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.

All these disasters – how can we respond?

Posted by on Feb 25, 2020 in Editorial Blog | Comments Off on All these disasters – how can we respond?

All these disasters – how can we respond?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Just yesterday I received three emails from different Christian organisations, each describing a tragic situation and asking for my support for the suffering and those risking life to help them. They were: an Indian evangelical group monitoring the persecution of Christians, mostly in small towns, by Hindu nationalist mobs. A large NGO working in northern Syria, where

“…more than 900,000 people, including at least 600,000 children, have fled their homes since the start of December alone due to intense conflict. Freezing winter conditions and a critical lack of shelter have led to children dying in open fields – parents are risking everything to get their children to safety, only to see them die in their arms.”

Then, a missionary supporting the church in “a large East Asian country”, asking for urgent prayer as the Coronavirus takes hold.

These are just three examples of a catalogue of terrible events that we hear about: the ongoing but perhaps forgotten murderous conflicts in Yemen, DRC, Venezuela, northern Nigeria. The appalling plague of locusts in East Africa; flooding in Shropshire and Worcestershire; aftermath of fires in Australia.

Listing all these disasters brings to mind judgements mentioned in the bible – in fact the epithet “biblical” has been used several times by journalists ever since the famous Michael Buerk report from Ethiopia in 1984But in addition to visible crises brought about by ‘natural disasters’ and human conflict, there are also unseen killers, psychological and spiritual in nature, often taking place in otherwise safe and affluent communities. Recently I listened to a BBC radio chat show, where the topic being discussed was loneliness, after the launch of a campaign to bring the sense of isolation and alienation that many people feel, especially the elderly. The conversation quickly broadened to more general mental health concerns, even suicide resulting from feelings of being unable to cope with the stresses of modern life.

And last Saturday I was at another conference facilitated by Anglican Mainstream, explaining once again the real problem of ideologically-driven sex education in schools: how it runs directly counter to Christian, Muslim and Jewish values, and contributes to a dangerous environment for all young people. The ‘progressive’, secular humanist values which have provided fertile soil for the sexual  revolutionaries, polluting our minds and restricting our freedoms, have also infiltrated the church. As leaders of mainline denominations in the West are often unable to publicly affirm historically-acknowledged truths of apostolic Christianity, attendance at Sunday worship continues to decline, young people from Christian families turn away from faith at unprecedented rates, and making new disciples is increasingly challenging.

The nature of media today makes it almost impossible to avoid a relentless stream of bad news. How should Christians deal with it?

There are some responses which are not helpful – but not uncommon. For example there can be a danger, especially with certain personality types, of feeling that the solution to a particular problem depends on me. I pour all my energy and personal resources into a project, not resting properly, getting angry with those who don’t seem as committed, and burn out. Or perhaps I don’t have a focus, but flit from one latest good cause to the next, driven by what’s just come up on social media.

It’s also easy to blame others based on our particular political bias, rather than actually do something simple to help. Some of the recent media treatments of loneliness have, encouragingly, given examples of young people intentionally taking time to befriend an elderly neighbour, rather than giving the microphone to predictable voices moaning about government cuts. Similarly, joining in the local community tree planting day, encouraging your children to eat vegetables and taking fewer car journeys or flights is a positive and achievable contribution to the health of the environment compared to some more extreme demands.

Having said this, it’s better to do something than nothing. As DL Moody was reported to have remarked to a critic “I sometimes do not like my way of doing evangelism. But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” While its good to avoid an over-zealous, unfocussed or party political approach to the world’s serious problems, apathy and inaction is sadly more common. It might be a general feeling that it’s the government’s business to sort things out (for example, care for the elderly), or that the issues are too complex and we cannot act, even by giving money, unless we have all the facts (as in contexts of poverty or conflict in other countries).

In evangelical church circles, there is sometimes a reluctance to get more involved in these issues of mass suffering, or in defending the innocence of children and the lives of the unborn, or contending for the preservation of biblical teaching in the church. Common excuses include the need to be “positive”, aware of the evangelistic impact of a constant sunny outlook and the danger of people being put off by negativity. Or perhaps a more theological reason: the church, some argue, should not get involved in worldly issues such as social action, as its priority is building up the local congregation. It may be that underlying this is a subtle form of prosperity theology, unable to reconcile belief in God with the reality of suffering, justifying the sinful nature’s love of ease and comfort, and recoiling from sacrifice for the sake of others.

What should we do when faced with constant stories of “wars and rumours of wars”, human misery and hearts going cold towards God and his word? Here are some brief suggestions:

  1. When responding to a disaster, try to understand more of the background – history and geography of the country, its politics and the state of the local church. Websites of trusted organisations make this information much more accessible than in the past.
  2. Reflect on the biblical teaching, the “now and not yet” of the Last Days. This doesn’t necessarily mean reading lots of books, certainly not delaying action until we have done so. I have heard small children expressing faith in God’s providence, and interpreting what he might be doing and saying in a tragic situation with great wisdom.
  3. Pray: individually, and corporately (with family, friends and church); systematically and in a focussed way; specifically (using concrete examples not just general prayers). Here is a great resource for Lent from Gafcon.   
  4. Decide as individuals/family/church on a policy of how to make a decision about what to support financially. An example might be: focussing on one disaster relief programme, two church-based development/advocacy programmes, three evangelistic/discipleship programmes. Then implement by giving generously.
  5. Evaluate our attitudes. Have we been greedy/lazy/fearful? It might be necessary to repent, to ask God’s help for individual and corporate changed lifestyle. It cannot be business as usual in the midst of crisis.
  6. It might be necessary to speak where we have been silent, but always with grace, remembering that on one hand we are not saved by our good works, nor can we take pride in them, but on the other, for evil to triumph it is only necessary for good people to do, and say, nothing.

Bishop offers orthodox Anglicans hope of retaining protected minority status as Diocese takes progressive route

Posted by on Feb 11, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Bishop offers orthodox Anglicans hope of retaining protected minority status as Diocese takes progressive route

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

The acting Bishop of Oxford Diocese has released an ‘Ad Clerum’ letter to all clergy and licensed Lay Ministers, setting out his “reflections on how we may go forward” following the House of Bishops’ Statement on Civil Partnerships, and the subsequent apologies and distancing from this Statement. Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester, signs the letter in the absence of Steven Croft who is on sabbatical. Bishop Colin has appeared in these pages in previous years for siding with a progressive position in the debate on sexual ethics (see here and here). He has certainly been on a theological journey since his days of teaching at Wycliffe Hall. But the concern being expressed by faithful Anglicans in Oxford and further afield is not primarily about Bishop Colin and his views, but about the position of the leaders of Oxford Diocese and indeed the Church of England as a whole.

There are many things at stake here. The definition of the church – is it a space where people with diverse views gather, united by their common humanity, or is it a spiritual body of people from diverse backgrounds, united to Christ and each other through the gospel? The safety of its members – safe from any suggestion that they might be sinners, or safe from God’s judgement after repentance and faith? The survival of authentic Christianity in the West – will it capitulate to the false ideologies of the world, or preserve the counter-cultural truth in order to share it with love?

