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.

Sex education compulsory; worship optional; children at risk. How should we respond?

Posted by on Feb 26, 2019 in Church of England, Editorial Blog, Sexualisation | Comments Off on Sex education compulsory; worship optional; children at risk. How should we respond?

Sex education compulsory; worship optional; children at risk. How should we respond?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

During General Synod last week, what the organisers hoped would be a minor administrative change passing under the radar was picked up on Thursday by a number of national media outlets as a variant of: ‘Sunday services no longer compulsory in the Church of England’. It was pure coincidence, but highly symbolic, that as we posted the Guardian’s report on Anglican Mainstream, the next item on our news page would be about sex education becoming compulsory for even the youngest ages of schoolchildren.

Of itself, there is nothing controversial about the Synod announcement. Altering the canons to remove the need for every parish church still in use to hold a service every Sunday morning and evening would simply bring law into line with reality. Many churches never have evening services, and in multi-parish benefices it has long been the case that some churches in smaller villages will have a service once a month, while the vicar focuses on the churches with larger attendances. Up until now vicars or lay readers really should have been reciting Morning and Evening Prayer alone in empty churches every Sunday, or they will have been technically breaking the law – it seems sensible to make a change, and this has been discussed in previous Synods.

But despite this, the image of a church in terminal decline and essentially unimportant is not dispelled by headlines about making Sunday worship optional.

Similarly, widening Relationships and Sex Education to ensure that children learn how to protect themselves online, and get along with people from different family backgrounds, might not appear controversial. But the revamping of RSE is a move away from the historic understanding of education in partnership with parents (especially on issues of religion and morals), to one that looks increasingly like the imposition of an ideology, through the school system, which is godless and immoral.

Christian Concern, who helped to organize a multi-faith meeting of protest and prayer outside Parliament during the debate on RSE on 25th February, have produced an excellent briefing on the implications of these changes. It is not just that influential lobby groups such as Stonewall and Educate and Celebrate have infiltrated national education, producing materials for teachers to use and proving speakers for assembles which relentlessly promote LGBT themes and ideas to children. Nor is the problem just that head teachers have been given increasing powers to direct the policy and curriculum of schools of RSE. Ideologically-driven Principals pushing policies and materials promoting the ‘inclusion’ agenda have already created clashes with parents from Muslim and Christian backgrounds, who regard this to be inappropriate or even immoral.

These things are alarming enough. Melanie Phillips writing in the Times [£] says:

The impulse to spread tolerance and protect children from harm is commendable but this is not the primary aim of this policy. It is rather to impose the doctrine of equal sexual lifestyle choice. This doctrine is not a neutral concept. As a direct attack on normative morality, it is an ideology that schools have no business imposing on pupils….many parents have already expressed great concern over the way sex education is prematurely sexualising their children…

but the bigger issue is the overarching power that the State has taken upon itself, to override the wishes of parents in their children’s education, assumptions that are guaranteed in various international accords on human rights. As Christian Concern say:

If parliament asserts a right to determine which beliefs a parent can or cannot instil in his or her own children, it infringes upon a fundamental liberty upon which the social order is established. By usurping a parents’ role as the custodians and guardians for their children’s development, parliament threatens religious liberty and the freedoms of conscience, belief, and even speech.

The contrast between General Synod, legislating to reflect the national decline in churchgoing and lack of interest in the things of God, and Parliament, legislating to ensure that no child escapes the new moralities of secularism, could not be more marked. It is certainly not a coincidence that, symbolically, worship becomes optional at a time when training in immorality becomes compulsory. This trend is found in other areas as well: the C of E’s ‘Living in Love and Faith’ project makes the historic and bible-based teaching on sex and marriage optional, while “full inclusion” of those living and promoting a different ethical position is compulsory. Abstinence for people who have same-sex desires is optional, but keeping hold of those desires is compulsory.

However, many well-meaning Christian parents and teachers, including those associated with Church of England schools, don’t seem concerned about the changes in sex education. “Surely we should support programmes in schools which teach children to be kind?” The answer of course is that good schools have always fostered an ethic of care and respect, making bullying and bigotry unacceptable, beginning with a relationship of mutual support between the head teacher and the parents, who should have ultimate responsibility for instilling morals and values according to their worldview. But now that increasingly, bullying, bigotry and even ‘extremism’ is associated with simply holding traditional views on sex and marriage, Christian parents and teachers can no longer assume that all is well. They may need to prepare for conflict if we are not to see the ‘sex-positive: all consensual sex is good’ message being taught to all children from an early age by default.

But should Christians be appalled at the sexualisation of children and the erosion of rights and freedoms of parents, or should we just shrug and accept that this is an inevitable result of secularism? Should we be actively involved in protecting children by countering misguided and even evil laws, or should we just do evangelism and discipleship within our local church, since what happens in schools is none of our business, and we can’t expect things to change unless people become Christians? Certainly this has never been the Anglican position: mission is not just getting individuals converted and into church, but also about changing society for the better. If people are speeding on my local road and children are at risk, I cannot simply fold my arms and say “we shouldn’t be surprised – the drivers are not Christians”. Nor is the ministry of practical care just a matter of helping those affected by a sinful world. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, our job is not only to help people crushed by the wheel, but to stop the wheel itself.

The sexual revolution is getting out of control. If my church is not able to take a stand by at least clearly articulating the bible’s positive teaching on sex and the dire warnings of Christ for those who lead children into sin, should I perhaps think about going to, or even starting, another one?

Witness through trial: Paul in Acts, and the church in history

Posted by on Feb 22, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Bible, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Witness through trial: Paul in Acts, and the church in history

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Lead us not into temptation”, but the word used in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 and Luke 11 is the same as that translated as ‘trials’ in 1 Peter 1:6. Temptation, testing, trials for Jesus and for all God’s people are a regular feature of New Testament Christianity, and they come in different forms. While Christians have prayed that they would not have to face severe testing of their faith or literal trials, God has in his wisdom allowed it to happen, leading his servants into a “time of trial”; often before the court of the world, saving them through it, but also using for his glory the setting of the spotlight on his vulnerable representative.

