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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, Church of England Newspaper.
Christian Concern’s Wilberforce Institute hosted the second ‘Cultural Leadership Symposium’ on 7-8 February. The 2016 conference discussed the biblical mandate to create a Christian ‘culture’ rather than submit to the prevailing secular humanism and accept its values in public life. Last week’s event dealt with the challenge to the church of religious pluralism in general, and the growing influence of Islam in particular.
The first three speakers, Dr Joe Boot, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, Rev Dr Dan Strange Acting Principal of Oak Hill College, and former Islamic jurist turned Christian apologist Dr Sam Solomon, all made the same central point: in the West most Christians have been conditioned to view ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ as a compartment of life.
We tend to see our cultural and religious differences as a small element of who we are, part of our ‘diversity’. Because of this misunderstanding, many Christians are either ‘pluralists’ (believing that all religions contain a component of the truth and lead to the same divine goal), or ‘inclusivists’, holding to their own faith in Christ, but accepting that salvation can be found in other faith traditions. The main task of the church, then, according to this view, is not to try to change the small ‘faith’ aspect of the stranger to align with ours, but instead to build understanding and partnership through what we share in our common humanity.
But Muslims or Hindus, for example, do not see things this way. Here, the life of the individual is a part of a much bigger whole. Islam is not a ‘faith’ in the sense of a private belief or a set of activities of worship and good works; rather it is a whole social and political system, the ‘deen’, in which the life of the individual is a small part.
This has enormous implications. When a well-meaning local authority grants permission for the building of a mosque and school, or a Cathedral invites a reading from the Qu’ran in one of its services, the Western view sees it as an act of humanity and bridge-building to those who are different culturally. But according to a classical Muslim perspective, this may be viewed rather as an act of political and religious submission to Islam.
The conference speakers advocated a robust biblical theology of world religions, based on confidence in Christ as the only Lord and Saviour, to be recovered and proclaimed in the churches of the West.
Apologist and evangelist Beth Grove showed how orthodox Christians have answered difficult critical questions about the historicity and coherence of the biblical accounts. However this process has not happened in Islam with the Qu’ran and the other texts about Mohammad. So many Muslims have a romanticised and hazy understanding of their own faith which has never been challenged, while uncritically accepting myths about what Christians believe.
So it really is possible in Britain today to engage Muslims with love and respect, sharing clearly the hope that we have in Christ, and explaining his role in history and his rule over all nations, ultimately fulfilling the desires of all religions. But how can we do this, given the febrile atmosphere of the conversation about immigrants, and the desire to avoid controversy? “Yahweh is the only God, and God is Trinity; Allah is not God, and to follow him is idolatry” – is it possible to believe and communicate this without appearing ‘bigoted’? Such questions produced lively discussion among the participants.
According to Tim Dieppe of Christian Concern, we can no longer pretend that there are only minor differences between the religions, that Islam is entirely benign, and that ‘Islamophobia’ is the main problem we face. Even secular human rights analysts Trevor Phillips and Louise Casey have admitted, in high profile reports, that our nation faces a challenge with segregated Muslim communities. They have pointed out that informal Sharia courts oppress women, schools keep children ignorant of key aspects of British culture and history, a small but significant number of young people are being radicalised. In response, Christians can be involved in local or national politics, to ensure principles of justice and democracy are applied in all communities without fear or favour, and that we do not see ‘no-go areas’ for the Gospel.
But ultimately, according to Joe Boot, the fundamental challenges we face as a society are primarily religious and philosophical, not technical, legal or political. Christians in the West have allowed their faith to be boxed into the private sphere, while the public space is dominated by secularism and increasingly, Islam. Could God use a faithful remnant, gripped by the truth of his word, to once again transform society, based on sacrificial witness to Christ motivated by love of neighbour?
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream
I can already hear the shocked gasps from some as they read this title. “Oh, can’t we have a nicer tone in this debate?”, some are thinking, as they cover their ears, desperately thinking happy thoughts and hoping the whole nasty issue will go away.
