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.

“Turn the other cheek” – how should churches respond to domination?

Posted by on May 19, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Bible, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on “Turn the other cheek” – how should churches respond to domination?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Jesus’ command to his disciples to “turn the other cheek” is traditionally interpreted as backing down from conflict for the sake of peace. The NIV translation of Matthew 5:39 begins: “Do not resist an evil person”. This is usually applied to individuals in community, although some have applied it to nations as a basis for pacifism. The injunction is not often applied to churches. Whether Christian communities should resist attack, perhaps from armed Fulani Islamists in northern Nigeria, or baton-wielding mobs in rural India, is an important debate for those with detailed knowledge of those situations, but I’m not sure this is what Jesus is talking about in this verse.

The detail is important: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek”. Unless the person doing the striking is left handed, this almost certainly refers not to an overt, front-on attack, but a backhanded slap in the face. Commentator Walter Wink says[1] that this “was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.”

The context, then, is one of a power differential, where Jesus assumes that his disciples will be predominantly from the lower echelons of society. They will be used to being despised and put down by those above them; they and others from a higher status background will together begin to receive this treatment because of their faith. This gives us a clue to relevant application for today. Christians in the West very rarely face direct threat to life (some who convert from Islam being an only possible exception); they do not come disproportionately from the working class, but they do increasingly face subtle intimidation, overriding of their values, and being put in their place, slapped down by a powerful secular system.

Some examples might be: YouTube takes down the audio version of a popular book by a well respected veteran Christian author and speaker because it “violates community standards”; Christian MPs are assured that the Coronavirus bill will not permit “DIY abortions” without parliamentary debate, and then are told that in fact this has happened; a teacher is removed from post for expressing privately her concerns about relationships and sex education policy; a counselling organisation is warned that it will be investigated for practicing ‘conversion therapy’; A church can be investigated for allowing more than ten worshippers inside the building, while a strip club down the street is allowed 50. A Christian group at a university is accused of right wing bias as it attempts to highlight the persecuted church at the students union.

Of course there is a view denying that Christians are under pressure in the West; that all of these recent examples and the many similar ones can all be explained as Christians failing to be ‘winsome’. Others might admit that Christianity no longer has the respect it once did in society, but the end of Christendom is no bad thing; there might be minor incidents of inconvenience but this is not ‘persecution’ as other Christians face around the world, and so should not be a concern. But this is like saying that making comments with sexual innuendo to women in the office, or persistent nasty teasing and joshing of a boy in school, are not a concern because rape or physical bullying is not occurring.

The regular ignoring or denigration of Christian views, the intimidation and low level punishments meted out by authorities – this is not full-on attack like government sponsored bulldozing of churches and imprisonment of pastors. Rather it is exactly what Jesus describes – the backhanded slap by the one in charge to the one beneath, who needs to be reminded that he only exists by permission and should not step out of line.

How should Christians respond?

Firstly, there needs to be a recognition of what is happening. Advocates of social change under unjust regimes, or those wanting to shine the light on abusive relationships and bring abuse to an end, would agree that the slap on the right cheek, metaphorical or literal, should not just be accepted as normal. It is not right; the situation is not just, and the person whose dignity is being abused has a choice how to respond.

Similarly, with the church in an increasingly dominant secular society, an environment more and more hostile to expression of orthodox Christian views, Christians need to identify when a line is being crossed between normal applications of a just system, and a backhanded slap to Christians, a contemptuous misuse of power, to say “get back in your box.”

When it’s clear what’s happening, what then?

Back to Matthew 5:39: Jesus said “do not stand against (‘antistenai’) the one who does evil”. This is a military term, referring to taking up weapons of war. In Ephesians 6:10f where this word is used, we are called to take this attitude of armed resistance against spiritual powers, but not to oppose the hit on the right cheek, the expression of dominance and call to subservience by human beings in the material realm, with violent aggression. However that does not mean, as the NIV and other translations imply, avoiding any resistance to evil other than prayer.