The repeated trial scenes towards the end of Acts are fascinating, not least because Luke considers them so important that he devotes nearly 6 chapters to them. They are predicted by Paul himself in his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (20:23); and then by the prophet Agabus in Caesarea (21:11). The trials begin in Jerusalem because of Paul’s reputation: his gospel to the Gentiles of inclusion among God’s people through repentance and faith in Christ, not through observance of Jewish laws and customs, has been misrepresented as a message to Jews to abandon their religion and culture. There is clearly tension between Paul and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem – they find his presence an embarrassment; they arrange for him to symbolically display his Jewish piety at the temple; they are conspicuously absent in terms of providing support following his arrest, imprisonment and trials.

Paul is falsely accused of bringing Gentiles into the temple; a mob forms and a riot breaks out, with Paul in danger of being beaten to death. A strong contrast is established between the murderous ‘summary justice’ of the religious fanatics (see also 23:12), and the calm, fair secular rule of the Roman authorities. The trials begin with Paul’s first interrogation by the Roman soldiers (end of 21), his first testimony of his encounter with the risen Christ before a predominantly hostile Jewish audience on the temple steps (22:1-21), and his second questioning at the hands of the Roman military (22:22-29).

From here Paul is brought before the Sanhedrin, as Jesus, Peter and John had been before him. Paul takes the initiative by changing the subject: it’s not about whether he has violated the Law – if he has, so has everyone else (23:3), but whether there is a resurrection from the dead. This brings out the existing tensions and divisions among the leaders of God’s people, the Pharisees who believe some key tenets of the Scriptures, and the Sadduccees who have no conception of the reality of the spiritual realm. They are united in their way of operating, preserving the power and status in control of the religious institution, in the context of submission to an alien secular authority.

The trial descends into uproar and Paul is removed from the scene. He is pictured later, alone in his cell but visited by the Lord. He’s told to be courageous, not because his trials will come to an end, but that this trial in Jerusalem is the beginning of a long process ending in Rome. The apostle of Christ is to use the set-piece trials as an opportunity to testify publicly to human power, religious and secular, and by implication to the spiritual principalities and powers behind them.

The story continues: Paul’s Roman guards are warned of a plot in which some members of the Sanhedrin are involved, to assassinate Paul on his way to further questioning in Jerusalem. In response, they take him to Caesarea, where he faces more trials: before the governor Felix, (with whom Paul forms a relationship used for evangelism), and then Festus who succeeded him two years later. Paul appeals to be judged in Rome- this is his right as a citizen, but also ensures that he would not be sent back to Jerusalem as the religious leaders were demanding.

Chapter 26 narrates the final great trial scene: Paul before Festus and the vassal king Herod Agrippa in Caesarea. In the speech for his defense, Paul explains the motivation behind his ministry, and in particular, the story of his conversion as the risen Christ arrested and spoke to him. Jesus gave him a commission, to “open the eyes” of the Gentiles “so that they may receive forgiveness of sins”. This was controversial and made him and object of hatred (v21), but was in keeping with the teaching of the Old Testament (v22-23). Paul’s response to the commission was wholehearted obedience (v19-20), and he began preaching the radical message of inclusion in God’s Kingdom through repentance and faith in Christ alone.

Luke uses the courtroom drama as writers have done in many traditions including contemporary film – a compelling set-piece where arguments for and against can be set out, and where interest is focused on an individual facing justice – either to elicit sympathy for the innocent, or condemnation for the guilty. There are parallels between Paul and his Lord as they stand accused of fomenting discord and being a threat to civil order, but while Jesus speaks few words in his defense, Paul is given opportunity to tell his story and speak publicly of the death, resurrection and universal Lordship of Christ.

Most of Luke’s readers would have been familiar with the Greek dramas which often incorporated trial scenes. Is Acts a kind of tragedy then, where an innocent man remains in prison, and as we know how the story ends, goes to further trials in Rome where he is executed? We see a powerless man bravely testifying in court before hostile powers who will crush him in the end. But on a cosmic level the trial dynamic is reversed – in fact, it is the world, and the rebellious spiritual powers, who are on trial before almighty God and judged by him. Psalm 82 and Isaiah 41 are just two Old Testament passages which show this clearly. So in using the form of the courtroom scene to show Paul’s trials, Luke hints at a dramatic irony: his accusers are the ones really on trial; Paul will be vindicated, and the ‘heavenly vision’ (Acts 26:19) of multi-tribal fellowship, worship and mission in God’s service is realised.

But there’s another lesson. The man of God, and by extension the church which bravely testifies publicly to the authorities of all nations and races, speaking truth to power, may face persecution, even death, but the result is much more fruitful than for those who keep their heads down, speaking to their own people only, looking to compromise with religious and secular authorities in order to avoid conflict. Anglican representatives from countries where Christians suffer persecution, who must sometimes feel like they are on trial every day, are preparing to gather soon for a special Gafcon meeting. If Luke was writing an ‘Acts’ for today, perhaps he would be telling their story for us to learn from?

Pressure on orthodox Christian views politely and gently increased in nation and church

Posted by on Feb 5, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Pressure on orthodox Christian views politely and gently increased in nation and church

House of Lords debates same sex marriage in the C of E; Pastoral Guidance steers towards unity in diversity.

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The day when the secular government seeks to compel the Church of England to conform fully to ‘equality legislation’ draws ever closer. An amendment to end the C of E’s exemption from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013 was tabled in the House of Lords on Friday 1st February, and debated. Although it was withdrawn after a number of significant speeches, it’s sure to come back again and again, and as support for it grows within the Church, may eventually succeed, perhaps as a condition for continued Establishment.

The Parliamentary debate took place during the passage of a Bill which extends Civil Partnerships to heterosexual couples. The Hansard report can be read in full here.

