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.

“Relationships and sex education” as a tool for mass shaping of a generation’s worldview: can it be halted?

Posted by on Oct 15, 2019 in Editorial Blog, Sex education, Uncategorized | Comments Off on “Relationships and sex education” as a tool for mass shaping of a generation’s worldview: can it be halted?

“Relationships and sex education” as a tool for mass shaping of a generation’s worldview: can it be halted?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Since the beginning of the year, Anglican Mainstream has posted a steady stream of articles  on the government’s overhaul of Relationships and Sex Education, particularly as the plans affect Primary Schools. The new guidelines have the effect of standardising across the nation what many schools have being putting into practice already for some years: under the guise of promoting “British values” of “tolerance” and “inclusion”, and in an effort to prevent the bullying of vulnerable minorities on account of their sexual orientation or family structure, all children should be taught positively about same sex relationships, transgenderism, “pride” culture and the questioning of heteronormativity.

Expensively-produced materials covering series of lesson plans have been piloted for some years and are being rolled out by local educational authorities. Inspection regime OFSTED has made high profile examples of small, religious-based schools which haven’t complied with sufficient enthusiasm. The Church of England leadership has largely bought into this agenda, as evidenced by the publication of “Valuing all God’s Children”, its Stonewall-influenced guidelines for “transgender children” in C of E schools published in October 2017, and other subsequent examples (eg here and here).

While in theory, parents will still have a limited right to withdraw their primary school children from sex education, in practice the effects of the new regulations will make it more difficult as LGBT themes will be increasingly embedded across the curriculum. In response to protests from small groups of Christian parents in south London and larger groups of Muslims in Birmingham, further guidelines have recently been issued portraying parents who protest against RSE as a major threat to public order; governors and teachers who question the new agenda are faced with threat of dismissal.

A group of around 80 concerned parents and representatives of advocacy groups met in north London on 12 October to hear a number of short presentations on these issues, and to discuss options for action in protecting children and preserving basic freedoms. We saw well-chosen video clips about the global drive for “Comprehensive Sexuality Education”  and the way in which this is being implemented through the now well-publicised programmes in UK schools such as “No Outsiders”.

Roger Kiska of Christian Legal Centre also spoke via video, summarising some key elements of RSE, how it is a vehicle for ideological influence which goes way beyond the statutory requirements of the Education Act, and how it undermines the rights of parents with conservative views by giving higher authority to the State in teaching ideology to their children.

Some of the talks and interviews were via live Skype link – a commendable achievement given that the local internet was down and a phone hotspot had to suffice. Mike Davidson of Core Issues Trust expressed concern that children are now being encouraged to develop identities of “gay” or “trans” at an early age, and that disapproval of any change of these identities later (for example by bans on “gay conversion therapy”) can leave people trapped. Dermot O’Callaghan shared some research to refute the narrative that “LGBT kids commit suicide because of homophobia”. Relationship breakdown and general mental health problems are a much more readily identifiable cause of self harm and suicide, and it is very alarming that the tragedy of suicide, always with complex causes, is being used as a weapon to promote an ideological agenda.

A number of speakers were present in person and shared from different perspectives. Amir Ahmed, a parent from Birmingham, gave a first hand report of the protests which began at Parkfield Primary and received worldwide attention. Behind his gentle manner is a courage and persistence which has enabled him to keep smiling and presenting the reasonable objections to the “No Outsiders” programme in the face of accusations of bigotry. He emphasised that the elites and lobby groups attempting to stamp out opposition to RSE often don’t understand why it is a form of indoctrination, and undermines parental rights and basic family values shared by millions of people, not just those with conservative religious faith. Amir shared practical tips for leafletting parents at the school gate, and this followed on from the update from Susan Mason on her “School Gate Campaign” which informs parents of what is actually being taught to children in RSE and why it is potentially damaging, gives detail on rights, and offers suggestions on how to approach school authorities for consultation, or protest if this is not heeded.

School principal Edmund Matyjazcek and SPUC’s Safe at School representative Tom Rogers gave further practical suggestions of how to engage with schools with concerns over RSE. While some schools are led by LGBT activists whose mission is to inculcate the new generation with radical progressive ideology on sex and gender, other school heads just want the minimum of fuss and are sometimes still open to polite, well-informed and continuous engagement from conservative parents, especially if they give options for lesson and assembly input which covers the bases but is not promoting an anti-Christian agenda. But this window is closing, and parents must take the lead at local level especially since most church leaders are reluctant to get involved.