So what do we do? What does “offer him the other cheek” mean? Certainly Jesus is not advocating these common responses:

  1. Collude with the dominant power in such a way that they would never slap us – we are on their side! We could even do the master’s work for him, giving the message that faith should not be taken too seriously, and keeping the troublesome fellow Christians in line.
  2. Flee, by avoiding any situation where we might come into conflict with the powers. This is seen in a pietist churchianity which focuses on worship and teaching in church (or online, as permitted by regulations); does not publicly address controversial issues such as abortion or sexual morality, certainly not in any way which could be seen as protest.
  3. Submit – if we do have a run in with the powers and get the slap on the right cheek. Head down, mumble an apology, get back into line, say or do nothing more.

Jesus’s advice is rather to turn the other cheek. Not collusion, believing that there is no evil involved and the powers will be reasonable if we are on their side. Not running away, meekly submitting or fighting back, but inviting the dominant power to hit again, this time having shifted the power dynamic.

Walter Wink again:

“The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship…By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”

How might this work in practice? Some case studies:

a) A clergyman’s PTO (licence from the Bishop giving permission to officiate at services) needing to be renewed, in a Diocese with relentless liberal drift, culminating in Bishops apologising for the church’s teaching on marriage and setting up LGBT services in the cathedral. Allowing the PTO to lapse and retiring from ministry is perhaps an example of ‘flight’. Renewing the PTO and continuing with ministry with no protest is submission. Perhaps the “other cheek” option would be to continue to minister without PTO, and force the Bishop to issue a disciplinary measure?

b) A Church of England school with godly head teacher and a group of Christian parents are concerned about introduction of the new RSE curriculum. Do they
:

  • Follow the practice of other schools in the area, teaching RSE as prescribed, to stay on good terms with the education authorities?
  • Do the minimum; don’t make any fuss, don’t involve parents in the issue.
  • Draw up curriculum compatible with the official teaching of C of E in consultation with parents. Face down threats politely, with legal knowledge. Work with local churches to inform congregations for prayer.

c) Pushing back against overreach by governments: there are times when taking court action is a visible sign of insisting on equal treatment before the law, not submitting to injustice based on bias. Recent cases involving Cornerstone adoption agency and the ‘DIY abortion bill’ are good examples.

These actions of non-violent resistance combined with spiritual warfare are not trying to reinstate Christendom where Christianity is dominant, but a degree of justice where Christian views are of equal worth to others in a democratic system. The freedoms to practice and communicate our faith we have taken for granted for so long will continue to be eroded unless we put into practice Jesus’ teaching on how to resist evil.

Footnote: [1] Walter Wink was an influential American theologian best known for his analysis of the NT teaching on Principalities and Powers. His explanations of the spiritual dynamics and psychological processes behind power structures which keep oppressed people in subjugation are compelling. His romantic idealising of leftist political movements, and his ‘demythologising’ of the spiritual realm ultimately undermine many of his conclusions – but this exegesis on Matthew 5:39 is I believe a good one – AS.

Challenges for the Church of England

Posted by on May 5, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Challenges for the Church of England

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Should churches reopen, and what are they for? 

The day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a ‘lockdown’ on March 23rd, the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England ordered that all churches should immediately close and not be used even for private prayer by clergy.

The main reason given was to set an example in taking seriously the danger of the virus and slowing down its spread: just as sports venues, theatres, restaurants and garden centres were closing, and many people were no longer able to work or having to work from home, so the church should not be an exception. Anglicans should suffer the deprivations of the lockdown along with the rest of the population; they should also show that they are obedient to the authorities. Clergy were encouraged to use technology to broadcast worship, prayer and teaching from their homes, and to find creative ways, within government guidelines, to continue to support the most vulnerable.

It will be interesting to see the effects of this as researchers investigate what has happened. Anecdotal evidence suggests that churches with existing programmes to support the vulnerable, such as running foodbanks, have been able to continue with this, though with restricted opportunities for the personal contact that is so essential. Churches with tech-savvy clergy and/or motivated laity, with less focus on the building as an essential aid to worship and whose congregations are more used to interacting through screens, have adapted best. More traditional churches, especially smaller and rural congregations have probably struggled. While some parishioners in these churches may have been listening to occasional services on the radio, new material on phonelines or even through the internet, there must be many who have had no contact with church since late March and as the habit of regular worship has been broken, they may be difficult to win back.