If the reader scrolls down through technical legal issues about government powers, and the discussion about whether Civil Partnerships should be extended to siblings, the moving of amendment 2 by Lord Faulkner of Worcester can be found: “The Secretary of State must make regulations to amend the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 to remove the exemption for members of the clergy to solemnize the marriage of a same sex couple.” Faulkner went on to urge the Church of England to “follow the lead set by the Anglican Churches in Scotland, the United States, Canada and other countries and permit same-sex couples to marry in church”.

He was immediately backed up by Lord Cashman, who first emphasised that the amendment wants to make the change optional not compulsory, but then went on to complain of how “religious belief has been used to deny people basic equality”.

Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Scriven continued in the same vein, describing how he was not able to marry his same sex partner in church: “when we talk about same-sex marriage, it is not equal in law at the moment because of the provision concerning the Church. How do you think that makes me feel?”

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, then responded for the Church. He spoke of the balance between LGBT rights and freedom of religion, and quoted the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 9, which warns against state interference in religious doctrine. Explaining the long-running process within the C of E of debating issues of sexuality and marriage up to the current Living in Love and Faith project, the Bishop in effect asked the Lords to have patience; the amendment, if passed, would be seen as forcing the hand of Synod and creating legal difficulties. Clearly feeling himself to be in a hostile environment, pressed by a number of Lords with strong pro-LGBT views, he appeared sympathetic to the call for change, even mentioning the consultancy help that Stonewall are giving the C of E, but returned to the warning about state interference and compulsion.

In his summing up, and just before he withdrew his amendment, Lord Faulkner said:

“This is the first time since the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed, more than five years ago, that we have had an opportunity to talk about the attitude of the Church of England…to same-sex marriage in church…the Church is moving—at glacial speed, I am afraid to say…and I think there is a genuine move for us to give the Church a little push in the right direction.”

There is no doubt that a campaign within Parliament to pressurise the Church in this way will grow, suggesting that the ability to retain biblical Christian sexual ethics in the C of E depends less on our blogs and books, petitions and debates in Synods , and more on the extent to which LGBT rights activists pursue their cause within Parliament and the law of the land.

 

Living In Love and Faith: progress report to General Synod

Another area of concern is the way that the Living in Love and Faith project (LLF) is taking shape. One of the many agenda papers prepared in advance of General Synod (which begins on 20th February) is a briefing from LLF, which can be found here.

The first section of the briefing summarises the scope and content of what will be a major piece of work on Christian approaches to anthropology in the context of rapid shifts in cultural understandings, and gives some names of contributors.

The second part introduces and sets out ‘Pastoral Principles’ to guide attitudes and actions of church members who disagree theologically, and to ensure a warm welcome for all. It is assumed that these Principles are not contentious in themselves, and have already been decided as applying to all without discussion. However, this is far from being the case; in fact this document will be of great concern to orthodox Anglicans around the world, as if implemented, it will create a crisis of conscience for those committed to a biblically faithful ministry.

It appears as if the first part has been written by academics, and the second by political activists.  Its first stated aim, that people would be “inspired” by the biblical vision of God’s purpose for humanity, is rather different from the New Testament insistence that “God commands all people everywhere to repent”, and so not an accurate description of how the gospel works in confessional Christianity. Other expected outcomes are: that church communities would have a deeper understanding of both the ‘inherited teaching’ on sexuality, and ‘emergent views’, and that they would, by critiquing “different hermeneutical understandings”, see how “different theological perspectives give rise to different patterns of discipleship”. This neutral, academic approach, which reads like the curriculum for an undergraduate theology course, appears already in danger of being incoherent in terms of practical Christian living. Why and how should I “deny myself” and go against my (what I believe to be) sinful desires, if giving in to and celebrating those desires is simply labeled as an equally or even more authentic pattern of discipleship?

A suite of resources are promised which include films and online learning material, a book which “combines the characteristics of a pedagogically well-crafted textbook with the aesthetics of a coffee-table book”, and a series of scholarly papers. The expense involved in this exercise of helping people to appreciate a variety of different views, a bit like multi-faith RE at school, is not mentioned, but is obviously considerable.

Having established that the purpose of the project is a comprehensive exercise in mutual learning and understanding about different perspectives on sexuality within the Christian community in its broadest sense, the second half of the document goes on to outline six ‘Pastoral Principles for living well together’.

Principle One asserts that “we will receive our differences as a gift”, and “explore our own prejudices”. We will “welcome people as they are” with “unconditional positive regard without judgement or question”, while avoiding “subliminal actions or language” which might cause hurt.

Principle Two commits the Church to be a place of welcome, acceptance, challenge and hospitality. What might prevent this is “a culture of silence’ and “abuses of power” which make vulnerable minorities who are “different” feel unwelcome.

Principle 4 speaks of the dynamic of fear which corrupts relationships. Care must be taken to include all, given different views on what constitutes sin and holiness. Reference is made to excluding people from leadership, and “coercive or abusive” pastoral practice.

What can be seen from this and the rest of the document is that these so-called Principles are not easy to understand – they appear to be speaking in code, using language about analysis of power structures, the promotion of diversity and inclusion mixed with recognizably Christian themes. On the surface some of this is uncontroversial (eg a call to love and respect one another), but it assumes the primacy of the unity of the Church despite major differences on theology, ethics and lifestyles. In fact such differences must be celebrated as a “gift”.

On closer reading, this pastoral guidance appears slanted towards an implication that conservative Christians are prone to prejudice, creating a culture of fear and silence, excluding those who differ from the norm, putting up barriers between people. For me, the way this has been done is highly manipulative. It raises the question whether, however carefully and lovingly the historic, bible-based teachings of the church about sex and marriage are presented, they will be seen to contravene these Principles.

Neither Parliament, nor the church leadership, are saying, yet, that the C of E has to make an imminent decision officially to permit practice which would put it at odds with Scripture, tradition and global Christian opinion. But the debate in the Lords and the slant of the LLF briefing seem part of a strategy to gently soften opinion, so that such a major change becomes less unthinkable in the near future.