Lisa Nolland, the main organiser of the conference, looked at some of the roots of the sexual revolution of which the new RSE is a fruit, referencing the pseudo-research of discredited paedophile Alfred Kinsey, for whom the sexualisation of children and the moral neutrality of all sexual expression were key values. Teaching which suggests to young children to think of themselves as ‘gay’ because they ‘love’ their best friend, promotes inappropriate sexualisation or encourages secondary children to experiment with sex without the protection of traditional boundaries, is potentially dangerous for mental and physical health.

There were a couple of presentations on transgenderism, including a testimony from a former ‘trans woman’ now living again as a man after prayer and counselling from Christians, and a detailed survey of the huge increase in referrals for transitioning among children from Lynda Rose of Voice for Justice. Perhaps the most powerful testimony of the day was by Dave Bratt, a parent of young children from Warrington, who has battled with his school over LGBT indoctrination. His attempts at reasonable engagement have been rebuffed; his church would not give him and his wife support. However he suggested that his lonely protest was having an effect: the rainbow flags and LGBT-affirming storybooks seem less in evidence than previously.

This was an excellent conference covering a lot of ground: what are the new RSE regulations; what is actually being taught and why is it harmful; where do these ideas come from and what’s the aim of those who promote it; how parents can overcome fear and practically influence schools even at this late stage when to do so requires courage, winsome persuasiveness, and the willingness to be bloody-minded and irritating if necessary. There would be differences among the participants on Saturday between those who believe the whole progressive agenda can be resisted and put to flight by a new political movement, and others who think that for the moment, any ‘victories’ will be local, temporary and unable to affect the wider progress of secular totalitarianism and the sexual revolution. But that’s a topic for another time.

‘The gospel in the public square’ – what does it look like?

Posted by on Oct 1, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Bible, Editorial Blog, Witness | Comments Off on ‘The gospel in the public square’ – what does it look like?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

I’ve written before about my fascination with the last few chapters of Acts, which portray the apostle Paul on trial again and again. Here are some more reflections.

While there are great differences between the early church and contemporary Christianity in the West, Luke was writing to an audience of Christians in a context in some ways similar to our own. The Christian faith was not banned; it was possible for churches to exist and even to flourish in local communities, whether Jewish or gentile. The message of the deity of a crucified working class man was sometimes ridiculed but on the whole, especially among the gentiles, took its place among a myriad of religious beliefs. In most cases the church would have grown quietly and steadily through friendship evangelism. Some would have argued that there was no need to antagonise the authorities by public declarations of Jesus’ supreme lordship, or the non-divinity of temple idols.

Paul himself was commissioned to preach the gospel first to the Jews, and then the gentiles. He could have done it quietly, through local fellowships which he planted, avoiding controversy, focussing on small groups and one-to-one. But he didn’t. It seems everywhere he went, he clashed with the authorities as his gospel was shared in the public square, and as he testified boldly to the authorities. There’s no doubt that this would have caused embarrassment to local believers. “We agree with Paul’s beliefs”, some would have said, “but can’t he be more winsome? He’s picking fights; he’s antagonising people with his tone; he’s drawing the attention of the powers that be to the fragile church.”

In the last of Paul’s defence speeches, in the trial before Agrippa in Acts 26, Paul sets out his message and his motives in a comprehensive way. His understanding of the gospel can’t be seen just as a set of beliefs which can be assented to by individuals as they are incorporated into an unobtrusive local community. Here are ten key elements of the apostolic gospel:

1. It’s about the reality of the spiritual realm, God’s miraculous intervention in the physical world demonstrated by Jesus’ resurrection (26:8) and his appearance to the apostles of whom Paul was the last (26:14-15).

2. It’s about forgiveness of sins through Christ, deliverance from the power of evil, and the formation of a new community (26:18). Evangelicals have traditionally majored on the first of these only!

3. It’s about light in the darkness. Paul mentions this three times in his defence (26:13; 18; 23).

4. It’s about a saving and eternal relationship with God, received and activated by repentance and faith (26:20). Repentance involves a radical change of worldview, as God’s word becomes the authority; faith means that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”: an end to identities based on the enthronement of self.

5. It’s worked out in practice with a changed life (26:20). It’s impossible to sustain the view commonly promoted today, that some kind of positive regard for Jesus, and belief in his love, can go together with a blatant disregard for the bible’s clear moral teaching.

