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.

Does the resurrection make a difference?

Posted by on Apr 10, 2021 in 2-Important Posts, Easter, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Does the resurrection make a difference?

Does the resurrection make a difference?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

In Matthew’s account of the resurrection, we’re given a tantalising brief description of how some Roman soldiers had an unexpected encounter with a supernatural being:

“…an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it….the guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men”.

Christ the incarnate son of God is held in the inescapable prison of death, with two powerful extra doors as ‘belt and braces’: the sealed stone, and the imperial security guards. We’re not told anything of the mechanics of how the wracked and tortured body beginning the process of decay was given new vibrant life with full divine personality restored. All the human witnesses see is the empty tomb. But death has been overcome by the energy of the resurrection; while the angel brushes aside the weight of physical matter, and the human power structures of Rome.

In the apostle John’s description of his encounter with the risen Christ in the first chapter of Revelation, there is a similar effect of the utter terror of supernatural encounter which renders people unable to stand and semi-conscious: “I fell at his feet as though dead”. But there is a difference. The soldiers are left there on the ground, humiliated before the women as they arrive at the tomb. For John, his master and friend Jesus reaches out his hand, touches him, and says “do not be afraid…I am…go and tell”. Is there an echo of Moses at the burning bush, of Isaiah in the temple? Certainly with the Old Testament prophets, the first disciples of Christ, and then with Paul and John, there is a pattern: the encounter with the risen Lord, the need to be lifted up and restored, the commissioning and empowering for mission.

The contrast could not be greater: soldiers, confident in their strength and authority; John in prison, weak and vulnerable before human power and the onset of death. Both had an encounter with the divine and fell down. The guards later slunk back to barracks, to be hushed up – who knows what happened to them? John went on to write words of divine warning and encouragement to inspire millions down the centuries.

Today, we believe that Jesus rose. Is that enough? In an extract from a recent interview reported in the Church Times,  Jordan Peterson said:

“It’s too terrifying a reality to fully believe. I don’t even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it.”

Professor Peterson noted that, when asked in the past whether he believed in God, “I’ve answered in various ways, ‘No, but I’m afraid he probably exists.’”

He continued: “There’s no limit to what would happen if you acted like God existed. . . It may be it’s not reasonable to say to believers, you aren’t sufficiently transformed for me to believe that you believe in God or that you believe the story that you’re telling me. . . the way you live isn’t sufficient testament to the truth.

“And people would certainly say that, let’s say, about the Catholic Church, or at least the way that it’s being portrayed, is that with all the sexual corruption, for example, it’s like ‘Really, really, you believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and yet you act that way, and I’m supposed to buy your belief?’

“It seems to me that the Church is actually quite guilty on that account, because the attempts to clean up the mess have been rather half-hearted, in my estimation. Christians don’t manifest this — and I’m including myself, I suppose, in that description — the transformation of attitude that enables the outside observer to easily conclude that they believe.”

Of course we could argue that it’s a bit unfair to make all Christians guilty because a few have been abusers and a few have turned a blind eye. But the general point is valid, particularly, perhaps, for the church in the West: where is the evidence of transforming power, spiritual reality in those who affirm orthodox biblical belief? I can think of three areas where this is a challenge to us.

Firstly, in our ministry of the word: John was in prison for his faithfulness to the word of God even to the point of refusing to accommodate to the powers of his time. And also, he was “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s day. Are we familiar with this combination of being bible-centred, charismatic and persecuted? Have we reduced Christian faith to a set of propositions based around a text in a comfortable environment, and perhaps assume it always leads to, or is the same as a personal encounter with the risen living Lord?

Secondly, in our systems and structures of doing Christian life and church. Peterson rightly points out the disconnect between everything seeming to be well organised on the surface, while abuse of power and other sins appear to be tolerated. The last verse of Revelation chapter one shows that the church involves spiritual dynamics – stars and lamp stands – not just administration, human gifts and techniques.

Thirdly, in our attitude to the powers of the world. We can be fearful of reputation-damaging social media disapproval, of threats to our livelihood, even falling foul of the law. Just as the Roman empire appeared invincible in John’s day, and the temptation was to restrict the remit of Christ’s lordship to the church only, so today for many the idea of not gaining the approval of the controlling elites, or not having power ourselves in some way, is inconceivable. But we’re told, “don’t be afraid” – the picture of Roman soldiers lying on the ground should be demonstration enough of whom to fear.

In the next section, John writes to the angel in Ephesus, which perhaps we could say is the group psychology and controlling spiritual power of the church. The message: it has lost its first love – the relationship with Christ, that supernatural, life-transforming encounter, has gone cold. The good news is that there can be a turnaround. Jesus says: “repent and do the things you did at first”. That might apply in all sorts of ways. It certainly speaks to me.

Power today: using the energy of how people feel to control how we should think

Posted by on Mar 26, 2021 in 2-Important Posts, Culture, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Power today: using the energy of how people feel to control how we should think

Power today: using the energy of how people feel to control how we should think

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

A recent article by Brendan O’Neill on Spiked is a brilliant analysis of a key aspect of the revolutionary change affecting Western culture. If we want to understand what is behind some of the theological and ethical confusion in the church, “cancel culture” and campaigns to regulate speech and thought, the teaching of LGBT ideology to small children, and even the strong feelings elicited by the Oprah Winfrey interview with Meghan and Harry, The tyranny of ‘lived experience’ is worth reading. O’Neill explains that power resides less and less in the old structures of class and privilege (eg hereditary peers and privately educated clergy), but is now linked to the primacy of individual feelings combined with the ability to leverage the narrative around matrices of oppression. Although he is not a Christian, O’Neill’s analysis is similar to that of Carl Trueman, whose book ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self’ shows how the new power of wokeness derives from a combination of ‘expressive individualism’, Marxist social theory and Freudian psychology.

How people feel, or “lived experience”, is now more important than empirically verifiable facts. It is does not need data, measurable reality, to back it up, because it defines identity, which cannot be questioned. It takes on more value the more it is expressed publicly. But then O’Neill points out that expressions of “lived experience” are not equally valid. As an example he discusses Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has been publicly attacked by some MP’s for not caring about racism. O’Neill concludes: “Some lived experiences will be accorded moral weight, others will be denied it.” The testimony of an Asian woman does not count if she is seen as part of the ‘oppressor’ class.

Another example is the ‘lived experience’ of oppression and discrimination by ‘trans women’ which is increasingly seen as a “deified marginalised group”, while the experiences of those who have received violent abuse for wanting to protect the rights of biological females are discounted; the new powerful elites demand that their views are cancelled. So, “‘lived experience’ does not refer to mere experience, to the ‘firsthand experiences’ we all have [even if it is articulated by someone from a minority group], but rather to experiences that have been dutifully interpreted through the prism of the social-justice lens.”

The new trend of expressive individualism has not led to a rich and diverse, perhaps confusing and conflicting plurality of experiences, all given equal weight. Rather there is an increasing demand for conformity in terms of what we should feel or think. According to the new dogma, controlled by a new woke elite, “lived experience is the filtering of one’s engagement with life through a pre-existing script of systemic oppression. It is the subjugation of experience to orthodoxy.”