In other words, the churches with already most potential for growth and mission – generally more evangelical and with younger congregations – are surviving and even thriving through this lockdown, while those already in decline: multi-parish benefices with small, elderly congregations for whom the practice of faith is inseparable from being in a building with others, are in danger of losing even the small amount that they have. Given the inevitable serious economic impact of the lockdown, the Dioceses of the Church of England will find sustaining regular ministry in these declining parishes even more of a challenge.

Voices calling for churches to open in some form, and be more visible, have been heard since the start of the lockdown and have grown louder in recent days. In early April Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali suggested that church buildings should be open for private prayer, using responsible social distancing measures, and that Christians should find ways of testifying publicly to the gospel, for example with small street processions during Holy Week.

When it became clear that churches would be closed for Easter even for clergy, criticism of the Archbishop’s instruction grew, and after he said on TV that clergy had only been given ‘guidance’ not legally enforceable instructionsome clergy began to livestream services from their church buildings in contravention of the guidance.

Articles by heavyweights such as former Bishop of Worcester Peter Selby (The Tablet) and historian Tom Holland (Daily Telegraph) bemoaned the Church’s retreat from public witness and argued for a relaxation of the rules, and on 4th May a letter signed by more than 500 clergy and laity was published in The Times, calling the clergy church ban a “failure of the Church’s responsibility to the nation”.

Why should churches have remained open in some form, and be first to benefit from relaxing of lockdown procedures? Those in favour argue that unlike watching football or going to the pub, corporate worship in a sacred space is an essential activity, like keeping school open for children of key workers. It is the outworking of living in the reality of life under the creator and Saviour God, not being part of a club for like minded people. It is part of the national fabric. To close the church doors is a powerful symbol of the irrelevance and decline of religion (as Melvin Tinker argues here); to keep them open, even in a restricted form using methods to prevent transmission of infection, is a witness to the primacy of the Christian faith as public truth, to faith in God who heals and protects, and to hope in the future.

While some Anglicans have argued this from a perspective of attributing more importance to the physical and visual aspects of a church building in worship, others have expressed nervousness about the church leadership’s hasty and unquestioned acceptance of state control as symptomatic of an acceptance of growing restrictions on freedom of religion generally.

It seems unlikely that the Bishops will push for a more rapid easing of the lockdown as business leaders are doing. But it would not be a surprise to see a phased opening of church buildings in line with what the government permits across the country as a whole. If as a start, church gatherings are limited to say 20 people, observing two metre distance, it would be interesting to see whether larger churches open for services every day, perhaps encouraging those who can do so to attend on a day other than Sunday. We could see a ‘back to basics’ approach; less reliant on polished performance and more on liturgy, ministry of the Word, prayer and lay involvement. Initially worship may have to take place with worshippers wearing face coverings and without communal singing as is being proposed in Germany. My own view is that a creative solution must be found to the problem of Holy Communion – if taking the elements physically cannot be made safe, then some kind of online sharing must be permitted.

Not yet Living in Love and Faith

At the time of writing we’re waiting for the Bishops to give a lead on these issues, and also on  final decisions about General Synod: whether the July session can be held online, and then the election of new delegates originally scheduled for September. We know already that the publication of Living in Love and Faith, which was expected for June in time for the Lambeth Conference and Synod, has been postponed indefinitely.

The statement stressed that this does not mean the issue of the Church’s teaching on same sex relationships and transgenderism has been “parked” or kicked into the long grass, but that it would be better to wait until the planned process of “whole church engagement” with the materials, and “episcopal discernment and decision-making”, eventually under leadership of Bishop of London, will be possible in the light of pandemic restrictions. There is also a hint that “the context” i.e. the global medical emergency and associated economic crisis may result in changes to the original document and process.

