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.

Bishop John Ellison, 1940-2019

Posted by on Aug 20, 2019 in Editorial Blog, Mission | Comments Off on Bishop John Ellison, 1940-2019

Bishop John Ellison, 1940-2019

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

John Ellison, Bishop of Paraguay 1988-2007, returned to England after his retirement and settled near Basingstoke with his wife Judie. He remained active in ministry as an honorary Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Winchester, and Chair of the Anglican Mission in England Panel of Bishops. After battling illness for some months, he died at home on 5th August, and a service of thanksgiving was held on 20th August. Those present gave praise to God for a faithful servant who was a loving husband and father, a pioneering, innovative and enabling leader, who like the Apostles prioritised the word of God and prayer, took risks in mission, and is remembered for loving pastoral care.

The service at St Mary’s Eastrop was led by the Rector, Clive Hawkins, who before the committal gave a clear gospel presentation, explaining (as per Bishop John’s instructions!) the achievements of the death of Christ and urging those present to receive salvation and live in it. Earlier in the service, the principal tribute to John came from Judie, and was read by a son in law; this was followed by moving reminiscences from son Richard and daughters Rosie and Liz. Bishop Andy Lines who with his wife Mandy served under John’s leadership in Paraguay in the 1990’s and then latterly with Gafcon and AMiE-related work, gave an appreciation of his own, and introduced short video tributes from South America.

John first made a commitment to Christ at the Billy Graham Haringey meetings at the age of 14. He grew up in London and after school, attended a teacher training college where he led the Christian Union, and where his conviction and clarity in explaining the gospel was already evident. He taught English at secondary school level for some years, during which time he met and married Judie. A call to ordained ministry led to theological study at the London College of Divinity, where he was tutored by Michael Green, and a curacy in Woking where their daughter and son were born.

They were accepted for service with the South American Missionary Society, and after language study, started work in Buenos Aires in 1971 as Scripture Union staff workers, concentrating on Bible reading materials, evangelism and young peoples’ groups and camps. When this work had been handed over to Argentine Christians, John began a new work starting a Spanish speaking Anglican church in the city. The family lived through a tense time of the Peronist dictatorship, a chaotic interim period of weak government, and the military junta which was notorious for extra-judicial killings and the invasion of the Falkland Islands. Judie said: “John was able to organise weekly prayer meetings between the different church denominations in the Belgrano area [a suburb of Buenos Aires) and we had the privilege of praying for peace with Christian relatives of Argentine soldiers fighting in the conflict.”

With many tears they returned to England towards the end of 1982, and moved to the West Midlands where John was Rector of a thriving benefice with three parishes. Return to South America was always on John and Judie’s heart, however, and the opportunity came with a surprising call to leadership of the Anglican mission in Paraguay. There were Spanish speaking churches in two main cities, Asuncion and Conception, and their environs, and also a mission to the indigenous people of the Chaca region, to which John gave extra energy and impetus, training local leaders with the help of Tim Curtis, a missionary who had mastered the local language and has since translated the scriptures (and who also sent a tribute via video). Travel over long distances on poor or non existent road often took several hours. Praise was given to God for the growth of the church during that period under John’s leadership, but I suspect that more could have been said about a great deal of hardship and sacrifice experienced by John during those years in Argentina and Paraguay – he will be receiving his reward for that now.

Andres Rodriguez, who joined John as assistant Bishop and became Bishop, said in a message: “We remember him as a faithful man, as holy, righteous and disciplined. He was very focused on the word of God and prayer. He was a real teacher of the Word of God and he tried hard by different methods to teach so that all his hearers would understand what he was saying. John always sought the unity and harmony of all the brethren. He always tried to gather together the leaders of the church, whether leaders from the countryside, the city and the Chaco. Together with his wife he worked hard to support the weakest and most needy….the heart of a father”.

Shortly after his retirement and the family’s return to the UK, John sought to serve in the Church of England, and attended St Mary’s in Basingstoke with Judie. He was concerned about the need to stand firm for biblical truth in the face of increased secularism, and so attended the Gafcon conferences and agreed to play a leading role in the establishment of new Anglican congregations outside the Church of England under Gafcon’s auspices. Messages of appreciation were read out from congregations in Scotland and Portugal which followed this same path of detaching from the ‘official’ authority because of profound disagreements over doctrine, and which benefitted from John’s help and ministry at crucial times. John’s involvement in the launch of these new initiatives were not appreciated by some in the Church of England, but it was typical of his humility and courageous focus on the gospel that he sought to help where he felt God’s call, regardless of how it might affect his reputation.