O’Neill uses that word because he sees this newly dominant worldview as like a religion – it has its own correct beliefs and heresies. It has its “commandments” to which we must “genuflect”; since it has become “the embodiment of the sacred”; questioning it is “blasphemy” and leads to being “damned”. Those who have learned to control and weaponise the narratives around oppression and victimhood, now operate “in a neo-priestly fashion, with their gospel of lived experience striking down objective truth”. The ‘approved’ feelings of designated victim heroes are “sacralised to the end of more closely controlling the behaviour and beliefs of the many.” His unmasking of the new power dynamics and those who control them is worth quoting in full:

“From this position of authority, dubiously earned via the ideology of lived experience, the new elites can divide and rule (deciding which identity groups are oppressed, or good, and which are privileged, or bad); police public discussion (via cancel culture); educate a new generation to embrace the hierarchy of identity and the need for thought control in the name of social peace (via the education system and in universities); and even define reality itself. Apparently, our reality — our experiences, our understanding of the world we live in, our truths — does not matter. It has been falsely planted; it is based on lies or ignorance. They, on the other hand, can see reality as it truly exists.”

If O’Neill’s analysis is correct, then some serious reflection and action is required on the implications of this revolutionary change for the church.

It is no doubt a good thing that how people feel is taken into consideration in our daily lives. However, as more and more people move away from the traditional understanding that the world we live in is a given, for us to fit into, with a Creator at the centre, and instead embrace the idea of a world with me and my feelings at the centre, that presents a challenge to the church. “The bible says…”, and appeals to reason, tradition and natural law no longer carry weight. I can only tell my own story.

Mission thinkers have embraced this positively, saying that we are now like Paul in Athens, part of a marketplace of ideas into which the experience of the Christian can be shared. Those evangelicals who enthusiastically support the Living in Love and Faith project believe that participation in it provides an opportunity for conservatives as well as liberals to share their story. The assumption is that while the authority and meaning of Scripture might be questioned, different views can have an equal place at the table.

But they don’t. As O’Neill has pointed out and as we are realising more and more, if our thoughts and feelings shaped by bible-based Christian discipleship don’t conform to the new orthodoxy dictated by the woke elites, they’re not given a chance. They are seen as dangerous heresy, to be shamed, punished and cancelled, as we’ve seen recently with those who dare to say that people should have the right to explore moving away from same sex attraction or gender dysphoria if they so wish. And as in any revolution, those with ‘reactionary’ views begin to be denounced in their own churches and even families.

So how should the church respond? What are the options?

One is capitulation. This is when the church acts as if it agrees that the feelings of minority identities trump the realities of nature’s given order and the truths of Scripture. Examples of this: when the Church of England supported a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ in 2017 and approved liturgies to celebrate gender transition in 2018.

Two is compromise. This is when Christian leaders claim to believe orthodox doctrine and point to their church’s formularies which have not changed, but they do nothing to prevent the adoption and practice of other beliefs and worldviews throughout the church, leading to a syncretism, a mixing of Christians forms with the ideologies of the dominant surrounding culture.

Three is withdrawal. There are sections of the church which continue to teach and practice the faith according to historic biblical teaching, but with little or no acknowledgement of the power and influence of woke ideology, which the lay members are encountering in the media, in education and the workplace, but not being helped to understand and resist.

Four is resistance. This is not putting faith in a political programme, or establishing a counter-culture using worldly methods of control and enforced conformity. Nor should there be knee-jerk opposition to everything being put forward by the new secular elites. For example, Christians should join in opposition to genuine prejudice and injustice, but from a biblical perspective.  They should be helped to understand and reflect on the shifts in plausibility and power dynamics that O’Neill describes. Then respond with prayer, the careful and if necessary confrontational reiteration of a biblical worldview, the establishment of Christ-centred and Spirit-inspired loving families and communities, part of the global, persecuted and ultimately vindicated body of Christ. Could this Easter be a time to start if we haven’t already?

Increase in LGBT identity in the West, “herd mentality”, and the church’s response

Posted by on Mar 1, 2021 in Editorial Blog, Gay activism | Comments Off on Increase in LGBT identity in the West, “herd mentality”, and the church’s response

Increase in LGBT identity in the West, “herd mentality”, and the church’s response

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

On Saturday (27 February) veteran journalist Matthew Parris indicated his firm support for requiring children with gender dysphoria to wait until adulthood before undergoing life-changing hormone and surgery treatment. In an article in the Times [£] the columnist and presenter argued against a long-established trope of LGBT activists, that same sex attraction, and a ‘trans’ person’s sense that gender does not conform to biological sex, are innate and unchanging, “some great shard of internal granite” that we are born with, discover and are liberated as we live out our ‘true nature’. Rather, he says, most with same sex attraction and/or who identify as LGBT have bisexual and gender fluid inclinations, and the way they choose to express them is a matter of choice, with fashion and peer influence playing a key role.

Parris takes results of recent surveys in the UK and the US showing that the younger you are, the more likely you are to tick the box “same sex attracted”, either exclusively or partially. Nearly half of under 25’s are shown to be in this category. Even the older age groups appeared to show far higher levels of same sex attraction than Parris remembers from his experience in previous decades. What is the reason for people “going gay at a dizzying pace”? he asks, ruling out the possibility that human biology has somehow changed. Rather what has changed is social attitudes:

“we repress in ourselves, as well as hide from others, proclivities that are socially taboo. When the taboo is lifted, not only do we talk more freely about the feelings we know we have, but we may also find feelings we didn’t know we had, feelings that can grow because a space has been created for them.”

As an openly gay man, Parris applauds this lifting of social constraints on feelings and behaviour. But for him, this does not mean that those who are ‘gay’ or ‘trans’ are now free to ‘be themselves’ in an essentialist way as if this is their real self about which they have no choice. Rather people are free to channel their sexual feelings in the direction they wish. This, for Parris, should be the basis for true “equality”, rather than treating sexual orientation as something fixed like race.

But then, he ends with a note of caution. While for him and his fellow liberals this freedom from the old moral constraints is a good thing, we should be aware of the corollary: what we are now permitted to do can quickly become something that is fashionable and even expected: the repression of yesteryear can give way to a new type of pressure to conform to new ideas. This “herd mentality” can be seen in the example of “waves of anorexia, self-harm, and… gender-confusion” in teenage girls. It’s fine if people are trans, he says, but any medical interventions should be based on individual choices by adults about their own bodies, recognising that we may be following a trend rather than discovering our true selves.

The implications go beyond the issue of ‘trans’ teenagers. In this article, Matthew Parris, one of the most influential campaigners for rapid change in attitudes about sexuality, is challenging some of the key ideas on which these revolutionary changes are based.

One such idea is that ‘homophobia’ is systemic and widespread, causing mental distress for LGBT people, and requiring ongoing campaigns to eradicate conservative views on sexuality, including in the church. But as Parris explains, statistics clearly show that it is now completely normal not just to be sympathetic to, affirming of, celebrating LGBT people, but also to identify as LGBT in some way (nearly half of under 25’s do so). The taboo has well and truly been removed. In addition, it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, socially unacceptable and  potentially illegal according to ‘hate’ legislation to express a negative opinion of homosexuality. Does this not suggest that ‘homophobia’ in the West is now a concept from the past? When conservative Christians publicly “repent of homophobia”, is the message they are sending one of attractive genuine Christian humility and winsomeness, or rather demonstrating that they have bought in to Stonewall’s myth of ongoing widespread prejudice, which is part of the agenda to eliminate remnants of conservative viewpoints?

