Editorial Blog

Andrew Symes is the Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream, and Senior Editor of this website. These articles are mostly concerned with authentic, biblically orthodox Christian faith and its interaction with the Anglican Church, especially the Church of England, and the wider culture. Please press the ‘Refresh’ or “reload’ button to ensure you see the latest blog post at the top of this column.

Encouragements and battles in the latest news

Posted by on Jun 25, 2019 in Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Encouragements and battles in the latest news

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

A number of articles and books have recently demonstrated how the BBC – like many of our national institutions – is controlled by a liberal-leaning elite, and has moved away from its nominally Christian roots to promote a progressive worldview, while marginalising and despising orthodox Christianity. While this may largely be true, nevertheless from time to time excellent, encouraging material bucks the trend and gets through.

For example, an elderly lady departed from the programme’s script on “pensioners suffer because of government cuts” in a live radio interview, and instead shared her joy in life because of her faith. A whole programme devoted to the work of Christians against Poverty captured something of the transformative effect of faith in Christ in disadvantaged communities.

More recently – a piece about Christian influence in the Hong Kong democracy protest, as journalists have been interested in how the old 1970’s chorus “Sing alleluia to the Lord” has become the main anthem of the protesters. And in a feature on churches becoming safe havens for young people in a context of rising knife violence (shortly to be discussed at General Synod), radio interviews featured Pentecostal and C of E ministers speaking freely about faith issues, and a testimony from one young man who abandoned crime after finding faith in Christ.

An interesting ‘reality’ series has just ended, in which families recreate the harsh life of living on a Welsh coastal island in 1900. In one scene, after three days at sea catching nothing, the men let out their nets one more time, and one man, clearly a Christian, prayed fervently. They caught 85 fish.

Meanwhile there are other examples to show that the culture war is not going all one way. Like a sporting competition where occasionally there is an upset and a powerful favourite is beaten by a ‘minnow’, we’re occasionally seeing reversals for the progressive cause. A extraordinary and very worrying judicial decision to compel a woman to have an abortion was reversed after a campaign.

There is now significant pushback against the transgender ideology from secular organisations. In Scotland, feminist politicians, outraged at the prospect of hard-earned rights for women (defined by biological sex, not subjective feelings) being mocked by men in dresses accessing female-only space, are resisting the absurd and dangerous ‘self identification” proposals driven by the LGBT lobby.

In England, the Transgender Trend website has gained traction by giving voice to the concerns of parents alarmed by the revolutionary proselytising of children by trans lobby groups. Recently they have been highlighting the way scientifically false myths about gender are being presented to educators, social workers and other service providers by the Mermaids charity, and how Mermaids have been guilty of serious data privacy breaches. Meanwhile a group of academics are so concerned about the Orwellian clampdown on freedoms, where people are bullied into accepting nonsense through Stonewall “diversity” training”, that they signed a letter to the Times – a newspaper which for all its faults has been a space for expression of views opposing the transgender ideology. At least one of the academics has been threatened with dismissal as a result, but the willingness to speak out is encouraging for the rest of us.

Are these examples signs of a turning of the tide, a move towards the regaining of good sense, where as a culture we will wake up from the bad dream of enforced political correctness, celebration of immorality and shaming of Christian orthodoxy, or are they rather pockets of resistance against the cultural Marxist juggernaut?

As Christians we are optimistic about the reality of God, his sustaining of the world and his faithful love for his people, and the certainty of the future in which the Lamb triumphs and the new heaven and new earth are established. We know that the Holy Spirit is active in the world today, working through the church and in answer to prayer according to God’s sovereignty. But this does not mean that we can expect everything to turn out comfortably for us.

In my view, the good news stories mentioned above are not signs of an imminent return to an era of peace and freedom. I don’t think we will be like the Israelites in the time of Isaiah who woke up to find the Assyrian army had abandoned the siege of Jerusalem. The need to contend for truth, to point out error, to support those who have got into trouble for saying the ‘wrong’ thing, to develop communities of wisdom, faith and resistance against an increasingly oppressive secularism – the faithful church is called to do this and it may become harder. We need to find examples to follow in the persecuted church overseas, in our own national church history, in the occasional glimmer of hope in the secular world – sometimes even found on the BBC!

“We don’t do prosperity theology” – or do we?

Posted by on Jun 18, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Church life, Editorial Blog, Theology | Comments Off on “We don’t do prosperity theology” – or do we?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The handsome middle-aged preacher in the white suit paused dramatically, wiped his perspiring brow with a large linen handkerchief, and repeated again in a gravelly voice “praise the Lord!”. A chorus of Alleluias and Amens followed from the rapt audience. He continued: “now is the time to sow that seed of faith – the word says that whatever you give tonight, it will be multiplied in blessings and prosperity in your life. Thirty, sixty even a hundred fold. You’ll see miracles!” he shouted. The band began to play and the choir sang; more buckets were passed along the aisles as containers stuffed full of notes were whisked away by attendants…

It’s easy to caricature what the phrase ‘prosperity theology’ brings to mind. As a young Christian in the 1980’s, I like many others watched fascinated and appalled as celebrity evangelists from the US made international headlines with lurid stories of financial corruption and extra marital affairs. In my Church of England circles no-one had even heard of Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart, and it was only when I went to South Africa later that I discovered how internationally huge the Pentecostal ‘faith’ movement is. The leaders at that time such as Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts, Morris Cerullo – were ageing, but satellite TV ensured a rising generation of preachers such as Benny Hinn and new names from West Africa, South America and Asia, promising blessings of health and wealth to a yet wider audience.

Culturally, the restrained and polite English (even most charismatics) consider the caricature televangelist style to be crass and vulgar. And we would surely never be taken in by the theology? I remember being amazed at reading a tract by Kenneth Hagin that I found in South Africa, where he expounded on 1 Tim 6:6 – “godliness with contentment is great gain” (Authorised Version), completely ignoring the context of warnings about love of money, to insist that godliness was the means to wealth and happiness.

Martin Ocana explains: “Their [the prosperity preachers’] ‘hermeneutics of the Spirit’ puts the emphasis on the interpreter, not on the Bible’s intrinsic authority”. This quotation comes from a chapter in a 2017 collection of essays entitled ‘Prosperity Theology and the Gospel’, an initiative of a Lausanne-sponsored consultation following the 2010 Cape Town congress, whose final statement referred to “unethical and unChristlike” distortions of the gospel in prosperity preaching. An eclectic mix of authors dealing with this issue include Anglican theologians Chris Wright and Vinay Samuel. The book contains really helpful summaries of some of the main components of ‘prosperity’ teaching, which include not only ideas of giving money to a persuasive preacher in order to receive material payback from God, but also a principle of ‘faith’ as a form of positive thinking, and especially in Africa, the use of material items such as oil or handkerchiefs blessed by the preacher which can ensure success for the user.