For many, it will be a great relief that the pandemic has provided a reason to indefinitely push into the background the ongoing bitter debate about the issue of LGBT inclusion in the Church. Those campaigning for change in the church’s teaching are not happy about the delay. It’s not difficult to have an educated guess about what will happen. Assuming that the world gets control of the virus transmission and death toll, LLF could be published in summer 2021, just before the delayed Lambeth Conference. The aim of the document and the process that follows will be to ensure more informal acceptance of the LGBT agenda among the majority of churches, but without formal changes to canons and liturgy, in order to avoid large scale protest and even departure by theologically conservative clergy and laity. The formal changes will be brought before Synod when there is sufficient momentum to do so.

While CoVid has dominated the news and brought people together to a large extent, the culture wars, based on different understandings of reality, still exist. Orthodox Anglicans will need to be prepared for the LLF process in advance, rather than just waiting and reacting.

 

See also (since this article was written):

House of Bishops backs phased approach to revising access to church buildings, from Church of England website

General Synod July residential cancelled; options for online meeting proposed, from Church of England website

 

 

Who’s got the answers?

Posted by on Apr 21, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Theology | Comments Off on Who’s got the answers?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Everyone’s discussing it. Whether we’re at home with the family or in an online work forum, having to weigh up facts and make decisions or just reacting to information and decisions from others, we all have one problem on our minds. From the leaders to the ordinary people we will all approach the problem depending on various factors: our academic and professional specialisation (if we have any); our philosophical worldview; our personal experience. And whether you’re an eight year old child or a government minister the basic questions are the same: Why is this happening? What does it mean? How am I feeling? What should we do? How long will it last for? What will the world be like afterwards?

At the moment there is broadly a consensus around some key principles:

  • we can trust the ‘facts’ of science but recognise that their interpretation, and what to do with them, is open to debate;
  • we understand what the disease is and how it is spread; we fear getting the disease ourselves (and our loved ones);
  • we want to help prevent the spread and are prepared to observe the protocols for the sake of the greater good, for a limited time.

But then, outside this consensus, differences emerge around the answers to specific questions. For how long should large sections of the economy, education and other essential activity be shut down? Should government be making a difficult choice between on one hand preventing sickness and death, and on the other avoiding permanent damage being done to the fabric of society and to mental health of individuals? Or should we expect a competent and caring government to maintain complete control, minimising all risks through use of financial instruments, technology, protective equipment and far sighted planning? How should society maintain basic civil liberties and prevent dangerous overreach of state power? Or is such power, seen for example in apps which monitor movements of all citizens, or in legislation which allows policy to change without debate (such as approving “DIY abortions”actually a good thing, ensuring safety and prosperity for all?

In short, the problem that we’re all facing is complex. We have to assume that, while certainly some are using the crisis to further powerful financial, political and other agendas, most people in charge are doing their best in very difficult circumstances. While remaining vigilant about key freedoms and issues of social justice, we have to assume that the whole crisis is not part of a vast conspiracy in which government, science and media are complicit. The pandemic and its effects  can’t be overcome by medical experts alone, but needs a multidisciplinary approach which includes theology.

But what answers can theology give?

For some prominent theologians, “Christianity offers no answers”. NT Wright in an article in Time Magazine provocatively attacks the “silly suspects” who claim that God is somehow involved in the coronavirus, or that the bible can help explain what is going on spiritually. He argues that it is rationalism which demands explanations and answers; romanticism which looks forward to an end of suffering and a ‘happily ever after’. Christian faith offers neither, but provides a framework for lament without understanding, and the assurance that God is with us in our grieving. In an extraordinary retreat from any historic gospel affirmation, Wright reduces the good news to a picture of lamenting Christians as “small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell” from which acts of kindness can emerge.

For some senior church leaders, the Christian story and its interpretation is a parable to help us live our lives on earth with more compassion, purpose and authenticity. Bishop Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop-designate of York, spoke in an interview with a Christian radio station of his faith that “God will bring good out of the pandemic”. By this, he went on to say, he meant that the post pandemic world will be more environmentally friendly as people make fewer journeys, less stressful as people will work fewer hours, more from home, and more socially just, with more appreciation for low paid essential workers.

Similarly, for Archbishop Justin Welby, the resurrection of Christ, while undeniably a fact of history, is “the solid foundation of hopes for a better world”, in which Christians have been through history “empowered…to live in ways that brought abundant life” to communities. Because the resurrection is a story about life after death, so we can have hope of a transformed, more generous society after the pandemic.