Bishop Colin’s letter appears at first sight to be balanced. The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement has caused distress for some, but drawn praise from others. The Oxford Bishops have listened to both sides, concerned for the pastoral care of those who identify as LGBT, while also respecting and not wanting to exclude those who hold to the church’s traditional teaching. “Uncanonical blessings” of relationships are still not permitted (presumably referring to liturgical services), while informal prayer for all is encouraged. Living in Love and Faith will soon be released; a resource to help parishes explore all sides of the debate around identity, relationships, marriage and sexuality. Those with different views on the subject in the church are “travelling together” and must “care for each other along the way”.

But there are several clues in the letter that the Bishop does not see his office as a guardian of the apostolic faith, or even as a neutral referee between those with opposing views, but rather as gatekeeper of a new era, ushering in a new default position of revisionist theology while continuing for the moment to tolerate those with traditional views.

Bishop Colin begins by referring first not to the Bishops’ pastoral statement itself, but to the Archbishops’ apology for it following the media furore. He then makes an excuse for the publication of this official episcopal statement, apologises for it himself, and goes further,calling it “wrong-headed and pastorally inept”. Although he acknowledges that some people were in favour of the statement, seeing it as a clear expression of the church’s historic teaching, he makes it clear that he, and by extension the Oxford Diocesan leadership, stand with those who oppose the statement – in fact he specifically quotes further criticisms of the statement from the Bishops of Oxford and Reading.

This criticism is not just about tone and timing, but also content. Outlining why the Bishops’ Pastoral Statement was needed in the first place, Bishop Colin explains it as a response to Civil Partnerships becoming available for heterosexual couples, which was simply a matter of “justice”, and only raised “technical questions” for the church. This dismisses the concerns that many faithful Christians have had about the Civil Partnership legislation: how it undermines marriage, and creates obvious issues about sexual ethics that the Bishops’ Statement was trying to answer.

The Ad Clerum goes on to quote with approval highly critical articles about the Bishops’ pastoral statement in The Times and in the Via Media blogIt is surely significant that these pieces which fiercely attack and even deride historic Christian teaching about sexual ethics and the Church of England’s attempts to navigate the issue, are commended by a Bishop, writing in a position of spiritual authority to his flock. He then makes clear  his agreement with the view that, just as the church over the years has changed its understanding on the celibacy of clergy, use of contraception and permitting marriage of divorcees, so there is nothing “static and immovable” in Christian teaching. This, together with a marked absence in the letter of any reference to Scripture or even to God (except at the end – “God bless you”) will surely cause alarm as it appears to illustrate a complete loss of confidence in the idea, basic to Christianity, that faith is based on things that are unchanging!

A letter genuinely trying to balance the different views would offer resources from the two sides, as Living in Love and Faith is likely to do. Bishop Colin does not do this. Instead, he commends two new initiatives specifically geared for “LGBTI+ people”: a chaplaincy service covering the whole Diocese, and “evangelical services” at Christ Church Cathedral. These are not primarily designed to help people with same sex attraction live within the church’s official teaching (although to be fair there appears to be an option available for this), nor are they complemented by similar resources for heterosexual single or married people on how to live with purity in the context of a society where sexual restraint has been abandoned and maintaining lasting relationships is difficult. Rather they appear to uncritically accept and affirm contemporary secular ideas about sexual identities and behaviour. These initiatives do not appear to be, from an orthodox perspective, about pleasing God, or even about providing consistent and distinctively Christian help to the struggling, but an attempt at virtue signalling to the secular world and particularly the LGBT lobby within the church’s leadership.

This Ad Clerum letter sets out the reality of the Church of England today. The fact that the Pastoral Statement was agreed and released, and that the College of Bishops meeting in late January did not rescind it (against the wishes of the Bishop of Oxford, we’re told), shows that behind the scenes at least some Bishops are fighting for orthodoxy, even if as individuals many find it difficult to explain and commend the positive Christian teaching on sex and marriage in public. But in the Diocese of Oxford and many other Dioceses the leadership has now embraced and is actively promoting a progressive position on sexual ethics, and it could be argued on other theological issues as well, for example the authority of Scripture.

What are the options for faithful orthodox Anglicans in the Diocese of Oxford? I’m sure that Bishop Colin will be receiving a few politely written letters, expressing appreciation for his ministry but disappointment at this latest indication of the trajectory. No doubt also there will be impetus for securing the election of conservatives to General Synod in September. Sermons might even be preached and courses run on what the bible says about sex and marriage. All of these are useful for clarifying thinking and ensuring continued witness within the denomination, but in my view they won’t stop or reverse the train heading in the wrong direction.

Kenny’s stages of rebellion, and the church’s response

Posted by on Jan 28, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Sexual Revolution | Comments Off on Kenny’s stages of rebellion, and the church’s response

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

We’ll start with an everyman. Let’s call him Kenny. He’s not unusual, in that while he is married to Lizzie, he finds other women attractive. He has a heterosexual orientation. Kenny lets his attention focus on a work colleague, Ellie, who’s married to Ollie. Our Ken desires, covets another man’s wife.

Kenny makes his move at an office social, and Ellie reciprocates. They have sex, although both feel guilty afterwards and promise each other that it will end there. It doesn’t. After some weeks, they meet again after work, and soon they are having regular trysts in hotels, each time telling their spouses that they are on a ‘business trip’.

A sexual orientation not brought under control, has been allowed to develop into desire. This leads to an action, which when repeated turns into a lifestyle.

Leaving aside for a moment a Christian response, what might a friend say to Kenny, intervening at the desire stage, perhaps when he notices Ken’s interest in Ellie at the office? He could appeal to Kenny’s love for his wife Lizzie, to a sense of duty to his marriage vows, to warning about future consequences of having an affair with all the trauma for his family, to his ability to exercise self control and say no to temptation.

But Kenny did not listen to this. In fact he already had answers to these goads to his conscience as he pursued his path towards adultery:

  • “My love for Lizzie isn’t what it was. Now I love Ellie.”
  • “I can’t help myself. It’s who I am. Cupid’s arrow strikes – what can you do?”
  • “Real men need more than just one woman. I was born with lots of testosterone.”
  • “I feel constrained and oppressed by duty. I want to break free, to be true to myself.”
  • “What is marriage anyway? Permanently being tied up, or a temporary contract?”
  • “Love is love. Celebrate it. Live for the present – the future we can worry about later.”

Kenny is justifying himself. This is more than just making excuses. Of course it’s true that many in Kenny’s position know very well that what they are doing is wrong; they feel guilty but continue in their weakness and addiction to pleasure. Kenny is going further – he is creating powerful arguments in his mind by which he declares himself to be not guilty.

So Ken’s adultery goes beyond desire leading to action and habit. In addition, he has created a new identity for himself. He no longer sees himself as a husband to Lizzie, but a lover to Ellie. He is no longer someone with a dull lifestyle driven by duty, stoical and uncaring, but enjoying spontaneity, doing what feels good, seizing the moment, having fun, driven by love. A potent man with expanded horizons, breaking free of convention. Kenny has discovered who he really is, and is justifiably living out his identity.

Lastly, he embraces a new ideology driving societal change. He now believes that monogamous marriage is part of an outdated and oppressive system. People should be free to have liaisons with whoever they choose – there should be no stigma attached to cohabiting, adultery, same sex relationships, as long is there is mutual consent between adults. Kenny rejoices in his freedom as he is not breaking any laws. But more than that: any restriction on the freedom to ‘love’ within these current legal boundaries, any questioning of the morality of Kenny’s choices, whether in social convention, religious teaching or even common sense, is dangerous and itself immoral, as it attacks the inherent identity of individuals, restricts them and potentially damages their mental health.