It’s not difficult for evangelicals to critique these practices and the erroneous teaching behind them. Prosperity theology misunderstands Jesus, emphasizing his miracles and not his atoning death (unless it is to take away the ‘curse of poverty’ and, of course, “by his stripes we are healed”). It has no theology of suffering, conflating the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’; it promotes idolatry of wealth, it taps in to pagan ideas of magic, and involves authoritarian and often abusive leadership. The Gafcon Jerusalem statement from 2018 equates prosperity teaching with theological revisionism as “recasting God’s Gospel to accommodate the surrounding culture”. For example, in the East this may take the form of borrowing elements of Buddhism and “cause-and-effect destiny”. In the West it can equate God’s plan for my life with “the American dream”, and material wealth and status with God’s blessing.

However, other authors in this Lausanne compilation take a nuanced approach to prosperity thinking, seeing some benefits in this “half-truth theology” (Joel Tejedo). The poor are empowered through giving rather than seeing themselves as dependent on others’ charity, and lifestyles are often genuinely changed as worshippers turn to Jesus, abandon drink, drugs, crime and contribute to the church’s mission rather than extortionate payments to traditional religious practitioners.

While charlatans can certainly mislead and fleece the gullible, it’s also true to say that heartfelt worship, prayerful dependence on God and generous giving to his work are good things according to Scripture. The Christian faith is supernatural: we cannot demand health or wealth from God, but then again he is our heavenly Father who delights to answer prayer and meet our needs.

Historically, among white British Christians there has probably been a more natural tendency towards emphasis on the stiff upper lip against adversity and even poverty rather than expectation of miraculous and abundant provision. There remains a suspicion of demagoguery; also, the huge improvement in living standards generally over the past 50 years has meant less fertile ground for the preachers appealing to those desperate for supernatural intervention in personal fortunes. As Joel Edwards comments:

“Most traditional evangelicals …who belong to affluent churches have less need of a God who acts vibrantly in the material world… the prosperity gospel and its audacious faith holds little cultural or theological attraction”.

But is this the whole story? Perhaps most challengingly from this book, experienced mission leader Eddie Arthur warns the British church against arrogance and complacency. We might not be taken in by the white-suited emotional preachers, but have we unwittingly swallowed other forms of prosperity teaching without realizing it?

Certainly we’re not immune from consumerism. When as lay people we drive half an hour to a large church, is it because of the “good teaching”, or the well-staffed kids work, excellent coffee, numerous programmes and sense of ‘success’? As clergy faced with powerful pressure to conform to new ethical norms, or making decisions about ministry, do we tend to prioritize personal comfort and steer away from sacrifice, rationalizing perhaps that the more godly approach is to keep quiet in the face of obvious wrong (for the sake of “continued opportunities for the gospel”) rather than speaking out?

Many Western Christians continue to be generous in their giving and humble and servant hearted in their leadership – these are good ways of counteracting greed and hunger for power in ministry. But as our affluence increases at the same time as the possibility of persecution and the temptation to avoid it through disobedience, the need is more pressing for us to learn from the disadvantaged and suffering parts of the global church which have not succumbed to the prosperity preachers.

Christianity and culture: balancing attack and defence

Posted by on Jun 11, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Culture, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Christianity and culture: balancing attack and defence

A review of ‘Plugged In’ by Daniel Strange, by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

In England the football season has ended; cricket is in full swing with the World Cup currently being contested; Wimbledon is just around the corner. These and other sports have many things in common, not least the need to balance defence and attack. Sport is a (theoretically) friendly imitation of more serious pursuits such as politics and war, and here again the same principle applies. In all cases, success depends on being able to preserve one’s assets against enemy assault, while at the same time knowing when and how to go forward, take territory, score goals, runs, points, and hopefully win, mindful that a draw is better than a defeat.

Is this relevant to Christian life and ministry? Most orthodox Christians would agree that there must be an aim to win individuals, communities and society over from allegiances to wrong thinking and false gods to Christ. The result matters.  But just as there are differences between football managers and batsmen in their approach, so it is with Christian leaders: some emphasise defence, countering threats and preventing defeat, while others focus on attack, pressing to win. Some read the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy and focus entirely on liberation and entering the promised land, others notice first the threats to God’s people from disobedience, idolatry and hostile nations. Some read the New Testament very aware of the warnings about false teaching, sinful behaviour and spiritual powers and principalities, while others are primarily encouraged by the love of Christ compelling us towards gospel preaching, church planting and good works.

This partly depends on personality and life experience; also on spiritual gifts and flaws. The more naturally pessimistic person may need to be challenged to have faith, like Joshua and Caleb not like the ten who said “it can’t be done”. But also as in any sport there needs to be a realistic assessment of the strength and strategy of the enemy. Many prophets down the years have confidently and complacently assured God’s people of continued peace, security, even growth, without appreciating the power of Babylon, Rome, Goths, Vikings, Nazis, Communists, Islam, or how God’s sovereignty can be reconciled with these apparent disasters for the church.

Should the church be optimistic, and press for growth in contemporary Western culture? In a new book called ‘Plugged In’Dan Strange argues that we should. Strange lectures and is on the leadership team of Oak Hill College, at which conservative evangelicals train for ordained ministry in Church of England and other denominations. He begins his book by giving a helpful overview of the meaning of ‘culture’ from several perspectives. All Christians should be interested in this: we all live in a culture, not in a bubble; we are called to be distinctive disciples, rather than those who blend in with our surroundings; we are called to reach those who believe in the culture’s myths and idols with the gospel of Christ, rather than simply criticising it.

In the chapter ‘the story of culture’, Strange outlines the biblical gospel message. Adam and Eve were called to be builders of culture, and this remains the divine mandate to humanity. But sin causes culture to be corrupted, and this idolatrous and rebellious environment in turn begins to shape human beings. Christ came to save the world from ruin: not just individuals, but eventually to be enthroned as Lord over a new culture. In the meantime, “Christians are engaged in a cosmic culture clash, but the key to winning…is to know your opposition and have a strategy”. There it is – the military/sporting analogy – and the focus on attack rather than defence.

Strange uses a section from Romans 1 to explain the dynamic of how individuals, and the culture as a whole, suppresses knowledge of God and substitutes idols. This can make life difficult for Christians who are tempted to join in with destructive and dishonouring behaviour. How do we know what’s right and wrong? An extended worked example on what kind of TV programmes and films are appropriate for Christians to watch is used as a way of establishing biblical principles for engaging with culture without succumbing to its poison. That, perhaps, is ensuring a good defence. But then, going on the offensive means engaging positively with unbelievers on the ground of shared cultural references, like Paul did in Athens – what Strange calls “confront and connect”. The gospel subverts the wrong worldview of the culture, and then fulfils the God-given longings which the idols of the culture cannot satisfy.

So just as Paul entered the Athenians’ world, exploring their ideas and exposing their flaws before evangelising, so should we. An extended example of how this might work in engaging with people obsessed with football illustrates the point. The book closes with four short pieces adapted from student essays, applying some of these techniques to it has to be said somewhat oddball subjects.

And this is where the book ultimately disappoints after promising much. Having laid the theological groundwork very well about culture in rebellion against God, infected by evil, but redeemable, Strange curiously avoids the obvious examples of this in contemporary Western culture. He even takes the passage from Romans 1:18ff to explain what happens when a culture turns away from God, but completely ignores Paul’s example of how this plays out in practice in terms of sexual immorality and gender confusion. Given the all-consuming nature of the debate on sexuality in the church and the increasingly pervasive and controlling LGBT agenda in society, this seems like avoiding a rather large elephant in the room.

