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.

Attack on Christian freedom by state and business agencies should warn the faithful church to re-think ministry strategy

Posted by on Jul 28, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Freedom Of Speech, Religious Liberty | Comments Off on Attack on Christian freedom by state and business agencies should warn the faithful church to re-think ministry strategy

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

The well-funded, carefully orchestrated and determined campaign to foster disapproval of, and then to ban, so-called ‘conversion therapy’ across nations of the developed world, has been a key component in driving the massive cultural change that has been called the global sexual revolution. This campaign has achieved its latest ‘success’ in persuading a number of multinational corporations (Barclays, Paypal, Twitter, Mailchimp) to suspend services and accounts used by Core Issues Trust. The way this was done, obviously coordinated, in response to aggressive lobbying on social media accompanied by a deluge of personal insults and even death threats to Mike Davidson and colleagues (see report here)is sinister and has implications for all faithful Christian ministries and individuals who dare to challenge the narrative of celebration of sex and gender chaos, and who try to help individuals caught up in it find wholeness.

The detailed and comprehensive entry on ‘Conversion therapy’ in Wikipedia is an example of how supposedly neutral sources of facts and news (which now includes academic research) has been entirely taken over by one ideological position. The Wikipedia report blatantly breaks the site’s own rules by being entirely one-sided, making assertions which ignore any evidence to the contrary. As part of its own evidence to support the consensus that any attempt to change sexual or gender orientation, for whatever reason, is ‘harmful’, it cites the number of national psychological associations and now governments which have banned the practice, not mentioning that these bans have come about as a result of intense, aggressive lobbying, and suppression of alternative views. This is now a familiar practice in a number of fields: the distortion of science and blocking essential freedoms, by preventing academics, publishers and legislators from producing evidence contrary to the “politically correct” answer.

Wikipedia says: “On 3 July 2018, the UK Government announced it would work towards a total ban on ‘conversion therapy’ across medical, non-medical, and religious settings. However, by the time of the 2019 general election, the issue was no longer a priority for the governing Conservative Party.” It is not difficult to see how, once the new government has dealt with its main political and economic priorities, opportunities would arise again for LGBT activists and their allies to push for profoundly illiberal legislation which would threaten freedom of speech and religion in almost a mirror image of jurisdictions informed by extreme Islamic ideology. There, LGBT people are persecuted and one may not change one’s religion; here, we are fast approaching a place where those holding to traditional sexual ethics are persecuted, and one may not change one’s sexual orientation.

It is absurd that at a time when the UK government is struggling to deal with serious crises of public health and economic slump, it is devoting time and energy to ban a niche practice which mostly involves a programme of talking and listening for those wanting to explore the possibility of moving away from unwanted sexual orientations and identities. Over the past few years, disapproval and intimidation has proved so successful that there are almost no organisations which openly provide this therapy apart from Core Issues Trust. To use parliamentary time to legislate purely to ban one tiny organisation would really be a sledgehammer cracking a nut – but of course once such a legal ban has gone through, it can be used to witch-hunt other more low key practices such as ‘recovery’ courses and one to one pastoral care and prayer offered by many churches.

Anglican Mainstream has over many years rehearsed the arguments for freedom of choice in terms of seeking counselling in sexual matters; why it is totally dishonest to conflate practices such as electric shock aversion therapy, often administered by state-sponsored organisations without client agreement and discontinued decades ago, with counselling and prayer for those distressed by same sex attraction, addictive and harmful sexual behaviour, gender dysphoria and who seek change voluntarily. We don’t need to go over again the many examples of bans on the latter forms of therapy and pastoral care being based on flawed academic research and in some cases, blatant lies (such as the case in USA where a key piece of evidence, a testimony of abuse at a ‘conversion therapy camp’ for young people, turned out to be based on an entirely fictional comic movie).