6. It’s controversial. It should challenge both those outside and inside the Kingdom; it will lead to indifference, ridicule and furious opposition, as Paul said he himself felt in his former life (26:9). If it’s always received positively it’s probably not the whole gospel (Luke 6:26).

7. It’s for people of all races and nationalities. While the focus of much of the evangelical church is on local mission along natural lines of shared background, Acts shows a constant intentionality to go beyond the barriers of social groups (26:17-18; 209; 23).

8. It’s public truth. Paul assumes that even the secular rulers know the story about Jesus, because “it was not done in a corner” (26:26). There is no sense from Paul that given the opportunity to speak truth to power, he should talk in generalities about doing good and living well, and avoid mention of Jesus and his call (compare with contemporary church spokesmen here and here).

9. It’s for the powers, human and spiritual, as well as ordinary people. Paul was called to “testify to small and great alike” (26:22). It’s certainly for family and friends, it’s good news for the poor and effort needs to be made to bring the message to the disadvantaged. But also it is for rulers, because it has global, multinational relevance. Paul takes the opportunity to evangelise the king while defending himself! (26:27-28).

10. It’s embodied in the suffering and vindication of the Saviour, of the apostle, and hence of the church. Paul has been unjustly imprisoned for two years in Palestine, and will face further incarceration and then death in Rome. But he has a chance to testify at the highest level, and is essentially declared innocent by his judges (26:31). In this he follows the pattern of Jesus’ life, but in his earlier anti-Christian days he was responsible for creating the same pattern for Christians in Judaea and Damascus (26:10-11).                            

It’s worth saying more about this last point. The gospel is not just a message to be believed, but a pattern of life to be experienced. Jesus suffered, died and was raised to life. Paul in this trial scene is in dire straits humanly speaking but is experiencing God’s powerful action through him for the good of the gospel in the public square. When Christians suffer today for their faith (either because of persecution, or the more common daily experiences of resisting internal sin or coping with difficult situations), the gospel is not just a message of personal salvation and justification, but actually taking up our cross; an experience of God with us in the “dying” and “being raised up” by him.

If the church treats the gospel not as public truth but as an internal blessing for the church and ‘fringe’ only, it loses the powerful testimony to the rulers, and can easily become pietistic and inward-looking. If it sees the gospel as a positive theological message but neglects the dimension of death-and-resurrection experience through being “in Christ” in suffering, it’s prone to a human-centred faith, managing life to avoid hardship, rather than following the Spirit’s leading as Paul did.

Book review: ‘Michael Green, by his friends’

Posted by on Sep 24, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Evangelism | Comments Off on Book review: ‘Michael Green, by his friends’

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

This collection of tributes, just released by IVP, paints a detailed picture of evangelist, pastor, scholar and mission activist Michael Green who died early in 2019. The different but dovetailing perspectives of more than 30 contributors are excellently marshalled and edited by Julia Cameron. This is no detached, merely factual biography, but a series of warm, affectionate reminiscences mixed with a clear overarching account of the life and various ministries in which Michael was involved and in most cases, led. The reader learns about an amazing man, and also a snapshot of the history of English Anglican evangelicalism from around 1950 to the present – a history in which perhaps only John Stott played a more influential role than Michael Green.

The book is organised chronologically, but not in a strict way – this allows some degree of overview of the decades when dealing with the various themes of Michael’s life. A timeline after J.John’s foreword and Julia Cameron’s brief introduction is very helpful in setting the key stages of Michael’s life against important events in the nation’s history.

There are four main parts to the book. ‘The formative years’ covers the period from Michael’s birth in 1930 in a vicarage near Banbury, through school, National Service, university at Oxford (where he was OICCU President, met Rosemary and began to gain his reputation for bold faith, a sharp mind and winsome, extrovert manner) and his curacy in Eastbourne. A number of voices from contemporaries narrate the many memorable stories and comment on the man and the development of his character and ministry.

In ‘A man of many talents’, a number of senior leaders, all influenced by Michael, are given space to write about his ministry as theological educator, church leader, author, international speaker, and evangelist to students and parish missions. A number of contributors emphasise independently that  Michael refused to accept the normal divide between academic theology (he led, or was on the staff of, four theological colleges), pastoral work (assistant at two churches and vicar of one) and evangelism. For him, the reality of Christ, the truth of the bible, the urgency of communicating the gospel message and inviting people to repent, believe and live for Jesus was all consuming. The purpose of academic theology was to better understand the word of God, not an end in itself or, as was commonly held in evangelical circles when he began teaching at London College of Divinity, something to be avoided.