But for other church leaders around the world, the Christian message is not just a way of helping us to live better in this life. It points to “another sphere of reality”, as Archbishop Foley Beach in his Easter sermon describes the spiritual realm and the promise of eternal life secured by the resurrection.

For John Piper, it’s not that life on earth with its problems is the reality, and the accounts of the bible are a shadow, an illustration; rather the other way round: God and his kingdom and the spiritual realm constitute  the reality, and brief human existence, including facing a pandemic, are a prelude to it and a powerful illustration of its principles. He is at the centre, not us.

Not for the first timePiper’s teaching on Christian hope is radically different from that of Tom Wright. In his new, short book, available for free to download, Piper insists that the Christian faith does have answers to the existential questions, as well as practical help in times of trouble. He sets out the familiar dilemma: if God is in control of everything, and at the same time morally perfect, why does he allow suffering? If the bible teaches clearly that nothing happens apart from God’s will, does his absolute sovereignty necessarily lead to a cruel God and Christian arrogance and lovelessness (Wright’s criticism)? Does it create apathy or despair, or is it the best news of all, assuring us that there is a controlling purpose to the universe and a secure hope for individuals?

Piper wholeheartedly agrees with the English Anglican leaders that God’s love and fatherly presence with us provides individual comfort and motivation to good works, and that that lament in a bitter season is appropriate. But from Scripture he also deduces that to say God has nothing to do with the pandemic in attempt to rescue him from accusations of being unloving, means we deny that God reigns. If he is not in control of this situation and orchestrating it for good, how can we be sure that he can bring us through this and any other horror, including death? – and that is not good news. The outbreak of the virus, like any other ‘natural disaster’, is a physical illustration of the spiritual reality of creation in crisis because of sin; it is a “wake-up call”, a merciful summons to repent, pray for the world and follow Christ, for Christian and non-Christian alike.

So a fully orbed biblical theology, while not necessarily giving answers on how to manufacture more masks and gowns, when to end the lockdown, why some people get more ill than others, does orient our minds and hearts to look at the big picture of things seen and unseen, and get answers to the big questions of death, life and salvation.

“Stratospheric” costs of “ugly” new Lambeth Palace Library need explanation

Posted by on Apr 2, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Archbishop Of Canterbury, Church of England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on “Stratospheric” costs of “ugly” new Lambeth Palace Library need explanation

Anglican Mainstream report:

Satirical magazine Private Eye claims in its latest edition (issue 1519) that the final costs of the new building to house the priceless collection of old books in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s residence will cost £40 million.

The article, in the magazine’s architecture section ‘Nooks and Corners’, begins by questioning the building’s architectural merits – “a strong contender for the ugliest building of the year”. The accompanying photo shows an ‘eastern bloc’ style brick fortress not unlike examples of ‘brutalist’ design from the early 1970’s in English midlands towns.

After estimating the final cost of £40 million “when VAT, fittings and architects fees are added”, all the books are re-shelved and the library is eventually opened next year, the report calculates that this will amount to about £200 per book, or, divided by the number of visitors the library received last year, about £35,000 per visitor.

The Friends of Lambeth Palace Library includes some wealthy donors, but according to Private Eye, it was actually the Church Commissioners who have paid for the project. A spokesman has verified this claim. Emphasising the library’s importance as an internationally-renowned centre for research “second only to the Vatican Library”, the Church Commissioners told Anglican Mainstream that the collection, with items dating from the 9th century, covers not only the history of the Church of England “but the whole of the church-state relationship and the role of the church in society”, and includes a huge archive of records and correspondence from Bishops, missionary societies and church architects.

The Church Commissioners decided to take on the responsibility of housing the collection in a single purpose built structure after it was clear that current arrangements in Lambeth Palace and a warehouse in Bermondsey do not meet the British Standards for Archives. The spokesman continues: “the funding required was way beyond the fund-raising and partnership activities of any Friends organisation. Funding was approved in November 2016 and the project received planning permission in April 2017.”

Church House said that the Library should be seen as the project of the Church Commissioners and decisions were not taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury as suggested in the Private Eye article.