Abuses have occurred in this area  just as they have in every field of therapy and pastoral care, which is why groups like Core Issues Trust have consistently argued that those who provide talking-therapy assistance for those wanting to explore the possibly of sexual orientation or gender identity change need proper training and supervision, rather than the practice being driven underground.

Some Christian groups, otherwise in agreement with the bible’s clear teaching on sexual morality, have distanced themselves from Core Issues, the therapy it advocates and the ex-gay movement. They argue instead for a pastoral approach within church in the context of discipleship, helping those with same sex attraction to come to terms with their orientation and pursue a life of celibate singleness in a supportive Christian community. But such an approach, which may be excellent in itself,  is not in any way incompatible with also providing prayer and counselling for those seeking change of orientation – which might include people in a heterosexual marriage. The testimony of a single gay man or woman guided by the bible and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live chastely is indeed a “better story” than the one offered by the secular culture, but so is a testimony of re-orientation of self-image as a man or woman, and transformation of sexual desire. And that counter-cultural narrative of living according to biblical faith can help Christians to understand and address false ideologies prevalent in the culture.

The attack on Core Issues Trust is a warning that the faithful church does not exist in a benign or neutral space, but in a culture where hostile forces want to silence the voice of God when it becomes too challenging. If the church turns its back on those making a stand like Mike Davidson, or evangelists ‘cancelled’ from university campuses, or evangelical adoption agencies forced to place children with foster parents with sexually immoral lifestyles, or clergy resigning their posts in the face of theologically revisionist Bishops, is it being faithful? If the church glosses over the seriousness of the threat of the contemporary ideological revolution for the sake of presenting a ‘winsome’ face for evangelism, is it being biblical? It may be that a church which refuses to fulfil its calling to prophetic ministry in order to try to protect its evangelistic and pastoral work, is actually not being properly evangelistic or pastoral at all.

On a practical level, the faithful local church needs to do three things urgently.

First, to offer support, in prayer, finance and encouragement, to those facing attack from the new ‘thought police’. Second, to teach congregations regularly and thoroughly about the context of hostile and restrictive secularism in which we live, to pray and work out together how to live differently not just as passive exiles with a different message, but actively as resistance, seeking to challenge and undermine false ideologies and the suppression of truth. Thirdly, to look to a bigger movement which is combining the evangelistic, pastoral and prophetic, such as Gafcon and its regional branches, and to join it.

See also:

The flawed logic of the ‘conversion therapy’ inquisition, by Paul Huxley, Christian Concern

Ozanne YouGov Poll Challenged: Letter in the Church of England Newspaper

Tell Barclays Bank to respect religious freedomPetition from CitizenGo

Why don’t ex-gays’ stories count? by Michael Brown, Christian Post

‘Gay conversion therapy should not be banned’from Christian Today:

 

 

 

‘Pregnancy and abortion’ – review of a new resource

Posted by on Jul 12, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Abortion, Book Reviews, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on ‘Pregnancy and abortion’ – review of a new resource

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

If every abortion constitutes the deliberate killing of a tiny human life, then this is a terrible evil and a stain on our society comparable to the slave trade and the holocaust. If we defend abortion on the grounds of ‘women’s reproductive rights’, or perhaps by arguing that the foetus/embryo is not really a person, then we open the door to serious philosophical problems. Why should an adult’s decision about what is convenient (the main reason for most abortions) take precedence over a child’s right to life? If we can declare a human being in the womb to be a non-person, why not go on to make similar radical decisions, for example about what constitutes male and female?

And then, is it not highly irresponsible, and certainly undemocratic, for the Westminster government to use the excuse of Coronavirus to impose liberal abortion legislation on Northern Ireland, and to permit the use of drugs at home, potentially dangerous to women as well as lethal for unborn children, without adequate supervision? In the words of blogger Archbishop Cranmer, why isn’t there more public protest; “why is the concern left to Christian Concern”?