Secondly, it would be interesting to know how Parris would respond to the obvious rejoinder about proposed and actual bans on so-called ‘conversion therapy’. If the direction that people take sexually is a matter of choosing to “cultivate seeds” (his analogy), why are people with fluid sexualities who would previously happily chosen a heterosexual direction now permitted, even encouraged to explore and cultivate same sex feelings and relationships, but not to explore and cultivate heterosexual inclinations, especially if they have already declared interest in the same sex? On what basis can Parris and his courageous colleagues in the Times who have consistently maintained that transgender therapy and surgery for those unhappy with the dysphoria of body and psyche should be a matter of careful adult choice, deny that choice for those wanting to move away from same sex desires or LGBT identity through therapy, counselling or prayer? Are Christians in the UK going to insist on continuing to carry out biblical teaching and pastoral care, as we have seen in parts of Australia, or will future government restrictions on authentic Christian ministry in this area be met with meek submission?

Then lastly, there is a tension in Parris’ piece: on one hand he celebrates the freedom to identify and behave how one wishes sexually, and that there will be more LGBT people in the years to come, but on the other hand he says this is largely driven by fashion and peer pressure, and issues a warning. There is a clear implication: a liberal culture has given way to a more conformist one, especially among the young. We are now no longer a pluralist society, where different views and independence of thought are valued, but one based on a monoculture of ‘woke’ values increasingly enforced by law. So, as this applies to the church: how does this new situation affect mission strategy? Is the rush to embrace ‘diversity’ in the form of LGBT representation in Christian leadership, for example, and changing of teaching on sex and marriage, based on compassion, or on fashion? There is a danger that those in the church who should be witnessing to distinctive virtues and God’s grace based on the teachings of Scripture and the character of Christ are in fact just ‘virtue-signalling’, and not being distinctive at all, just conforming to a craze sweeping the secular world.

See also:

Why Are Young Adults Increasingly Identifying as Bisexual? by Joe Carter, The Gospel Coalition

Gallup and Major Media Report LGBT Identity is Growing. Is That Really a Thing? by Glenn T Stanton, Focus on the Family

The Queering Of Young Americaby Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

The Road to Sexual Revolution: Carl Trueman and the Modern Selfby R J Snell, Public Discourse: According to Carl Trueman, focusing myopically on problems with sexual morality often results in misguided responses to the sexual revolution. Instead, we must grapple with “a much deeper and wider revolution in the understanding of what it means to be a self.”

 

New Anglican expression offers secure home and springboard for mission

Posted by on Feb 23, 2021 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on New Anglican expression offers secure home and springboard for mission

New Anglican expression offers secure home and springboard for mission

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

A new Anglican jurisdiction officially came into being on 22nd February, as the Anglican Convocation in Europe (ACE) was commissioned by Archbishop Foley Beach in his capacity as Chairman of the Gafcon Primates’ Council. Nearly 200 clergy and lay people attended the online service of worship and prayer, preaching and fellowship which celebrated and inaugurated a new chapter in creative Anglican mission.

The journey towards the formation of ACE began in 2017, when the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) changed its canons on marriage. Some SEC congregations felt they could not accept this decision and the underlying departure from Christian norms of Scripture and tradition, so they appealed to Gafcon for help. Gafcon asked ACNA and in particular its northernmost Diocese, the Anglican Network in Canada to provide emergency oversight, by consecrating a Missionary Bishop for Europe under their jurisdiction.

This Bishop was Andy Lines, former missionary in South America and the  Chief Executive of Crosslinks, a UK-based global mission agency. Bishop Andy’s brief was to provide episcopal care under Gafcon not just for Scottish Anglicans made homeless by SEC’s decision, but also to congregations in the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE), and others emerging in Britain and continental Europe as part of the Anglican realignment.

It was not going to be possible or desirable to force together these different groups into one body. So Gafcon wisely authorised Bishop Andy to lead a process resulting in the formation of two Convocations, AMiE and ACE, with slightly different traditions and geographical remits, each distinct and self-governing but partnering together in mission under the Anglican Network in Europe (ANiE). AMiE was formally constituted as a Gafcon Convocation with Andy Lines as Bishop in December 2020; this week it was the turn of ACE.

The service was introduced by Bishop Andy, and began with video greetings from around the world, including Bishops from Tanzania, Chile, Namibia, Australia and England. After an opening song, one of three in the service played and sung by an excellent Glasgow-based duo, the formal liturgy, inaugurating and praying for the Convocation and installing Andy Lines as Bishop, was led by Archbishop Foley. Clergy who lead congregations in Scotland, England and Portugal each read formal declarations and were licensed as ministers in the new Convocation by Bishop Andy.

A sermon by Charlie Masters followed, on “key statements about the gospel” from 2 Timothy 1:8-2:2. Bishop Charlie has led the Anglican Network in Canada since its inception in 2009, and has formed a strong bond of friendship and support with Bishop Andy and the founding congregations of ACE in Scotland and England. he emphasised the centrality of the authentic gospel of Christ: a promise of life despite its offensiveness to some; a means of rescue; a message based on historical truth, sufficient for the church’s ministry to needy people, which must be accurately and faithfully handed on.

Some will want to dismiss this new initiative with its small size and the controversy of it being outside the Canterbury-aligned national Anglican churches. But as Bishop Charlie reminded the online congregation, the formation of ACE as part of ANiE is not primarily about administration and jurisdiction but the gospel of Christ. Similarly, Archbishop Foley Beach did not refer to issues of theological differences within Anglicanism, but to the fact that “Europe needs to be evangelised”. many of the greetings from around the world combined the same urgent plea for sharing the gospel of salvation with encouragement to stand firm for the faith once delivered.

Following the sermon, participants in the service were divided into small groups for a time of intercession for ACE, its congregations and planned new church plants, for mission to Europe, and for the global Gafcon movement. After the service had formally concluded with a rousing rendition of ‘O Church Arise’ and a blessing by Archbishop Foley, small groups were opened up again, this time for more informal fellowship, enabling ACE congregation members and supportive onlookers to meet , tell stories and encourage each other.

It was clear from this well-planned and led service that the Anglican Convocation in Europe has several key elements in its DNA: a clear, shared understanding of the gospel of salvation based on the authority of Scripture, a sense of being part of and dependent on the worldwide church, an appreciation of the liturgical riches of Anglicanism; a commitment to the priority of evangelistic mission. These will be attractive to those considering new Anglican expressions of faithful Christian community to shine the light of Christ in the increasingly secular context of Europe.

See also

Passing the Baton, by Philip de Grey-Warter, Anglican Convocation in Europe

GAFCON Bishop to head new Anglican Convocation in Europeby David Virtue, Virtueonline

 

Being the bad guys

Posted by on Feb 12, 2021 in 2-Important Posts, Book Reviews, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Being the bad guys

Being the bad guys

Andrew Symes reviews a new book by Stephen McAlpine:

In his introduction, McAlpine briefly and simply traces how the perception of Christianity and Christians in society has shifted from being “the good guy” – the solution to what is bad, the foundation of law and morality – to being “one of the guys” i.e. one option among many, to “the bad guy”, seen as the problem. Most Christians haven’t yet accepted or adapted to this new reality; they are continuing to assume a “neutral space” in culture, where the Christian message competes on equal and friendly terms with other worldviews. As a result, many either become aggrieved with the world, or apologetic and seeking to win back the world’s favour. Instead, counsels McAlpine, Christians should learn how to live as “the bad guys” in a calm, clear-sighted and even joyful way.

Certain truths need to be faced straight away. Firstly, Jesus predicted that his disciples and his message would not be accepted by the world. Secondly, critiques of some aspects of church culture and behaviour by Christians may be valid. Thirdly, the main battle ground currently is around issues of sex and gender,and there can be no peaceful coexistence between the historic Christian view and the increasing consensus of ‘progressive’ ideology, as there was in the past when the dominant thinking was nominally Christian or liberal/pluralist.

