Unity, truth and courage in Cairo and Paris: direction for the C of E faithful?
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Several important meetings occurred last week, large and small, all on the theme of Anglican mission in a changing world. The meetings were by invitation only: I wasn’t present at the big ones in Cairo and Rome, but Chris Sugden and others provided daily reports from Global South which can be seen, along with the official statements and final Communique, here , while reports from Rome can be found here.
The general impression from these global gatherings is that while there is tremendous personal goodwill between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, centuries-old differences in doctrine remain between the churches. The Anglican meeting in Cairo, however, exceeded all expectations in terms of unity: Archbishops and Bishops representing the vast majority of the racially and culturally diverse Anglican Communion, from both Global South and GAFCON groupings, made a series of powerful statements demonstrating full agreement on essentials of the Christian faith, commitment to evangelism and mission, and warnings to the global North about capitulating to the contemporary cultural shifts in sexual morality.
Back to the grassroots: On Monday and Tuesday I hosted a small informal consultation for evangelical clergy from a variety of backgrounds: conservative and charismatic, newly ordained and of many years experience, male and female. Apart from fruitful time getting to know each other and praying for one another’s ministry, we looked at three main topics. Firstly, a study of the letter to the Ephesians in which we looked at Paul’s understanding of reality, of God and humanity, of the Church, and specifically, how the redeemed members of the new Body should think and act in relation to the surrounding culture. Secondly, our own experiences of attempting to pursue biblical priorities in parish ministry, celebrating successes, and identifying problems, including when these might be related to being part of an institution which does not always clearly support the biblical vision we share. Finally, how do we see the future, given the pressure to further liberalise official Church teaching and practice on sexual ethics?
The discussion showed that Clergy who are in complete agreement about the authority of Scripture, the nature of salvation, the message of the Gospel, the purpose of the church and Christian ethics, in other words primary issues, are often in very different places when it comes to how they perceive the current situation, and strategies to deal with it. These range from thinking about paths to alternative oversight in a spectrum of detachment from official structures, to simply recommitting to faithful parish ministry ‘within the system’ in the present.
My second meeting: Christopher West was back in London briefly last week to speak to a public meeting organized by Living Out, and also another, invitation only consultation for evangelical clergy. American Roman Catholic West is a fearless and powerful expositor of the glorious biblical doctrines of humanity as male and female, sex, marriage and singleness. Specifically he has focused on the ‘Theology of the Body’ teaching of Pope John Paul 2, distilling the key points to memorable memes and soundbites. (See my summary of West’s teaching on a previous visit, here).
The Gospel, he says, can be summarized in 5 words: “God wants to marry us”, and our physical bodies proclaim this message. In particular the physical distinctives of male and female point to our created purpose: union with ‘the other’ – the one different to us; generation of new life, and ultimately, union with Christ as part of the church. Sex is corrupted and becomes destructive and sinful when the ‘rocket launchers’ of desire are turned inward in self-gratification. Intimate relationships with the same sex or with many partners does not reflect God’s design and purpose for humanity. The true purpose of desire is to “point us to the stars” – to know Christ in intimate union, to sustain covenant love in marriage, to live a life of energetic service of others, to enjoy God forever.
The Bible begins with the marriage of Adam and Eve and ends with the marriage feast of the Lamb and his bride the Church. A subject which is so central to the Bible and to the created world cannot be reduced to a ‘second order issue’ in the church. Human sin and the world’s ideologies have corrupted sexuality, and increasingly want to compel everyone to accept and approve a distorted vision. The church’s role is not to reintroduce strict sexual ‘rules’ to a disbelieving world, but to uncrumple the marred picture of sexuality; to commend and model faithful singleness and married life, and to use the picture as an illustration of the Gospel.
The discussion which followed opened up the question about what happens when the Church is divided on the issue. When some agree with West, some strongly disagree, and others are not bothered either way? What happens when clergy and even Bishops actively teach a message in direct contradiction to what the Bible and our Christian heritage clearly teaches, and are not rebuked or disciplined in any way? Currently the Church of England at least nominally adheres to orthodox doctrine, but what happens if the Church changes its formularies to approve and accept as valid something that Scripture condemns? The discussion which followed showed the same agreement on fundamentals but varied views on the urgency of the problem and possible solutions as the smaller consultation that I hosted earlier.
The third meeting was not specifically Anglican but we did meet in a church hall, and a number of Anglicans were present as well as representatives from Christian Institute, Christian Concern and Evangelical Alliance to hear speakers from the French pro family movement La Manif Pour Tous. I have written about the positive philosophy and courageous activism of this group in previous posts, here and here.
Ludovine de la Rochere and Franck Meyer are key leaders of the movement; they have spoken at massive demonstrations, and in debates on radio and TV about marriage and family. Although they are both committed Christians and believe that we are in a spiritual battle, their main concern is not primarily the preservation of biblical sexual ethics in the church, but the future of Western civilization if it continues on the path of promoting sex and gender confusion, and undermining the natural family and the rights of children. La Manif Pour Tous has countered the progressive ideology of the Hollande government through street demonstrations (‘manifestations’ – hence ‘la manif’), and clever, sharp and winsome messaging using simple images. It is not, as its critics have wrongly said, negative and reactionary, looking to a mythical past golden age, but interested in the future, and ambitious in believing public policy can be changed.
According to Meyer, an evangelical and President of an Association of local authority leaders in France, LGBT activists have made no secret of their vision for society, and their demands, for example, the right for any adults in whatever configuration of relationship to have children; the right to create children made from more than two people; the complete deconstruction of ‘heteronormativity’ and a ‘binary’ view of gender. This is now being incorporated into government policy through changing laws on marriage, surrogacy, education and so on. But the majority of people don’t want this. LMPT have led a public debate to put forward a better vision on the meaning of being human and the future of society. Children with a mother and father, who know their fundamental identity from their family line, and who grow up with stability, and understanding of self-sacrifice and love in maintaining a permanent, faithful male-female relationship, and in caring for the next generation.
In France this debate is ongoing. Listening to the accounts of Ludovine and Franck, I was struck again by the impossibility of sitting on the fence, or thinking that both visions of society can somehow equally and peacefully coexist. Where there is a choice between good and evil, we cannot avoid conflict; we need to do more than pray and hope for the best, otherwise we become submissive to, and legitimisers of, a system that suppresses human flourishing. La Manif Pour Tous is an example of winsome but determined resistance to a progressive agenda which fatally undermines society.
The statements of Global South Anglicans also display a confident commendation of a biblical and ‘natural law’ understanding of what it means to be human, and similar note of resistance to attempted imposition of liberal ideas from the West which they see as a new colonialism. Will orthodox believers in the Church of England follow these examples, align with the Global South and GAFCON, and begin to publicly articulate a counter cultural vision for society, from the level of the local parish up to the ‘powers that be’?