A bible-based, evangelical approach to Christian faith and sexuality: new book sets out CEEC view

Posted by on Jan 29, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Evangelicalism | Comments Off on A bible-based, evangelical approach to Christian faith and sexuality: new book sets out CEEC view

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Another excellent resource from Anglican evangelical theologian Martin Davie has been published, this time in collaboration with colleagues associated with the Church of England Evangelical Council.  ‘Glorify God in your Body: Human identity and flourishing in marriage, singleness and friendship’ at well over 200 pages is intended as a major submission from a conservative perspective to the ongoing ‘Living in love and faith’ project of the Church of England[1] and also as a handbook for the local church and personal study.

The foreword makes clear that its method does not follow the popular contemporary approach of working out from personal biographical narrative to what the church should believe and do with regard to LGBT people. Rather, Davie’s book begins with “a robust exploration of an apostolic understanding of Scripture” as a basis for the church’s theology and ethics: how Christian communities should care for all people concerning “key life issues”. Unlike the Church of England’s apparently neutral or even positive approach to “a society in which understandings and practices of gender, sexuality and marriage continue to change” (LLF), CEEC judges this society to have “lost its historic and Christian ethical moorings”, hence a need for a clear re-statement of these foundations.

The title ‘Glorify God in your body’ of course is taken from Corinthians 6:12-20, one of a number of key New Testament passages dealing specifically with sexual morality. In his book, Davie waits until chapters 7 and 8 to specifically address the radical differences between biblical standards, and the norms of most cultures (especially our own) in this area. The apostle Paul insists that how we view our bodies and use them sexually is of profound importance spiritually, not least because it affects our relationship with God and our eternal destiny. In these chapters Davie explains how this applies to how we view contemporary issues such as prostitution, pornography, masturbation, sexual surrogacy and cohabitation, as well as transgenderism and same sex relationships.

So the answer to the burning questions: “should the church bless the sexual union of same sex couples, and celebrate transgender identities” are set in the context of other areas of sexual behaviour. This comes after a number of other chapters showing the philosophical and biblical groundwork underlying an overarching evangelical theology of being human, in which sexual ethics are set. It’s an effective way of showing that evangelicals are not fixated on opposition to gay sex or worse, LGBT people, but have developed a reasoned approach which is consistent with an overall ethical framework, and has compassionate and realistic pastoral application at local church level.

In his introduction, Davie provides a brief survey of the contemporary sexual revolution, which he believes originates mainly in consumerist individualism, the rejection of externally imposed moral boundaries, and the search for authentic identity of the self. While the Christian faith shares with this philosophy the value of each individual and the goal of flourishing in this life, it offers a radically different diagnosis of the problem (internal sin rather than just external restrictions), and the solution (conformity to God’s will).

The first two chapters build on this, explaining “why ethics needs God”, using at first arguments from natural law rather than the bible. If human beings are created beings with spiritual as well as physical components, then the Creator is the source of moral authority. Knowing what God wants of us is not straightforward, as our reason is clouded by sin, and our hearts incline towards idols rather than God. Revelation is necessary for us to know who God is and what our need is, in order that we can be saved, flourish and do good according to his principles.

Having established these foundations of reason and Scripture for how we know God and how to establish what’s right and wrong, Davie continues in the next two chapters to explain, from principles of biology and Scripture, what makes us human beings, male and female. He explores the purpose of sex and sexual difference, and the meaning of marriage according to Jesus’ teaching. Interestingly, he devotes a chapter to life in the world to come, highlighting biblical teaching that we will retain our identities as male and female, but without sexual activity and marriage.

Two chapters follow on “marriage, singleness and friendship”. Continuing the theme of eternal life, Davie courageously asserts the reality of heaven and hell, and the destiny of every person being dependent on our earthly decision to be intimately connected to God in Christ, or focussed on self. Equally uncompromising is the setting out of principles of marriage according to Scripture, which rule out any idea of same sex marriage, and mirror the divine-human, Christ-church relationship in sacrificial care, headship and submission. The usual objections to this teaching are acknowledged and answered. There is then a full treatment of the subject of singleness, abstinence and celibacy, beginning with the early church’s positive view of virginity. Whether married or single, all Christians are called to be friends to others, and the church can take practical steps to promote this.

So by the time Davie addresses contemporary challenges to the historic Christian approach on issues such as intersex and transgender, sex outside marriage, divorce, and birth control, he has established a strong and reasoned method of arriving at ethical decisions, and a positive biblical anthropology. The book ends with some useful appendices and a sort of short catechism summarising some of the key points in question and answer form.

I would definitely commend this book for group study, reference for preaching, and personal growth. While I don’t take issue with any of what the book says, I hope I can tentatively suggest some omissions which perhaps need to be addressed in another book or a supplement to this one.

Firstly, just a small technical thing which is presumably to do with editing and not the author: a bibliographical list showing in one place the wide range of authors consulted and shown in the footnotes, would be very helpful.

As to the content, there is no mention of abortion, apart from a brief reference to certain types of ‘morning after’ pill. One third of tiny human bodies are destroyed before birth in Britain, without being given the opportunity to ‘flourish’ or ‘glorify God’ in any way. The omission of this topic mirrors a general pattern of disengagement from beginning and end of life concerns by English Anglican evangelicals (compare with what is happening in the US, for example). It would be good for CEEC to discuss this in future.

Then, while I understand the aim to set the issue of same sex relationships within the wider framework and not to focus on it, I thought the explanation of why the wider Christian tradition has always considered them to be immoral could have been more detailed, or at least with the addition of more references to other good resources on the subject. There could have been more on the consequences of sexual promiscuity for physical and mental health, and also a mention of how counselling and prayer can help to break patterns of wrong desires and addictive behaviour, especially since General Synod’s controversial support for a ban on this important aspect of pastoral care.