It has been said to me that just as Jesus was silent before his accusers, so that should be our example. Well, he was silent at key moments in his trial, but in his ministry there were plenty of times when he confronted and exposed the falsehood and hypocrisy of his opponents. And he did it publicly, not quietly in a corner. Peter and John courageously looked their accusers in the eye and told them that Jesus, whom they crucified, was risen, and was the only Saviour and Lord. Later, the apostle Paul was not afraid to confront those in Galatia who were following a false Gospel, and told of how “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face”. This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther who called out the corruption and heresy in the church leadership and teaching of his day.
In all of these cases and many more, when the people of God are being led astray by “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8), the sad but necessary requirement is not “peace, peace, where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14) but conflict: Ephesians 6:10-18. It is true that our battle is not against flesh and blood in the sense of physically taking up arms against individuals, but as the previous paragraph has shown, this cannot mean avoiding all contact with human opposition, nor that we should just engage with tea and empathy. “Stand your ground…with the belt of truth…and the sword of the Spirit” says to me that there are times in the Christian life where strong words and combined principled action are needed as well as the essential of prayer.
The revisionists are still pretending on one level to be operating in a very reasonable way, in the domain of mild disagreement resolved by polite conversation within the church. The LGBT activists on the TV and radio are saying “we just want the church to recognize diversity and different theologies – can’t we just be neutral about same sex blessings and gay marriage, and allow churches which want to conduct them to do so?” But then, often in the same breath, they show their own contempt for diversity, insisting not just that the Church’s teaching on marriage is discriminatory, but that conservative theology per se causes harm to gay people.
Examples of this can be found in the ‘Open Letter to EGGS Members’ (EGGS = Evangelical Group on General Synod). This begins with an appeal to evangelicals to think again about their biblical interpretation, and ends with a denial that the issue of sexuality is “first order”. But then it goes on the attack. Evangelicals are complicit in ‘homophobia’. They all support “sexual orientation change efforts” despite “mounting scientific evidence that sexuality is not chosen nor changeable” (both assertions are patently false: most evangelicals are not aware of counselling programmes for sexual orientation change, and recent evidence shows sexual orientation to be often fluid rather than fixed). Evangelicals are apparently damaging the mission of the church because of being perceived as lacking in love and welcome – a very serious accusation for Gospel-minded followers of Christ, and hardly a second-order issue!
In this exchange on TV, Rev Andrew Foreshew-Cain (prominent member of General Synod, married to his same sex partner) claims that he is simply asking for toleration of his views and quiet acceptance and blessing of same sex couples as part of ‘diversity’, and yet within the same five minute period is insisting that the conservative view of sex and marriage causes young people to self-harm and even to commit suicide, despite the fact that research disproves this.
Others have gone further, widening the attack. Bishop Alan Wilson has called the universal Christian belief in the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross a “secretive and violent theology”, and has explicitly linked the appalling and inexcusable actions of John Smyth, a unique case dating back more than 35 years, with all who believe that Christ took the penalty for our sin. In this he has been followed by Angela Tilby on the Radio, and Martyn Percy and Giles Fraser in print.
So what we have seen over the past few days, and particularly now during Synod, is that pro LGBT activists have embarked on an attempt to force the Church of England to change its teachings on sex and marriage, firstly by means of appeal to the rational and reasonable middle ground in the church, branding conservatives as extremists and proposing an alternative conclusion to the Bishops GS 2055 report (eg here).
And then, the fist inside the velvet glove: an all-out assault on the tenets of basic Christian orthodoxy in the public domain outside the church, through the parading of pain and fury at every opportunity on the floor of Synod, and through the secular media. The aim here is to appeal to the public at large, particularly the powerful and influential figures in Government, law and the media, to force change on the church from the outside.
How can this powerful lobby with its emotional force be resisted? In the short term, we can perhaps pray that the Bishops and the majority of Synod members would see through and refute the hypocrisy of the campaigners, who claim to want diversity, when in fact they want to eradicate orthodox faith; they claim to be powerless victims or standing on their behalf, when in fact they stand with the most powerful lobby in the nation. They speak with the language of Christian faith but have imbibed a philosophy that is implacably hostile to the teachings of the bible about the human person, sexuality, marriage, self-control and chastity – and ultimately, as we have seen, hostile to the idea of a Saviour who takes away sin’s deserved consequences.