Christians who refuse to accept the new dogmas of the sex and gender revolution are facing discipline in the workplace, and even ostracism in families and some church denominations. Parents with conservative morality are working out how to cope as their children’s schools promote the rainbow pride view of personal identity and family life. Abortion continues unchecked, and euthanasia in increasingly permitted in Western states around the world. Christians are wondering: how has this happened so quickly? how can we protect our freedom to express and live by our beliefs? why is the progressive culture not collapsing but appearing to flourish?

McAlpine asks: how can we offer the gospel to the world which regards it not just as ridiculous, but harmful? And how can we offer a programme of discipleship which detoxes us from the lies of the culture? Chapter two explains why the persecution of Christianity shouldn’t take us by surprise: the New Testament can be summarised as “suffer now, glory later”. Jesus in the Gospels and the apostle Peter in his first letter both encourage us to rejoice at being vilified, focussing on our union with Christ now, our being formed in his likeness, and our future with him. McAlpine commends Christian organisations which seek to defend freedom of belief, but counsels against ungodly anger, and confusing certain types of political action with establishing God’s kingdom.

The book then turns to address how traditional ideas about sex and gender are now seen as repressive, harmful and needing to be eliminated like racism. In contrast the new non-binary, rainbow idea is shown to be liberating, creative, affirming of difference, loving and even backed up by science. Christians have been blindsided by the speed of this change, by the hostility of those advocating it, and by the powerful links between sexuality, identity and spirituality. McAlpine shows how the wholesale rejection of the Genesis 1 and 2 understanding of creation does not just make life uncomfortable for Christians now – it will be disastrous for humanity in general.

The voices which warn about this are suppressed, while increasingly, “some churches and denominations are opting out of the Christian vision and joining the rainbow one”. What can we do? McAlpine is not in favour of working in the public square to repeal unjust laws, or retreating into ghettos. The author goes on to warn against playing the game of “competing victimhood”, agreeing with secular commentators that Christians in the West are not really persecuted. Also, the church has to admit that it has been aligned with the powerful for centuries, and has sometimes abused that power.

So rather than complaining about injustice and trying to get back into power, Christians should apologise for past failures, demonstrate concern for the marginalised, and look for opportunities to witness among those disillusioned with secularism. Will the future be “arid post-Christian existence full of fear and empty of human kindness”? In which case there could be potential for effective mission.

Chapter 5 deals with true and false “authenticity”, and contrasts the false and self-serving “being true to myself” of the celebrity who “comes out”, with the self-denying discipleship that Jesus calls us to. Christians must look at themselves and repent of putting worldly comfort and security first, and pursuing our “rights” with bitterness instead of forgiving those who wrong us. McAlpine imagines that winsome and loving Christian community will be attractive and compelling. This needs to be carried out through radical commitment to the local church, and what this looks like is explored in chapter 6. The prophet Haggai helps to remind us where our priorities would be as we try to survive and thrive by God’s grace in a dominant culture largely hostile to our faith. God’s glory and the building of his house, a diverse, loving and joyful community, takes precedence over our own personal and family projects.

But what about when Christians are faced with the dilemma of either having to conform to the sexual revolution ideology, or lose their job (for example, being asked to support a “LGBT pride day” at work). Chapter 7 posits such a scenario, and takes the reader to the book of Daniel who was faced with a much worse choice. The answer is to establish intentional discipleship programmes in the church to prepare Christians for “reflex faithfulness” in such situations, in which we trust in being vindicated by God in the end whatever happens. This needs to be backed up by genuine support from the church for members who find themselves in trouble as a result of their faithfulness, and ensuring that the church is known for its friendliness and programmes of practical help in the local area.

The final chapter looks at themes from 1 Corinthians, bringing a biblical perspective to the problem of living as Christians in two parallel, or even overlapping ‘cities’ with opposing values. The temptation for Christians is to imitate the world, close our eyes to it and form a separate subculture, or attack it. Rather, McAlpine says, our hope is in the fact that the present world is passing away – the stable place to be is a community faithful to God and his word, while the enticing progressive vision has no consistency or ultimate certainty. While it may be painful to be treated as the bad guy, the story has a happy ending.

There is much in this book that is excellent. Although authors Carl Truman and Rod Dreher are not mentioned, their influence in clearly in the background in McAlpine’s analysis of culture and his suggestions of building strong counter-cultural Christian communities. He does not shy away from addressing the real threat of the progressive sex and gender ideology to authentic Christian discipleship and freedom of thought and conscience, unlike some who think this is too negative and confrontational. His use of the bible and illustrations from contemporary films and everyday life complement his simple and clear explanations of secular culture and how we got here.

However, there are a couple of niggles for me. Firstly McAlpine attacks the easy target of the angry, complaining Christian culture warrior too often in the book, as if such people are the real problem, rather than the actual crisis of increasing enforcement of wokeness in society and church. Yes there are those who express their opposition to the progressive agenda in an obnoxious and sometimes unhelpfully party-political way on social media, but they are outnumbered by hundreds to one by Christians who believe there is nothing to worry about, who are silent and confused, or who support that agenda. Secondly, and related, he is perhaps too optimistic about the effectiveness of ‘winsomeness’ in enabling the church to turn the situation around. I’m left wondering whether these weaknesses are from McAlpine himself, or evidence of the editing process for the English market.

Let us pray

Posted by on Feb 1, 2021 in Editorial Blog, Prayer | Comments Off on Let us pray

Let us pray

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

The Archbishops have called for prayerThey suggest every day at 6pm. Cranmer is right to point out on his blog that it’s churlish to criticise this initiative because of disagreements over theology in other areas. The C of E leadership recognised towards the end of last year that in the early days of the pandemic they had prioritised a ‘health and safety’ message over a spiritual one; they have sought to rectify this. “We are in trouble; let us pray”, they say. “Amen” should be our response, wherever we see our church allegiance, present or future.

I’m very grateful for a member of my extended family who started a daily 6pm Zoom prayer meeting for relatives and friends which lasted during the first lockdown last April and May. We reinstated it at the start of this year. Our format is: a Psalm is read, someone gives a short message, needs are briefly shared, and then one of the participants gathers up the issues and individuals in prayer. It takes 15 minutes.

Prayer is perhaps the most basic activity, the most obvious idea which marks out the person of faith and his/her worldview from the secular humanist. If I pray, I’m acknowledging that there is a spiritual realm outside myself and the material world, and there is a personal deity who can listen and has power to bring about change. Mindfulness, centering and other activities which focus on the inner psyche rather than God out there can’t really be described as prayer.

For the Christian, God can’t be known or communicated with apart from Jesus Christ. I’ve been re-reading the Sermon on the Mount and once again I’ve been struck by the way Jesus authoritatively teaches on the attitude required by the person in relationship with God, how he warns about the sinful traits which hinder that relationship, how he shows practically how to pray, and then reveals himself as the one through whom we pray.

The heart that prays

The Beatitudes describe the attitude of the person who sees God, who is a member of God’s kingdom, who is a child of God and receives his comfort – in other words, the one who prays. This basic simple faith can’t be set against having correct thinking, as if concern for doctrine always betrays a heart that is uncaring and hard towards God and others, as some claim. In fact Jesus goes on to warn about those who “set aside” God’s word (Matt 5:19). But having said that, the right attitude, it seems, is a prerequisite for right ideas. This is good to remember as evangelicals are confronted with shameful reports of abuse of power by individuals respected for their orthodox theology.