We learn from Jane Holloway, who served many years as Michael’s PA and then developed her own public ministry with his encouragement, that he was at first a reluctant author, having only written in an academic style until persuaded to write down his evangelistic and apologetic talks and capture some of the racy energy – these became popular Christian classics of the 1960’s such as ‘Man Alive’ and ‘Runaway World’. Michael also made more in-depth systematic theology broadly accessible with a number of titles in the ‘I believe’ series of the 1970’s and 1980’s. He was a great help to contemporary writers such as Vaughan Roberts and Alister McGrath. Remarkably, he continued writing into his old age, and his book aimed at students, ‘Jesus for Sceptics’ (2013) is a best seller on campuses today.

Michael’s ebullient personality, powerful preaching and prayerful concern for those who don’t believe is the main theme of the book. J John speaks of Michael’s passion for the gospel, his commitment to clarity and arresting illustration in communication, and his reliance on the Holy Spirit – and these qualities are reiterated by contributors as diverse as Richard Cunningham from UCCF, Amy Orr-Ewing from OCCA, Michael Cassidy from African Enterprise, mission thinkers Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden, Archbishops Ben Kwashi and George Carey, and pastor/evangelists Bruce Gillingham and Andrew Wingfield Digby. We learn of the rapier-like cut and thrust of his communication, the sheer energy of the work of university and parish missions, and his skill in moving from preaching to a large group, leading a smaller discussion group, and engaging one to one. A number of amusing stories are recounted, such as the time when Michael engaged with a heckler during open air evangelism; the heckler walked away to get on a bus, and Michael followed him for a personal conversation, shouting to other members of the team to continue the preaching!

Part three of the book describes Michael’s continuation of ministry after passing retirement age, and the final section is about the end of his life, the reaction which followed, and a tribute from his son Tim on behalf of his family.

Was Michael Green almost too good to be true? There is a danger of a book like this turning into a hagiography, but this is avoided. Certainly he was an inspiring figure, but there are hints of how those who worked with him could be exasperated by his ‘100 ideas per hour’ nature. Relationships were not always easy, particularly at St Aldates Oxford, although of course his time there (1975-1987) was very fruitful; described by contributor John Woolmer as “frantic, exciting, challenging, exhausting, eventful”. He could be intimidating, perhaps making others feel inadequate next to his brilliance. George Carey, who appointed him to the Springboard initiative in 1990, suggests that this was sometimes the case when Michael tried to enthuse demoralised and even cynical clergy, used to expecting decline, to focus on mission and growth. The supremely gifted evangelist with huge amounts of faith and optimism can sometimes fail to understand those individuals who have got used to feeling “we can’t”. But overall, on a national scale, according to Carey, the emphasis on evangelism by the current Archbishops is largely due to the “turnaround” that Michael and his team brought about in the early years of the 1990’s ‘Decade of Evangelism’.

This book is dedicated to “the new generation of evangelists”. Michael was unique, and this very readable account serves as an excellent memorial to his personality, talents and achievements. It also contains a number of examples of his methods and innovations which will continue to be useful for evangelists to study and try out in practice in future. Perhaps also his ministry will be remembered as appropriate to a particular time in the nation when there was more openness to the gospel, when large numbers would turn up to hear evangelistic preaching, where big names commanded more respect. Has such a time now gone? Whatever cultural challenges face the church,  and whatever mission methods that will be required in the future, we certainly need leaders and gospel preachers with the courage, boldness and energy of Michael Green.

I personally had three encounters with Michael. First, in the mid 1980’s he spoke at my university CU which its fair to say was dominated by conservative evangelicals with suspicion of anything charismatic. After Michael’s talk, he invited us to “be laid back in the Lord” and receive the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Some of the CU leaders’ faces were like thunder, but many of the rank and file appreciated what he did – no-one else would have dared! The book refers to these divisions in Anglican evangelicalism and how Michael was respected by both sides. Then, on another occasion Michael was at a Gafcon meeting in around 2012, and I thought at the time that he seemed rather quiet and out of touch, a relic from the past. I later learned that his hearing aids weren’t working that day, and he had many more years of bringing people to Christ after that! The last time was in October 2018, just three months before his death. Archbishop Foley Beach of ACNA and Gafcon was visiting the UK, and I picked Michael up from his home to take him to meet Foley in a pub just off the motorway. They knew each other well from Michael’s two years in a North Carolina ACNA church, and spent a wonderful hour together, after which I was able to glean some more wisdom from the great man on the drive home.