But what of the longer term? It should be obvious that a church which allows such views with their bullying tactics to flourish as part of legitimate theological diversity, has abandoned any concept of apostolic deposit based on divine revelation. Such a church will soon be forced to reflect the secular ideology of the powerful lobby group more and more, as has happened in north America. The orthodox can agree to being one view among many, and be gradually erased. A better option: stand firm and if necessary force a schism, and at the same time plan for an alternative jurisdiction.
Book Review by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
18 months ago a book was published on church growth in England, edited by Durham-based academic David Goodhew, which urged church leaders to reject a ‘theology of decline’, and instead to learn about and intentionally foster growth where possible. A new book, featuring research brought together by the same editor, looks at brief histories of Anglican mission in a number of countries around the world, and delves in detail into statistics of church membership, attendance and affiliation. This is a timely addition to the literature on church growth; it recognizes the importance of non-Western Anglicanism, and shows how the picture of ‘church decline in the West, growth in the South’ is simplistic and needs more nuance.
In his introduction and survey of the material in the book, Goodhew counters the theory that the church will inevitably decline where Western secular culture is strong (citing Singapore, Sydney and London as examples of Anglican growth). The idea linking church growth to population growth in the developing world is also a myth, as Nigeria and South Africa have seen similar demographic changes but Nigerian Anglicanism has exploded while in South Africa things have remained static. Evidence suggests that churches which encourage lay ministry and have flexible structures are more likely to grow (contrasting, for example, Congo with Ghana). Social action can always be found as a feature of Anglicanism whether the church is fully committed to evangelism or not, but contrary to the theories of Western liberals who believe that actions speak louder than words, “social action on its own does not tend to feed into numerical growth…churches which focus on social action and make minimal efforts in evangelism struggle to grow” (p25).
The situation in England is serious, as the chapter at the end of the book by David Voas shows with carefully chosen statistics. Usual Sunday attendance has dropped from around 1.25 million in 1980 to 775,000 today; the percentage of the population who refer to themselves as “C of E” has dropped from 42% in 1980 to 25% today. Voas paints a picture of ‘progressive secularization’, whereby Anglicans in England are not passing on the faith to the next generation: compare nearly 100,000 confirmations in 1980 with 19,000 in 2013.. He notes that while there is growth in a few areas (notably in London, Cambridge and Oxford), the overall picture is of relentless decline. Disappointingly, though, he does not offer a convincing explanation of possible reasons for this, nor does he attempt to analyse the growing congregations to see what they have in common.
The situation with north American Anglicanism in its TEC form is even more dire than in England. The author of this chapter, Jeremy Bonner, explains in his overview that unlike in England, where secularism has affected all denominations, in the USA some churches have grown (eg Roman Catholics, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists), while TEC have followed a rapid downward trend in conjunction with other mainline Protestant denominations. Bonner admits that theological division, and the formation of ACNA has played a major part in this. He says more research is needed to back up ACNA’s claims of growth compared to TEC’s decline, but the relative fortunes of the two churches certainly reinforce the narrative which associates church decline with theological liberalism.
However there is a curious reluctance from some of the book’s authors to pursue this theme. The chapter on Nigeria provides an informative summary of the history of Anglican mission in the country, and in particular the shift around 1980 from being a rather formal church generally opposed to charismatic renewal, to embracing it. The Pentecostal movement, together with strong evangelical bible-based foundations provided by EFAC and the Christian Unions in schools and universities, was embraced by Anglicans. Visionary leadership from successive Archbishops have made mission a priority, leading to rapid church planting and proliferation of new Dioceses. Nigerian Anglicanism has always followed the principles of CMS founder Henry Venn, in seeking as much as possible to be self- governing, self-supporting and self propagating; the church has grown to approximately a quarter of all Anglicans, and has an influence across the world. This is a remarkable example of Christian mission success by any standard, but chapter author Richard Burgess is diffident, linking growth with Pentecostal practice but not to evangelical theology, and almost damning the church with faint praise, saying at the end that its own future looks bright, but questioning “its relationship with other member churches of the Anglican Communion over the authority of Scripture and human sexuality”.