Lastly, while I agree that the affluent, capitalist West has given rise to a culture of consumerism and individualism, the power of the sexual revolution can’t be attributed to this alone. It does not explain why those who hold to the orthodox Christian teaching summarised so well by Davie and CEEC are increasingly not just ignored, but accused of bigotry and hate, even threatened with the force of law. Gabrielle Kuby’s ‘The Global Sexual Revolution’, detailing the influence of cultural Marxism on radical gender theory and the rise of LGBT political power, is mentioned in a footnote and would benefit from being summarised. Our attitudes to sexual morality do not only concern debates in Synods and pastoral care in our churches, or even our individual relationship with God, vitally important though these are. Our views on sex may in future be increasingly connected with the extent to which we are free to practice and propagate biblical faith in a secular nation.

[1] The question of whether it is a worthwhile exercise for biblically faithful Anglicans to engage in this project , and the wider issue of how to maintain a witness in a heterodox denomination, require another article…

See also: Elephants and penguins: one view of gay marriage. Review from Church Times.

A crisis of authority?

Posted by on Jan 15, 2019 in Church of England, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on A crisis of authority?

A crisis of authority?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

At the time of writing, MP’s in the UK Parliament have just rejected, by a huge margin, the deal that Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated for leaving the European Union. Leading up to the vote at 7pm, a debate took place in a half empty chamber as most MP’s had already made up their mind. Meanwhile according to the BBC “noisy, colourful, chaotic protests” filled Parliament Square, as passionate supporters of Brexit and Remain competed for media attention with placards, chants and gimmicks, so far thankfully without violence.

The crushing defeat for the Government leaves more uncertainty about the nation’s future. The Archbishop of Canterbury has seen fit to warn against a hard Brexit. Many churches and Christian groups have issued calls for prayer, seeing this as a potentially transformative moment, for good or ill. Some have pointed out that political change in itself cannot mask underlying problems caused by turning away from God.

If a government is unable to carry out its intended legislation because so many members of its own party are voting against it, this indicates a crisis of authority. Politicians are putting adherence to a supra-political vision or ideology above loyalty to party leadership. It could be said that the same phenomenon is being witnessed in the Church of England.

In recent months, Bishops have in various ways moved towards implementing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s policies of “good disagreement” on the issue of sexuality, and “radical inclusion” for gay people in the church. This involves  treating the issue of same sex relationships and gender identity as ‘second order’, on which Christians may legitimately differ without undermining the gospel. And also, finding ways of eliminating any barriers to participation in church sacraments and leadership for those who identify as LGBT, and signalling support for the cause of ‘diversity and equality’ generally, without changing the church’s official teaching or liturgy in the short term.

The Ad Clerum from the Bishops of Oxford, released on 31st October 2018, was a textbook example of this, a “case study” in fact. While using gentle language, the Bishops were nevertheless using their authority to give a clear steer in a certain direction. Initially, a few commentators responded publicly, and a few clergy sent private letters to the Bishops. Many were watching to see if there would be a wider expression of public opposition.

Early in the new year it came, as the Oxford Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship published what amounted to a rejection of the Bishops’ pastoral guidance, signed by over 100 clergy and a significant number of senior lay people. Behind the scenes careful bridge-building had been going on between the various evangelical sub-constituencies, whose leaders all had a hand in the drafting and re-drafting of the ODEF document, and in encouraging people to sign.

The Bishop has in turn responded to the protestors, insisting that his “inclusion” proposals do not mean a change in theology or exclusion for those who hold to the church’s historic teaching. While its not certain how events will unfold in the months to come, what is clear is that the Bishops of Oxford Diocese have declared themselves in favour of a revisionist trajectory, and many clergy, normally loyal to the institution or at least certainly not given to public protest, have made it known that they do not agree and will not follow those in authority over them on this and related issues. Our comprehensive list of articles on this can be found here.

There is a similar mood of polite but firm unwillingness to cooperate with the Church of England’s leadership’s recent Guidance on how to liturgically mark someone’s gender transition, as part of a gesture of welcome and inclusion for those who identify as transgender. Initially, leading evangelical Julian Henderson, Bishop of Blackburn and President of the theologically conservative Church of England Evangelical Council, in his role as Chair of the House of Bishops’ Delegation Committee, out of loyalty to the Archbishops and the principle of Episcopal collegiality, did sign off and even commend the Guidance, which had been developed largely by transgender activist clergy. But after complaints from his own constituency, Bishop Henderson soon afterwards signed another document from CEEC critiquing the ‘gender transition services’. This led to confusion and even ridicule in some quarters.

Following the CEEC meeting in early January, Bishop Julian in a statement clarified that he regretted his role in commending the liturgy, and made it clear that he stood by the CEEC position in calling for it to be withdrawn. I was at the meeting, and there was unanimous agreement among the delegates that not only were the Bishops commending liturgy with faulty theology, but the governance processes which gave rise to the Guidance did not inspire confidence. Again, various news and comment pieces can be found here.

Meanwhile that same week I took part in a series of online conference discussions with a total of around 90 clergy and laity, organized by Gafcon UK, to hear the various objections to the proposed liturgy, and to talk about possible future action plans in the face of what is generally perceived to be Church of England leadership which is now following a vision and a programme at odds with historic biblical faith. There are a variety of different views on what action should be taken, but all agreed that clergy should do more to teach lay people at parish level what a bible-based approach to sex and gender should be, how to do appropriate pastoral care and welcome within these parameters, and why the church senior leadership’s apparent alignment with new ideologies and lobby groups rather than Christian teaching needs to be resisted.

Is there a crisis of authority? It seems that in society and the church, there is much more willingness to question and even contradict leaders, following principle rather than obedience to hierarchies. In politics there is not necessarily a clear-cut right and wrong answer, so there’s a danger of “everyone doing what is right in his own eyes”. But in the church, there’s evidence that among evangelicals in the C of E, there is still a strong commitment to the authority of Scripture and the idea of faithfulness to the apostolic deposit, and that as Anglicans we want to come under the authority of Bishops who share this understanding.