ReNew Conference hears call to mission in the light of the future

Posted by on Sep 17, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, AMIE, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Evangelicalism, Gafcon | Comments Off on ReNew Conference hears call to mission in the light of the future

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

The annual gathering of conservative evangelical English Anglicans addressed the uncertainties of ministry in the present, given the challenges offered by the Church of England and Western culture, and emphasised the certainty of a future under Christ’s just reign promised in Scripture.

In an amusing and challenging interview, Archbishop Ben Kwashi spoke of how within ten years of narrowly avoiding death when his house and church were burned by Islamic terrorists, he dismantled and reordered an entire Diocesan administration, oversaw the planting of more than 200 churches, and supported his wife Gloria in her ministry of caring for dozens of orphans as well as their own children. Since the late 1990’s Jos has divided into further Dioceses with hundreds more congregations established as a witness to the gospel in a place of continued poverty, tension, violence and injustice.

Asked why there had been such successful evangelism in his Diocese of Jos, Kwashi told of how he took teams of clergy to visit unchurched areas for a week after time of research and prayer. Once congregations had been established, clergy and lay people were mobilised for further mission, and the Archbishop told of how teenagers can become particularly effective evangelists if they develop a passion for Jesus before and instead of the usual negative influences.

Earlier in the Conference, Archbishop Ben had shared more of his background. His father had been brought to Christ and mentored by young missionaries from England, who made huge sacrifices by journeying to Nigeria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of them died there, some within weeks of arrival; their love for the Lord and for the people made a huge impression on Kwashi senior and his son Ben who became an Archbishop and now General Secretary of Gafcon. “The gospel is the means of saving the world, and God has put it in our hands”, he said. “We must pass it on to the next generation with joy and conviction, hot and fresh”.

This for Kwashi is the central driving motivation for Gafcon. In the churches of the West, theological debate about the essentials of Christianity was “watering down the gospel, destroying faith, taking the church captive”. Gafcon as a series of conferences and a global movement has re-established faithful Anglicanism and provided structures for it to continue and thrive.  Anglican groupings have emerged, clearly separated from ‘official’ structures which have embraced heresy, such as the thriving Church in North America, and now new initiatives in New Zealand, Scotland and Brazil. In Africa, those with an anti-gospel agenda “use money to play with people’s lives”, Kwashi warned, but those who identify with Gafcon “are not willing to be sold”.

The theme of the Renew Conference, attended by nearly 500 people from 270 churches, was “multiplying ministries in the light of eternity”. Certainly Ben Kwashi’s ministry in Nigeria, and his current additional responsibilities with Gafcon exemplify this. The truths of the future coming of Christ, and the destiny of all human beings, as a comfort for believers and motivation for mission were outlined in Bible expositions by other speakers. “We can cope with suffering, but not hopelessness”, said Andy Mason, reminding us from the gospel of Luke that the King has come, the King will come, it will be a shock, and we are told how to prepare. A particularly excellent systematic treatment of the subject of hell by Kendal Harmon from the ACNA Diocese of South Carolina explained why and how the loss of this uncomfortable teaching in churches has coincided with the rise of secularism in society, and how recovering a sober and biblical understanding of judgement is vital for the evangelistic project founded on love and concern for the lost.

The conference heard from a number of different voices, live and on video, giving practical examples of multiplying ministry in local churches – a wide range, from mums sharing the gospel with others befriended at the school gate, to revitalisation of churches with a history of poor ministry and low attendance, to planting of new congregations inside and outside the Church of England. One vicar presented a well-produced video featuring a number of clergy from the south west talking about their strategies for identifying, training and releasing new leaders for ministry; lay people spoke of how they had moved to part-time work in order to support their local church’s outreach.