Southern Africa is another Province where in my own personal experience, growth and decline is at least partly linked to theological conviction. Since the 1970’s there has been explosive growth among independent Pentecostal, evangelical and Zionist churches, with corresponding decline in mainline Protestant denominations. Whereas in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, biblically compatible elements of this spiritual life were embraced by Anglicans, in South Africa this only happened among certain sections of the white and coloured communities; the majority of black Anglicans held to a high church spirituality combined with a commitment to social and political action. After the end of apartheid there was a lack of vision from the senior leadership and often poor organization locally, according to author Barbara Bompani. Unlike in the West where secularization has led young people to abandon the church, in South Africa there has been a steady flow away from mainline churches such as Anglicans, to the independent churches with their Gospel preaching and healing ministries. Those Anglicans who remain often define themselves as different, perhaps in a similar way to North America. As has been said to me more than once in South Africa – “we’re not born again – we’re Anglican”! However while there is much of interest in her chapter, Bompani appears to be more interested in the sociology of church life in South Africa rather than exploring the obvious link between theological conviction, spiritual vibrancy, evangelistic zeal and church growth.
The chapters on Australia and South America do consider this link more explicitly. South American Anglicanism (with the exception of Brazil, not included in the study) is more uniformly evangelical, while in Australia there appears to be more of a division between different theologies and churchmanships, with the result that Ruth Powell’s research leads her to conclude that reformed or charismatic evangelicalism is more likely to lead to church growth than a liberal progressive approach.
Overall there is much to commend this book as a resource for anyone wanting to know more about the worldwide church. But the most serious omission is that I cannot find any mention of the significant recent renewal and reform movements of GAFCON and Global South. GAFCON in particular has led to the formation of ACNA, a new and deeper unity in the Gospel across national and cultural divides, a clear challenge to those parts of the church which have aligned with Western secularism, and a call to mission and church growth based on confidence in the biblical Gospel, and a track record of growth. As the book is endorsed by Graham Kings and Martyn Percy, among others, it should not be a surprise that this important element of recent global Anglican history is airbrushed out – it is for others to decide whether this enhances or detracts from the book’s status as an academic document.
[A conference in being held to discuss the book and its findings, on Friday 24 February 2017: 10.30 to 5 pm, at Whitelands College, part of the University of Roehampton, London
The conference fee is £80 (£40 for students). For more information and to book on the conference, contact: Anthony Cooper email@example.com]
Commentary by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:
The Bishops’ Report does not attempt to resolve the ethical question of whether same sex relationships are right or wrong, whether they can be celebrated as part of Christian discipleship or censured as an expression of rebellion against the Creator. While the document does rule out any change in the near future to the Church’s teaching on marriage, or the provision of authorized or commended liturgies for the blessing of same sex relationships, it focuses on the legal reasons for this and is diffident about theological explanation. In fact the document emphasizes from the outset that since the church is divided with irreconcileable differences in theology, the focus going forward must be on reconciliation, ‘walking together’, and on pastoral care for those most personally affected by the issue being discussed. It assumes the Church’s relationship with the culture as benign, spoiled only by perceive lack of love on the Church’s part; it appears not to recognize the power and threat the ideologies of the sexual revolution, now embedded in the nation’s establishment, pose to orthodox Christian belief and behaviour.
The headlines of the Report are the same as was expected: no same sex marriage in church; no blessings for same sex couples. In one sense, the Bishops have opted for the status quo, which is frustrating and disappointing for those who believe that homosexuality and its sexual expression is a good aspect of God’s diverse creation, and that the current teaching of the church in this area is personally insulting and excluding to those who identify as ‘gay’. Inevitably there have been bitter complaints from those arguing for change, The anger and outrage from LGBT campaigners is not surprising, especially since some Bishops have encouraged this as part of a strategy for keeping up the pressure for eventual changes in church teaching and practice.
Meanwhile there is relief to all who were very concerned about their continued future in a church which by making the change would have officially celebrated sinful behaviour and wrong ideology. The Report recognizes this profound division between conservatives and liberals within the church as a whole, and the inevitable sense of win-lose that would result from whichever line they took, and so goes out of its way to affirm gay Anglicans and those who hold to a revisionist theology that they are and equal and valued members of the family of God.