Instead, the Beatitudes describe poverty of spirit, humility, desire for righteousness rather than personal advantage, mercy, love, and courage to witness to Christ even in the face of persecution. And what is poverty of spirit? Surely not a technical admission of general sinfulness, quickly followed by self-justification assisted by intellectual understanding of the atonement?

Putting Matthew’s version side by side with Luke’s “blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20) perhaps gives us a clue to help us grasp and put into practice Jesus’ demand for real repentance with which he begins his sermon. Material poverty, that crushing, debilitating sense of powerlessness and low self-esteem associated with constant financial lack, which few reading this blog would ever have experienced, is not just an illustration of spiritual poverty but results, in most cases, in actual humility. Material poverty does not in itself provide entry into God’s Kingdom, but most of those Christians who answer today to Jesus’ description “you who are poor” know the first steps of prayer because they cannot be proud or dependent on their own resources. This is why affluent Christians need to be part of networks where they can learn about these basics of faith from their disadvantaged brothers and sisters.

Prayer blockers, and how to overcome them

Jesus goes on to talk about the things in human nature which are blocks to the attitudes required for prayer. Hating, despising, writing off another person, especially another Christian (Matt 5:21-22; 7:1-5) but also even an enemy (5:44). Lust and marital unfaithfulness, specifically the sexual immorality of the mind, is spiritually destructive (5:27-32 – have any of those who claim that Jesus had nothing to say about sex ever read the Sermon on the Mount?) Pride – and Jesus particularly warns against the virtue-signalling and self-promotion of the religious, doing and saying good things in public in order to be praised (6:1). How might this apply in the social media era?

Of course pride is much more of a monster than can be summed up in these examples of pharisaical piety. It is the opposite the attitude of the Beatitudes; because it is surface and not internal righteousness, it ends in hypocrisy (7:5) and destruction (7:13). But the problem is, we often think humility is nice in theory, and in certain contexts, but impractical in the real world. How will I get on in life if I don’t push myself forward? Who wants a pastor who is meek, and not trumpeting or tweeting his virtue? How will he lead our church into growth? How many of those now complaining about a pastor who has abused his power, were drawn to and praising his ‘alpha male’ qualities a few years earlier? This is not, it must be said, in any way excusing wrong use of power in church contexts, but perhaps explains how it can lie unaddressed for so long? One thing is for sure: pride and prayer are incompatible.

Greed, and worry about money, are two sides of the same coin and next on the list of prayer-killers (6:19-34). Again, it’s the opposite of the attitude which hungers for righteousness and thinks first of how to help others. With a few simple examples Jesus holds up the mirror to our souls, inviting us to repentance, but not despair. He teaches us how to pray, simply laying out the priorities of establishing the vision of God’s glory and kingdom, asking for our daily material needs, confessing our sins and receiving his forgiveness, and obtaining his protection from evil.

There are practical ways to suppress pride, lust and greed, notably “when you give” (6:2); “when you fast” (6:16), serving even our oppressors beyond what is demanded (5:40-41). Then we’re in the right heart-place to ask our generous heavenly Father, to seek his face, to knock on his door as we use that daily time and moments through the day to plead for our own needs and those of the world (7:7-8).

Prayer in practice

The Sermon on the Mount is usually seen as concluding at the end of chapter 7. But the first two stories of chapter 8 can be seen as these principles of humility and prayer being carried out in practice just as Jesus urges with his illustration of the house upon the rock. So, first, the man with leprosy, surely “poor in spirit”, shunned and perhaps unloved, comes to Jesus and experiences the truth of “ask and you will receive”. Then the Roman centurion, again an outsider and considered beyond the pale of God’s Kingdom, demonstrates an understanding of Jesus’ authority over sickness and his power to save, alongside a heart of compassion for a servant. The sharpness of Jesus’ comments should not be missed: he commends the man’s faith and predicts the spiritual global harvest of the gentiles, but also he delivers a stark warning to those who think they are Kingdom insiders.

These two men did not pray for show, or approach Jesus with pride. But also they didn’t hang back, perhaps unsure of his identity, not believing they could have access, thinking they had to have their lives ‘sorted’ first. They asked with the right attitude; they received; the training in ongoing discipleship could come afterwards. And us? Let us pray.

Five books from 2020: prophetic messages for 2021

Posted by on Jan 5, 2021 in 2-Important Posts, Book Reviews, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Five books from 2020: prophetic messages for 2021

Five books from 2020: prophetic messages for 2021

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

In one sense, 2021 will be no different to any other year. Going right back to the time when Christ ascended, the task of Christians has been the same: to worship God and live in relationship with him, to participate in and support the church’s outreach and ministry of word and sacrament, to humbly serve in a needy world. In one sense, while kingdoms and empires and fashions come and go; while the church experiences periods of success and failure, power and persecution, the key facts remain the same: the need of sinful human beings for salvation; the unchanging truth of the gospel, the certain future of heaven and hell.

In one sense, things don’t really change, and we just need to keep the main thing the main thing. But in another sense, there is a dynamism to our individual lives, to the world with its rapid changes, and to God’s activity. God’s love for his people is the same throughout biblical history, yet after centuries of faithful, patient and perhaps frustrated prayer through times of great social change by ordinary saints, God suddenly intervenes with the arrival of the Son of God incarnate. Sometimes God appears to be distant; at other times he answers prayer miraculously and persistently. While on one hand the way of salvation is the same for everyone, no-one comes to the Father except through the Son, yet on the other, God relates to each person, not through a one-size-fits-all formula, but in relationship, individually, as human parents relate uniquely to each of their children through their change and development. And while the principles of Christian living in the world are laid down for all time in Scripture, God gives special applied wisdom at certain key times to his chosen leaders.

So, 2021 will be the same as any other year, but also, 2021 a unique year in human history. A year of working out how to respond to a vicious pandemic and its social, psychological and spiritual effects (not just medical and economic). While some familiar problems will continue: planet degradation, materialism, the desperate condition of the poor and those in conflict zones, we need to find ways of facing issues specific to our age: secularisation, sex and gender radicalism, ramping up of hostility against the Christian faith. It should be a year of carrying on the same old routines of worship, work, disciple making within a framework of joy and thankfulness, but also maybe something new: a year of soul searching and repentance, asking, for example:

  • why has the Lord allowed Covid deaths, lockdowns and an epidemic of gender confusion, abortion and marriage breakdown?
  • what specifically is he trying to teach us and what do we need to do?
  • how do we connect the message about Jesus with people where they are (a different place from where they were)?
  • when should we urgently make changes to our familiar patterns?

Five books published in the second half of 2020 are currently sitting on my desk, and answer these and other key questions. All five authors honour the bible as God’s unchanging word, yet all of them offer a specific application of the message for our time. They all exercise the spiritual gifts (Ephesians 4:11) of pastoring and teaching (and in some cases, evangelism), yet crucially all display the mark of apostle (visionary leadership on a scale wider than the local church), and prophet – interpreting the signs of the times and bringing God’s specific word to a situation. These first two gifts mentioned by Paul in his five-fold list have historically been celebrated, and it’s fair to say sometimes exaggerated and abused by charismatics, and in reaction, downplayed or even denied by conservative evangelicals. In these books they are properly and powerfully exercised for the building up and maturity of the church.