So Kenny does not speak any more to his friend who warned him against starting the affair with Ellie. It is that friend who is the guilty one, for daring to challenge Kenny’s understanding of himself. In the traditional understanding, Ken is a free agent who has chosen to do wrong. According to this new ideology, Ken is a victim of prejudice – something he can of course add to his identity matrix. Meanwhile the friend, society, the church must repent of intolerance; laws must be changed to facilitate adult sexual freedoms; children must be taught the benefits of the new ideology.

Five stages of rebellion: sinful desire, sinful action, sinful habit/lifestyle, a false identity, a secular humanist worldview. How have Christians responded to this?

The onset of the sexual revolution has massively challenged the church and caught it unprepared for dealing with new ways of looking at sex, especially the last two stages of rebellion. While most Christians would no doubt believe that adultery of the kind Kenny is involved in, is wrong, the use of pornography, sex before marriage and cohabitation, marriage breakdown, homosexual practice and transgenderism are increasingly seen as secondary issues by orthodox believers, and even illustrations of love and truth to be celebrated by more liberal Christians.

Amongst evangelicals in some quarters, a narrative has developed whereby we can affirm the historic teaching on sexual desire and practice – the need for sexual self-control; celibate singleness for same sex attracted people, and monogamy for marrieds – as long as this teaching is only directed at practising Christians. The reason more are not attracted to this lifestyle, we’re told, is because of lack of pastoral care and failure of communication. So, the argument goes, Christians must repent of ‘homophobia’ and general lack of compassion towards those not following the Christian sexual ethic like Kenny, and must improve communication of its message. There must even be a visible reconciliation and working together of Christians who have different views on sex. An example of this thinking can be found in the participation of an evangelical minister in a video commending the ‘pastoral guidelines’ from the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project.

If we take this view, we will see Kenny’s story as illustrating just two problems: Kenny breaking God’s commandments, and the church’s failure to show God’s love. But Kenny’s rebellion is not just adultery. He has also embraced a profoundly anti-Christian belief system, based on self-justification, the creation of a new identity celebrating his sin as an innate part of himself, and an ideology which wants to replace ‘repressive’ Christian morality with something which must in the end repress authentic Christian faith and practice. 

These powerful new forces of sex/ gender identity and neo-Marxist ideology, sinful and idolatrous thinking now embedded in society’s structures, are too often not addressed in contemporary evangelical discourse about sex. Worse than that, we can end up being ‘orthodox’ in terms of our understanding of marriage and personal application of Christian sexual ethics (remaining opposed to rebellion stages 1 to 3), while at the same time imbibing the philosophies of the sexual revolution (ignoring or affirming stages 4-5). This is perhaps the reason why Bishops are able to sign a document affirming the historic teachings of the church on sex and marriage, and at the same time also support re-naming and re-baptism for those who have rejected God’s design for their bodies, and even call for blessings of same sex relationships

If Kenny is to become a Christian, it will involve not just stopping his adultery with Ellie (stage 2 and 3), or even gaining control of his lustful thoughts (stage 1). He will need a profound change in the way he views himself (stage 4), and the world (stage 5). It won’t help if Christians positively affirm his understanding of himself, and agree that he is an oppressed victim. Similarly, if society is to become Christian, winsome presentation of Christ will need to be accompanied by a call to widespread repentance from false ideologies, and practical help to escape them, not collusion in them.

English Anglican evangelicals: five areas of disagreement

Posted by on Jan 14, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Evangelicalism | Comments Off on English Anglican evangelicals: five areas of disagreement

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Evangelicals share the same core theological beliefs, often expressed in a Confession or Basis of Faith statement (eg here). But evangelicals have historically been divided on a number of issues. In the past, these included: whether evangelistic speakers should call listeners to publicly indicate a decision for Christ; whether genuine believers should smoke, drink or go to the cinema, whether tongues, prayers for healing and other expectation of supernatural phenomena was appropriate for worship; whether women should hold leadership positions and preach. These and similar issues are certainly not trivial. They elicit strong feelings, cause ‘tribes’ to form as associations are made with those of similar convictions. Sometimes relations are strained, even broken; but convictions around shared understandings of the gospel always creates fellowship even if there are major disagreements.

What about today? While differences over the ministry of women, and style and emphasis on the charismatic scale still exist, there are other issues which dominate in the current context, sometimes causing division, always showing the breadth of evangelical opinion which often is spread on a spectrum between two (or even three) poles. Here are five questions which illustrate this diversity among Anglican evangelicals in England in 2020:

  1. Church of England: hope or despair?

At one end of the spectrum, some will point to the tremendous opportunities for evangelicals: the resources being released for church planting, the numbers of Bishops who self-define as evangelical, new initiatives such as ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, the historic advantages of the parish system and the theologically orthodox formularies. Others are much more pessimistic. They see the parish system as a straitjacket and a breeding ground for nominal Christianity. Entrenched liberal theological education means more and more clergy and Bishops don’t believe the theology of the original English reformers. Cathedrals have become centres for entertainment and heresy. Evangelical Bishops do not defend orthodoxy and even vote against it in Synod; clergy with conservative doctrinal and ethical convictions find it more difficult to get posts, while laity with similar views are no longer bound by loyalty to their local parish church, and increasingly look elsewhere for worship, teaching and fellowship.

 

2. Church of England: leave or remain?

The large majority of clergy are committed to staying in for the foreseeable future, even those who take the pessimistic view of the C of E’s current state and future trajectory. The advantages of the denomination outlined in 1. are still true, while loyalty to the institution and more importantly to the local flock, together with the practical realities of a need for employment and housing, do battle in the conscience and in social media debates with a temptation to consider ministry outside the C of E. Every time another story of the progress of revisionist theology hits the headlines, the potentially purer air of AMiE, the Free Church of England, perhaps a new Anglican group linked to Gafcon, or even independent evangelical churches might seem alluring to some, while for others there are no “red lines” which if crossed, would cause them to consider leaving the C of E.

But of course the liberal drift of the C of E leadership is not happening in a vacuum. It reflects the values of secular society. The differing views of evangelicals towards their church follows on from a spectrum of understandings about the culture in which we live.

 

3. The church and culture: victory, exile, or not relevant?

  • “Yes it’s true that there are some problems in our country which need sorting out. But I believe we’re on the cusp of seeing God doing something amazing in the land. People are so open to the gospel – if only the church can show love, communicate better, and pray, revival is just around the corner!”
  • “Secularism, cultural Marxism, LGBT ideology, idolatry of money, Islam – these are now dominating our culture. The church isn’t making an impact – it’s now too small and compromised. Christians need to ‘strengthen what remains’ and prepare for increased persecution.”
  • “We shouldn’t be surprised or alarmed at what happens in the world outside the church. It has always been like that. We have no business trying to influence secular society – we should focus on planting churches and making disciples based around the local church.”

These three approaches are sometimes linked to temperament, ministry preference and perhaps even ‘gifting’ in terms of prophet, evangelist or pastor-teacher. The three are not necessarily always mutually exclusive, but it may be that objective assessment of which one reflects a more accurate of the situation is tempered by considerations of what ‘sells’ best to a congregation or conference audience.