Perhaps Strange is very keen to avoid the caricature he sets up early in the book, of the critic who is “huffy, red-faced at finger-pointy at the culture…an ugly judgmentalism…a rant on morality”. but in doing so he gives the impression that while theologically he believes in the seriousness and pervasiveness of sin, in practice the church’s engagement with culture should so avoid any accusation of negativity that it will never critique or warn in ways that might provoke opposition or persecution, or offer a completely alternative cultural vision. ‘Plugged in’ provides a good theological and theoretical basis for Christian engagement with culture, and helpful guidelines to help Christians to evangelise their friends by finding a link between their interests and the gospel. But for me it does not take seriously enough the hold that certain powerful ideologies have on the culture and on all of our lives, and what the church needs to do to ‘name the powers’ and preserve its distinctive identity when under major threat.

Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option (summary here) gives a different, more negative analysis of the culture and a different solution: accept that for the moment, the opposition is much stronger than we are; create a strong defence to ensure the preservation of basic Christian faith and disciplines in local communities; prepare for persecution while continuing to reach out with the gospel in love; look forward to the eventual triumph of the lamb whether we see signs of it in our own day or not.

C of E’s ideological capitulation makes more clergy resignations inevitable

Posted by on May 28, 2019 in Editorial Blog, Transgender | Comments Off on C of E’s ideological capitulation makes more clergy resignations inevitable

C of E’s ideological capitulation makes more clergy resignations inevitable

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Last week the MailOnline carried a lengthy article about an Essex vicar who has resigned from his parish. This was considered a newsworthy story by a secular outlet because it highlights an issue of serious concern for many people, not just practising Christians: the increasingly aggressive promotion of LGBT ideology in schools.

Rev John Parker pastors a thriving congregation and also, like many other clergy, acts as a governor of the local Church of England Primary school, state-funded, but supposedly retaining a Christian ethos which makes these schools popular with parents. As the article explains, when the head teacher announced to governors and staff that an eight-year old child at the school had ‘transitioned’, Rev Parker asked some reasonable questions about the circumstances, and what preparations the school was planning to make. He discovered that his views were unwelcome: not only had the head teacher, backed by the local authority, already made all the decisions, she also arranged for radical trans activist group Mermaids to ‘train’ governors and staff. Rev Parker attended this session and questioned the unscientific gender ideology being promoted. Again his views were dismissed and discussion was shut down. He appealed to the Diocesan Education department, only to be told that they backed the school in their plan to promote an “inclusive environment”.

A source has told Anglican Mainstream:

The education department of the Diocese provided no support for Christian governors about procedures that respected children of Christian parents, or those of other faiths or those that held to traditional beliefs, nor safeguarding concerns expressed to the head.  The Diocese advised the Head Teacher in having no discussion of procedure or communication with parents during or after the child’s transition.  The Diocesan advice to the Head Teacher supported the visit of Mermaids.

Parker says he had been concerned for some time about the direction of the Church of England, particularly the apparent unquestioning acceptance of popular contemporary understandings of sex and gender which directly contradict the clear teaching of the bible. The shutting down of discussion in the school, the lack of respect shown to him a parish vicar and experienced governor, and clear confirmation that the leadership of the C of E now follows a secular agenda which colludes in potential risk to children, led him to take the drastic step not only of leaving his position as school governor, but leaving his secure and successful ministry. Christian Concern are advising on the legal front. See more from Christian Concern here and here

The Anglican Mainstream website has a collection of comment pieces on this story, including concern expressed from outside the church about the increasing influence of self-appointed ‘expert advisors’ such as Mermaids and Stonewall, who are now being used to steer ‘diversity and inclusion’ policy in a number of government-funded institutions.

Unfortunately, not only is this kind of conflict becoming increasingly prevalent, it is the inevitable outworking of the stated direction of the Church of England in matters of sex and gender over the past few years.

Firstly, the responses of the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, and the Diocesan Director of Education to John Parker’s concerns are consistent with the direction set out following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘radical inclusion’ speech in February 2017. At that time Anglican Mainstream reported that Cottrell in his annual Charge to Synod publicly advocated a liberalisation of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage.

While a small number of clergy and parishes publicly opposed their Bishop, as reported herethe majority of conservative clergy preferred to engage the Bishop with private letters and meetings, and did not take further public action, perhaps satisfied with assurances that their own convictions would be respected. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that the Diocesan leadership has aligned with Mermaids rather than its own faithful clergy – the question will be: what action will those clergy now take, in support of Rev Parker, and in opposing LGBT dogma in their own schools and parishes?

Secondly,  Anglican Mainstream and others have warned for years about the increasing acceptance of transgender ideology at a senior level of the C of E, specifically as it applies to the church and to church schools. Back in 2014 we highlighted the danger of compromise with the culture in the light of  pressure exerted by the Equalities Act, and the first same-sex marriages of that year. We warned about the C of E’s official guidance for schools, in association with Stonewall, called ‘Valuing All God’s Children”, ostensibly written to prevent ‘homophobic bullying’, but which advocated full acceptance of lifestyles at odds with the church’s teaching.

VAGC was updated in November 2017 to include acceptance and affirmation of the new trend of ‘trans children’. An editorial from that time said:

The leadership of the C of E claims that nothing has changed in terms of its doctrine, how it understands the Christian faith. That this new directive on affirming ‘trans’ children is simply a pastoral response to young people in distress. But according to the new guidelines, when a little boy comes to school wearing a dress and wanting to be called Alice, not only must other children all call him ‘Alice’ with love and welcome, with severe punishments for not complying, but all children, parents and staff must believe that this is in fact not a boy, but a trans girl, and that such gender fluidity is normal and good. Archbishop Justin Welby [in his foreword] repeats his assertion made in the February Synod ‘radical inclusion’ speech, that there are no ‘issues or problems’, only young people loved by God. And according to the report, the imposition of gender ideology in schools is not a problem or an issue – we just need to love children and obey the new government regulations.

It seemed obvious to us back then that this was evidence of a compelled acceptance of a new ideology, backed by the State, with inevitable consequences in terms of freedom of speech and conscience. It would certainly have implications for conservative clergy and parents involved with schools.

The end of 2018 saw the Bishops signing off on the guidance for baptism of transgender people. Again, the warning signs were clear – this was not just inadequate theological reflection, but it signalled wholesale acceptance of radical contemporary ideas on gender (pushed aggressively by lobby groups) at complete variance with biblical anthropology. A number of commentators critiqued the Guidance; more than 3000 clergy and senior laity signed a petition for it to be withdrawn (see collection of articles from that time) but like the polite private letters written to the Bishop of Chelmsford, theological debate and petitions carry little weight with those leading the C of E, compared with the power of the new progressive elite with their weapons of social media and state enforcement.