Meanwhile among conservatives there is a robust debate now going on between those who unconditionally welcome the Bishops’ Report as a victory for orthodoxy, who are committed to engaging positively with the church institutions, for example here, and others who have sounded notes of warning about the underlying theology of the Report and the likely outcome in terms of the continued trajectory of the Church.
Why are orthodox evangelicals not united in their response to the report?
Every person’s gut response to this document depends not just on their theological understanding, but on their personal experience, their personality (eg whether one’s first instinct is to analyse an idea or to care for a person; whether to be loyal to authority or rebel against it, whether to take sides in an argument or to mediate, optimism and always looking for a win or caution and suspicion), the thinking of the folk in their local church and network, etc. For many decades, perhaps for centuries, evangelicals in the C of E have wrestled with their consciences as unbiblical practices have taken hold in the culture of parish churches and Diocesan administrations up and down the land, and Bishops have spoken in support of heretical ideas. But the solid basis of the historic formularies, the platform given to an incumbent for freedom to carry out a biblical ministry in designated geographical areas not just congregations, and the opportunities for influence through networking in the wider church have ensured up until now that large numbers have ‘stayed in’ a mixed and imperfect institution rather than opt for the purer, but more uncertain and perhaps restricted option of another denomination.
For some, no doubt, this Bishops’ Report is just about the headlines: “no gay marriage, no blessings – that’s all I need to know – we can celebrate”. For others, there might be misgivings about some of the underlying ideas, but “what’s new for an evangelical in the C of E?” However, for an increasing number, this document further institutionalizes wrong theology: the idea that truth cannot be known for sure, and is subservient to unity. Paragraph 7 states that we cannot know the answers to problems the issue of sexuality throws up; that the church’s mission is to “find tentative ways forward which continue to point toward a better way of living and loving as persons in community”. Apparently, deep insights into the Kingdom of God are found in the mutual listening of incompatible ‘truth’ (a) and ‘truth’ (b), or as orthodox Christians have said historically, truth and error (para 8).
Para 32 makes clear that the Church sees its role not as offering a clear ethical and moral guide even if it challenges the power hegomonies of the culture, but as “encompassing those who hold to sharply differing judgments”. This sees the church not as a guardian and herald of a single Person/message and a space where those who have discovered that can flourish, but a permanently contested space with different tribes and values like a conflict-ridden nation, or a ground requiring a referee in a game with opposing teams. This of course is not new, but following a well-worn path from ECUSA in the 1990’s, through the Continuing Indaba processes of the 2000’s, to the Shared Conversations that ended last year.
There will be no change to doctrines and liturgies, not because it is theologically right, but because it would be too difficult at the moment. In fact, there is no attempt by the Bishops to explain why marriage is between a man and a woman. A new teaching resource will be provided (para 34), but the summary of this document makes clear that affirmation and welcome of gay people, and the importance of relationships and community, will come before “exploring the meaning of marriage within society, the family and the church” (note: not Scripture). There is plenty of detail on the legal position with regard to the Canons referring to marriage, the complexities involved in changing liturgy, and the questioning of ordinands and clergy about their private lives, but an avoidance of any attempt to ground the current teaching of the church in the teaching of the Bible, and more than one suggestion that the teaching needs to be reinterpreted by “fresh insights” from interaction with culture (62, see also 2 and 63).
So another reason given for ‘no change’ is in fact the commitment to unity as a ‘unifying theological theme’ (59). The primary value given to unity has proved a double edged sword: it has led to endorsement of pluralism and loss of confidence in affirming biblical truth, but it has also, for the moment, prevented rank departure from apostolicity. Much to the continued chagrin of many revisionists, the Bishops have taken seriously the real possibility of rupture with the global church were they to advocate change. In this they have so far not followed TEC, Canada or Scotland. This should serve as a motivation to those holding to the historic position to strengthen links as much as possible with GAFCON and Global South churches, to support them as they continue to stand firm for orthodoxy, to continue sharing of resources, and to gain wisdom from the spiritual vitality and growth in many other Provinces.
The Bishops believe that as a result of this report, there is no longer any need to plan for division (59). While the headline recommendations mean that there is no emergency requiring an immediate alternative Anglicanism as in Scotland, the underlying theology reflects and describes a church from which more and more potential ordinands and faithful lay people are already drifting away to other spiritual homes. The preservation of orthodox Anglicanism in England requires something different to trusting in the outcome of this document.