In “Beyond the Pandemic: Is there any word from the Lord?”, veteran writer and speaker Clifford Hill begins with the response to Covid in the nation and the church. Is what we are facing just ‘one of those things’, and we should just keep calm and carry on with human solidarity and the hope of the gospel? Rather, Hill insists, God is speaking: he has permitted the pandemic, and the less than perfect response of governments and church leaders. Church closures, he says, are a symptom of a national spiritual malaise and part of God’s judgement. The message to both church and nation should not be ‘the Lord bless you’ but ‘repent’. He bases his observations of today’s crisis and his understanding of God’s specific message to us not on a personal hunch, but on detailed exploration of the biblical prophets especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Hill identifies specific sins from which Western culture needs to turn away, including abortion, the racist legacy of slavery, materialism and sexual immorality. Another book is needed to explore the philosophical and sociological background to secularism, the sex and gender revolution and the modern concept of self which is the fruit, at individual level, of a group acceptance that there is no God, and I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul. Carl Trueman’s masterful treatment is “The rise and triumph of the modern self: Cultural amnesia, expressive individualism and the road to sexual revolution”. He explains that the problem is much worse than individual sexual morality. When, for example, large numbers of teenage girls rush to erase their God-given womanhood, and businesses and employees are punished for not celebrating the Pride agenda, culture has reached a dark and dangerous moment. The background is in the teachings of Rousseau, Nietszsche, Marx, Freud and other prophets of humanist individualism and rebellion against the created order, whose ideas now dominate and which need to be understood and countered by the church, not accommodated and accepted as in liberal theology. Trueman provides a lucid and comprehensive guide to something which seems so powerful and complex that many Christians won’t face it.

But in the past, Christians did face apparently victorious evil in culture, and turn things around resulting in the rapid growth of the church and the prosperity of the nation. The most recent example was the early 19th century. The previous decades were marked with spiritual apathy and low church attendance, massive social injustice, and the proto-communism of the French revolution (1793) whose ideas initially attracted many in Britain, but then repelled as the true extent of violence, immorality and godlessness became apparent. By 1860 in Britain slavery had been abolished, laws were being passed to outlaw child labour and establish the foundations of workers’ rights and universal welfare, the nation under Queen Victoria was the richest and most powerful on earth, and 40% of the population went to church, much of which was evangelical. In his second volume of “The Nation’s Gospel”, London lawyer Jeremy Thomas continues his detailed history of evangelism in Britain since the Reformation, and here he explains what the Christian revival of the 19th century looked like, and what principles helped bring it about – while not in any way suggesting that it was a perfect golden age. It’s challenging and inspiring as we face seemingly insurmountable challenges today.

There is a big difference between now and then, however. While Christian beliefs and practice in 1800 may have been nominal, and clergy were often lazy and self serving, at least there were resources available for the church, there was a generally accepted framework of theism, and there was not active persecution of believers, at least not in the established church. What happens when, as in 2021, the memory of even the basic tenets of faith are lost in society, when ordinary Christian teachings are seen as not just dissenting from the norm but harmful, and a shrinking church struggles to pay its existing costs let alone dream of building big new enterprises? Rod Dreher, who wrote the foreword to Carl Trueman’s book, has in his hard-hitting style followed up “The Benedict Option”, and written an account of the church on the margins. To prepare for the “soft totalitarianism” of which church lockdowns, counselling bans and job losses for Christians are a foretaste, Dreher shows how we can learn from the pre-1990 Eastern European church on how to maintain authentic Christian faith and witness in the face of strong and subtle pressures to conform to secularism. His book is called “Live not by lies”, a title taken from a lecture given by courageous Soviet dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

The fifth book on the list is about Christian leadership. It does not focus on a time of crisis such as we are facing. although Covid lockdown-induced stress and church leadership which has lost confidence in the truth of Scripture is mentioned. Rico Tice’s “Faithful leaders, and the things that matter most” is a call to pastors, to re-commit to biblical orthodoxy, to kindness, to accountability, to repentance from and avoidance of secret sins, to humble service based on gratitude, to a vision of heaven motivating evangelism. While the recent fall and muddied reputation of high profile leaders is not mentioned specifically, this comes to the reader’s mind as Rico warns against using gospel ministry for self-promotion and the control of others for selfish purposes. Of all five books this is the least overtly ‘contextual’, but its message is relevant as a part of the necessary practical response to the new context we are facing.

 

See also:

Live not by Lies: a summary in twelve quotes, by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream

Live not by Lies: a review by Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

 

Reviews of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, by Carl Trueman, 

From Christianity Today

From The Gospel Coalition

From Martin Davie

Anglican Mission in England celebrates new status and opportunities

Posted by on Dec 18, 2020 in Anglican Mission in England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Anglican Mission in England celebrates new status and opportunities

Anglican Mission in England celebrates new status and opportunities

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

The Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) is not a new organisation. Its origin was in the early 2000’s, when new congregations started to appear in England which identified as Anglican, but were outside the Church of England. In some cases they left because they were no longer able to accept the authority of, and fellowship with a liberal Bishop. In other cases the C of E Bishop initially granted a “mission order” to plant a new church, only to rescind it following pressure from local parishes – and the plant had decided to go ahead anyway. In those early years informal oversight and networking for these congregations was provided by the evangelical global mission agency Crosslinks, led at the time by Andy Lines, a former missionary in South America.

A number of key evangelical leaders within the Church of England saw the need for a new organisation for these churches to belong to, with an Anglican identity, and connected to the wider evangelical constituency in the C of E. AMiE was formed in 2011, with a particular character and focus: reformed evangelical theology, informal worship style, and strong commitment to evangelism and church planting. In 2013 AMiE was recognised as an Anglican mission initiative by Gafcon. 2017 saw the consecration of Andy Lines by the Anglican Church in North America, and his appointment by Gafcon as ‘Missionary Bishop for Europe’ – his immediate task was to provide oversight for those congregations which had left the Scottish Episcopal Church after their change of marriage canons and liturgy in that year. Bishop Andy continued his relationship with the AMiE churches on an informal basis while discussions took place about the shape of a new jurisdiction which could include AMiE, the faithful Scottish Episcopalians, and any other Anglican congregations in Britain or continental Europe in need of a home.

In the first few months of 2020, Bishop Andy, with the encouragement of Gafcon worked with representatives from the two main groups and other consultants to negotiate the development of a new ecclesial structure. In June it was confirmed that this would take the form of two distinct ‘Convocations’, each with its own character, canons and constitution, but both part of the Anglican Network in Europe (ANiE), of which Andy Lines would be the Bishop. Since then, AMiE has had to adjust its own constitution and develop canons, and the Anglican Convocation in Europe, geographically and in terms of churchmanship slightly broader than AMiE, has constituted itself from scratch in less than six months. ANiE has done the same in forming the overarching body – a remarkable achievement. On December 9th the Gafcon Primates confirmed their recognition of ANiE as an authentically Anglican jurisdiction, similar to the Extra Provincial Diocese of New Zealand, and the Provinces in Brazil and North America.

The result is that AMiE is no longer a loose affiliation of evangelical congregations with an Anglican heritage, but an authentically Anglican proto-diocese of a proto-Province, with a Bishop and strong connections with global orthodox Anglicanism. While it retains its own convictions on issues such as complementarian ministry, its partnership with ACE under ANiE ensures that it is part of a biblically orthodox church which reflects the diversity of Gafcon. As it seeks to grow through planting new churches, AMiE, together with ACE, can also provide a genuinely Anglican home for existing congregations currently in other jurisdictions who want to be part of a faithful global fellowship rather than another expression of Anglicanism with declining commitment to biblical authority.