That may be technically true, but this news has come at the worst possible time for the Church of England, already facing criticism for its response to the pandemic, including being too quick to ban clergy from their own church buildings, and for bland episcopal announcements curiously devoid of robust gospel hope. Now the revelations about the new library’s costs will cause questions to be asked about priorities. The Church of England has been facing a challenging economic environment even before the coronavirus outbreak, and as Private Eye points out, £40 million is equivalent to four times the entire budget of some Dioceses, many of which are not replacing clergy who retire or move in order to save money. Sums of that nature may come in useful to bail out the C of E’s pension fund as well, if portfolio values continue to fall.

Next to the Private Eye report on the library is a cartoon in which a vicar stands in his pulpit in front of rows of empty pews, and says “so, business as usual”. To the outside world, the library story merely confirms the view that the Church of England is out of touch and ridiculous. The enormous expenditure by a body responsible for the support of the ministry of the Church on a niche prestige project which should be the responsibility of national heritage bodies surely cannot be justified, at a time of a struggle to communicate the gospel in secularising nation, declining congregations and serious financial challenges.

 

Anger, boredom, fear – and their antidote

Posted by on Mar 25, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Faith | Comments Off on Anger, boredom, fear – and their antidote

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

“It’s absolutely disgraceful. The government should have ordered a much more draconian lockdown two weeks ago. And why is there no toilet paper in the shops? Someone is to blame for this.”

“I’ve been self-isolating for two days and I’m already bored. There’s only so much you can take of scrolling through darkly comic memes about self isolation and toilet paper, and watching reruns of Netflix box sets and old FA Cup semi final classics.”

“Well it’s alright for you. I’m trying to work from home – you try having a serious office Zoom call with three bored small children behind you climbing up the walls”.

“I’m really worried. Will mum or dad be safe? Might I die? I won’t have a job when this is over – how will we survive?”

Anger about what other people have done or failed to do in the past, boredom in the present, fear about the future. Each one of these can be debilitating. Together they are a toxic and dangerous combination.

While it’s important that leaders are accountable, and act democratically and from the best advice not autocratically and in self interest, the human instinct to “witch-hunt”, to find individuals and groups to blame for our predicament, stir up resentment, and attack them in a mob can quickly get out of control. Similarly, on a local level, grievance about past hurts can fester in homes and even in churches. It can lead to bitterness and fragmentation when the nation desperately needs unity and kindness.

Boredom can easily set in when we have our basic needs met, but there is no incentive to do today what can be put off till tomorrow or next week. As most of us start at least three weeks of self isolation, we might begin with noble aspirations; to read War and Peace or some of the unread Christian books in our collection, to do those long postponed DIY projects, to renew contact with friends and family usually on the lower priority list, to sort out the piles of admin and unanswered emails. But as we don’t have to do any of it today, we enjoy just lazing around – and very quickly the prospect of those activities seems in our mind a bit like…work. A mild mental paralysis can take over – “I know I should tidy the garage, but I’ll watch just one more episode of ‘Homes under the hammer’ from 2013 – I’m bored now, but I can’t be bothered to do what should be done.” This can be when the mind starts to seek excitement in unhelpful ways – drinking, gambling, porn or flirting texts with a work colleague perhaps. We’re yet to see whether boredom can lead to widespread flouting of the restrictions in weeks to come.

Fear, worry, even panic about what we think might happen in the future are rising. There is the basic one: will I and my loved ones survive? Governments around the world have had to take incredibly difficult decisions to protect health services from being overwhelmed (and cameras being there to capture it) and try to reduce the number of deaths in each country to thousands rather than tens or even hundreds of thousands. The result has been in effectively shutting down most of the world economy, creating huge widespread concern about future livelihoods. This fear about the future puts massive pressure on already fragile mental health, and relationships in families cooped up for weeks. We don’t know yet what this might do.

Are there some simple things that we as Christians can do to first prevent ourselves succumbing to mob anger, sinful sloth and debilitating anxiety, and then to offer practical examples and words of hope to communities around us?