On the other hand, while we need the brave voices being raised against the powerful pro-abortion lobbies controlling the establishment, we also need effective pastoral care for women at local level. It may be, as has been said before in this column, that many church leaders say nothing about abortion because they have imbibed the progressive worldview, or they are afraid of controversy, or they think the issue isn’t relevant for their congregation, or because they think it’s a social justice rather than a ‘gospel’ issue. But it may also be because of the effect a public debate can have on an individual struggling with an agonising decision or with guilt about the past, who may hear the statement “abortion is a great evil” as “you are evil”.

Churches, counselling organisations and pro-life healthcare workers need resources to help pregnant women on the road to making and owning an informed choice for life; having a baby rather than an abortion, with as much heat taken out of the decision as possible. Abortion has been a choice for women for more than 50 years, but increasingly abortion is presented as a simple, morally neutral and consequence-free procedure. Women can experience pressure to have a termination from partners, family, social media and even medical professionals. Legal restrictions on anti-abortion advertising, and offering prayer and counselling outside abortion clinics have made it even more difficult for women outside faith communities to have access to information that is factual but gently makes the case for considering options other than abortion.

A new book admirably fulfils this role. “Pregnancy and Abortion: A practical guide for making decisions” (Grace and Down, 2020) is an excellent handbook put together by a GP specialising in mother and child health, a physician for internal medicine, and an experienced pregnancy counsellor. It does not begin with Christian faith, or a moral position on abortion, but with an ordinary woman experiencing an unexpected, and perhaps unwanted pregnancy.

The reader is taken through clear and simple steps, not assuming any medical knowledge: from confirming that there is a pregnancy, through a “journey of decision”. Using a combination of short case studies, visual models, questions, tables and fact-based explanations, the reader is helped to think clearly about emotions and where they might come from, and then the three main options, parenting, adoption and abortion. Detailed information is then provided what to expect during the entire period of pregnancy, and on the development of the embryo/foetus. It’s here that difficult questions begin to be raised, such as: does the little life feel pain?

Short chapters on things to consider in being a parent, or giving up a baby for adoption are followed by a series of chapters on abortion itself: how it is carried out, what the law says, and potential immediate and later after-effects, physical and psychological. These feature latest research on links between abortion and early death in women, including detail on breast cancer. The reader is led by the carefully arranged presentation of facts, combined with stories and testimonies, to the inevitable and obvious conclusion that abortion is not the easy or best option that is often presented to pregnant women.

Brief chapters on the discovery of disabilities in the unborn child, special needs of pregnant teenage girls, and the role of men in the decision making process complete the main part of the book. Appendices on ‘spiritual beliefs’ and a comprehensive list of organisations providing specialist help provide pointers to the Christian gospel in ways that would not be seen as ‘proselytising’ were this book to be recommended by doctors or secular counsellors.

A couple of areas where I feel the book could be improved is more on the joy and wonder of having a baby and being a mother, and something on the benefits of marriage as the best environment to bring up children. Also, it was pointed out to me when discussing the book with others that a woman in a pregnancy crisis is not always in the best frame of mind to read it (in the same way that a book about bereavement and dealing emotionally and practically with an unexpected death needs to be read before the event, or by those coming alongside to assist). But overall, ’Pregnancy and Abortion’ is a book which impresses the reader with its careful tone. practical, helpful approach full of information geared for the non-specialist, and gentle but clear steer to consider giving birth and caring for a child rather than abortion. It will be really useful as a resource, particularly for young people and those who counsel them – the book begins with a quote showing the levels of ignorance and false information around the issue which is fully addressed by the preparation of the manual:

“Everyone should have this guide. We young people don’t know this stuff”.

 

See also: Abortion: what on earth is going on? by Will Jones, Faith and Politics:

 

Repenting of privilege, signalling virtue, following the crowd

Posted by on Jun 16, 2020 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Political Correctness, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Repenting of privilege, signalling virtue, following the crowd

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

We are in very challenging times, when ‘the madness of crowds’ threatens to sweep us all along in its wake.