The vexed issue was addressed of what action to take in the face of Diocesan leadership increasingly promoting agendas contrary to the bible’s teaching, and sometimes being actively hostile to gospel ministry. While the majority remain in the C of E for now, an increasing number are looking at ways to visibly “differentiate” from spiritual fellowship with Bishops. A church warden described how in his parish a research group was established, to understand and communicate to the congregation the reasons for rifts over doctrine and ethics, to support the vicar on immediate action (for example letters of protest to the Bishop), and to explore options for the future to protect gospel ministry. Of course a small but growing number have left the C of E, or are preparing to do so, while remaining Anglican, connected to Gafcon. AMiE was given some exposure here (Free Church of England was not mentioned, and should have been). 

A large group of clergy and laity such as this one will come from a variety of contexts and come up with different strategies for action, often guided by conscience. There was an emphasis on continued fellowship based on shared understanding of the gospel, and mutual support even for those embarking on different courses of action, rather than a one size fits all centralised approach. There will no doubt continue to be debate in the coming days and weeks on this. Meanwhile the work of gospel mission through the local church goes on. Archbishop Kwashi said that he was encouraged by being among such a number of ministers firmly committed to preaching Christ in the hard secular environment of the UK.

Worship and evangelism in new ‘dark ages’ mission

Posted by on Sep 10, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Mission, Worship | Comments Off on Worship and evangelism in new ‘dark ages’ mission

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

A recent piece in the Church of England Newspaper (23rd August, £) reflected on the church’s task in contemporary society. Worship, which is the attitude and activity of glorifying God by believers, should not be confused with evangelism, the explaining of the Christian message to unbelievers and invitation to repentance and faith so they can become part of the worshipping community. Rather, “When we worship, our [the Christian disciple’s] attention is on God; when we evangelise, our attention is on those we want to reach with the gospel”, says Rev Martin Down in his article.

If the lines are blurred between the two, and the distinction between the believer-in-Christ and the ‘interested outsider’ is removed, confusion and ‘lowering the bar’ can occur. The temptation is for worship and teaching to be ‘dumbed down’ to create an uplifting and positive experience in church, and evangelism reduced to inviting people to share that experience.  Or, even if the focus of the Sunday gathering is on telling newcomers the basics of the gospel, the more mature Christian disciple is left with thin gruel in terms of true worship and challenging, edifying teaching from the Scriptures.

Down mentions how the cultural context for mission has changed, and it would be good to reflect more on this. In the past, much evangelism was based on the assumption that there was a strong Christian heritage in society. Most people at least had a grasp of the basic message of the bible from church and/or school RE. We could even have a shared ‘act of worship’ in schools and national civic occasions in parish churches and cathedrals, assuming that most people believed in God. The task of the evangelist was often seen as correcting a wrong understanding of the gospel, for example that God rewards good, respectable people with answered prayer and  going to heaven when we die. The explanation of the cross and the reality of the indwelling Holy Spirit have been crucial in helping to move people from a works-based and nominal, lifeless Christianity to genuine conversion.

But today it can’t be assumed that the majority have any concept of the Christian God or of the basic teaching of the bible. Not only that, but the culture can’t be seen as neutral and benign, a blank canvas where people can be easily moved from nominal vague religiosity to understanding and acceptance of the gospel. Just as in the age of the Acts of the Apostles and the mission of the early church in the early centuries AD, the majority worldviews contradict the biblical understanding, are often hostile to it, and their adherents are actively worshipping their own gods and doing their own “evangelism”. It might be the new philosophies and ideologies such as secular humanism, ‘cultural Marxism’ with its vehicle of sexual revolution, or the nihilistic atheism of Yuval HarariOr it could be the resurfacing of old religions – a recent hour long BBC interview with writer and media personality Stephen Fry probed his fascination with ancient Greek myths telling powerful stories to explain human origins and psychology – and how in his view these are much more relevant for today than Christianity.

As the Christian culture of the West decays rapidly, these anti-Christian mindsets are finding fertile ground for their mission in the post-Christian generation. A weak church is being successfully evangelised by an idol-worshipping world! In such a situation, genuine worshipbuilding up the body, and evangelism takes on a new urgency: counter-cultural, revolutionary, potentially dangerous.

In a world where people are obsessed with their grievances and rights and identities, worship begins with “it’s not about me”, recovering reverent awe of God the creator and the judge, adoration of Christ the redeemer, renouncing idols, repenting of sin. Teaching continues the focus on Jesus, his work for and in us, and his future for us, and applies this in the difficult but rewarding experience of crucifying the sinful ego and experiencing the resurrection as the Holy Spirit enables the disciple’s putting on of the new self in all areas of life. Being part of the worldwide and historical communion of saints may involve submitting to the discipline of liturgical practices of the past rather than just contemporary music and quality coffee.