 

4. The renewed church: English or global?

A feature of evangelical churches is connection with the global church through supporting mission partners in other countries, giving financially to projects, and praying for churches around the world in contexts of poverty, persecution and paganism. But evangelicals are divided on the extent to which we in England can learn from the church in the global south, and even be led by them.

For the majority, whether optimistic or pessimistic about church and culture, leadership and future solutions to problems must be found in England. Some evangelicals in the Church of England are embarrassed by what they see as Gafcon’s history of confrontation with the Archbishop of Canterbury and its portrayal in the media as anti-LGBT. Others appreciate the existence of Gafcon, its spiritual life and its courage in standing for biblical truth, but do not envisage it as playing a role in giving assistance or even leadership to the well-educated and well-resourced churches of the global north.

A small but growing minority see Christianity in England as it is statistically and spiritually: a remnant surviving on the fringe, even a backwater, while the centre of God’s work has moved to the vibrant and numerically strong Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some Anglicans, losing confidence in the Church of England, are beginning to look to Gafcon not just for inspiration and vision, but for oversight, just as small groups have done in Scotland, New Zealand and Brazil, and much larger groups, in fact a whole new Province in North America.

 

5. The renewed church: who’s in charge?

While optimistic evangelicals have been happy in the inherited system, others have always struggled with the idea of episcopacy if the theological orthodoxy of Bishops can’t be guaranteed. They have even come up with theories which assign temporal administrative authority to a Bishop, and spiritual authority elsewhere. Leaders of large churches and networks may inspire more confidence than Bishops and find themselves with more influence as calls for ‘differentiation’ increase, but a question presents itself: who are they accountable to, and is such an an ecclesiology Anglican? Again, as fellow evangelicals take differing views, tension and disunity can occur.

Can a solution be found in encouraging all evangelicals to follow the same strategy, or would this involve an enforced uniformity, requiring subscription to one approved position on all five of the issues highlighted above? Such an approach will just cause further division: respecting different Anglican evangelical groups finding their own solutions might be better.

An inspiring response to our biggest problem

Posted by on Jan 7, 2020 in Book Reviews, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on An inspiring response to our biggest problem

An inspiring response to our biggest problem

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream

(First published in Church of England Newspaper):

“A moving and hopeful book” says one reviewer, and yet the subject of this slim publication is living with incurable cancer, and facing the inevitable prospect of death. How can this be “hopeful”, and why might it be appropriate for the shared time of optimism that is New Year?

Jeremy Marshall is an able and successful financier, married with three children, who at the age of 49 was diagnosed with a rare type of sarcoma in 2012, apparently recovered, and then in 2015 rapidly developed tumours related to different form of cancer. He was told he has less than 18 months to live, but is still very much alive; sometimes looking tired and pale, but full of enthusiasm and determination to do what he can (as those who know him can testify, in a variety of ways) to help others in the time he has left.

Jeremy tells his story in ‘Beyond the Big C’ (10 of Those, 2019). The first few pages narrate the lead up to the first and second diagnosis, the emotional response including shock and fear, and the tedious rounds of treatment. The account is brief, clear and unadorned, regularly lightening the mood with humour, capturing but not dwelling on the awful inner turmoil – because, as Jeremy says more that once, “it’s not about me”.

While not minimising his own suffering, he refers to others whose pain in physical illness, associated psychological trauma and treatment is much worse. Whenever a bad diagnosis is delivered, the mind is inevitably focussed on the prospect of death, which is very frightening even for Christians, but for the majority who are not, something we are not equipped to deal with. As (former General Synod House of Laity Chair) Philip Giddings says in the book he co-wrote on the same subject, “We expect that governments and the medical professions will be able to extend life expectancy…in consequence we do not think or talk about dying” (‘Talking about dying’, Wilberforce, 2017, p65).

For Jeremy Marshall, the purpose of telling his story and about cancer is not to reflect on suffering for it’s own sake, but to use his experience to bring the reader to the point of asking:

“What have I found to be the answer to my fear? I don’t see any answer…if I look at the world around me. Nor do I find one if I look within”.

From his own experience and drawing on other writers, Jeremy concludes that fear emanates from a feeling of loss of control of one’s own circumstances, the prospect of life ending – and then, existentially, the possibility that no-one is in control. As he introduces the Christian teaching that God is sovereign, that Jesus understands our suffering and reconciles us to our creator, he emphasises that this is not theological theory for the religious, but a necessary-for-all relationship of trust which extends beyond the grave.

So a personal account of living with cancer becomes a door into reflecting on the meaning of life and pointing to the gospel. I found it inspiring, and hope the book will be widely used in evangelism, which is what Jeremy would hope for. But also I found this perspective refreshing, reading it at a time before Christmas when everything, especially health care and even death has been politicised. When a nation has forgotten God but still its inhabitants have to face the realities of mortality, the fear leads quickly to anger that “more should be done”, the blaming of the ‘other’ group, the hubristic assumption that given the technology and resources we can fix the problem.

Jeremy’s account shows real appreciation for medical science and the care shown by doctors. He is open to the possibility of healing, either miraculously, or via some new treatment. But ultimately he says, because we all die in the end, our main need is for hope in the face of death in the form of restored relationship with God, and certainty of life beyond death.

Short reflections on bible passages, simply and elegantly presented from the perspective of a layman and “fellow-sufferer” rather than a theologian, are interspersed with reflections on the gospel message illustrated by vignettes from his own life. Aware of the danger of offering glib answers to the philosophical and practical problem of suffering, Jeremy is not afraid to own feelings of loneliness, terror and “why me”. He nevertheless gently and persistently points out the dead ends of pagan and secular approaches, and shows Jesus as the great physician, even “oncologist of death”.

This is an excellent little book to give family and friends – not just in response to cancer or other tragedy. It deserves to be widely read and acted upon.

Additional note – the editor just received this from Jeremy:

“You maybe amused to learn that my football team Watford FC published an article about it [the book] in their programme and interviewed me at half time about it, I was able to share the gospel with 22000 people!”

Post-Election 2019: the state of the nation

Posted by on Dec 17, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Politics | Comments Off on Post-Election 2019: the state of the nation

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Last week’s election result was a significant moment for our country. While the Conservatives won with a huge majority, large numbers of people either didn’t vote at all (some on principle), or ‘held their nose’ and voted Tory because the other options looked worse, not because of enthusiasm for and complete faith in Boris and his programme. The analysis of the election continues in the media (including Christian blogsand the political parties , and will continue in families around Christmas dinner tables. In some quarters there is disappointment, even fury at the result, but probably overall much more relief, even from those skeptical about Brexit and the ability to deliver on some of the more ‘unicorn’ promises, that at last after what seems like several years we have a government which can actually govern.

It has been said a number of times that the scale of the Conservative victory means that this will be seen as historic, a generational shift, in the same way as Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 sweep to power, or Tony Blair’s ‘new Labour’ project beginning in 1997. What kind of country do we have now? Here are, briefly, eight observations:

 

The UK will leave the EU in some shape or form. Boris Johnson promised, again and again, to ‘get Brexit done’, and his majority will ensure that the first stage will be completed by January 31st. Of course then there is the small matter of the trade deal negotiations, which some commentators are already writing off as impossible. What does the future hold? Prosperity as we continue good relationships with Europe without being in the federal project, and build new links with other countries? Or debt-burdened recession as we have to pay tariffs to trade with anyone? We don’t know!