Some C of E conservatives will no doubt feel that Rev Parker’s action in resigning is precipitous; that some diplomatic negotiation with the Bishop and the school head teacher could have enabled the school and the Diocese to be seen to be affirming of diversity while the clergyman’s conscience is respected. Others might point to the recent U-turn by the Scouts [£], who now apparently no longer follow the guidance on transgender matters originally determined by Mermaids, to argue that a pushback by parents might persuade Bishops to change their minds and be more sympathetic to the conservative position. But a more realistic analysis would conclude that whether the Church of England leadership has deliberately abandoned biblical orthodoxy in favour of the new LGBT orthodoxy, or whether it is just confused, pliable and responding to individual cases out of ignorance or fear, it can no longer claim to be a trustworthy institution for the preservation and promotion of orthodox Christian faith.

See also: Anglicans and Transgender: The Church of England in the context of widespread gender confusion. A collection of editorial blog posts from Anglican Mainstream 2015-2018.

Worship as foundation of counter-cultural witness

Posted by on May 21, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Worship | Comments Off on Worship as foundation of counter-cultural witness

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

In an article for Metro, vicar and TV personality Kate Bottley argues that Kanye West’s new “Sunday Service” venture isn’t a proper church. There’s no sermon, Kanye himself is an egotistical pop star and celebrity not a proper priest, attendance at the ‘church’ is by invitation only, and the fantastically wealthy couple at the centre of it all don’t appear to be promoting a culture of helping the needy.

While Kate may have a point, I think she’s missed something very important in her list of what constitutes authentic church. I was intrigued to watch the short clip of West’s ‘service’ included in the Metro article – the music in the background undoubtedly features a gospel-style choir singing praise to Jesus, and then transitioning into that old chorus ‘this is the day that the Lord has made’. While its easy to be cynical about Kanye West’s latest venture which may have commercial motivation, at face value he appears to be one of a long list of iconic music stars to have embraced Christian spirituality, and to publicly sing praise to God at a stage in their life. Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Johnny Cash and James Ingram come to mind.

Church, as a corporate expression of the Christian life, is not just about doing good in the community or hearing about the bible, vital though these are – it’s about worship: orienting towards God in praise, thankfulness and prayer. Kate Bottley in wanting to emphasise the ‘horizontal’, human aspect of church, seems to have forgotten the vertical and transcendent, something which Mr West’s new venture appreciates – even if it might benefit from some good biblical exposition!

Some years ago I taught in a small bible college in South Africa, where most of the students came from independent churches in the impoverished townships. These churches differed enormously from each other in worship style, ranging from the sacramental and ceremonial with Victorian hymnbooks, robes and clouds of incense, to hyper-pentecostal where 90 minutes of singing and shouting was just the introduction to the first sermon. While the pastors of these churches benefitted hugely from the training they received in understanding and handling the bible, and skills in community development, they challenged the Western teaching staff with their awareness of the spiritual realm and their simple trust in God expressed in corporate praise.

Certainly in my experience of the Church of England, there is always a danger of losing sight of the significance of our worship. In the two-dimensional, stifling environment of secularism, the spiritual can be replaced with the psychological; the beauty of a Cathedral evensong or the excitement of a rock band can in itself provide therapy for the stressed soul without the need for a comforting and challenging encounter with the Saviour. Worship can be seen as a complete escape from the world rather than witness and engagement. It can cause confusion, when there is direct contradiction between the bible-based words of the liturgy and songs, and the revisionist teaching of the church’s public message. Or, in some cases, for us very English intellectual evangelical types, the hymns and songs are corporate rehearsing of doctrines, sermons set to music to complement the bible exposition, in ways that might excite the minds of some but do not always facilitate expression of love-relationship with the Creator. We could benefit from some proper Gospel praise, with shouting and crying, just as the worship of others could be enhanced by sound theology!

Psalm 71 is a great example of a personal expression of praise and prayer which is structured to teach us about principles of worship.

It begins with an expression of trust in God as “rock and refuge”, but a plea for deliverance at a time of severe personal difficulty. Later in the Psalm the writer refers to “many and bitter troubles”, but expresses faith that God will restore his life, bring him up “from the depths”, and bring back honour and comfort (v20-21). The need to publicly declare God’s “marvellous deeds” and “mighty acts” is repeated several times, as the writer contemplates not only what God has done for him personally, but his character and rule over the world.

This hope in God has been a feature of his life since youth. He asks that this would continue through to old age:

“Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvellous deeds.

Even when I am old and grey, do not forsake me, O God,

till I declare your power to the next generation.” (17-18).

There is a sense in which awareness of God’s love and reliability have shaped the writer’s character over the years. The habit of praise is linked to mission: knowledge and faith in God is passed on to others. The psalm ends with an expression of desire to sing to the faithful God who redeems, accompanied by musical instruments. More Kanye than Kate, certainly!

So we can say that according to this Psalm, praising God has several functions: the pastoral, giving comfort to the suffering individual who connects with the Lord; the formational, shaping the character of the person who contemplates him; the evangelistic, giving voice and motivation to the public declaration of God’s offer of salvation.

But there is another important function of praise here: the prophetic. The Psalmist praises God not just in the context of personal difficulty, perhaps ill health, bereavement, family or financial issues. He is more seriously, facing very serious opposition from “evil and cruel men” who are out to pursue, accuse and destroy him. While we can speculate on the historical context of this conflict and danger in the life of David, it is not just something which applied to him with no relevance to the majority of Christians living in nations relatively free from conflict and violence. Rather, Scripture insists that the Christian life is a spiritual battle for all, as demonic forces oppose the church in its stand for the truth of the gospel. This is reflected in furious opposition from the world when Christians witness to the reality of God and his standards.

“I have become a portent to many, but you are my strong refuge; my mouth is filled with your praise” says David. When the church refuses to make accommodation with falsehood, and stands apart from the secular world on issues such as the sanctity of life, sexual morality or the uniqueness of Christ among the world’s religions, it becomes a ‘portent’, a symbol to the unbelieving world of the reality of God and his judgement. This prophetic ministry, like the pastoral, formational and evangelistic, should be underpinned by the regular worship of God’s people. Detached from it, the prophetic message just sounds grumpy and critical, and individuals can end up either trusting in human, perhaps political solutions, or losing hope. In this we succumb to the secularist mindset which we are called to challenge. Rather, through praise, while facing the very real human and spiritual opposition, our eyes are lifted to the reality of God, and we’re reminded of his activity, not leaving us to face opposition alone, carrying out his righteous purposes. In the same way the Psalmist speaks of God’s righteous acts, confident that “those who want to harm me have been put to shame and confusion”.

In his book ‘The Benedict Option’, which I have been re-reading, Rod Dreher speaks of the importance of regular liturgical worship as “a powerful weapon…against modernity, in building a bulwark against its disintegrating forces…when churches are properly ordered towards Christ through liturgy…the result is beauty in sharp contrast to the world”. Our worship is not self-therapy and an escape from a hostile environment or worse, surrender to its powers. Rather it’s a means of mission to it from the sound base of having the living God at the centre of our worldview.

Some thoughts on church planting

Posted by on May 14, 2019 in Church Plants, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Some thoughts on church planting

Some thoughts on church planting

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Is the received model of full-time, housed and salaried pastor for each local church necessary or even biblical? How else do we ensure good teaching, pastoral care, leadership?

