoral and evangelistic. Writer Daniel Moody is more interested in the impact on all of society when a man legally takes the identity of a woman, and vice versa.
Daniel’s book uses simple analogies to explain and deconstruct what is going on. If the law declares that a man (physically) is in fact a woman because he feels a woman (mentally), then reality has been changed for all of us. The law now recognizes me as a man, not because of my physical sex, but because that’s who I have declared myself to be. If taken to an extreme, if transgender is normal, then using the physical body to determine identity is taken away, and all we are left with to define humanity and navigate reality is mind, and words with changed meanings (see also here). Hence the title of the book ‘The Flesh made Word’, alluding to a reversal of the Gospel message.
Daniel’s book has a unique style and subject matter that is not always easy to read. I found myself skipping over bits I didn’t quite follow or even disagreed with, but then would find passages that stopped me short, startling me with the implications of what is happening in society. Apart from the title there is almost nothing explicitly Christian in the book except at the very end (for that reason Christians who want to find reasoning that does not only depend on Scripture may find it helpful). The ‘hiding’ of the physical body in the new doctrine of gender, is compared to Adam and Eve hiding from God in the garden. Finding ourselves as human beings requires looking at God again.
In today’s environment Christians are finding it harder to hold together the personal and the philosophical, the evangelistic and the prophetic. Is a transgendered person just an individual going through psychological anguish? Or is he/she also a symptom of a wider problem, what Isaiah describes in 59:14: “justice is driven back…truth has stumbled in the streets. Honesty cannot enter.” When the fear of hurting the feelings of an individual prevent the church from warning about a lie which is changing the basic understanding of reality of more and more people, is that ‘compassion’, or avoidance of spiritual conflict with contemporary ‘strongholds’? It may be that some Christians have a particular calling to focus on evangelism and pastoral care within churches, but this cannot be seen as the only valid Christian response to Transgender, as if the stumbling of truth in the streets is not our concern. To speak prophetically to society about wrong thinking, and to care compassionately for individuals caught up in it, is not a contradiction, but two vital aspects of the church’s ministry.
 The names in this section have been changed; the story is as I heard it.
See also: Legal sex: exchanging the truth about sex for the lie of gender, by Daniel Moody, The Public Discourse