 

The people of the UK are more unashamedly patriotic than before. The English and Welsh working class rejected the modern left’s fashionable embarrassment with Queen and country, and have seen continued support for Brexit as a way of expressing pride in national, rather than class identity. The Scots essentially voted for independence and pressure to formalise this will grow in coming years. The Northern Irish voted in greater numbers than before for progressive parties which advocate a united Ireland, which perhaps shows a growing Irish rather than British identity even among those with protestant heritage.

 

The people of England rejected the rhetoric of the left. Tired old trade union tropes about the right to a four day working week, fostering grievance about ‘austerity’ and exploitation by cruel Tory bosses; new liberal ‘woke’ race and gender identity politics; Marxist demonisation of Jews and America with visions of a state-controlled utopia — these narratives did not work in getting the majority of people to support Labour or the Liberal Democrats. The almost messianic promises of unlimited funding to ensure that “no-one should have to struggle” were viewed with skepticism by people who nevertheless want effective government assistance for the disadvantaged as well as a strong charity sector.

 

But, paradoxically, the political landscape of the UK has moved to the left. While there are some superficial similarities between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, the new UK Government is more like that of Tony Blair in effecting a move to the centre ground. Much more Keynsian in economic policy than under Mr Cameron and Mrs May, socially liberal, in the forefront of the global LGBT agenda under a Prime Minister who is in a cohabiting arrangement, determined to invest in the historically disadvantaged areas of the country, intentionally appointing ethnic minority MP’s to the Cabinet, happy to at least pay lip service to environmental issues –  this is not “right wing” in any sense of the word. At the time of writing, the opposition seems determined to remain much further to the left.

 

The people of England are more united than before. Again, this seems to contradict a commonly heard message that we are all at each others throats, with hate crimes on the increase etc. But in fact, while social divisions continue, there is no longer a clear political divide between north and south, rich and poor, black and white. There is unanimous agreement in the need for government to preserve the NHS in its current form, and to provide other well functioning public services. While most people (including many immigrants) appear to favour some kind of restriction on immigration rather than ‘free movement’ within the EU, those with dangerous views on race and religious supremacy/segregation remain in a small minority.

 

And yet, the very nature of the United Kingdom is threatened, as nationalist sentiment in Northern Ireland and Scotland indicates a desire to pull away from political union with England. While there is an increasing feeling in England that if that’s what a large majority in Scotland want to do, let them – to their own massive disadvantage – there is no way of knowing what serious negative effects the breakup of the Union may have on our economy and psychology.

 

Conservative government and Brexit will not in itself bring Christian revival. Secularism, paganism and increasing Islamic influence do not come from Europe but are deeply embedded in Britain and embraced by the new government. If the Conservative Party (perhaps now a misnomer) is now economically centrist and socially liberal, successfully reflecting the sentiment of the nation, it will remain very difficult for the church in the public square to proclaim a counter cultural message especially the holiness and sovereignty of God, the uniqueness of Christ, the sanctity of life and the importance of families based on monogamous heterosexual marriage.

 

Evidence of the electorate moving away from inherited ways of thinking provides hope for Christian mission. Boris Johnson’s victory speech recognised how for many former Labour voters in the north, the hand would have wavered before putting a cross in the Conservative box, as imagined ancestors would be whispering “vote Labour – that’s what our tribe does”. But thousands ignored this voice and voted Tory for the first time. Does this means, perhaps, that a new generation who have grown up with other inherited messages, that God doesn’t exist, that church is what you go to for a funeral, that Christianity is boring/irrelevant/untrue/bigoted – they might be prepared to apply bold, independent thinking to metaphysical as well as political issues?

 

Might a new realism that politics and government spending can’t solve all our problems, especially breakdown of community, relationships and mental health – lead to a new openness to the gospel? Might a renewed sense of national identity lead to a search for historical and spiritual values underpinning it? Might a new, indigenous form of church grow in the areas where educated southerners have struggled to plant and nurture? Times ahead might be difficult. But it’s Christmas time, when we remember God doing an unusual thing. Who knows?

The four Sundays of Advent

Posted by on Dec 10, 2019 in Advent, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on The four Sundays of Advent

The four Sundays of Advent

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

I’ve worshipped in Anglican churches which don’t use the lectionary, and those which do. While there are advantages in not being tied to a set list of readings, and particularly in preaching chronologically through a book, the lectionary also has great assets. It has a long tradition – many of the patterns of readings date back to the early church. Our godly forbears thought long and hard about the effect readings, and their themes, have on the hearer even before preaching. And of course they undergird the telling of the gospel story, as through the cycle of the church’s year the whole counsel of God can be explained (even the more challenging parts) without the danger of accusations of “the vicar being on his hobby horse” if he selects his favourite passages.

As I’m due to preach the next two Sundays in different churches, I thought it would be a good exercise not just to look at the set passages for each day, but to look at all four Gospel readings for the Advent season, from Matthew this year (Year A). Some of them are not obviously ‘Christmassy’ but they provide a profound, rich and often quite sombre background to the usual more joyful Carol Service readings, and are worth a look as a whole. Here are my brief notes:

First Sunday in Advent: Matthew 24:36-44

“Therefore keep watch, for the Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him” v42

Some comments:

The passage begins with Jesus warning about “that day”, referring to the final winding up of human history by God’s judgement.  It concludes a chapter where Jesus refers to various outpourings of judgement through history: the destruction of Jerusalem, the rise and fall of kingdoms, an increase of evil, the preaching of the gospel to all nations, the final visible appearance of Christ. The latter event will come suddenly with no warning. It will involve separation of the righteous and unrighteous.

Faithful Israelites before Christ waited expectantly with longing for Messiah’s coming, with worship, prayer and counter-cultural living. So should those who follow the Lord today. Advent, the special season for remembering Messiah’s first coming, leads us to remember the future second, cosmic revelation of Christ’s universal rule. This gives us a correct perspective on history in our own time of political upheaval. It reminds us that the gospel of God’s love in Christ only makes sense in context of God’s just judgement of the world. We need to be prepared and watchful, not with a false optimism about our world today, or despairing pessimism about the future.

Second Sunday in Advent: Matthew 3:1-12

“I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who…will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” v11.

Some comments:

The ministry of John the Baptist is introduced. He fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah: the one calling in the desert for preparation for the Lord’s coming. His message: repent, confess sins, be baptised. He warns of “coming wrath”, where safety is based on “fruit in keeping with repentance” not religion or status. He is just the messenger; the Messiah is coming.

As we remember the Christ who came into the world, the season reminds us again to prepare our hearts for the Lord’s coming into our lives today. Our necessary response is active – a conscious act of the will to repent, and passive; receiving a supernatural cleansing and infilling by the Holy Spirit.

Third Sunday in Advent: Matthew 11:2-11

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” v3.

Some comments:

John, used so mightily by God is preaching about the coming Messiah, was persecuted by the authorities, and in prison. His faithfulness has brought him up against the powers of the world. He seemed to doubt the identity of Jesus and wondered if someone else would come – maybe he expected to be rescued?

Jesus’ response is to point to his own ministry of healing, and gospel preaching to the poor, confirming his identity. Jesus honours John as the most important prophet and the greatest human being who ever lived, yet flawed, and so equal to the humblest believer in the non-hierarchical Kingdom of Heaven.