Why we need the global Church

Posted by on Jan 8, 2019 in 2-Important Posts, Christianity, Editorial Blog, Global South | Comments Off on Why we need the global Church

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” said Nathanael to Philip. Do we have anything to gain from associating with those like Jesus from an insignificant backwater? Can we learn anything from disadvantaged people like his mother?

Nathanael’s perhaps jesting but dismissive question is recorded by John. In Luke’s Gospel, we see that God has answered it even before Jesus appears. According to Mary’s prophetic word, God brings down the proud, but lifts up the humble and hungry.

It is extraordinary that at a time when churchgoing numbers are in rapid decline in this country, and even the most successful churches struggle to reach more than handfuls of people with the gospel; when spiritual life is often lukewarm, and our national church is divided, we still tend to believe that we only have expertise and resources to give, and nothing to receive from the global church. And yet it is well known that it is in the ‘global south’, particularly the places where there is poverty, persecution and conflict, that the church not only survives but most remarkably, thrives. What is their secret?

If we take a tour round three nations with huge populations, we see seemingly intractable problems, but also remarkable faith and courageous action.

I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014, and have kept in touch with Anglican leaders there. Just before Christmas they were due to hold a general election (result not confirmed at the time of writing). There were a number of incidents of serious violence leading up to the poll between supporters of rival political parties, but this was just an addition to the ongoing murderous conflicts between government and various rebel factions in the north-east of the vast country.

A Bishop who attended Gafcon told me that in some parts of his Diocese there is not even the basic security required to plant and harvest crops and carry out normal business; clergy are sometimes ministering to transient congregations as they have fled their villages. But this year, according to the Provincial Secretary, the Anglican Church in the Congo has taken a number of initiatives for prayer and pastoral ministry,  and in training clergy and lay leaders in peace-building. They need our financial help, but we can surely learn from their courage and persistence in a dangerous situation?

Then, what about China, which has seen huge growth in the number of Christians over the past 40 years? The week before Christmas I saw an article posted on The Gospel Coalition website, about a pastor called Wang Yi who faces 15 years in jail for “subversion of state power”, a charge often handed to those associated with unregistered churches. While this is not surprising, Wang Yi has received international attention because of a powerful and moving “Declaration of Faithful Disobedience”, published by his church after his arrest.

In language reminiscent of Bonhoeffer in 1930’s Germany, Pastor Wang reflects on the legitimacy of the Chinese government under God; when Christians have a duty to obey and to disobey. The purpose of the Church, he says, is to testify to the Lordship of Christ, to his call to repent and receive forgiveness of sins, to the reality of heaven and hell. But as part of this calling, the wickedness of the Communist regime’s persecution of God’s people, and its idolatrous ideology, must be denounced openly, yet with love and “the olive branch of peace”. This is not to be seen as “fighting for rights” as if changing the political system is the goal, but rather “to testify about another world”.

This is a profound challenge to Christian leaders in the West, who are tempted to compromise with the secular powers for the sake of short term comfort or personal gain, or who may think that social and political change is the gospel.

A third Christian community to learn from is Pakistan. As an impoverished female labourer unfairly imprisoned for her faith but whose case has made world headline news, Asia Bibi is another contemporary example of how God speaks through those oppressed and silenced by the powerful. While we still wait for news of her situation following release from prison, we can praise God for the amazing courage of the Pakistani Church. Following Asia’s acquittal, furious gangs were terrorizing Christians, and yet during that time the church has continued with its worship and ministry, even hosting conferences on evangelism.

In the West we have got used to affluence and worldly measures of success, and so fear of getting on the wrong side of secular authorities and lobby groups can prevent the church from fulfilling its calling. At some point we need to admit our weakness, and turn to the church in the global south for inspirational lessons, help and prayer.

2018 Editorial Blogs

Posted by on Dec 27, 2018 in Editorial Blog | Comments Off on 2018 Editorial Blogs

2018 Editorial Blogs

2018 has seen further evidence of a revisionist trajectory in the Church of England, but mission is still continuing at local level. Gafcon and the vision of global orthodox Anglicanism continues to provide hope and security. Anglican Mainstream intends to continue to provide regular news and comment on the critical issues facing the church in 2019.

Selection of Editorial Blog Posts 2018, by Andrew Symes

 

C of E and the debates on sexuality and marriage

Synod debates about liturgy open up new questions of truth and religious freedom

Humanism, the collapse of faith and the need for new methods of apologetics

When public opposition is necessary

Fluid families good, nuclear families bad?

C of E: Rainbow revolution progresses as Bishop of Taunton announced as celebrant at Cathedral LGBT Eucharist

Diocese of Oxford: a case study in radical inclusion

Sex and the new generation: education and the gospel in a secular society

The secular, postmodern re-shaping of church and society

More rubicons crossed, more anxiety about the future

Also: Anglicans and Transgender A series of reflections from 2015-2018

 

Church of England and mission

Society’s dystopian trends and the church’s response

University missions provide signs of hope amid Anglican decline

A house divided

The C of E: money for mission, but what about method and message?

Did we witness social action/evangelism ‘holy grail’ on BBC documentary?

A pastoral fantasy – or could it happen?

 

Gafcon and global orthodox Anglicanism

Evangelicals, differentiation and the global church

Unstable C of E shows need for Gafcon vision

Authentic Anglicanism: global with boundaries, or ‘inclusive’ and Western?

Gafcon’s “Letter to the Churches” encapsulates authentic Christianity with clarity, firmness and grace

Faint praise for Gafcon offers no solutions for the C of E or the Communion

The visit of Archbishop Foley Beach: ACNA, Gafcon and lessons for the UK church

 

Miscellaneous topics

Understanding more about Israel

Strong, clear Christian witness at March for Life

Can we learn from ancient prayer books?

Evaluating the new influential philosophers

Brexit – now what?