Evangelism cannot be just about numbers in a room and making people feel comfortable so they come again. It must begin with the controversial but liberating content of the evangel, repellent to some but attractive to those in whom God is at work. It’s followed up by catechesis which has an element of ‘detox’ as new disciples renounce one by one wrong assumptions and ideas taught by Netflix and social media, and replace with wholesome truth. If few buy, we hold our nerve, not cutting the price and offering cheap grace. We cannot assume that if we just get people into a ‘sacred space’, whether messy church, hipster cafe or cathedral, the Holy Spirit will do the rest. Other spirits are also in operation…

‘Witness’ then takes on the true New Testament meaning as Jesus builds his church into a learning/serving community which will suffer for challenging prevailing lies. The true worshipping and evangelising church is motivated by love and faith, but will be derided as old fashioned, judgemental, even abusive. It will not try to provide its members with a therapeutic escape from the world, or syncretistic accommodation to it, but like our courageous forbears who set up monasteries among the pagan Saxons and Vikings, real witness seeks to transform that world.

Of course none of these ideas are new. They have been articulated by others, perhaps notably American journalist Rod Dreher in his book ‘The Benedict Option’, and website blogs. Dreher outlines the spiritual and moral crisis now affecting the West, and is clear that this cannot be solved by trusting in national/global politics of left or right, or in pleasant church experiences which leave erroneous wordldviews intact. Rather, he advocates the creation of a parallel Christian society based on small churches, with members following an intentional ‘Rule’, with its own methods of internal education; socially egalitarian, creative, mustard-seed influential. For Anglicans, this sounds “nonconformist” – but perhaps a version of it is now needed?

C of E welcomes American celebrity Pastor’s attack on orthodox sexual ethics

Posted by on Aug 27, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Heresy | Comments Off on C of E welcomes American celebrity Pastor’s attack on orthodox sexual ethics

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

A number of clergy in Southwark Diocese have privately expressed concern to the Bishop about an event at the cathedral on London’s south bank which took place on 21st August. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor from Denver with a high profile in the secular media, spoke to an enthusiastic audience of around 500, before being one of the headline speakers at the Greenbelt festival the following weekend.

Bolz-Weber, a former stand-up comedian and recovering alcoholic is instantly recognisable with arms covered in tattoos. Her message takes aim at caricatures of conservative, ‘repressive’ Christianity, and advocates a way of relating to God free of shame, especially sexual guilt – hence the title of her book “Shameless- a sexual reformation” (see review here). Bolz-Weber’s caustic wit and fury has been particularly focussed on traditional teaching on sexual purity.

While it has always been difficult for Christian parents and church youth leaders to articulate a plausible bible-based sexual ethic for young people, in the past 50 years this has proved an increasing challenge, with campus ‘hook-up’ culture, the easy availability of contraception, abortion and STD medication, and more recently, internet pornography so-called ‘dating’ apps all increasing the allure of ‘consequence-free’ sex.

Powerful and seductive voices from within the liberal wing of the church, and latterly even among some evangelicals, have sought to downplay the rising sense of alarm, perhaps saying that an Augustinian foundation to our theology has made us too hung up about sex, that as long as its consensual and over-age then most expressions of ‘love’ are OK, that guilt is bad, that perhaps we haven’t read our bibles right, that authentic Christian disciples should be more concerned about social injustice or the environment than what people do in their bedrooms. That it’s too powerful and we couldn’t stop if if we tried, that Christians frowning about sex puts people off the gospel, etc.

As a result various movements emerged in the 1980’s and 90’s concerned to teach again the historic biblical vision of women and men, sex and marriage. Incentives were designed to help teenagers make commitments to sexual purity, such as the wearing of a cheap metal ring as a token of a pledge not to have sex until marriage. Many young people found this helpful, although some faced ridicule and worse for their courageous and costly stance – and of course some fell away because of peer pressure.

This teaching about sexual purity is a consistent and distinctive element within the Jewish and Christian Scriptures clearly related to the character of God and the true nature of love; the rejection of occult spirituality, the protection of women and children, the benefits to society of relational faithfulness with personal discipline and self control. For Bolz-Weber, though, it is not just old-fashioned and killjoy. It is profoundly harmful, preventing in her view healthy sexual development through experimentation. The purity message can even be a form of abuse, part of a system of legalistic religious control which Jesus came to abolish.