The service was an excellent memorial and thanksgiving for an exemplary man of God. I’ll certainly miss John, a distinctive figure in meetings with his diminutive stature, his ‘mate’ herb tea with straw carried everywhere with him, his sharp probing questions, the twinkle in his eye, his words of encouragement.

Cathedral gimmicks illustrate spiritually blind Britain and mute Church

Posted by on Aug 13, 2019 in Church life, Church of England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Cathedral gimmicks illustrate spiritually blind Britain and mute Church

Cathedral gimmicks illustrate spiritually blind Britain and mute Church

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

No doubt buoyed by the old cliche that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the Church of England continues to include in its own Daily Media Digest several reports and opinion pieces in a number of media outlets about the installation of a golf course and helter skelter in Rochester and Norwich cathedrals.

While some have defended the gimmicks as harmless ways of raising money and attracting to an experience of the sacred those who would never normally darken the doors, there have been criticisms (for example here and here) from those pointing out that this trivialises the Christian faith and is a sign of lack of confidence in the gospel. The LGBT lobby have joined in the debate  suggesting that the C of E’s priority should be demonstrations of inclusivity in the iconic buildings, such as same sex marriages.

My feeling is that using cathedrals for golf and fairground slides is a bit silly and probably won’t have a positive missional result, but it illustrates society’s secularism and the church’s loss of confidence in the gospel rather than being deliberately malevolent. Much more concerning is the use of cathedrals and churches for rituals of freemasonry, the practice of Islamic or Buddhist spirituality, fashion shows with an occultic elementerotic or blasphemous films, gay pride celebrations, and unsuitable artistic displays

I was recently at Truro Cathedral for a university graduation ceremony, where a brilliant acapella version of Bohemian Rhapsody was sung by a robed choir (not the cathedral choir, it turns out). For those not familiar with the song, it is about a young man in nihilistic despair after committing murder; it builds to a climax with the line “Beelzebub has a devil set aside for me”. The Dean then welcomed the audience with the hope that we would enjoy the ‘sacred space’.

There was something disturbingly incongruous in a song with this subject matter being performed in a building dedicated to God’s glory at a happy occasion of celebrating achievements of young people.  I wrote to the Dean suggesting that the choice of song was inappropriate and even offensive; I received a brief reply saying the programme was the responsibility of third party hirers of the venue (the University of Exeter). 

Of course if cathedrals are just about historical interest and architectural /musical aesthetics, if concepts of God and evil spiritual powers are just projections of the human psyche, if the 1970’s Queen hit is just part of the audio wallpaper of our lives and we’ve never stopped to think about its meaning, if Islamic chants and movie sex scenes are just in the category of arts and culture, then there’s nothing to worry about. Cathedrals can continue with their fundraising efforts, either providing the entertainment themselves or renting out the premises without any need for concern about the content of the programme being put on. My complaint can be filed along with others as the powerless disapproval of a traditionalist minority.

Romantic poet John Keats said “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. One could argue that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ tells the truth about a theme with urgent contemporary relevance – the nihilistic violent anguish in a young man’s soul, in a beautiful musical structure. For Keats, human emotion captured timelessly in a piece of art is the perfect combination of truth and beauty; reflecting on it is “all ye need to know”. This philosophy pervades our culture: thousands of songs tell of the unhappiness of  failed or lost love with no resolution or happy ending, yet we love to listen to them because they capture an aspect of reality in a format where often the voice and the music contribute together to the overall emotional effect. 

But for the Christian, Keats’ saying is inadequate and potentially dangerous if it doesn’t lead to the worship of God and to his solution for human sin and misery. Being struck by the beauty of nature or human art; gaining an insight into the reality of human emotions such as love and joy and sadness and fear – if these are ends in themselves it will only lead to the worship of idols, the celebration of our sinful selves as ‘authentic identity’,  and/or seeing popular entertainment and in-the-moment experiences as the high point of human existence. The Greeks, Romans and other cultures have done this down the ages. 

The Judaeo-Christian tradition says something very different. Not advocating a false asceticism, because God gave all good things for our enjoyment. Not creating a pious, inward-looking world, where we hide away from the realities of life for most people (because of this I’m in favour of Christians learning how to understand and appreciate all kinds of art, including the expression of the darker side of life in rock music). But always looking to see God as creator behind the beauty; human sin and the ‘prince of this world’ behind the ugliness, and the gospel of Christ as God’s plan for redemption and transformation.