Herald-angels, other spiritual beings, and the church

 

Herald-angels, other spiritual beings, and the church

Posted by on Dec 18, 2018 in Christmas, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Herald-angels, other spiritual beings, and the church

Herald-angels, other spiritual beings, and the church

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Why do we sing about angels at Christmas time but don’t often talk about them the rest of the year? It could be because evangelistically, talking to secular people about Jesus, we want to avoid extra things that just make it too difficult to believe. They don’t appear in TV dramas, or in the serious newspapers, or in discussions about the economy. So if we want people to start thinking about the Christian faith, using their heads, better steer clear of angels – except at Christmas, where the magic of the season, the candles in the darkness, children singing etc creates an atmosphere in which there is suspension of disbelief.

But is this theory about secularization correct? Some people are fascinated by angels. Cars have bumper stickers: “protected by angels”. They are of course in houses and in lights at Christmas time, but also all year round, in the spiritual section of bookshops, you can hardly find any books on Christian faith but quite a few on angels and how to talk to them, get to know your guardian angel and so on. At funerals it’s common for people to refer to the departed as “an angel in the sky”. Is this an example of the oft-quoted dictum attributed to GK Chesterton, that when people stop believing in God, they don’t become secular, they become undiscerningly pan-spiritual?

Some Christians might feel that even if there are angels, we should only allow them to feature in the background of the gospel message at Christmas, because people are either too secular or too superstitious. Angels might confuse people and take away their focus on Jesus. But in the bible angels have an important gospel function.

We see it a few times in the Old Testament: for example, an angel gives a message to Abraham about his wife’s pregnancy. An angel stands in the way of the wizard Balaam when he is on his way to curse the Israelites. An angel stands in the way of Joshua as he enters the promised land. An angel appears in the fiery furnace with Shadrach Meshach and Abednego in the book of Daniel. We also get the occasional appearance of a host of angels, like an army of them – Elisha and his servant saw them when surrounded by a group of hostile enemies. God is often referred to in the OT as ‘Yahweh Sabaoth’, often translated as ‘the Lord of hosts’. Isaiah and Ezekiel show prophetic visions of God surrounded by spiritual creatures. In the New Testament, visible spiritual messengers, are used to make announcements of the birth, and later the resurrection of the Messiah.

But we also know that a group of angels led by Satan rebelled against God and were cast out of the glorious heavenly host, and for reasons that Scripture only hints at, sought to lead humanity away from God and ultimately be destroyed. Some became the ‘evil spirits’ that Jesus had to drive out when he began his ministry, causing havoc, but over which Jesus and his disciples have authority. The people of the time were not amazed or disbelieving that there were evil spirits around. They knew them and were perfectly capable of distinguishing between illness, mental illness, and the activity of a demon, unlike us today where we have discounted the existence of demons, and so, arguably, can no longer recognise evil in our society. What amazed the people in the synagogue was not that there was a demon, but that Jesus could get rid of it with a word of authority.

A strong case can be made from Scripture that there are also higher level spirits, who have a certain amount of power and authority in human structures of society, governments, perhaps big institutions – even churches, but which have become corrupt. For example, Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation are addressed to ‘the angel of the churches’ and Psalm 82 seems to suggest the existence of spiritual powers who apparently have some authority over human affairs.

We are made in the image of God and so we have the capacity to be aware of these beings. But having said that there are strong warnings in the Bible to worship God only, and not to worship other spirit beings, seek help from them, get too interested in them. In Luke Chapter 1, Mary encounters the angel Gabriel. There is a brief conversation in which Mary ends up accepting the message from God in faith, and then the angel leaves. There was an obvious difference in Mary after this – her cousin Elizabeth kept saying “blessed are you among women!” But in verse 46, Mary does not praise the angel, or speak of it, or try to contact it again – instead she praises God. And it’s the same with the shepherds after their encounter with one angel and then a host of angels in 2:20 – they worshipped Christ.

The letter to the Ephesians, almost certainly written into a context where magic, superstition and alignment with spiritual hierarchies was rife, gives us some vital guidance as to how we are to live, given the reality of the complexity of the material/spiritual cosmos around us:

Eph 1:20-21. God exerted mighty power in Christ and seated him far above every power – and this list refers to spiritual powers as well as human power. Jesus, the one who was born in poverty and laid in a feeding trough, is now risen and in heaven – more powerful than all evil spirits and any force which we think is beyond our control. He has won and will win in the end. So it is a sign of spiritual ignorance, and lack of faith, for Christians, and especially church leaders to act as if they need to appease secular human power and in doing so, unintentionally submit to ungodly spiritual powers, as if somehow this will serve the cause of Christ.

Every person, however good they look on the surface, is under the control of Satan until God transfers him or her across to his control. Eph 2:1-10 explains this dynamic. The transfer of lives from darkness to light is achieved by the resurrection power of God challenging and defeating satan in the lives of individuals, not by gentlemanly negotiation or political manoevring with ‘the powers’ on our part.

Eph 3:10. God’s intent is that his wisdom should be made known to these spiritual rulers and powers. What is his wisdom? Earlier Paul makes clear – the message that through Jesus, people from every race and background can come to know God, their sins forgiven, with assurance of heaven, and able to live in peace now. This message is made known through the church, which should be broadcasting the rule of God to the cosmos. A compromised institution with an unclear message, fearfully submitting to dark powers for imagined short term gain, cannot be this beacon as intended.

Eph 6:10-13. The forces of evil do work through people, but we’re told very clearly that human beings are loved by God even though in error, and hostile to the gospel and God’s people. They are not the real enemy. Rather, Christians must love people, but identify and oppose through spiritual weapons the invisible powers behind the false ideologies and institutions in church and culture which deceive, intimidate and oppress.

The appearance of angels to the shepherds in Luke 2 is a rare vision of spiritual beings who surround God and do his will. They are normally behind the veil, in another dimension, and these good angels come and say “don’t be afraid”. When we first realize that there really is a spiritual realm, that there is a God who cares what we do, it can be disconcerting, even terrifying, but its not as terrifying as finding out that you’ve allowed your life to be controlled by the other side, by evil, without knowing it; and that without God’s grace we might be among those on whom God’s favour does not rest, and to whom peace is not proclaimed.