A key way to avoid sinful anger is to constantly remind ourselves of the gospel of grace. Jesus’ story (Matt 18:21-35) about the man who had been let off his debts, only to try to force others to pay him back much smaller amounts, warns us about how easy it is for all of us to forget how much kindness has been shown to us despite our sinfulness, first by God and then by the allowances given to us by other people. Deep gratitude for the undeserved forgiveness we have received should make us pause before rushing to judge and attack what we’re sometimes stirred up to consider to be incompetence and failure in government, who are doing their best in having to make quick and difficult decisions. Thanksgiving, what the Psalmist calls “the joy of salvation” (51:12) and seeking to encourage others around us, must be a better way of living in our homes and as citizens than bitterness, self-pity and recrimination.

Boredom can seem harmless but if it originates in selfishness and results in destructive self-medicating it needs to be recognised, named and resisted first, and then replaced with what’s good: renewed internal attitudes, and practical action. That delivery to the foodbank, that half hour participating in the online prayer meeting, tidying up the house to help a busy family member, starting to learn a musical instrument, completing that work report early so I can dig a new vegetable bed while listening to a sermon on headphones – these and many other things need to be intentionally planned and followed through as part of our new enforced simple lifestyles. Perhaps this is a challenge to establish new rhythms (or rediscover old ones) based around worship, intercession, learning from the word, service of others, creative hobbies, essential work and rest. If the things I’ve mentioned seem insufferably worthy and over-wholesome, maybe we’ve become cynical, or at least got used to on-tap entertainment and complete freedom as default instead of a privilege. Even children can learn this (acknowledging that practical issues for families are a huge challenge).

And then, fear. None of us is immune. My wife and I are currently showing the symptoms of CoVid 19; not yet unpleasant enough to seek medical help. I confess I have been renewing the emergency file so that in the event of my demise, other family members will have access to key documents and logins! Of course as Christians we can be confident in the protection of Jesus and his healing power in this life, his shepherding through the dark valley, and in the certainty of the resurrection in the future. The vast majority around us know nothing of this; levels of distress, despair and anger will be rising behind the facades of humour and “we’ll soon be through it” bravado.

But as severe anxiety about the future can be contagious, so is faith, and courage. By faith I don’t mean a certainty about how God will act, for example that he will bring about a desired outcome – healing of an individual; the miraculous slowing down and elimination of the virus (although of course we pray for these things). Rather faith is first a conviction rising up among God’s people that he is really there as described in Scripture, that his demands and assurances for us are true, and that he and his ultimate purposes – the glorification of Jesus united eternally to a refined, multi-cultural church of all ages – loom large in our consciousness. It’s the excitement about this and the growing love for him which casts out the paralysis of fear, and should underpin keeping busy with the balance of practical and spiritual activities as part of “keep calm and carry on”.

The J Curve: the gospel message lived out

Posted by on Mar 10, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Theology | Comments Off on The J Curve: the gospel message lived out

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Christians wanting to remain faithful to the apostolic gospel and the teachings of Scripture in the context of an uncomprehending and sometimes hostile world and increasingly secularised church, need wise guides to help navigate the future. In the face of discouragement and complexity, leaders can capture imaginations by articulating vision with optimism, simplicity and clarity – for example: “our mission is to plant churches, our message is the cross of Christ, our method is to win people one by one”. Straplines like this, and the philosophy behind them can generate enthusiasm, and it can certainly be argued that they encapsulate and summarise the essence of the Christian enterprise. But over-simplifying can lead to omission of key elements. In particular, for certain church cultures in the West, there is a danger of prioritising “what to believe” at the expense of (rather than as a foundation for ) “how to live”.

Historically, evangelicals have emphasised the cross in our salvation: the body of Christ broken and blood poured out as he took our place, receiving the righteous judgement of God on our sin so that, as we receive the benefits of his passion by faith, we do not have to face that judgement, but are declared not guilty, and can enter freely into an eternal relationship with God as Father without guilt or fear.

A wonderful message, and central to the gospel. But is it the whole gospel, and will this message be enough to “win people one by one” to a life of discipleship where we cope with the real difficulties of life with growing Christ-like character, and develop a fully biblical worldview? Can the full richness of “by grace alone” be summarised by the message of “Christ died for your sins” alone? Will churches emphasising faith at the expense of humility, patience and love be sufficient to survive the onslaughts and temptations of the surrounding culture, and to eventually influence the culture with the goodness of God’s Kingdom, as used to happen in the West and is still happening in parts of the world today?