We’re hoping for leadership from the spiritual elders of our institutional church, who can guide us through our cultural crisis with wise guidance from the word of God. Instead we continue to get capitulation to the secular zeitgeist. Just yesterday: on the prominent Thought for the Day slot on the Radio 4 Today programme, a Church of England theological college Principal spoke, in the context of reopening of shops and restarting of Premier League football, of the importance of leisure for human wellbeing, even in a time of national emergency. I waited for the punchline, where he would say that, like sport and shopping, corporate worship is also essential – but it never came. There was no reference to church or faith at all. Perhaps the message is that… the church is relevant because it cares about what everyone else cares about?

And last week, a photo opportunity for Bishops and clergy in front of a locked Cathedral door, as, carefully distanced from each other by the required minimum two metres, facing away from the consecrated place, they ‘take the knee’. For them, this is symbolising their support for the anti-racism movement, but it could also be interpreted as a powerful symbol of how the priority of God has been displaced by obeisance to the ‘health and safety’ response to the pandemic, and to a secular ideology driven by social media.

This was emphasised again by an article by a Bishop (it doesn’t matter which one – the problem is not individuals, but a corporate culture) who wrote in the Church Times of the need for all white Christians to follow his example, and repent of their “quiet privilege”. What are we to make of this?

I don’t see anything in the bible that says we have to ‘repent of privilege’, and certainly not to repent of the colour of our skin, or our biological sex. We certainly have to repent of sin (and that includes searching our hearts for prejudice and misuse of power, apologising for it and making amends), and we are called to use any privilege we have in the service of God and others. To some much is given. Of them, much is expected. One could contradict this, and argue that the very fact that some are born with and receive more than others is itself unjust and must be remedied by revolution and enforced redistribution, but this is Marxism not biblical Christianity.

Rather, privilege, like a talent in the parable, is a blessing from God for which we’re to give thanks and invest wisely and humbly. Again and again in Scripture the privileged, whether spiritually: God’s people saved and brought into a covenant with him, or materially: those satisfied with food and good things, are warned not to take these things for granted, or to think that “the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deut 8:18), but rather to attribute all we have to God’s grace. And because of this, from the recognition of undeserved privilege must flow not eternal signalling of admission of guilt, but sacrificial generosity and commitment to the upliftment of others.

Jesus gives a challenging take on this when he says that privilege is not just about being comfortable – in fact it might involve being profoundly uncomfortable and powerless. “Blessed [one might say ‘privileged’] are the poor in spirit…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…those persecuted for my sake”, and even more shockingly “woe to you who are rich”. There are the obvious, material things which confer advantages, but also unseen and eternal blessings for the disadvantaged and uninfluential who are “rich towards God”.

What does this mean for the affluent white Christian in the West? It may be that he grew up in a loving family, with hard working parents who provided him with a good education, self-confidence, the ability to manage money, and other key life skills. Should he repent of this “privilege”? No because these are blessings from God, but he should be careful not to be arrogant or selfish. His entry into the kingdom of God, and that of his children, is made more difficult by the allure of his wealth. He may be called to repentance from greed and lack of concern for the poor, and to take action in the form of sacrificial personal giving, working to change the company’s social responsibility policies and targeting the church’s mission policies to reflect a bias to the materially poor. But what no-one is called to do is despise and be ashamed of God’s good gifts, or worse, one’s cultural and racial identity.

What about the structures of power, the unseen matrix of white Western hegemony, entrenching injustice? Is it a myth to be dismissed, or a reality requiring universal ‘conscientisation’ and revolutionary change? Certainly in Scripture’s portrayal of life under Egyptian or Roman rule, and the bigger picture of the rise and fall of kingdoms, we can trace the dynamics of political power and we’re given insight into the spiritual forces behind them. But in their encounters with the living God, privileged individuals who represent forces oppressing Israel – Naaman, the rulers of Nineveh, the Centurion of Capernaum, Zacchaeus, the wealthy cloth merchant of Philippi – are not asked to repent of their ethnicity or their unwitting complicity in the power structures of the day, but to recognise the Lord’s authority, submit to him, receive forgiveness for wrongdoing and live lives of love. It may be that societal change needs to come about, either by tweaking what is basically a good and just system, or more profoundly, but this is best effected by the Lord according to his sovereign will in response to the crying out of his people – violent godless revolutions do not have good historical pedigree.