Roland Allen was a high church Anglican who served in the Church of England and then as a missionary in China in the late 19th/early 20th century. He wrote his classic critique of contemporary mission methods in 1912 [helpful summary here], arguing that they were based on contemporary colonialism and ignored the lessons of St Paul. Not surprisingly it wasn’t until 50 years later that leaders of overseas mission organisations began to take notice. Allen is still largely ignored in Church of England theological training institutions, even though we are now in a pioneer mission situation just as the church was in China in the 19th century.

Allen’s basic premise was that the apostle Paul was driven in his mission by, and fully trusted, the Holy Spirit. While he did focus his preaching and church planting on urban centres, and his method was to begin in the synagogues, he often had to separate from them and move to other locations which were determined by the people who responded to the message. He assumed that as long as a number of people were genuinely converted and had a rudimentary understanding of the life of Christ, Old Testament ethics and the background to the way of salvation, principles of worship, and a testimony of new life in the Spirit, a local church had been established. He believed that because the congregation was an expression of the body of Christ, within it there would be provided the gifts needed for teaching and pastoral care, evangelism, and leadership. While Paul did collect money from the churches for the church in Jerusalem, he did not appear to take a salary for his own work, and nor did he interfere in the administration of finances, property etc for the new church, whose local members handled these things from the beginning. Paul would move on from a church established in this way after a short time, and believe not only that the congregation would survive, but that it would bring the gospel to the whole surrounding region.

By contrast, missionaries from the Church of England (and by implication, from most Western countries) would bring a complicated package of church paraphernalia: buildings, salaried clergy, Western-style administration and worship; they would see the local believers as ‘sheep’ who would need looking after for years. If indigenous leaders emerged, they would be put through years of Western-style training, before usually being sent not to their own communities, but other churches under Western oversight. Missionaries would complain about the immaturity of the Chinese church which necessitated this paternalistic approach, but in fact, according to Allen, it was a result of a misunderstanding of the gospel, which restricted the work of the Holy Spirit.

35 years after Allen’s prophetic book, all Western Christians were forced out of China. Many were convinced that the church would die, but in fact what happened was the biggest advance of the gospel in terms of numbers of converts than at any other time in history, as millions of Chinese turned to Christ under communist rule from the 1950’s onwards.

Does this have any relevance to England, or the West generally, as we face a time of rapid decline in nominal Christianity, pressure on orthodox believers to conform to secular values, and financial shortages?

While statistics show that numbers of people regularly attending C of E churches continues to decline, this needs to be balanced against the fact that many evangelical churches outside the C of E are growing, and that there appears to be an unprecedented effort in church planting happening right now, including within the C of E. However, most C of E church plant initiatives begin with the appointment of a full-time minister with salary and housing package, funded from central resources, and the equipping of a building. While this is not wrong in itself, it may have some disadvantages, especially if seen as the only valid model, much as the ‘colonial’ methods were seen in Allen’s day.

Conventional thinking: People in pews are ‘sheep’ who need ‘feeding’ in word and sacrament by experts.

Allen’s thinking: The biblical image of shepherd and sheep is only one of many images for the church. The concepts of the body with many parts, the gifts of the Spirit, the priesthood of all believers radically challenge the ‘professionalisation’ model; the family, the building are all pictures which do not presuppose a salaried leader and passive followers.

Conventional thinking: The larger the congregation, the better. Large churches can produce better quality in terms of music, children’s work, social events, to attract and keep the congregation. Large organisations need skilled full time people; smaller ones need people with the time to make them grow bigger.

Allen’s thinking: this can become worldly rather than biblical. If the church attracts by making people feel comfortable with the building, the coffee and the exciting kids work, it is less likely to risk repelling people with counter-cultural teaching on discipleship. If it’s aiming to look impressive, it is less likely to risk alienating Diocesan or civic leadership with prophetic stances on issues of biblical principle.

Conventional thinking: Church has to be done ‘right’, following inherited administrative processes, worship patterns, unspoken social norms of the institution, leadership selection.

Allen’s thinking: the gospel has to be preached right, and a group of genuinely converted believers guided by the Holy Spirit needs to come together in love, for worship, prayer, study of the word, outreach.

But does this actually work?

It’s worth remembering that most churches in the world, especially in the global South where the church continues to grow, do not have salaried pastors. In fact the preachers and pastors in most churches are not only unpaid or poorly paid, but without any formal training. This is why one of the best ways of supporting mission today around the world is to resource locally delivered, low cost informal methods of training in bible understanding and servant leadership, like the BUILD Partners programme in East Africa. Most pew-fillers in an average C of E evangelical church have had more and better biblical input than the average pastor of an African church! In many Anglican Dioceses in Africa, one full-time salaried ordained minister looks after up to thirty congregations; each church is run by a small team of lay ministers. Some might benefit from the ministry of retired or self-supporting clergy. Some of these congregations have over 100 people attending, even though there is no coffee, no sound system and no Sunday school!

Might there be something to learn here? Of course the context is very different, and it may well be that the work required to get a church off the ground is much harder in most of Europe. But a number of thriving non-C of E churches here operate with a team of bivocational, self-supporting leaders; some start that way and then pay a full time pastor when the congregation has grown enough.

The lessons from Roland Allen’s study of Paul’s mission methods are not to rule out salaries, buildings, centralised administration and other aspects of the scaffolding of church life, but to prioritise the biblical gospel message, and to trust not finance or gifted individuals but the work of the Holy Spirit in the different members of the local body of Christ. This is especially important as new expressions of Anglicanism outside the Church of England are being contemplated and started.

Should we stop talking about ‘Cultural Marxism’?

Posted by on May 7, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Cultural Marxism, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Should we stop talking about ‘Cultural Marxism’?

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

I’m going to have a go at a simple definition of Cultural Marxism (CM).

The main contention of Karl Marx was that power is controlled by a class of rich people (the bourgeoisie), who oppress the much larger class of poor people (the proletariat) and deprive them of liberty and their true humanity. A revolution is needed to overturn this situation and create a new order of equality and justice. Once this has happened, the State needs to carefully control politics and the economy, to ensure ‘correct’ thinking and behaviour among the citizens, and root out reactionary conservative forces seeking a return to the old order.

This has been tried in practice in a number of countries over the past 100 years, almost always with disastrous results (latest: Venezuela), where people end up being oppressed far more than before. As the 20th century progressed, many European intellectual philosophers realised this. They accepted the basic underlying premise that according to Marx and his followers there is a serious problem with the worldview and power structures of the West which seem to produce war and injustice.

The way to change this, and to usher in a better society, they said, is not political revolution and a change to a state-controlled command economy (as in Soviet Russia and Maoist China), but cultural change. Through gradual control of education, the media, arts, the law and other key areas of society, the worldview of a generation can be transformed, critiquing and rejecting ‘oppressive’ ideas (such as the historic Judaeo-Christian view on God, biblical text, human identity, sex, gender, marriage, family) and moving towards a new vision of ‘liberation and flourishing of humanity’ as defined by the new thought-guides. Hence ‘cultural’ rather than political/economic Marxism.