According to Paul Miller’s powerful and groundbreaking book, J-Curve (Crossway, 2019), the familiar evangelical understanding and communication of the message of the cross is deficient. We are not called to simply understand the atonement and our justification by faith, but to enter into union with the one who died for us and lives in us. Being “in Christ” means entering into the fellowship of his sufferings, as we go through the painful process of daily putting self to death, standing against evil, and showing love to others. And the shape of the “J-Curve” means that in Christ we are taken down into death and then up into resurrection, in the long term (eternal life) and also in the daily taking up of our cross and walking in step with the Spirit. 

Paul Miller shows, with a series of reflections on everyday experiences with family and work, and focussing on a small number of key Scriptures, the tendency for Christians to believe the gospel but not live it out. For example, while we applaud Paul for explaining how his trust was not in his religious good works but in Christ (Phil 3:4-10), we regularly fall into traps of pride and boasting. We believe, in theory, that our intrinsic value is not determined by our success and the high esteem in which others hold us. We know the verse “humble yourselves and God will lift you up”. But in practice we are easily slighted; we resent not being recognised; we find ways of moving ourselves up the ladder. While we know we are justified by faith, we can’t help trying to justify ourselves in the eyes of others.

When our minds and hearts are in the system that rewards success and punishes failure, whether in the workplace, sport or relationships, we’re looking to feed our ego, to feel good, to avoid suffering. But as Christians we’re no longer in that system, we’re “in Christ”. Suffering, then, is no longer something meaningless, but part of the pattern of the life of Christ which we are living. Whether the suffering takes the relatively trivial form of being passed over while someone else gets credit for my work, or a persistent “thorn in the flesh”, or a life of constant pain such as a major disability, or being persecuted for my faith, Miller sees the biblical pattern as Jesus using these events to take the believer down in him to the bottom of the “J-Curve”, then up in a mini-resurrection as God’s grace enables a good outcome.

Miller helpfully explains the difference between the Christian vision and other philosophies. Entering into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus breaks the hold of our sinful nature (which continues even if the penalty of sin has been taken away by the atonement). It also helps us to make sense of, and deal with, suffering which comes to us unwanted from outside. We die to old-self-focus, live in the new self, and wait to be lifted up, but because we are “in Christ” this is very different from the ancient “self—help” ideas of Stoicism and Buddhism. It’s also different from the natural, and very contemporary instinct to avoid anything difficult or inconvenient, and to reward our coping with the inevitable difficulties of life by sinful self indulgence.

“The greatest of these is love”. Miller, who is himself completely committed to a reformed evangelical understanding of biblical faith, is also critical of a typical evangelicalism which emphasises the work of Christ on the cross and justification by faith, and then sees living the Christian life of sacrificial love for others as merely one of a number of optional applications. Rather, that love should be motivated by a vision of the beauty of Jesus and a desire to imitate him, and empowered by him:

Paul first enthrals us with a vision of a life completely devoted to the other (Phil 2:1-4). Then he tells a story of the person of Jesus as he traces the letter J with his life of love (v5-8). Unless we are animated by a vision of beauty (the good) that we are moving toward, love will remain either an occasional or a wearisome task. So cultivating a sense of the beauty of love and the oneness it creates is essential to the work of love.” [J-Curve, p142].

For anyone concerned that this might lead to a “salvation by works” or “Christianity is just being nice to people” approach, Miller deals with that. His exposition of Paul’s understanding of the Christian life as a “J-Curve” is based on a clear grasp of justification by faith, but doesn’t end there.

If the church of the 2020’s is going to create counter-cultural communities which model Jesus rather than just talk about his salvation as the icing on the cake of comfortable lifestyles, if it is going to enable those whom Christ calls to suffer for the truth in an increasingly hostile environment, then it will need to listen to guides like Paul Miller. The J Curve is highly recommended.

All these disasters – how can we respond?

Posted by on Feb 25, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on 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.