The staff at Truro cathedral may argue that the performance of Bohemian Rhapsody raised the question about life’s meaning; the architectural setting pointed to the answer. But it doesn’t unless the gospel is explained. A cathedral without the gospel in an increasingly secular country is like Athens’ temple to the unknown god – a mysterious signpost which needs a guide to explain the true meaning of the journey, and the destination. Without this explanation, a secular tourist sliding down a helter skelter or playing golf in the nave is focussing on the trivial in the presence of something of ultimate importance which he is blind to, like a Roman soldier playing dice at the foot of the cross. The performance in a cathedral setting of Bohemian Rhapsody is perhaps equivalent to a bleak scene from a Sophoclean tragedy sung by a chorus in the temple to the unknown god, followed by the apostle Paul encouraging the crowd to appreciate being in a sacred space.

The Church of England is the custodian of a magnificent heritage, but when it’s failing to explain the meaning of the buildings, switches the focus of visitors to light entertainment which detracts from the message, and then permits and defends active promotion of different messages with opposing spiritualities, it’s no longer promoting the beauty of God and his reality, but fun and artistic expression on a human-level only, together with spiritual confusion. The question will then be: when will it be time for those who worship in spirit and truth to move away from historic buildings so often now mute or even covering up the gospel, into community halls and homes?

The domestication of Church of England evangelicalism

Posted by on Aug 6, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Church life, Church of England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on The domestication of Church of England evangelicalism

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

As conservative evangelical Anglicans move tentatively towards a necessary review of their structures, culture and practices which have come under the spotlight in the wake of testimonies about controlling and abusive leadership styles, is it possible to maintain unity in the search for truth and better practice? Can a boldness to challenge ‘sacred cows’, to strongly criticise accepted but not necessarily biblical ‘orthodoxies’, and change received thinking be accompanied by somehow avoiding destructive conflict, either personality clashes or outright power struggles? In the debate, for example, about whether to leave the Church of England and if so at what point, can different points of view be put forward with conviction, but without calling into question the integrity and intelligence of those who share the same theological foundations but hold a different opinion on strategy? Can genuine grievances be addressed without being weaponised for the furtherance of church-political agendas?

I’d like to put forward four areas where ways of thinking ingrained among English Anglican evangelicals are perhaps unhelpful and contribute to our current problems. In doing so I’m aware that I’m part of the culture I describe, so I’m very much saying “we” rather than “you” or “they”. Here are four simple statements of advice that I’ve heard being given to young clergy or those considering full time paid ministry – there is truth in them which has been helpful for gospel mission, but they reveal underlying assumptions which has hindered it.

1. “The only real ministry is parish ministry”. This advice was given to me when I was first considering leaving a role pastoring a local church to engage in parachurch work. It’s good advice in the sense that it affirms the value of the centuries-old model of pastor-teacher, patiently and faithfully looking after a local Christian community with ministry of word and sacrament, service and example. Over-visionary clergy can be tempted to “despise the day of small things” and ignore what God is doing in a humble small group while searching for the key to rapid church growth and subsequent fame on the speaker circuit (as explained in this article).

But it can be taken in the wrong way. It could mean: there’s no room for the unique calling of the individual with special gifts, for the entrepreneurial and the prophetic; rather, we’ve all got to do the same job of managing a local branch of the existing structure. Clergy in being encouraged to focus on the individuals in the locality where God has placed them, shouldn’t worry themselves with the big picture, the realm of ideas and trends in society, according to this view. And of course, what about the ministry of the laity in the workplace? There remains an unconscious clericalism among many evangelicals – a belief in the priesthood of all believers in theory, but in practice the primacy of the pastor-teacher operating in and from the Church of England building.

2. “You must get a collar”. A gifted young evangelist was informed with these words that he would never get a platform unless he was ordained. Fortunately in his case he didn’t allow himself to be squeezed into the parish vicar mould, but he did have to undergo what was probably for the most part unsuitable academic training and placements in churches with no interest in gospel outreach. The assumption of the well-meaning advice was that respectability by the establishment in terms of ordination credentials is essential for fruitful mission.

Until 1870 non-Anglicans were not allowed to attend university and were barred from certain professions as a result. This was a profoundly unjust restriction of freedom. But paradoxically, the Methodists, Baptists and other nonconformist groups thrived despite their pastors’ lack of approved higher education, and the churches’ lack of respectability. As they rushed to take advantage of the new access to the social high table, that may have marked the beginning of their decline – especially the Methodists. From Wesley and others preaching to fervent crowds in streets and fields, with farm and factory labourers studying the bible intently in grassroots classes, the movement became respectable, with ornate buildings and gowned preachers with multiple degrees – but less supernatural power. The “collar” can be a passport to audiences, or restriction to which the establishment’s leash can be attached.