This tradition is at the heart of the response of God’s people to racist and other forms of unjust oppression throughout history. It is not apolitical and pietist, because when God arises to come to the aid of his oppressed people the result is society-wide not something that is just restricted to church. It is not secular and human-centred in its philosophy, because the casting down of the mighty, if that’s necessary, and the lifting up of the humble is of the Lord. And the result is not increased enmity between peoples and the collapse of society, but reconciliation and peace.

The frantic self-abasement by the white middle class as part of their ‘great awokening’ is a disturbing thing. It brings to mind an image of a schoolteacher in a north Vietnam village in the 1960’s, his spectacles lying broken in the dust, confessing his bourgeois privilege and pleading for mercy before the revolutionary guards – it’s the influence of Robespierre and Lenin and Mao rather than a movement of the Holy Spirit. The Bishops have clearly been attending well to their seminars on white privilege and unconscious bias. They have swallowed the progressive worldview and their mission now appears to be not to bring the gospel of Christ to the world, but the doctrine of intersectionality to their flock, by giving it a Christian veneer.

We can do much better than this!

Let’s not repent of privilege. Let’s repent of sin, which may include misuse of privilege, or the worship of society’s idols, or the toxic blaming of the ‘other’.

Let’s not signal virtue, but be secretly virtuous. Not kneeling to Black Lives Matter,  but supporting ministries which uplift black lives, and perhaps even looking to godly black leadership through the Gafcon movement.

Let’s not follow the crowd, but follow the one who has compassion on the crowd, who was condemned by the crowd, who rules over the crowd.

 

See also: Clergy kneel to those who’d trample over themby Alice Williams, The Conservative Woman

When Everyone Kneels, Who Will Stand Up for Western History and Culture? by Giulio Meotti, Gatestone Institute

 

What should good Anglicans do: stay at home, or join a crowd?

Posted by on Jun 8, 2020 in Church of England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on What should good Anglicans do: stay at home, or join a crowd?

What should good Anglicans do: stay at home, or join a crowd?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

I confess I don’t understand what is going on here. Perhaps that marks me out straight away as too cerebral, too linear in my thinking, too wedded to an outdated ‘modernist’ mentality. To me it seems like a contradiction that doesn’t make sense, but no doubt I can be educated as to my straitjacket thinking.

Up until now, the Church of England leadership has been extremely cautious about permitting any action which might potentially contribute to the spread of Covid 19. The regulations (later downgraded to ”guidance”) made it clear that church buildings initially should not be used at all, for gatherings of any kind, or even for the private prayer or recording of services by clergy. This was to ensure that churches could in no way incubate the virus, and to show solidarity with the rest of the population who were having to stay away from all but essential work.

As the lockdown has begun to be eased, other sectors in society, and indeed some church groups have lobbied the government to allow churches to open for funerals, weddings and carefully controlled worship services, but the Church of England has been reticent, preferring to listen more to the voices of those concerned that any unnecessary face to face meeting of people could risk the lives of the vulnerable.

A letter to clergy from the Archbishop of York on 7th May gives detail on how individuals can enter churches for cleaning and essential maintenance, urging clergy to alway remember that “safety is paramount”. Then, as recently as June 3rd a document was released from Church House, for “planning purposes”, on how churches might be reopened “when circumstances allow” – now thought to be 15th June.