This definition is not perfect, but let’s move on to the debate around the idea, what it’s called, whether we should talk about it and how. Today’s polarised political climate has meant that rather than taking a nuanced and diffident view, accepting the historical and contemporary reality of CM but seeing it as one of a number of trends making up the a bigger picture, the phrase has become a weapon for both ‘sides’ in the culture war. For many conservatives, CM is sometimes used as an explanation for everything they see as wrong in society (ignoring the flaws in their own worldview), while those on the left, ironically the ones most influenced by CM, portray the idea of CM as a myth invented by far right extremists.

Why should Christians care? According to some church leaders, we don’t need to understand why there has been a cultural change in our society. The only thing we need to know is that nominal Christianity has collapsed, most people in our country don’t believe in Jesus and so don’t act like Christians, and all that is needed is evangelism. For those on the other side of the fence, many of the recent ‘progressive’ trends such as ‘equal’ marriage, ‘no-fault’ divorce, easy availability of abortion and hate speech legislation are self-evidently good and should be supported by the church.

But in fact, mature Christianity requires us not to ignore the contemporary ‘big ideas’ or uncritically accept them, but to analyse the culture around us and the ideas which shape people’s attitudes. We’re not like goldfish who don’t have the capacity to notice that the water around them is getting dirtier, or to ask why. We are able to do the “double listening” advocated by John Stott, where we hear the world with one ear and the word of God with the other. We are able to see, to feel, to reflect and speak on a culture and its underlying worldview, like Jesus himself who did not just speak positively about the Kingdom of God and his own identity as saviour and Lord, but also warned against wrong but influential thinking (“beware the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod” Matthew 16:5-12). Likewise the apostle Paul warned about being “taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Col 2:8), and showed his skills of cultural analysis in Athens, where he spoke showing his understanding of the mindset behind pagan temple worship (Acts 17:16f).

A good example of this can be found in recent UK government statements on persecuted Christians. They do not just identify the problem and offer sympathy, but name part of the reason for Western inaction on wrong thinking. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “I think it is partly because of political correctness we have avoided confronting this issue. I think there is a misplaced worry that it is colonialist to talk about a religion that was associated with colonial powers.’ And Bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen spoke of a “misconception that Christianity is an expression of white, Western privilege” when “In fact, Christianity is primarily a phenomenon of the global South and the global poor.”

Although they are not using the phrase, what Hunt and Mounstephen are identifying is an aspect of cultural Marxism, for which “persecuted Christian” is a contradiction in terms, like “minority vulnerable ruling elite”. We need a simple shorthand to describe the ideas driving our cultural change, which is resulting in the marginalisation of Christians, especially those with conservative views; the sex and gender revolution, increasing attempts to police speech and thought. “Political correctness” and ‘cultural Marxism’ are in the category of such shorthand.

But there are problems with the term ‘cultural Marxism’. Firstly, it’s hard to understand. The writings of Adorno, Gramsci, Marcuse, Derrida and others are notoriously impenetrable. Any summary, such as I attempted in the first paragraphs of this piece, is bound to be on one hand over-simplistic, and on the other it’s the kind of stuff that either loses people or sends them to sleep after two lines.

Those who make admirable and helpful attempts to explain CM and its effect on our culture, such as here, face another problem. Such is the power of social media and the effects of ‘groupthink’ that even a careful explanation of CM is attacked with a false logic: “Surely Marxism is good in that it aims to help the poor and end injustice?” the argument goes. “Therefore any criticism of Marxism must be associated with lack of care for the poor, minorities, the environment?”

A recent article on the otherwise excellent Gospel Coalition website claimed that because the disturbed young man who attacked a synagogue recently was in contact with far right groups and complained about CM in his social media posts, and because some of the original ‘Frankfurt School’ were Jewish, therefore anyone who talks about CM negatively must be an antisemite. This kind of crude association closes down any sensible discussion of ideas. It’s difficult to think of a better example of the chilling influence of CM than to see a conservative evangelical Christian denying the existence of CM. Worse, the writer effectively accuses any concerned Christian brother or sister using CM as an explanation for certain harmful ideas as sharing the same views as a violent fascist. This is a form of bullying and censorship, like those who want to rule out any analysis of a religious basis to terrorism as ‘Islamophobic’.

Our task is surely rather to expose the ideas of both the right and the left, and critique them from the perspective of biblical Christianity. But the point remains: is CM such a toxic phrase that it’s not a hill worth dying on, and better to use some other expression? Perhaps that depends on the audience.

 

See also: The progressive march of tyranny through the church, by Joe Boot, Christian Christian

and

We cannot be both Christians and Marxists, by Jason Morgan, Public Discourse

An example of ‘good separation’ as new Anglican church is established outside the C of E

Posted by on Apr 30, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Church Plants, Editorial Blog, Free Church of England | Comments Off on An example of ‘good separation’ as new Anglican church is established outside the C of E

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

For many faithful members of the Church of England, Christian experience is defined almost entirely by the local fellowship. The weeks just before and after Easter constitute the season for Annual Meetings in parishes and congregations. These deal with issues of finance and buildings, but many churches will also use them as an opportunity for a spiritual audit, looking at setbacks and successes over the past year, and putting forward strategies and vision for the future. These can be times of celebrating another year of survival against the odds or even growth, and of  building unity in a shared commitment to mission and ministry. The members can thank God for his guidance and strength in enabling the church to be a source of light in the community, and they can pray for the new initiatives being attempted.

The parish is not a stand-alone unit though, but part of a Diocese, and a national denomination with a particular relationship with the wider society and nation. As the culture becomes more secular, indifferent to religion and increasingly hostile to biblical Christian faith, the Church of England tries to accommodate this in a positive way while at the same time attempting to remain recognisably Christian in its doctrine and practice. This may result in many of its leaders adapting and compromising their beliefs, retaining outward symbols of Anglican tradition and worship while reinterpreting the meaning of faith so as to be acceptable and uncontroversial in the eyes of society and government.

In the light of this, some clergy and laity are asking themselves the question (even if they may not be mentioning it to their congregation or PCC): is being part of the Church of England helping or hindering local church mission? It may be that the local fellowship is solidly committed to a bible based approach, but the Diocesan leadership is showing in different ways that it does not share this understanding of gospel ministry. Or the local church itself may be mixed. Unlike a ‘gathered’ church where those who share the same beliefs travel in from miles around, many C of E parishes contain a combination of Christ-centred believers pursuing costly counter-cultural discipleship, and those who don’t get the radical challenge of God’s word, and are in church for a religious veneer over a worldview and values which are essentially secular. 

Since the famous exchange between John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1966, and then the successful National Evangelical Anglican Conferences of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the majority of bible-believing Anglicans in England have held to the argument that the benefits of staying in the C of E outweigh the disadvantages, and that evangelicals can continue both to pursue effective local ministry, while either attempting to influence, or ignore the wider denomination. But what if the general direction of the C of E, as perceived from statements and actions by Synods and Bishops over time, makes this more and more difficult? What if committed lay people begin to drift away to non-Anglican churches, and a growing crisis of conscience develops among clergy and laity who remain? 