Revd Andrew Symes
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Among the papers to be digested by delegates preparing for General Synod 13-16 February is a substantial report commissioned by the Archbishop’s Council, calling for a major change of emphasis in the C of E, to focus on equipping the laity for whole-life discipleship. Setting God’s People Free (SGPF) specifically anticipates and rejects criticism that this is a ‘managerial’ project to streamline the institution, for example trying to fill clergy gaps with unpaid lay workers, and instead builds on the biblical principle of the priesthood of all God’s people, living in relationship with Christ and being his ambassadors in the world. So, the report insists, this is “not about reorganization, but redemption”. It calls for a change of culture, to “set God’s people free to evangelize the nation”, and to change the way clergy are viewed, as enablers of missional communities, rather than primarily as pastors to the lay members of churches.
Surveys show that the laity in our churches don’t feel equipped for whole life discipleship and witness in the world. ‘Clericalism’ is identified as a major problem in the C of E’s culture, for example it is commonly assumed that ordination is the ‘next step’ as part of an upward progression in the journey of discipleship, rather than a calling to a specific ministry. Rather, as one clergyman explains, the church should view clergy and church life as part of the ‘trellis’ on which the vine of the lay community can flourish and be a blessing in the world.
The report concedes that in this it is not saying anything new: every generation ‘rediscovers’ the importance of lay ministry (there are quotations from the 1946 report ‘Towards the Evangelization of England’ which contained very similar sentiments). William Temple, CS Lewis, John Stott and Lesslie Newbigin are named as past voices who advocated an emphasis on lay discipleship. But according to SGPF, there has been little change, because of a lack of clear strategy, goals and budgeted plans to implement the idea in practice across the church.
SGPF helpfully identifies four key areas of lay ministry: elected leadership roles in the church (for example, church warden); informal service roles in the church (making coffee, teaching Sunday school); involvement in church-led community action (volunteering in the local school or care home, debt counselling); and involvement in the workplace and wider society (being a Christian in the world). What are the factors which prevent better lay ministry, particularly in this crucial lastly-mentioned area? The report suggests firstly ‘theological deficit’, by which it means a lack of ability to articulate and apply theological principles to reflect on how God is at work in our lives outside of ‘church’. Then, a “weak lay voice”, whereby the church institution does not sufficiently understand and give space for the expression of the needs and gifts of lay people.
Third, poor relationships between clergy and laity. Some bitterness emerges in this section, as clergy are heavily criticized (laity feel “underused, disenfranchised, not equipped”), but also from the clergy perspective, laity often don’t want to be empowered but just want the clergy to do church for them. Fourthly, there is a lack of proper research, strategies for change, and resources targeting new learning compared with other successful organizations. While lay reader training is mentioned, it is acknowledged that this is narrowly focused on equipping certain people for specific tasks in the gathered church (eg biblical study, preaching and teaching), not whole life discipleship.
The paper sets out a strategy for change in the form of eight ‘levers’ which it believes can shape thinking and practice for the future. These include requiring Bishops to make a shift in focus towards intentionally encouraging lay discipleship, creating new liturgies eg renewal of baptismal vows for lay people, and perhaps most significantly, re-focussing clergy selection, training and ministry to prioritise the formation of lay disciples. This would of course require clergy to be teachers and encouragers of ministry, rather than primarily pastors and administrators. All this must be championed by the Archbishops. The report suggests immediate commissioning of theological resources, the development of a central online ‘portal’ for networking and training, and trials of new systems to be carried out in ‘pilot’ Dioceses.