This passage is usually linked with Isaiah 35, a picture of flowers blooming in the desert, of a fearful and defeated people being rescued and vindicated, of celebration as the sick and disabled are healed, of a safe road for travellers to Zion.

Advent works best not for the complacent, but for God’s people struggling, facing godlessness around us and even persecution, frail in body and spirit, wondering whether God will come and rescue and change things for the better. We look at the baby in the manger, the first century preacher, the suffering man on a cross, and ask whether all our hopes can rest on him? Faith looks at the evidence and says ‘yes’.

Fourth Sunday in Advent: Matthew 1:18-25

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins”. v21.

Some comments:

Mary was pregnant, but a virgin. The reaction of disbelief and sneering condemnation from some around her would have been worse then than now. Her fiance Joseph, descended from David, would have faced censure as well. He planned to end the engagement quietly. An angel told him in a dream that the child was indeed conceived from the Holy Spirit, would be born, named ‘Jesus’, and would save people from their sins. Matthew refers to a strange prophecy in Isaiah 7: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son called Immanuel. Joseph married Mary but she remained a virgin until after she gave birth.

We’re so familiar with this story but its brevity encompasses some complex, mysterious gospel themes:

  • Jesus is conceived uniquely as a result of an intimate human-divine encounter, without sex. Luke’s account focusses more on Mary’s humble response.
  • Mary was a virgin and experienced the holy God in this way, yet suffered shame in her community.
  • Joseph also experiences God’s supernatural intervention – an angel in a dream – and was obedient to the heavenly instruction.
  • Jesus at his birth is given the titles “God saves” and “God with us”. This echoes the prophecy of Isaiah 9 where a human child descended from David is given the title “mighty God”.

Some application from the four readings:

The low-key but ever-compelling story we reflect on at this time is not like a Christmas pantomime. The main characters are not obvious human heroes or villains but a lonely prophet, a peasant girl and her carpenter fiance, a baby who grows into a preacher with a healing ministry. In a sense we are still in the story – the happy ending has not happened yet.

At a time when arguments rage about how much government spending, what international treaties and which celebrity politicians can ‘save’ us as a nation, the Advent readings remind us that the real issues are spiritual and moral: God is in charge but we have failed in our responsibilities to love him and one another. He will return in judgement; we need to humbly repent, receive his forgiveness, be filled with his Spirit and await his final coming. This season, how many churches will, like Joseph and Mary, take the tough road of obedience in the face of sneering, and like John the Baptist, risk persecution in explaining God’s amazing salvation in the context of sin and judgement, and resist the temptation just to link Christmas with a sentimentalised, secular version of ‘love’?

“The Tory Party at prayer”?

Posted by on Dec 3, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Politics | Comments Off on “The Tory Party at prayer”?

If so, the C of E reflects the new ‘conservatism’ of the secular progressive elites, not tried and tested values.

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

As the General Election campaign enters its frantic last few days, church leaders have made a number of interventions which tread a fine line between the pastoral and the political. Interestingly these have not always been, as one might expect based on past form, offering strong hints of support towards parties on the left (as in this Bishop’s recent piece). The joint message from the Archbishops of York and Canterbury sets out a vision for the nation which does not explicitly advocate a greater role for a high-spending State, but rather a more ‘conservative’ approach of freedom for individual enterprise while maintaining a strong safety net for the disadvantaged (“open and encouraging to aspiration and ambition; supportive of those who struggle”).

Very soon after the Chief Rabbi’s unprecedented criticism of the Labour Party leadership’s perceived failure to deal with unregenerate stereotyping and hatred of Jews among some of its members, the Archbishop of Canterbury offered immediate support, warning of the “deep sense of insecurity and fear” experienced by many British Jews, and called for more action against antisemitism. Advisers would have no doubt spent time discussing whether the Archbishop’s obligation to speak out on this issue outweighed the potential risk of appearing to criticise one of the two major political parties at election time.

Perhaps even more unusual has been the media briefing from the Church of England website in response to a letter to Bishops signed by hundreds of clergy and lay peopleThe letter warns about how Labour and the Liberal Democrats plan to “decriminalise” abortion, essentially abolishing all the current restrictions nominally in place and allowing terminations at any time in the pregnancy, on demand. The official response from Church House reiterates the C of E’s “principled opposition” to abortion, combined with pastoral sensitivity and realism, and commits to “vigorously challenge any attempt to extent abortion provision beyond the current 24 week limit”.

Editorials on this website have in the past (eg hereasked the question why in contrast to Roman Catholic colleagues, Church of England Bishops (with the exception of former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir Ali) have not spoken out for the unborn child. Their silence in the summer on the undemocratic forcing through of liberal abortion law revision in Northern Ireland, claiming convention of not presuming to speak on issues outside the jurisdiction of England, was especially shameful.

No doubt there are very different views on the subject among the Bishops themselves. So it is very good that this statement from the Church has been made, moderate in tone but nevertheless opposing the plans of the progressive parties on abortion, even though it risks accusations of ‘political bias’ and probably risks division in the House of Bishops. Is the Church of England reverting to it’s former role as “the Conservative Party at prayer”?!

As usual though, sadly, complete clarity on the Church’s position on abortion was avoided after the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a radio interviewappeared to offer support for the draconian “buffer zones” imposed around abortion clinics, imposed to deter any kind of protest against the killing of unborn children. His comment that we need to care for the woman in distress as well as the child shows how his main concern is the potential ‘harassment’ of women seeking abortion, rather than maintaining liberty for principled and appropriate Christian presence and witness. The recent arrest and detention of a man in a wheelchair praying across the road from a clinic in Ealing has highlighted again questions about increasing restrictions around freedom of expression (including religious freedom) when it involves any challenge to the hegemony of the sexual progressives.

While the Church’s official statement about abortion is welcome, it’s at odds with the general trend of Bishops following politicians of all parties in either being unwilling to endorse bible-based Judaeo-Christian ethics around life, gender, sex, marriage and family, or much worse, actively promoting the views of the cultural Marxists and sexual revolutionaries, that ‘traditional, conservative’ ideas on these topics are somehow repressive and discriminatory. The Conservative Party may offer slightly more protection for the unborn child (in its latter stages) than other parties and the Church of England leadership appears to support this, but none of these institutions inspire any confidence in the possibility of slowing the relentless advance of the sex and gender ‘liberation’ agenda more generally.

It is the Conservative Party which introduced the change in the definition of marriage; which has overseen and facilitated the exponential rise in ‘gender transition’, and is now pushing through the new Relationships and Sex Education programmes in schools. Rather than oppose this, or at least equip faithful Christians to understand the rapid cultural change and live distinctively in relation to it, the C of E has taken the side of the sex and gender radicals. This website has tracked many examples of this, but just in the area of education: following on from the release of Valuing All God’s Children, the C of E’s LGBT-affirming guidance on ‘homophobic and transphobic bullying’ co-written with Stonewall was released two years ago; Church of England primary schools are using the transgender lobby group Mermaids to ‘train’ staff and governors and backed by Diocesan education departments in doing so, and now senior leaders have expressed approval for the new RSE programme in this document released last week.

The C of E leadership appears to be ignoring the groundswell of concern about the way the new RSE is being introduced and its lack of safeguards against being used for ideological indoctrination against the wishes of parents.