This was the background to the celebration of the new stage and status of AMiE which took place on December 14th in an online event hosted by Bishop Andy Lines, and Lee McMunn, Rector of Trinity Church (AMiE) in Scarborough. As the nearly 250 participants arrived on the Zoom call,  they heard a number of pre-recorded messages of goodwill and praise for this missionary enterprise, from among others, Peter Jensen, Michael Nazir Ali, William Taylor, and Martin Mills the Chair of Gafcon UK and a member of the Church of England, who said:

You have grown from a church planting movement to a new Anglican jurisdiction, a Convocation of the Anglican Network in Europe under Bishop Andy’s oversight, authenticated by the leaders of the majority Anglican world. I’m committed to ensuring that through Gafcon UK you continue to feel part of the Gafcon family, owning the vision and praying for our brothers and sisters around the world as they pray for you. And also that you continue to have fellowship with many like me who share the same faith and desire to see God’s kingdom come. There are different contexts, different strategies, but we’re united in Christ and part of a global family together.

Bishop Andy then welcomed those present, and gave a brief history of AMiE and his involvement. He emphasised the primary reasons for this new structure: a home for existing congregations outside an official system to belong to, and the great mission need in Britain and the continent of Europe. After this, the format switched to a pre-recorded video of a service of thanksgiving and commissioning led by Lee McMunn.

There were songs, prayers and readings. Robert Tong, a canon lawyer from Sydney who has spent countless hours over the past six months assisting with the development of canons and constitutions, was interviewed, and explained he was giving his time partly in gratitude for the initiative by English Christians (especially Wilberforce and Newton) who ensured that faithful ministers of the gospel were a key part of the foundation of the colony of Australia. Archbishop Foley Beach gave warm greetings from the Gafcon Primates and the ACNA. Tim Davies, minister of Christ Church Central (AMiE) in Sheffield, led a prayer of dedication in which different sections were read by all of the ministers of the founding AMiE churches.

Bishop Andy’s sermon was based on 1 Thessalonians 5, and emphasised the reality of the return of Christ as a motivation for our love for and another and our evangelistic mission to the world. After concluding prayers, we returned to the multiple faces of Zoom, and were sent into small groups for sharing of our concerns, and prayer for one another and for AMiE. Most of the participants on the evening were clergy and lay members from AMiE churches, but there were a number of others supporting from the Church of England and from around the world.

Four key things to note about this event, which perhaps serve to correct misunderstandings. Firstly, it showed that AMiE is genuinely Anglican and episcopal although of course not part of the Church of England or in communion with Canterbury. Secondly, it looks to Gafcon for inspiration and oversight, and embraces other groups in fellowship which share the same gospel vision, rather than being a federation of independent churches. Thirdly, it is not seeking to attack the Church of England and to actively recruit from it, although of course robust debate will continue between individuals in various jurisdictions on whether bible believing Anglicans should remain in the C of E. Lastly, AMiE and its parent body ANiE are small but appear to have put structures in place for growth – much prayer and work is still needed. The ACE convocation will launch officially in January 2021..

See Anglican TV interview with Bishop Andy Lines here

and with Lee McMunn and Philip de Grey-Warter here

Love and faith, Advent, and the two Johns

Posted by on Dec 8, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Christmas, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Love and faith, Advent, and the two Johns

Love and faith, Advent, and the two Johns

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Last week, sitting on the sofa and surfing through the channels, I came across a documentary on the Beatles. It was a serious analysis, linking the development of the band and their art with the cultural history of 1960’s Britain, and Western society more generally. The clean, jangly guitars, the simple, catchy pop tunes, vocal harmonies and lyrics about innocent boy and girl relationships of 1962-64 morphed into something different as the decade progressed. Sitars and distorted guitar riffs, a more complex rock sound influenced by the American West coast, and a change in subject matter. First, “I wanna hold your hand”; then “Tomorrow never knows” and “Let it be”.

The programme was especially interested in how John Lennon went in a few years from cheeky Liverpudlian working class folk singer to drug-inspired poet, atheist philosopher and transatlantic peace campaigner. “All you need is love”, and then in his post Beatles era, “Give peace a chance” and “Imagine there’s no heaven…imagine all the people living life in peace”. At a time of profound disillusion with, and rebellion against the established order, which had overseen the Vietnam war and the shadow of nuclear holocaust, these songs became anthems of hope for which there is no equivalent today. They articulate a yearning, but a philosophy of love and peace which had kicked away any foundations in Christian faith was bound to result in bitter disappointment. The ‘summer of love’ gave way to a decade of cultural decline, reaching its nadir in the ‘winter of discontent’. Then, Lennon was assassinated in 1980, exactly 40 years ago today.

During Lennon’s heyday, no-one was singing “Imagine there is a heaven”, except in church, rapidly declining in numbers and influence. But actually that’s not strictly true. Firstly, while the gods of stage and screen and idols of money appeared to be much “bigger than Jesus” (Lennon’s phrase about the Beatles) in the West, in China, Africa and Latin America the church was experiencing massive growth. But secondly, even in Britain there remained a popular medium by which the Christian message was consistently expressed in song. Year after year, as the Beatles were followed by glam rock, prog rock, punk rock, electronic pop and hiphop, something unchanging remained: Christmas carols.

Santa Claus and his elves, the absurd commercialisation of the present-buying season, Slade, Mariah and Bublé, even CoVid lockdowns have failed to displace the ongoing popularity of these old songs about the birth of Christ. Men and women who never normally sing, and those more familiar with “Swing low sweet chariot” or “When the Spurs go marching in”, can be heard belting out “God rest you merry, gentlemen” or “Silent night”. People are quite happy with carols on TV and radio even if they never go to church. Even Richard Dawkins famously said he liked them.

The peace on earth spoken about in carols has a more solid foundation than John Lennon’s wish – it originates in an event in history, and its celebration is part of the deep memory of generations. And carols speak about love, not the emotion temporarily generated in human hearts, but “God imparts to human hearts…”, in profound commitment to the human race which originates in God’s heart and, despite our unloveliness, came down at Christmas. Christians should be concerned about the spiritual darkness, the ongoing erasure of the cultural memory of faith, the hostility towards biblical values, but the continued sound of the public singing of carols is one of hope.

The words and the music of carols are counter-cultural, and yet they touch non-churchgoers. There is surely a lesson in that. Can the same be said for more attempts by today’s church to reach out contemporary society? There’s a lot of talk about “love” in the Church of England’s ‘Living in Love and Faith’ resources. But is it the love of Christ, the love that comes to us from above, or something described by 1960’s singer-songwriters? At the beginning of the LLF book, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York say:

“Our vision must be that which Jesus prays in Johns 17:21, ‘that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’. Being one is not in the sense of being the same, but being one in love and obedience and holiness…”

Most of us would say ‘Amen’ to that. But the whole purpose of LLF is not to establish how we should act with our bodies and emotions, so we can be obedient and holy to an external, unchanging standard. Rather, the way the words are used, ‘obedience’ and ‘holiness’ are about conformity to an understanding of ‘love’ which means horizontal, peaceful human relationships. So, for the Archbishop of York writing in Radio Times this week, the nativity scene is not a picture of the mystery of the incarnation, speaking of transcendence, human sin, the lengths God has gone to bridge the gap, our invitation to repent and welcome the Saviour to “be born in us today”. Rather the nativity can be a focus of attention for a diverse national family, like the TV in the corner of the room, or the pub singer crooning “Hey Jude”, where we watch together, we have fun, “we discover that we belong to one another, we are one humanity”.

But of course that passage referred to, in John 17:21, is not just about unity and love. Yes these things are important, but their meaning is understood only in connection with the other things Jesus says in the previous verse:

“My prayer is not for them [the apostles] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father…”.