3. “The church pays”. A young professional couple are exploring the possibility of a major change: the husband is considering applying for selection for Church of England ordination, but also is interested in options with other Anglican expressions, or denominations. The vicar’s response as I overheard it was definite: the Church of England option is a no-brainer. Even given valid concerns about the theological direction of the organisation and its leadership, the C of E provides, and takes away any concerns about finance.

Again, while there is much to be thankful for in the current system, the dangers should be obvious. Ministry will be seen as belonging to he who pays the piper, rather than to the God who provides, to the Holy Spirit who equips, and the local community who receives and partners. There is little incentive to live by faith, dependent on the Lord, when the institution takes full responsibility for finances; an attitude to mission can arise whereby no local initiative can be considered unless those further up the chain have approved funding for salaries, housing, equipment etc. Perhaps more importantly, it becomes very difficult for faithful clergy to challenge wrong theology and practice in the institution when they are effectively employees (despite the language about stipends etc).

4. “Prioritise bible teaching” (or “worship”). Of course both these things are vital for the health of the church. How could they possibly be a trap? When the focus becomes less on the dynamic activity of teaching and learning from Scripture and praising God together, and more on a static “club for the like-minded” mentality, where “we’re a bible teaching church” essentially describes a particular kind of white, upperish middle class congregation who are comfortable with a particular way of doing things. I remember once asking a gifted lay person why he and his family had travelled by car 25 minutes to the same church for over 20 years. “Because of the bible teaching” came the reply. So after I pointed out that he had already received a far better training than most full time pastors in the global south, I asked him whether it might be time for him to consider taking some of that wonderful teaching he had received, and using it in a ministry to people who hadn’t had the same privilege. He didn’t seem to understand the question!

If challenging and inspiring biblical teaching leads to developments in evangelism and mission, and helps people care for one another in radical ways, understand current events in the nation and take a stand in intercession and action against evil, that is wonderful. But without a strong commitment to being changed by God’s grace and being agents of transformation, a risky operation which may not be ‘respectable’ and may even lead to unpopularity and suffering, a superficial commitment to ‘bible teaching’ can reinforce a secular/sacred divide. Here, the assumption is that in church we think about religious things, we get clear on doctrines and/or enjoy God’s presence with others, but in a way that is essentially an escape from the world rather than interpreting the times and acting as God’s agents in the world.

Can the secular humanist account of progress be a sign of God’s salvation?

Posted by on Jul 30, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Can the secular humanist account of progress be a sign of God’s salvation?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Angela Tilby’s recent turn on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day once again gives an insight into not only the theological thinking of much of the Church of England leadership, but also the type of religion that is deemed acceptable and promoted by the nation’s ruling establishment through its main broadcasting mouthpiece.

Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christchurch Cathedral and remains influential in the Diocese of Oxford; she writes a regular column in the Church Times, and her selection as a speaker on the iconic BBC religion slot would have the approval of senior figures in the Church of England, so her views can be said to reflect the message that the C of E is seeking to convey.

For her recent talk, Angela took as her subject the recent unveiling of the new £50 note featuring the image of British mathematician Alan Turing. As the Oxford cleric pointed out, Turing is now well known for working out a method for reading the German Enigma code during World War 2, and for subsequent pioneering developments which provided the foundation for contemporary computer science and artificial intelligence.

Turing saw and began work on the technology of the future at a time when the world was in comparative ignorance. In a 1949 interview about computers and AI, Turing said ‘this is only a foretaste of what is to come and only a shadow of what is going to be’. Turing is also known as a gay man who committed suicide after being convicted for gross indecency in 1954. For Canon Tilby, we have now progressed so much more since those days, not only in our understanding of how mathematics and technology describes reality, but in our understanding of human beings – in particular that homosexuality is not a perversion, but “part of nature, how things are”.

She then quotes the second half of Romans 8, where Paul compares the frustration we experience now to the groanings of a woman in labour. “For him, the world about to be born was a world of true freedom and fulfilment.” The movement from darkness and ignorance, to light and freedom, illustrated by Turing’s life relating to the future development of computers and progressive ‘enlightened’ attitudes to sexuality, are examples, according to Canon Tilby, of God’s Spirit giving us a foretaste of heaven. The need to continue promoting this message is not over, though, as many countries around the world still hold to the old pre-modern attitudes regarding “who people really are”.