In her book Shameless, she narrates a series of testimonies where people struggled with the tension between the attitudes and behaviour they were taught in their conservative churches (no sex outside of marriage, no gay sex); they fell into what they thought was sin, felt guilty with shame reinforced by church teaching, repented for a while, sinned again – until they discovered a true ‘liberation’ in deciding that sexual expression in ways which are enjoyable and feel comfortable are not bad, but approved by God.

As a skilled operator in the field of communications, Bolz-Weber knows that its not enough to write books or blogs promoting her message. Her own personality, her irreverent humour littered with expletives, her ‘neo-punk’ appearance serves to gain followers, and also the message is reinforced by powerful visual icons such as the now notorious sculpture, made of discarded ‘purity rings’ and shaped into a symbol of female genitalia which she unveiled at a feminist conference in 2018.

It’s difficult to think of a more vicious way to ridicule biblical morality and the sincere intention of thousands of Christian girls to follow Jesus in the area of sexual purity, than to publicly destroy their symbols of discipleship and replace them with something resembling a gross pagan idol. So its not surprising to learn that Bolz-Weber also publicly advocates incorporating elements of religious practice from ancient pre-Christian Europe, in particular the idea of a feminine diving figure borrowed from Wicca whom she calls “the goddess”.

Her supporters claim that she is making Christianity more accessible to ordinary people, especially progressively-oriented women. It’s worth reading this adulatory profile of Bolz-Weber in the New Yorker which reads almost as a caricature by a conservative satirical site.

The Southwark Cathedral gig isn’t Bolz-Weber’s first with the Church of England. In 2017 we saw the Archbishops of Canterbury and York signal a new policy of “radical inclusion”. Following the Scottish Episcopal Church’s acceptance of same sex marriage, the C of E’s July Synod called for liturgies to celebrate gender transition and a ban on any pastoral care to help people leave homosexual feelings and lifestyle after bitter debates in which conservatives were heckled for quoting from the bible. Later that year, Bolz-Weber, obviously considered an expert, was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to conduct a day-long seminar for all the Bishops as part of an in depth discussion on sexuality.

Have her teachings had an effect, or is giving her these platforms merely symptomatic of the C of E’s rapid slide towards a form of religion unrecognisable as authentic Christianity? Certainly we now have the transgender baptism guidance (never rescinded despite apologies from the Chair of the committee which signed it off, and a petition of over 3000 people). We have more and more senior appointments of people who believe and teach a version of Bolz-Weber’s theology rather than the official doctrine of the Church. We have examples of official “pastoral guidance” towards “full inclusion” of all without questioning sexual lifestyles, while at the same time warning against the pastoral harm of publicly holding to historic sexual ethics. We have testimonies of clergy not appointed to new posts because of conservative views on sexuality (I heard of one last month, from an outstanding young man prepared to work in a difficult area – the parish in question remains vacant).

Most recently we have heard reports that in the crucial debates in the House of Lords about the undemocratic imposition of a liberalisation of the abortion law in Northern Ireland, not a single member of the 26 Bishops eligible to take part were present.

They can’t all have been on holiday – was this perhaps a three line whip from the top strategists in Lambeth Palace and/or Church House who felt that the C of E had better keep silent on such a controversial subject as the life of children in the womb? Nadia Bolz-Weber would be delighted, although she would have preferred some Bishops to turn up and support a woman’s right to choose. (If any Bishops have spoken out in support of this most vulnerable group – unborn babies –  I’d be very happy to be made aware of it).

Meanwhile in Southwark Diocese the Bishop is deflecting criticism by referring again to the autonomy of the cathedral, and the commitment of the Diocese to “mutual flourishing” (ie, the holding together in one church of mutually contradictory views, with a bias towards the heterodox). This “mutual flourishing” idea is seen by many conservatives to work for them as well, so some may consider it in their interests to prevent their more seriously spiritually-aware laity from finding out about Bolz-Weber’s visit, reflecting on its implications, rocking the boat or getting out of it altogether. 

Bishop John Ellison, 1940-2019

Posted by on Aug 20, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Mission | Comments Off on Bishop John Ellison, 1940-2019

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathedral gimmicks illustrate spiritually blind Britain and mute Church

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

Cathedral gimmicks illustrate spiritually blind Britain and mute Church

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The domestication of Church of England evangelicalism

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

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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