Don Carson comments:

“This is not simply a ‘unity of love’. It is a unity predicated on adherence to the revelation the Father mediated to the first disciples through his Son, the revelation they accepted and then passed on…Similarly, the believers…are to be one in purpose, in love, in action, undertaken with and for one another, in joint submission to the revelation received…”

Carson goes on:

“Although the unity envisaged in this chapter is not institutional…[it] is meant to be observable. It is not achieved by hunting enthusiastically for the lowest common theological denominator, but by common adherence to the apostolic gospel, by love that is joyfully self-sacrificing, by undaunted commitment to the same goals of mission with which Jesus’ followers have been charged, by conscious dependence on God himself for life and fruitfulness”. (Don Carson, The Gospel According to John, p568).

John Lennon sang about love and common humanity, but his life was not exemplary, he died young, he is remembered but his ideas cannot save. John the Apostle recorded the words of Jesus, also talking about love and unity, but with a different meaning, one to which the church should be unashamedly bearing witness and using the opportunity of Christmas to do so. Is the Church of England’s idea of Love and Faith taking inspiration from the wrong John?

The Church of England’s guide to hearing God’s voice through the bible, according to LLF

Posted by on Nov 24, 2020 in Bible, Church of England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on The Church of England’s guide to hearing God’s voice through the bible, according to LLF

The Church of England’s guide to hearing God’s voice through the bible, according to LLF

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

“The bible is crystal clear” on the subject of same sex relationships, says a participant in ‘The Beautiful Story’, the video commending the orthodox Christian view of sex and marriage, produced by CEEC. But is it? According to the Living in Love and Faith textbook (LLF), there are many possible, and perhaps equally valid interpretations of what the bible says on this subject. Not only this – making such a statement about the clarity of Scripture in supporting one’s position could betray unconscious use of power, to demean and oppress others with a different view, particularly oppressed groups, and it shows a lack of self-reflection and humility.

LLF (p328) suggests that certain ways of reading the bible which might seem “obvious” are in fact formed by “the experience of the privileged groups that do most to produce them. So what we take to be just ‘sound interpretation’ may in fact be white, male, middle-class, affluent and Western interpretation and theology”. Instead, we’re encouraged (p329) to consider “queer hermeneutics” which focusses on unmasking the “cisgender heterosexual perspective” behind certain assumptions about gender and sexuality.

In the chapter on ‘the bible’ (part of a comprehensive section on ‘How do we hear God?’, the traditional, conservative method of reading various passages is questioned and set against a revisionist interpretation. So for example, after lessons on how to look at the context and take into account “canonical diversity and complexity” (p280), there is a case study: can we articulate a ‘biblical’ view of marriage? The church did, we’re told, develop a consensus around an understanding of exclusive one-flesh heterosexual union, based on various texts in the Old and New Testaments. But this led to a “negative” perception of intimate relationships which are different from the norm.

LLF asks: Should “grace and mercy” be a more important principle than law? Or perhaps biblical examples were only relevant for the ancient context in which they are set? Maybe heterosexual examples are merely “illustrative” of a more general concept of covenant love, and not “morally normative”? And then, the biblical picture of God’s purpose of liberating oppressed peoples is surely more important than preserving traditional interpretations, in our current context of prejudice against LGBT people. Should we not rather learn from the experience of relationships previously regarded as immoral, but which clearly display the fruit of the Spirit? In the end, whether we follow some scholars in thinking that the bible does provide a coherent, unified witness on these ethical issues, or those who do not, can we not accept that despite our diversity, there is more that unites us than that which divides us?

The authors of LLF warn against simply appealing to Scripture. A number of key texts in the debate  are analysed (eg Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9-11, 1 Tim 1:8-11). In each case the traditional interpretation and then more revisionist approaches are summarised. The conclusion asks important questions which are left hanging:

“If we dismiss what seems to be obvious on first reading, are we saying there is no ‘plain meaning’ to Scripture and that only experts can read Scripture well? How do we give particular attention to the experience and understanding of those whose lives are most directly affected by how these texts are interpreted?” (p294).

The authors do not address how such a question (repeated in various forms many times in LLF) could have the effect of silencing anyone not seen as “directly affected”.

A long section (p283f) follows which sets out seven views on how to interpret the bible, and analyses them in turn. One one ‘extreme’ is the view that “the bible is truthful…we simply need to read it and obey it”. at the other end of the spectrum is the view that “the bible is a collection of fallible human voices”. Viewpoints 2-6 outline nuanced views ranging from more conservative to more liberal. As these views are evaluated, numbers 1 and 7 are discounted: 7 because it only sees human authorship, and the conservative view because it does not sufficiently take into account the complexities of authorial context.

It has to be said that this comes across as a blatant form of academic snobbery. In an effort to fairly represent the view of moderate conservative theologians while at the same time opening the door wide for ‘radical inclusion’ readings which use biblical interpretation to support same sex relationships, this section of LLF excludes the majority of ordinary lay Anglicans who would be closer to (1) in their understanding of the bible as God’s word. Those who read the bible devotionally, who study in groups and listen to it in church without external commentary, who fulfil the vision of Tyndale’s plough boy (the ordinary working man/woman empowered by the sacrificial work of translation and literacy), who seek to understand and apply the Scriptures in their simple profundity, who like Mark Twain say “it’s not what I don’t understand in the bible that worries me – it’s what I do understand” – these people are written off by the authors of LLF, who imply that you need a degree in theology and literary theory before you can interpret the bible, and that there is no “biblical truth” in the church, only multiple, sometimes contradictory interpretations held together by the overriding principle of ‘love’.

But not all use of the bible in LLF is dependent on academic training. We read a very subjective interpretation of John 6, attributed to the House of Bishops in their ‘invitation’ at the start of the book. Just as Jesus said to his disciples “make the people sit down” in order to receive the bread and the fish, so the Bishops hear this as a word of the Lord direct to them today: ask those with diverse views in the Church of England to “sit down…to learn, listen and pray together”. The LLF book becomes, bizarrely, the bread which Jesus will multiply for the nourishment of the church. And yet later in the book, verses such as “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman”, or “the creator made them male and female” need ten pages of discussion before concluding that God may have meant something else other than the ‘plain meaning’.

To be fair, it is possible to find some good, even profound passages of biblical interpretation in LLF which have clearly been written by some of the more conservative members of the contributing team. But on every occasion such a passage will be qualified; another point of view will be presented; we will be reminded to consider the impact on those who may feel offended; we will be reminded of our prejudices, we’ll be asked to celebrate our diversity, even disunity, and encouraged to witness to the world through the love we have for those with whom we disagree.

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The Church of England Evangelical Council advise their members to “engage” with the LLF process. There is, I think, a genuine belief in some quarters that the “Beautiful Story” of the bible’s guide to who we are as human beings in the light of the gospel just hasn’t been communicated successfully, and here is an opportunity to win over the liberals as part of a respectful conversation. I would want to plead with anyone thinking of taking part in next year’s conversations on that basis: don’t! No matter how clearly and winsomely you communicate your view, at best it will be immediately relativised (“that’s your opinion”); you will be patronised (“haven’t you read these theologians?”);  at worst you’ll be accused of hate speech. The only justification for conservatives taking part is for those who’ve read up on all the intersectional theory and queer theology to just sit quietly, listen and take notes, seeing it as a research project on what the trajectory of the Church of England really is as illustrated by LLF: a compromise with secularism and neo-paganism. Meanwhile, energy should go into planning for differentiation within and/or separation from the institution depending on conscience and circumstance.