Tilby’s talk represents an attempt to Christianise an optimistic secular view of progress which understands salvation as having our needs met by the willing and controllable servant of technology, and being psychologically liberated from outdated repressive moralities . It is similar to the pronouncements of church leaders in the World Council of Churches in the 1960’s, who enthusiastically proclaimed violent revolutionary communist leaders as contemporary saviours, examples of God’s programme of liberation from oppression. It’s not unlike the prosperity preachers who equate God’s blessing with the amassing of personal material wealth. These ideas share in common seeing God and salvation behind any developments which are popularly viewed as positive.

It is certainly true that the Kingdom of God is not static, but dynamic. People change as they become disciples; the church grows and has an influence for good in society. There are strong themes in the bible of deliverance from evil, liberation from sin, and overturning of unjust power structures. But there are also powerful warnings of human beings embarking on projects which they believe display their knowledge and power, and even bring them closer to God – but they are based on hubris and rebellion and come to nothing. The Tower of Babel, pagan religious practices and even the corrupt Jerusalem temple system are examples of this where the spiritualisation of our own ideas of human progress is not a glimpse of God’s salvation, but a form of idolatry.

The good news is not that our self-proclaimed technological and moral superiority to our 1950’s forebears and the unenlightened of the global south is a foretaste of heaven. Rather, despite our tendency to exchange God’s truth for a lie, to reject the creator and worship the creature, to live according to our sinful nature rather than the Spirit, we can, by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus, undeservedly obtain his righteousness. The ‘glorious liberty’ of which Paul speaks in Romans 8 is not freedom to live as we please, according to our desires, but freedom from enslavement to these desires and their consequences.

Alan Turing’s brilliant application of complicated mathematics was ground breaking and should be celebrated along with other similar figures. He also had a complicated and ultimately tragic private life. Today’s establishment are following the prophets of the sexual revolution in hailing him as a mystical liminal figure, standing on the threshold of the old dark age and today’s era of technological progress and liberation of sexuality and identity. It’s a coherent message and a popular one, but the church should not be endorsing it and re-shaping the gospel to accommodate it; rather, presenting a different, better vision for human flourishing,

Interestingly, Angela Tilby gives more of an insight into her understanding of Scripture and the gospel in her latest Church Times column. She was shaped as a young Christian by daily reading of Scripture Union bible notes, and bemoans the lack of scriptural engagement and knowledge by many of today’s churchgoers. But for her, “biblical literacy” does not mean understanding the text in order to hear God’s voice and submit to it, but listening to and appreciating the “divergent voices” which reflect human reality. Scripture does not, Angela says, give a consistent message which should shape our worldview – this view just makes us certain of our own position so we “shout at each other”. Rather the bible presents a series of human arguments and commentaries, “never wholly resolved” – when we appreciate this, it helps us to “listen”.

It’s not surprising that if Church of England leaders believe this about the bible, they look to the secular world for authoritative guidance on a message of hope for today. 

Abuse of power in Christian circles: some reflections on Psalm 103

Posted by on Jul 2, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Abuse of power in Christian circles: some reflections on Psalm 103

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Rumours have been circulating for some time, but now information is coming into the public domain which is shaking the foundations of an influential and successful brand of evangelical Christianity in England. At a time when in the nation, the tradition of freely practiced orthodox Christianity is under threat in scale arguably comparable to the Viking invasions or the heyday of the enlightenment, a group which is one of the strong guardians and promoters of that tradition finds itself deeply wounded. What is emerging is a story of a highly respected and influential individual, informally regarded as an unquestioned leader of a movement with noble bible-based beliefs and missional aims, revealed as a manipulative bully who over many years drew younger ‘disciples’ into a web of control, sometimes involving activities with arguably mild but nevertheless unmistakable homoerotic overtones.

Questions are of course being asked about why more was not done to investigate when rumours started to surface, why help was not offered sooner to survivors, and whether anything in the Christian culture surrounding this leader needs to change. Much has been written about the specific case and more generally, how Christians should react when a pastor “falls” after revelations of immoral or abusive behaviour. And of course some who detest conservative evangelical theology have been quick to attempt to locate the cause of such activities in, for example, beliefs in God’s judgement and the atoning death of Christ, which they say promotes violence rather than love and peace.

But such abusive behaviour, rather than being caused by a belief in the bible, reveals a failure to follow the very biblical principles that its perpetrators claim to observe. At the same time there are those in the church who want to condemn the biblical principles themselves as causing abusive behaviour. I’ve been reflecting recently on Psalm 103, and would like to look briefly at three such key principles outlined in this poem which are denied by both forms of heresy.