A number of criticisms of their approach have been written in recent days by Anglicans:

“…there is no commitment to advocating any particular approach to morality, The idea seems to be that children and young people should be offered a smorgasbord of different approaches to sex and relationships and then left to make up their own minds…If Church of England schools are simply going to echo the variety of voices in contemporary society rather than clearly and confidently declaring Christian truth to the next generation, then there is very little point in their existence.” Martin Davie, former theological advisor to the House of Bishops

“[The Church of England’s] new Charter for Relationships, Sex and Health Education fails to protect teachers, governors and children who wish to state and uphold the Church’s own teaching on marriage and family. It also represents a missed opportunity to bring the good news of God’s purposes and pattern for human relationships to the confused and toxic environment in which the one million children they are responsible for are having to grow up.”     Andrea Williams, Christian Concern and General Synod

“This Charter is another reminder that the Church of England appears to have lost all confidence in its own biblical teaching, exchanging it for the thin gruel of progressive relativism where the highest goal is muddling along together. We all deserve better than this from our established church.” Will Jones, Anglican blogger

No doubt many Bishops see RSE as a done deal and not worth risking the relationship between church and government; some see the new regulations as merely a way of teaching children to be positive about difference and kind to others, without understanding the anti-Christian philosophy behind the LGBT agenda. But this ideology like a virus has proved adaptable: previously attaching itself only to the political left and secular atheism, it has morphed to be find a home also among Conservative politicians and church leaders. The long march through the institutions is almost complete.

see also: Church of England under pressure to publicly oppose Labour and Lib Dem plans to liberalise abortion lawsby Tim Wyatt and Phoebe Southworth, Telegraph

Labour and Lib Dem manifestos threaten extreme social liberalism—but are the Tories any better? by Will Jones, Faith and Politics

Church attended by John Stott now offers yoga and mindfulness

Posted by on Nov 19, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Church attended by John Stott now offers yoga and mindfulness

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

St Paul’s Church in Cambridge is a large red brick building situated on Hills Road on the way to the train station if you’re travelling from the town centre. Its architecture is typical of a number of churches built in the second half of the 19th century as part of a renewed commitment from the Church of England to urban mission in the context of rapidly expanding populations at the time. Many of these buildings were home to an evangelical ministry: St James in Northampton, for example, began a rugby club before the first world war as an evangelistic outreach to boys and young men, the ancestor of today’s Northampton Saints rugby team, currently at the top of the English professional league.

Back in Cambridge, St Paul’s was the preferred church for evangelical students during the 1930’s and 40’s: a young John Stott attended there during his student days. The strong Reformed tradition continued with the ministry of Herbert Carson who left the Church of England over a crisis of conscience about baptism and other doctrinal issues in the 1960’s. Michael Farrer who had been a curate at St Ebbe’s and was a colleague of Alec Motyer on the staff of a theological college in Bristol, was vicar from 1978-1992, and I attended the church for three years during this time. By then it was definitely a ‘town’ rather than ‘gown’ congregation, less ‘puritan’ than in the days of Carson and Gwyn Thomas, but still bible-based and theologically orthodox. Stott preached at Farrer’s retirement service in 1992.

I passed the church while on a visit to Cambridge last week. Just a quick look at the main board on the wall showed how things have changed. “Weekly wellbeing workshops; Meditation, open yoga and mindfulness” are the headline services being offered. Had the church closed, and the building been taken over by a New Age group? No, it’s still very much a Church of England church, with Sunday Holy Communion, and a strapline “We are an inclusive & informal community who seek to make connections within ourselves, with other people & with God.” The website speaks of an aim “to live authentically as we seek to respond to the love of God, who has already reached out to us in Christ” which might be fine if there was evidence of grounding in the Scriptures rather than yoga and meditation.

The church where John Stott brought friends to hear the gospel and be converted, a flagship evangelical centre in the mid 20th century, where I myself in the 1980’s took some of my first faltering steps in ministry, is now offering a very different message and worldview, a syncretistic religion seemingly based on fragments of Christian ritual, Eastern mysticism and Jungian psychology.

What might be some lessons from this? Firstly, just as one local church can slide in a human lifetime from being a large strategic centre of evangelical ministry to a small, revisionist entity on the periphery, so the Church of England can move from providing witness to Christ at the centre of national life to an institution increasingly ignored even as it tries to adapt its core message to what it thinks society wants. Secondly, such a slide isn’t inevitable – there are many good C of E and other churches continuing to preach the gospel in Cambridge, and there are many examples of churches being turned around the other way, as evangelical vicars exercise faithful ministry over many years in churches which previously had no clear message or even hostility to the biblical gospel.

But thirdly, there are pressures on the Church of England which make it more likely that we will see more local churches decline as St Paul’s has done, and fewer being turned around. Most committed evangelical believers understandably gather in established and trusted centres known for bible teaching and lively, Spirit-directed worship, leaving diminishing numbers remaining (if possible) to influence the smaller churches; some leave the C of E for other less theologically diverse denominations; theological education undermines the faith-foundations of clergy.

Meanwhile the culture becomes more hostile to certain aspects of Christian truth such as the uniqueness of Christ and the nature of gender and marriage, and lay people are influenced by this; secularism crumbles, mental health problems increase and people turn to alternative spiritualities and self-help philosophies, and clergy who attempt to point to Jesus over against cultural trends are not supported by their leaders or their PCC’s.

The picture of a local church moving away from a fellowship centred around Christ and a message of repentance and faith, to one centred around its own ‘wellbeing and mindfulness’ is closely aligned with the image of General Synod member and prominent LGBT campaigner Jayne Ozanne presenting her book ‘Just Love’ to Pope Francis, and petitioning him to join in the campaign to ban so-called “conversion therapy” (ie taking away the right of clients to choose their own therapeutic goals in the area of sexual orientation, as contributors have discussed on this website ad nauseam).

It occurs to me that these new theologies represent an inversion of the core of Christian faith. The gospel invites us first to recognise the wrong thinking and rebellion against God in the depths of our psyche despite God’s loving creating and sustaining of each of us as individuals. The message of mindfulness and yoga is rather an attempt to justify, be at peace with and celebrate our interior world as the ultimate reality, rather than something which needs to change in response to the true Ultimate Reality.

Then, we ought to orient our lives away from self and towards God, praising him, then confessing “I have sinned against you…”. The message of Jayne Ozanne, furious that even the C of E does not yet officially endorse her desires, by contrast turns it around to self: “the church has sinned against me…” For her to address this message to the Pope is extraordinary. His apparently encouraging but in fact non-committal response, “pray for me as I pray for you”, shows his skilful diplomacy. Commentator Jules Gomes has pointed out that it could only have been Archbishop Justin Welby, who was with the Pope the day before leading an Anglican delegation, who could have organised the audience for Jayne Ozanne.

This facilitation of an anti-gospel message from the senior leadership of the denomination is perhaps the most serious reason why at the local level C of E churches will continue to drift away from recognisably biblical Christianity, and turning things around will prove increasingly difficult.

More on ‘Just Love’ by Jayne Ozanne (from after it’s publication in 2018):

As many reviewers have shown, ‘Just Love’ is an apologia for why, in Jayne’s view, churches should be encouraged, then compelled, to end opposition to same sex relationships and contemporary radical theories about gender. In other words, as Martin Davie points out, it’s not really about ‘love’ at all.

Then, apart from talk about ‘love’ in a general sense, this book is very light on theology, i.e. stuff about God; rather it is about Jayne, as a GP concludes in a scathing review.