The biblical concepts of whole life discipleship, the priesthood of all believers, and a church in which all the gifts of the body’s members are being used together for evangelism and mission, are central to historic, bible-based Christianity, and so it can only be positive that there are plans to prioritise these ideas more in the church’s self-understanding, and to implement them with practical programmes. So should we not be enthusiastic about the possibility of an evangelical ecclesiology and missiology being pushed through the church? Well yes, certainly, but as with all these schemes, a question has to be asked about whether writing well-researched reports and rolling out centralized programmes is the best way to promote healthy churches. There are churches up and down the country, mostly evangelical, which are already doing many of the things suggested in the report. If in many other congregations they are not being done because of ignorance, then encouragement and resources from the centre can help, but openness to learn from good local practice of nearby fellowships might be more effective. But as the report admits, in many cases relationships in the body are dysfunctional, and there is strong resistance either from clergy, or laity, or both, to the basic principles of personal faith in Christ and every member ministry – can this be changed by online portals and Diocesan initiatives?
Perhaps the biggest flaw in SGPF though is the lack of clarity on what a lay disciple, ie a Christian, actually is. In more than one place 1 Peter 2:9 is quoted: “you are a royal priesthood”, and it is claimed this is the role of every baptized person. But reading this verse in the context of the epistle as a whole, the idea of baptism as the defining mark of what makes someone part of this new priesthood is absent. The apostle Peter, writing to God’s people scattered throughout what is now Turkey, uses many images in the first two chapters to describe their unique status: sprinkled by Jesus’ blood (ie not the water of the font), saved through faith, set apart for obedience to God, redeemed from sin by Christ’s sacrificial death, part of God’s new temple of living stones. It may be true that baptism is a sign and seal of these spiritual realities for believers (and as an Anglican, I believe the sign occurring before the reality is as effective as following it), but Peter, along with the other New testament writers, clearly seems more interested in the reality than the sign when talking about being a Christian.
In which case, it would surely be better to base any strategy for enabling discipleship and empowering the members of the body of Christ lay and ordained, the ‘royal priesthood’, to be based on the spiritual realities themselves mentioned by Peter, especially a clear understanding of repentance from sin and faith in Christ, rather than merely baptism, a ritual which many have undergone who remain unconverted. A new emphasis on empowering the laity for witness which understands God’s people as those who are born again rather than just baptized, and where training is based unequivocally on biblical foundations shared with orthodox Christians down the ages and worldwide, would get my full support.
Meanwhile the Anglican world awaits the report from the Bishop’s Reflection Group on sexuality which is due to be released on Friday 27th January. It will be included in the second tranche of discussion papers for General Synod. Among the speculated (or leaked?) conclusions are the following: the church will not change its doctrine of marriage, but Bishops will not have to explain or defend this doctrine, for example by asking any questions about the domestic arrangements of clergy in exclusive relationships, and Synod are not being asked to debate the issue. I guess the hope is that there will be a general desire to stop talking about sexual ethics and doctrines of sin and salvation, which are seen as divisive, and instead focus on other issues which are apparently more likely to unite and lead to growth.
See also: Synod Agenda papers published, by Gavin Drake, ACNS
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
In last month’s focus on the Bible’s Christmas stories we have been reminded of a strong theme: the message of 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. Humble elderly people, with no visible eminence or influence, are the first to publicly articulate Jesus’ unique role in God’s saving plan for the nations. The message of Christmas certainly speaks of spiritual change: God enters into the darkness of our sin to forgive and redeem. But one cannot avoid the clear implication that the revolution being inaugurated will have implications beyond the confines of religious places of worship and the inward lives of believers – it will have an impact which is moral, political, economic and cultural 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. For example, can I really appreciate the full impact of the Lord washing the feet of the disciples, if I have never been a servant? Might my theological perspective on the social laws of the Old Testament, or Jesus casting out demons be a bit limited if I have only experienced a secular middle class Western culture, and have never spoken to an African or Asian about these passages?
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 a particular humanistic model 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 not simply to give charitably out of one’s spare resources, but to understand more from those with whom we share about maintaining strong faith and witness in the face of adversity and suffering, and relying on God for provision of daily needs. Perhaps even to begin to grasp some of the issues which keep people poor and to appreciate biblical calls for justice, or to be fired up by the zeal of those who fearlessly preach Christ and see church growth in disadvantaged areas while we in the West seem to have lost the conviction for this. 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, a commitment to the concept of ‘unity’, or a donor-recipient relationship. 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 they are united in Christ; he serves her, and learns and grows as he sees the world from her eyes.