Meanwhile, because of the emergence of Gafcon, which validates as truly Anglican those faithful churches which have separated from national structures, as in North America, Brazil and Scotland, it’s possible now to be part of new expressions of Anglicanism outside the Church of England – options that were not available in the days of John Stott or JC Ryle. So the idea of planting new congregations under the auspices of, for example, Anglican Mission in England or Free Church of England is being entertained by a growing number of C of E clergy and supportive members of their congregations.

Rev Dr Peter Sanlon is such a clergyman. He has for some time been publicly critical of the theological direction of the C of E. In 2018 he published a book, ‘The Bible Theft’, detailing the C of E leadership’s move away from biblical teaching (review here).  As vicar of St Mark’s Church of England Parish, Tunbridge Wells, he openly shared his concerns with his parish leadership and congregation, as well as with the Diocesan leadership. After some time of preparation and negotiation, he and a small team have begun Emmanuel Anglican Church, a new congregation of the Free Church of England congregation which meets in the library of a community centre on a housing estate about a mile down the hill from the centre of town.

The decision was influenced by the history of the town: a fellowship with the name of Emmanuel Church was established as part of the foundation of the Countess of Huntingdon in the 18th century. ; this later became part of the Free Church of England but closed in the early part of the 20th century. So the new church is actually a revival of an old one.

In February the Diocese of Rochester announced Sanlon’s resignation as vicar of St Mark’s C of E in order to transfer to become Rector of Emmanuel FCE. 

On 25th April a service was held in the Showfields Centre site, where he was formally received into the FCE and appointed as minister by FCE Bishop Paul Hunt, who preached on the foolishness of the cross and God’s power for salvation for those who believe (I Corinthians 1), an appropriate text for Easter week, and also to remind us of the need for faith in God’s gospel message and methods at the start of such a daunting mission venture. Andrea Williams of Christian Concern led the prayers.

[from left to right: Mrs Andrea Williams, Mrs Sanlon, Rev Dr Peter Sanlon, Bishop Paul Hunt]

It was clear from the service that the Free Church of England retains a number of aspects of ‘traditional’ Anglicanism, such as 16th century BCP liturgical language, and in some cases clerical robes, though with contemporary music. In this it differs from the Anglican Mission in England which is intentionally informal and perhaps geared to those potentially put off by any ‘churchiness’. FCE has a fully-fledged ecclesial structure with canons and Bishops; AMiE is in the process of working theirs out. Both movements share the same understanding of the gospel, are connected to Gafcon and its UK branch, and though currently small and without any of the huge resources of the Church of England, are being seen as important vehicles for orthodox Anglicanism by growing numbers of clergy and laity looking for an alternative to the C of E.

While the Archbishop of Canterbury talks of ‘good disagreement’, meaning the holding together of those with radically different understandings of Christian faith in the same church, the emergence of Emmanuel Anglican Church (FCE) demonstrates ‘good separation’, whereby Dr Sanlon, St Mark’s Church and the area Archdeacon have worked in a professional and friendly way to ensure the establishment of the new church without bitterness, in fact with good will on both sides.

See also: Peter Sanlon – my decision to leave the C of E. YouTube video.

Easter is a message of hope for the penitent, not for those who pronounce themselves innocent

Posted by on Apr 16, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Divorce, Easter, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Easter is a message of hope for the penitent, not for those who pronounce themselves innocent

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

There is something about the idea of “no-fault divorce” which goes beyond the issue of how to regulate marriage and family in the 21st century. It can also be seen as an illustration of psychological and spiritual self-management in a post Christian culture.

The argument which has won the day goes like this: few people nowadays believe that marriages should last forever; in reality relationships have a life span which when ended should allow people to separate with a minimum of hassle and cost. Currently, laws are in place to ensure that a divorce needs to have a reason such as adultery, abandonment or unreasonable behaviour; this leads to acrimonious legal bickering and dragging up past actions, when the best thing is surely to let bygones be bygones, separate, divide assets, move on with life.

The changes in law have come in for a lot of criticism from conservative commentators (for example here). They point out that making marriage like a temporary contract will be harmful on several levels. While those in favour of the new ‘no-fault’ system argue that children prefer their parents to be separate and happy than under the same roof and unhappy, this is not born out by the evidence, which suggests that ‘broken homes’, far from being a stigmatising and out of date concept for normal variations in family structure, in fact actually do harm child development. ‘No-fault’ provides no incentive for faithfulness or working through problems in a relationship. As one woman said when interviewed on the BBC recently, it will lead to the creation of a fiction, where everyone pretends that the husband (for example) who has had a series of affairs hasn’t done anything wrong, and the suffering party has no way of publicly expressing or recording her point of view. And is it really true that more people might get married if they can see a wide open exit door? More likely marriage is seen as increasingly irrelevant.

But beyond these specific issues, the concept of a ruling elite taking on themselves the right and power to declare ‘no-fault’, to absolve selfish adults from guilt, can be seen as a profoundly spiritual act with wider ramifications, especially in the Easter season.

My daily bible reading recently took me into the early chapters of Leviticus. These ancient writings offer a window into an alien culture, where a nation of tribes consisting of tight-knit communities were encouraged to live in awe of almighty God, in thanksgiving for his past rescue and daily provision, and in constant awareness of his all-seeing eye, his holiness, and the default alienation caused by human sin. Leviticus 5 shows how in various ways, people can become defiled unintentionally; chapter 6 gives examples of intentional wrongdoing. In both cases, because of God’s love for his people and faithfulness to his promises, provision is made for ritual atonement made through sacrifice (a mark of repentance), so that the sin can be forgiven and the guilt removed.

These systems carried with them potential for corruption.They could fill peoples’ lives with increasingly detailed and petty regulations, as with the teachers and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who lost sight of the life in all its fulness through relationship provided by a loving and gracious God. They could create a massive religious machine which enslaves and impoverishes the faithful, and enriches the providers of religious power – as in some examples of medieval church leadership, and contemporary animism or Christian prosperity teaching especially in parts of the global South. But at least these errors were, are, based on understanding the truth of the reality of the holiness and power of God, his judgement against sin, the need for atonement through sacrifice.

The approach of the secular West today is different. Where previous systems have tried to control the instruments of religion and ritual associated with dealing with sin and guilt, today’s high priests of the culture have not done away with the concept, but have taken on themselves the authority to redefine it. If there is no God (unless perhaps a God of pure “love”), then the idea of violating his standards of holiness is ruled as imaginary and pre-modern. So the writings of ancient Israel have no bearing on our lives today: the bible may say we have done wrong, but we can declare ourselves to be “not guilty” – as in no-fault divorce. But then, other categories of behaviour (for example publicly expressing the belief in the reality of hell awaiting unrepentant sinners, or questioning whether Primary school children should be encouraged to see themselves as gender-fluid), are seen as sins violating our own self-designed community standards for which there can be no atonement or forgiveness, just punishment – as famous rugby players and ordinary schoolteachers are discovering.