See also: This review from David Robertson.

Editor’s note: A reader has responded to this article: “I don’t think the offer of “Weekly wellbeing workshops; Meditation, open yoga and mindfulness” at St. Paul’s is sufficient as a ground on which to base what is said about ‘a local church moving away from a fellowship centred around Christ and a message of repentance and faith’.

The St Paul’s Family News for 10 November seems to me to reflect a sensible and well-grounded Christian ministry.” (https://uploads.strikinglycdn.com/files/26f1d8b7-ecd1-4ebc-ad25-3ee2f08e7b43/2019%20November%2010th%20email.pdf).

Yours faithfully,

Paul McKechnie

The whole gospel addresses the world’s wrong thinking, not just the church’s comfort

Posted by on Nov 12, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on The whole gospel addresses the world’s wrong thinking, not just the church’s comfort

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Is there a crisis in the nation, with a desperate need for radical change in government policies concerning the environment, health and social care, law and order, education, and our relationship with the EU? Or is there more a sense of ennui, of weariness with a stalemated political process, a disappointment with leadership, a longing to be “godly and quietly governed”? As we approach a general election which may potentially result in a continuation of the same rather than resolution, can the church (the faithful people of God, not necessarily the institution) offer any positive contribution? Should it do so, or should it avoid trying to be merely another group trying to shape the polis, and focus instead on ‘the gospel’ and communities gathered in spiritual fellowship?

In a recent editorial for Churchman, former theological college Principal, Archbishop of Sydney and Gafcon General Secretary Peter Jensen appears at first sight to argue the latter point. he’s looking specifically at the task of preaching and teaching in the local church – which he calls “the hardest job of all”. Acknowledging the many demands on a full-time pastor, Jensen sees the preparing and delivering a message based on exposition of the biblical text as central to all ministry, whereby “the people off God submit to the word of God, so that the Lord may truly rule his church.” 

I have questions in my mind which are not immediately addressed here: Is there any connection between this understanding of the church as community oriented towards Christ, and the godlessness and confusion in the wider world? Is there a danger that a focus on a local group gathered around the bible is not only irrelevant, with no power to influence the nation and society as a whole – it actually makes a virtue of this, creating a spiritual retreat or escape from a secular and even hostile world? Does the gospel of Jesus in the life of the church address our personal, economic, political, moral problems in society that are being brought into sharp focus during the endless election-oriented debates? Or is emphasising the centrality of word ministry the way in which we can get away from the ‘worldly’ concerns?

But Jensen does answer these questions by implication in his piece, with quite a sharp criticism of much evangelical preaching today. There is a tendency, he says, for a sermon to consist of two parts: the explaining of the text, which if care is not taken can sound like a lecture, followed by “application”. Because of a desire the include “the gospel” and a message of encouragement, for many evangelical preachers the application is the same whatever the passage of Scripture being expounded, along the lines of “be assured of God’s love, because Jesus died for you on the cross”. [One might add: “and make sure you tell others about the forgiveness available through Jesus’ death as well!”]

Archbishop Peter says that while of course this message is central to the good news, it fails to feed the sheep with the varied rich diet of the whole of Scripture with its many themes, narrowing down the word of God. This will have the effect of boredom in the congregation, as the faithful “come to church knowing what the vicar is going to say and how it will be said, no matter what the bible reading is”. This reinforces the picture of the church as irrelevant to the real issues that people face in a society with social tension, economic and political uncertainty, psychological stress and moral collapse.

Instead, says Jensen, because “we are faced with an ignorant and hostile context”, we must not in our preaching and shared study of the word neglect “the major ethical and apologetic implications” of the bible. He doesn’t expand on this, but the most recent history of his co-leadership of Gafcon, and his successor’s role as Archbishop of Sydney illustrate an understanding of the Lordship of Christ as relevant to the whole of life, not just the forgiveness of sins and assurance of eternal life for the individual believer. The gospel is God’s word to the whole world not just the local church.

So for example the Sydney leadership have recently publicly opposed same-sex marriage and liberalisation of abortion in Australia, and have gained worldwide coverage in the secular media for insisting on the Anglican Church uniting around single, traditional understandings of primary theological truth, rather than tolerating or celebrating a plural diversity of ‘gospels’.

If we’re not seeing evangelicals in the UK speaking out in the same way, if we’re surprised at the silence in the pulpits about, for example, the government’s introduction of relationships and sex education programmes in schools which explicitly favour secular ideology and seek to repress Judaeo-Christian morality, it’s not because the gospel itself is irrelevant to these concerns in society. It’s because of a voluntary restricting of the gospel to a private message of relationship with God. The message of the cross, instead of being seen as the core truth of God’s justice and love giving salvation, assurance and power, a basis from which Christians can confidently proclaim God’s gracious wisdom and challenging demands to the world and receive strength in the face of persecution, has somehow been twisted to justify an escapist, pietistic separation of “world” and “church” which allows us to be doctrinally ‘sound’ but avoiding having to say anything addressing the nation’s beliefs and behaviour which might upset people.

I recently preached a sermon as part of a series on the book of Ruth. One commentary I read was helpful in a number of ways, but the emphasis of the interpretation was on Ruth and Naomi’s encounter with the “kinsman redeemer”. Just as they met Boaz in their deepest need and he cleared their debts and took them into his home, so Jesus does the same for the believer today. While this is no doubt a glorious truth which must be one of the points of application of the text, the preacher must surely point out that the redemption is not just of individuals, but of Israel. The book of Ruth begins with a situation of famine, exile, death and lack of children – is it too much of a stretch to see this reflected not just in the life of an individual without Christ, but a nation that has lost its way and has embraced idols like our own? And the transformation that occurs: harvest plenty; praise and obedience towards God, marriage, intimacy, children and a future – can this not inspire vision beyond the spiritual health of the local church, into society as a whole?

The worthy commentator to whom I referred emphasised the legal aspects of Boaz the redeemer fulfilling his obligations, just as for us, the centre of the gospel is justification. For him, there is nothing ‘romantic’ in the story. I said:

I’m sorry, but there clearly is! They don’t end up getting married just out of duty… there is a whole theme in the bible of how the marriage relationship, man and woman, is a picture of God’s relationship with humanity. There is the distance – difference inherent in male and female, difference in status, wealth and class just as there is distance between us and God…God seeks out those lower than him for intimate relationship in a way that seems impossible – even more impossible than Boaz and Ruth getting together. One writer, Christopher West, claims that the gospel can be summed up in five words – God wants to marry us!…The metanarrative – the bible begins with human beings being created for dignity and flourishing, but soon there’s a massive gulf between God and human beings. The story ends with the church as the bride of Christ – once poor, in the dirt, without much to commend it, but now elevated, given respect and honour, cleaned up, united with the Lord of the Universe. It’s not difficult to see how Ruth and Boaz, a human story, is a picture of that reality.

The importance of preserving ‘heteronormativity’ in society, and of protecting and nurturing marriage and children (especially when the unborn are under threat); the wider commendation of a god-given vision for human flourishing at a time of national stagnation – these are therefore not side issues, nothing to do with ‘the gospel’, issues to be placed in the box marked ‘politics’. The gospel is contained in the church’s witness to the truth in these areas. These are important parts of the message the church should be preaching and embodying, as it listens to, obeys and communicates the whole teaching of the bible as Archbishop Jensen encourages preachers to do.