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. These movements have an important role in acting as an anchor for biblical truth in a world where churches in the West are drifting with the currents of secularism. And also, they provide a means by which faithful Anglicans in more privileged contexts can through fellowship in the Spirit with Anglicans across the nations, access essential resources in reading the Bible, living with prosperity and suffering, and witnessing to Christ in the culture.
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
Review of 2016: a selection of Editorial articles from Anglican Mainstream.
by Andrew Symes.
A very happy New Year to all our readers. As we head into 2017, may this year see the strengthening of prophetic Christian witness, and the development of a faithful Church which seeks to think correctly, act lovingly and speak courageously, against the grain if necessary.
Here are some pieces written for Anglican Mainstream over the past year, grouped in categories according to topics and issues.
The global Anglican Communion, the C of E and GAFCON
Canterbury Primates meeting: ‘good disagreement’ and a potential future. [Some predictions before the meeting took place in January 2016].
Crisis in the Anglican Communion: recent history and potential outcomes. [A brief outline of the causes of the global divisions in the church].
‘Primates reaffirm teaching on marriage’ – encouragements and concerns. [Assessment of the Canterbury Primates meeting – good and bad news.]
The Anglican Communion and GAFCON according to Peter Jensen. [GAFCON General Secretary’s take on the ACC Lusaka meeting, and mission in general.]
Where do we find ‘Anglican Communion’? [Is there a model for biblical fellowship when the C of E leadership appears increasingly compromised by heterodox teaching?]
Anglican divisions harden despite talk of unity. [Shared conversations at the July Synod, compromises in Canada, and the hope provided by GAFCON.]
Unity, truth and courage in Cairo and Paris: direction for the C of E faithful? [United witness of GAFCON and Global South; La Manif Pour Tous.]
Culture, Gospel and Mission
A call to cultural leadership [a review of the conference on the subject led by Christian Concern].
“Sowing in tears on the hard ground of the West” – A response to surveys showing rapid decline in churchgoing and faith
The basic beliefs which unite confessing Anglicans [the counter-cultural and life-giving teaching of Morning Prayer].
Faced with occupation, does the church resist or collaborate? [The occupation of Jersey in WW2 as a parable for the church in contemporary culture].
New evangelistic course addresses contemporary idolatries [a review of “Life Explored].
The church and its mission: visible and invisible [some key themes from the Letter to the Ephesians].
Gospel, church and nation [Niebuhr’s models for how the church responds to the culture, with examples from different wings of the C of E].
Responses to Revisionism in the C of E
Blessing of same sex marriage by Oxford clergywoman [Cape Town, May 2016].
Changing an organisation’s purpose [The nation’s senior midwife and the Bishop of Liverpool are both abusing their position by unilaterally trying to change the purpose of their organization].
Journeys in, or moving away from, grace and truth? [A review of a book of essays edited by Jayne Ozanne].
The C of E: limits to diversity and the inevitability of separation? [When moderate evangelicals call for formal separation between orthodox believers and revisionists, how long can unity be maintained?]
The open letter from evangelicals to C of E Bishops: a commentary [in October, 88 evangelical leaders signed a strongly worded letter urging the Bishops not to change the C of E’s teaching on sexual ethics].
The ‘just be positive’ message: are we substituting God’s grace with our own? [A common response to what is happening in society and church is to be positive and optimistic, not offering any critique.]
C of E revisionists use the BBC and the South African church to continue campaign [a response to a feature on the ‘Sunday’ programme in early December].
Sexuality, gender and marriage
‘Our bodies proclaim the Gospel’ – Christopher West’s insightful biblical theology of sex and marriage. [Reports on the Conference in January 2016].
Marriage, and ‘being human’. [A report on a Synod fringe meeting addressed by Michael Nazir-Ali and Edmund Adamus].
“Gender-fluid – God’s purpose in creation? [God created our male and female physical bodies: the new teaching on gender is a Gnostic denial of this].
Science and the Bible. [An eminent Professor claims that science disproves the Bible on sexuality. Is he right?]
Transgender: pastoral and prophetic responses. [Two recent books show different but complementary approaches to the people and the ideas.]
Conference responds to radical cultural shift. [Pansexual humanism is ‘The New Normal”; this event explored what is going on and what concerned folk can do.
Revd Andrew Symes
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.”