Who decides what is right and wrong, whether someone is guilty or not, whether there will be forgiveness or punishment? To which authority in the universe should we give our allegiance? Much of the final week of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem is focussed on these questions. Jesus is proclaimed King on Palm Sunday. He is specifically asked by what authority he performed the symbolic acts riding the donkey and rearranging the moneychangers stalls in the temple (Matt 21:23f). His parables (the tenants, the wedding banquet) are about a King and those who refuse his authority. Matthew records Jesus’ polemic against the religious leaders (Matt 23), who like the secular cultural leaders of today, “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to”. Matthew 24 and 25 show God as the cosmic judge, with the power to decide the eternal future of every creature.

But then the narrative focuses on one man and his tiny band of followers: “After Jesus had finished saying all these things [about the sovereign power of God the judge], he said to his disciples…the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified”. And so begin the dramatic events culminating in Calvary, and then the empty tomb. Why? Because we are alienated from God by our rebellion, and in desperate danger of judgement.

Absolving ourselves of responsibility and sin by declaring “no-fault” to one another, is a fiction which leaves us guilty and facing the hostility of the King. But, amazingly, gloriously, the death of the Saviour opens the curtain – all who acknowledge their sin, say sorry and believe are forgiven and restored, even those who deny him and run away in his hour of need. “No-fault” can never be said of human beings or broken relationships. Struggling marriages and the human psyche in general need the Easter gospel, not secular make-believe.

Bonhoeffer: the prophet against the culture-controlled church

Posted by on Apr 9, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Martyrs | Comments Off on Bonhoeffer: the prophet against the culture-controlled church

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Today (April 9th) is the 74th anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Nazi guards in Flossenburg camp, just a month before the end of the war. A doctor witnessing the hanging later said “I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God”.

Eric Metaxas’ masterful account of Bonhoeffer’s life shows clearly how he was formed by insights gained during the early years of his ministry. The brilliantly talented young theologian-pastor-musician completed his doctorate on the sociology of the Church in only 18 months while maintaining a full social and cultural life; by age 24 he was qualified as a university lecturer and was spending the second of his years abroad (the first was in Barcelona). But while he knew how to master his profession and enjoy life, Bonhoeffer was consumed, hemmed-in perhaps, by a desire to see Christ glorified, to see the church operating as it should with devoted disciples of Christ living seriously for him, and for the gospel to confront evil in the world and change it for the better.

Interestingly, his prophetic concerns about the lukewarm church, liberal theology and social injustice which were to drive his ministry in Germany in the last third of his life did not originate there, but in America, where he was based at the famous Union Seminary in New York. While Bonhoeffer had often taken issue with the famous German liberal theologians back home, at least they were concerned about truth, and used reason to come to their conclusions. Bonhoeffer felt that liberal theology in America was not using the mind in the same disciplined way: “There is no theology here”, he wrote; “they become intoxicated with humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not up to their level”. Students did not seem interested in the biblical themes of sin and salvation, only the latest political and psychological theories. They entered the pastorate with a secular mindset, with the result that “the sermon has been reduced to parenthetical remarks about newspaper events”.

If wealthy, white, mainline Protestantism was being gutted by revisionist theology in 1930, proper gospel preaching and serious discipleship could be found in the black churches. Bonhoeffer was thrilled at the biblically-based and Christ-centred preaching in the Baptist church he often attended in Harlem, and was also influenced by the music, completely different to the stuffy hymns of his own tradition. A few years later this would bear fruit as trainee pastors in the Confessing Church movement would listen to Bonhoeffer’s gospel music record collection and be urged to worship God in a similar way!

But of course this was a time of severe racial discrimination and segregation in America. Bonhoeffer was appalled, and saw worse in the southern states when he visited there. The Germany he had left did not have an equivalent: there was racism and antisemitism of course, but it had not been institutionalised. How quickly would that change on his return. In fact, during his time in America, back home the extremist fringe Nazi party was already making rapid gains in winning seats in the Reichstag. The grotesque and terrifying racial purification project was yet to come – but for the moment Bonhoeffer saw in America how the human heart is the same everywhere; how the church can capitulate to culture and collude in injustice and oppression, and how, to establish the real church, disciples need to learn from “the piety of suffering people” (Bonhoeffer’s phrase) – in particular Christians of different races – in their theology and their worship.

On his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer was being drawn into more and more of an “all or nothing” Christian faith, and he was disturbed by the lack of spiritual seriousness of his fellow Lutheran churchgoers, whom he accused of  “playing church”. As the 1930’s unfolded, the young pastor/academic saw clearly that a weak, liberal theology would not be able to resist the new popular thinking which looked forward to the socio-political revival of Germany under a strong leader as a kind of secular salvation, with strong undercurrents of resurgence of ancient nordic pagan spirituality, glorifying violence.

Metaxas describes the national struggle between the Confessing Church, authentic counter-cultural disciples such as Bonhoeffer on one hand , the new ‘German Christians’ advocating racial segregation and syncretism with Nazi ideology on the other, and the majority in the middle, with sympathies on one side or the other but wanting a quiet life. In the short term, Hitler wanted the church on his side, and did not persecute it as long as it progressed towards willingly submitting to become the servant of the state’s programme. The ‘German Christian’ leaders used state power to increasingly impose regulations and restrictions affecting the church. Bonhoeffer opposed this, arguing that the church must support the state in exercise of legitimate rule, but when the state starts to set itself up as the ultimate authority without accountability, the church must question it, help its victims, and ultimately jam a stick into the spokes of its wheel.

1930’s Germany saw the creation of a new, counterfeit Christianity, which replaced the cross with the swastika, the idea of universal human sinfulness and guilt before God with the guilt of the Jew and the sinless victimhood of the post-Versailles Aryan German, and the spiritual meaning of the resurrection with the idea of the victory and dominance of the volk. This creates a crisis in the church: “the confusion that inevitably arises when the Christian faith becomes too closely related to a culture or identity”. It’s not difficult to see parallels with counterfeit faith seen in many of today’s mainline churches.

Bonhoeffer’s implacable opposition to rapid change in Germany was not based in a knee-jerk conservativism or a hankering after the past. It was a conviction about the reality of God in Christ, the truth of the bible as his word, and the necessity of applying Christ’s Lordship to the whole of life not just church. He saw the solutions firstly in being part of church councils and trying to turn things round from within. Then, as this seemed less likely, making a stand (for example the famous Barmen Declaration) and creating distance, differentiation, between the true church and the institution aligned with the world. Establishing good theological education was vital – using methods which did not try to do a form of “good disagreement’ with the liberal worldview in their state-controlled institutions, but actively countered them. He knew that pastors needed to be formed not just by study, but in a community where disciplined discipleship and celebratory worship was learned and practiced together. Ultimately, he reluctantly saw that violent action against the state may be necessary to prevent further catastrophe, but the plot to kill Hitler, in which he was remotely involved, failed.

His ministry resulted in misunderstanding, opposition, imprisonment, early death. Wouldn’t it have been better to keep his head down, survive and be there for the rebuilding after the war? Who can understand the purposes of God fully, but the bible and church history teach that the martyrdom of the prophets is never wasted. Certainly Bonhoeffer’s story and his writings became inspirational for many in the post war years. We need another like him.