“It is anticipated that only individual prayer will be allowed when the church is open to the public. No public worship, streamed or otherwise, should take place whilst the building is open to visitors…Please put notices on the door reminding people about hygiene and physical distancing measures, including stressing the critical importance of using the hand sanitiser…It is best not to leave out things that can be touched repeatedly by different individuals [eg bibles and leaflets]… The lighting of candles with reusable lighters or similar should not be encouraged”.

Two comments can be made on this initially. First, since when has the priority of hygiene been applied to the work of the church and the mission of the gospel ? Even if we accept that churches have been right to close for a season, it surely is theologically incorrect and a poor witness at the very least to say that our physical safety should be our primary concern? There has been a plethora of criticism on this blanket ‘close all churches’ policy, much of which can be found here.

Secondly, the Church’s official advice on prayer in church buildings says nothing about the purpose of prayer or offers any kind of acknowledgement of God. It reads as if it has been written by a health and safety officer with no knowledge of, or interest in Christian faith other than the trappings of the physical sanctuary space. Or perhaps it has not been written primarily for vicars and lay people who attend church, but for government and healthcare officials, to demonstrate the church’s compliance with the lockdown regulations.

The Church of England’s main official message to the nation, then, has not been to resist secular narratives by pointing to God and encourage faith in Christ, hope in life beyond the grave, and prayer in the midst of the pandemic. Rather it has been to communicate the seriousness of the health emergency and the part the church is playing in locking down, being alert and saving lives, even if it means denying thousands of people all over the country the chance to quietly make use of church buildings for prayer and worship.

But now, in parallel with this extreme almost paranoid caution which has shut churches and caused millions to stay indoors for weeks, we are told by a Bishop that a “greater pandemic” – racism – means that it’s suddenly OK to join thousands of other people in close proximity on the streets. The Bishop of Dover Rose Hudson Wilkin claimed in an interview on Sunday that “Most people have responsibly weighed up the risk that they would be taking in order to stand up,”

The global lockdown caused by the pandemic has devastated lives and caused huge economic worry. Faithful Christians are praying for the world, working hard to keep worship and preaching alive online, standing with friends and neighbours in the midst of suffering, witnessing to Christ; doctors and nurses are working round the clock to care for the sick and are desperate to avoid another spike. But according to this Bishop, now is the time to push for the overturn of the current social order by flouting the regulations so carefully observed up till now. You can’t go into a church building in case you touch something and pass on the virus; you can’t even have Holy Communion online, perhaps in case you upset someone with a mystical-professional view of the priesthood and sacraments, but you can join a crush of thousands as long as it is for a right-on cause.

This is the contradiction that doesn’t compute for me. I understand the concept of the church simply following public opinion rather than giving a specifically Christian response, but when it tries to follow two opposing opinions at the same time: “avoid any physical meeting” and “join a crowd”, is it just me or does this take incoherence to a new level?

 

 

As an epilogue:

As far as the protests are concerned, let me just say a few things about racism, politics and Christian faith. I acknowledge my own privileged background. I spent more than ten years of my life working with black people in the cause of upliftment in South Africa in the years immediately before and then following the end of the apartheid system. During that time I saw individual examples of racist attitudes, and genuine ‘systemic’ racism i.e. unjust and discriminatory laws, and I experienced being part of a nation expressing joy at the removal of those laws. I saw church leaders trying to justify racism, or turning a blind eye to it, saying this is a ‘political’ issue which has nothing to do with the gospel. I saw church and political leaders using the stirring up of racial grievance as a cover for their own financial corruption, power plays, and sexual immorality. I saw humble and deeply repentant local church leaders guiding their congregations towards reconciliation and interracial harmony, and national Christian leaders being prominent in Spirit-led programmes of transformation.

So racism and injustice exist, as do all the sins of the human heart until the final judgement. In the meantime, we pray and work for a solution not based on variations of secular humanism and revolutionary Marxism, but on forms of just, peaceful and democratic government underpinned by the vision of the gospel and the church given to us by Scripture. Gafcon with its genuinely multi cultural leadership and fellowship must continue to guide us here.

“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.