  1. “The Lord does not treat as as our sins deserve”, Psalm 103:10.

The Psalm begins with a list of ‘benefits’ which the Lord gives his people, and the first on this list is the forgiveness of sins. This is expanded in verses 8-12: we are justly accused of doing wrong, and God’s response to evil is not indifference, but righteous anger. However, because of his love for his people, he does not repay with punishment, but instead ‘removes’ transgression – something which is explained in other Scriptural passages by the provision of atonement. The gospel application for us: We are sinners and need to trust in the Lord’s grace for forgiveness, demonstrated and effected supremely at Calvary.

The revisionist heresy denies this biblical truth in various ways. The humanist version would deny the essential sinfulness of humanity altogether, focussing on our goodness, while the neo-marxist version would divide humanity into sinful ‘oppressors’ who need punishment and/or forced reeducation, and sinless, oppressed victims who need expansion and defence of rights. As application, as basically good people we don’t need to be forgiven or to change, but to celebrate who we are.

A more subtle heresy affirms our sinful nature, our need for forgiveness and the sufficiency of God’s grace. But in practice it’s felt that this grace is not enough. Discipline must be maintained by administering punishment, perhaps by the the cane or slipper. Some of us who teach grace may be guilty of punishing ourselves, by working harder. In theory we believe that God’s spirit working in us effects change, but in practice we feel we can only enforce obedience to the word through disciplined repression of desire, and outward conformity to the norms of a tightly-knit group.

2. “The Lord’s love is with those who fear the Lord, who obey his statutes”, Psalm 103:17-18.

We are designed, as Adam and Eve, to flourish in relationship with God, by recognising his authority, submitting to him, and trusting his word as our guide.

For the revisionist, the bible is not trustworthy or a reliable guide. As many influential Anglican leaders in the West are saying openly, “Did God really say what we think the bible says, for example about sex and marriage?” Much better, they say, to locate ‘authority’ and ‘word’ in prevailing opinion in liberal society, rather than in ancient texts.

But for the evangelical there is also a danger. While in theory we fear God and obey his commands, in practice God is rather remote and he’s delegated his authority to our human leaders and mentors in our group. We ask ourselves how is it possible that a respected leader can enthral devoted young Christians into a relationship marked by manipulation, control and humiliation, even with a sexual element; they do not report it, or if they do, others turn a blind eye. Perhaps a reason is that a relationship based on reverent fear and obedience which should apply to God alone is conflated with a relationship with a mentor. Let me be clear: this is not in any way blaming the victim – the responsibility lies with the senior one who has abused his position of authority.

3. “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all”, Psalm 103:19.

The foundational truth of Scripture is that God exists, he is utterly sovereign and all-powerful. He carries out his will primarily through his angels, his “mighty ones”; his “heavenly servants” (v20-21). This cosmology is alien to a Western secular worldview.

Heresy One would say: no – such talk of a powerful God is inherently abusive, misogynistic, patriarchal, “logo-phallocentric”, antidemocratic, restrictive, oppressive. If there is a God, he is a reflection of our understanding of love, equality and inclusion.

For those inclined to Heresy Two: in theory God is in control, but we (our group) need to ensure we control things within our environment as much as we can. While in theory we believe the Lord is building his church, in practice we do it by establishing power structures through whom we can control the future leadership. We pray for the evangelistic success of the church, but really we believe that it’s up to us and our plans.

There is something in common between the two heresies. While one denies the truth of the bible and the other affirms it, both in effect are influenced by a secular, intellectual mindset. Either God is not really there and we have to create something like him in our own image. Or he is a theory only; something we read about but cannot really experience because he is too distant; in practice we are the ones who need to carry out his will.

Churches with a tendency to either of these heresies need the real God of Psalm 103 to intervene in our crisis.

See also: 3 ways to respond when a church leader is found guilty of abuse, by Christopher Ash, The Gospel Coalition

Jonathan Fletcher responds to allegations of ‘physical discipline’, from Christian Today

Statement about the abuse of spiritual responsibility, delivered at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in Westminster by Vaughan Roberts, Sarah Hall and Andrew Wales, and posted on the ‘walkingwith.uk’ website.

Leading Gafcon Bishop says he was a victim of spiritual abuse, from Christian Today

Minister ‘spiritually abused’ the vulnerable, by Gabriella Sterling, Telegraph

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.