More rubicons crossed, more anxiety about the future

Posted by on Dec 18, 2018 in Church of England, Editorial Blog, Revisionism | Comments Off on More rubicons crossed, more anxiety about the future

More rubicons crossed, more anxiety about the future

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

At a time when clergy and lay leaders are in the middle of the busiest time of the year, organizing and leading carol services and other evangelistic and social action projects, and are preparing many more sermons than usual, their spare capacity is taken up not with joyful and prayerful Advent devotion, but with a growing sense of anxiety and social media communication about the state of the Church of England. Biblically faithful clergy are often mild-mannered, averse to conflict, focused on the pastoral work in their local area, not wanting to get involved in church politics. But the cumulative effect of recent news has not been conducive to the season of peace and goodwill, and has caused talk of differentiation and even schism to be heard again.

At the end of October, the four Bishops of Oxford Diocese wrote to clergy and lay leaders under their jurisdiction, a letter in which they insisted on the “full inclusion of LGBTI people” in the life of the church; its leadership and giving and receiving of sacraments, with no attempt to deal with the theological issues involved, or to distinguish between sexual orientation, behaviour, and ideology. I said at the time that this was nothing less than “the privileging of LGBT advocacy rather than gospel perspectives at the heart of Diocesan ministry”, and in a second post, that while the Bishops claim they have not changed church doctrine, their letter “effectively warns clergy against ways of teaching and offering welcome, pastoral care and the opportunity of discipleship guided by the church’s official doctrinal position”.

I’ve been told that the Bishop of Oxford was confident that he would only receive opposition from a small handful of conservative evangelical churches in the Diocese. While discussions among clergy with orthodox Christian beliefs are ongoing regarding what action to take (more news in the New Year), I’m led to believe that the number of those willing to align with a public protest will be considerable.

Then, at the beginning of December, the secular press alerted us to progress in the government’s plans to legally prohibit all forms of ‘gay conversion therapy’, ranging from obviously abusive and illegal practices to professional psychotherapy or even private prayer in response to requests from individuals unhappy with sexual orientation, identity and/or behaviour. This profoundly illiberal ban would of course interfere with pastoral practice and even freedom of speech and belief in churches, but the government are being aided in their plans by senior Church of England figures including the Bishops of Manchester and Liverpool, and Jayne Ozanne. This is an example of LGBT advocacy which is powerful and oppressive, based on fake science and emotion-inducing story rather than evidence-based reason and revelation, which I have written about here.

Bible-believing Christians have in recent years been largely reluctant to get involved in this issue, but encouragingly, some interdenominational networks are showing signs of realising the dangers and possibly giving some leadership in the near future.

The biggest response of all by the faithful to the ongoing capitulation of the Church of England’s leadership to LGBT lobbying, has been the outpouring of opposition to the House of Bishops’ guidance on liturgies to celebrate gender transition. The press release from the Church of England is here. The actual liturgy itself has not changed, and is found in the service of Affirmation of Baptismal Faith within a celebration of Holy Communion here, about half way down.

The Bishops promised in February’s Synod to give guidance as to how this service might be adapted to mark the new identity of a transgender person. I wrote about this at the time. The guidance itself has now been published. It contains a number of theologically contentious statements about baptism and re-naming, and instructions about how to minister pastorally to trans people. It directs clergy to affirm and celebrate gender transition and taking on of new identities, without any discussion having taken place within the C of E on the matter. The process has apparently been directed by two ‘trans women’ clergy, who are known for their campaigning for the full acceptance of transgender ideology. This in itself would be cause for serious concern. But evangelicals were appalled to see that the Chair of the Committee which has overseen this process is Julian Henderson of Blackburn. Confusingly. Henderson is President of the Church of England Evangelical Council and has put his name to documents robustly defending orthodox Christian sexual ethics, and yet he claimed that the guidance for transgender renaming litugies was “rooted in Scripture”.

Within a few days, though, it appeared that Henderson had backtracked. He was one of the signatories on a paper strongly criticising the Bishops’ Guidance which had been issued under his name. This document from CEEC concludes that the transgender liturgies “establish a position which is incompatible with biblical teaching”. Bishop Henderson has come under fire for the incoherence of his position, with many people speculating on whether this is a result of him being culpably ignorant of the issues around the transgender debate, or just weak in submitting to strong pressure. The response from CEEC itself has also been criticised for having such a feeble conclusion to its otherwise strong statement, where it calls for “reassuring clarifications and, where necessary, modifications” to the Bishops’ Guidance, rather than rejection of it altogether.

Not surprisingly there have been numerous calls for Bishop Julian to resign from his leadership position within the evangelical grouping, which is due to hold its annual residential conference in January, and also questions about the usefulness of an organisation which appears wedded to a policy of keeping a respectful evangelical voice within the increasingly revisionist establishment rather than taking more robust action against it.

A number of articles commenting on this latest fiasco from the Church of England can be found in this collection here.

This week I have been in touch with some young clergy who are seriously thinking about leaving the Church of England, and others who have informed their PCC’s that they will not implement the latest guidance from Bishops. Are we at last heading for schism? Would no schism (meaning compromise and accommodation with heresy and diktats from government and lobby groups) actually be a worse outcome than a disorderly breakup of the Church of England? I recently came across a letter which I think I submitted to Church of England Newspaper in 2009, although it wasn’t published. Here it is (The only slightly out-of date idea here is the presence of four bank branches on the same street!):

Sir,

Jonathan Petre in his piece of a couple of weeks ago (5 October) refers to Archbishop Rowan Williams’ “nightmare” of “rival Anglican churches competing with each other on the same street”. Rev David Keen in his letter a week later (12 October) continues the theme, and is concerned that this scenario of different factions of the church insisting on their own interpretation of the Christian faith is damaging to mission.

In my street there are three banks, two newsagents, three fast food outlets, three hairdressers. They each offer a slightly different service, and all survive healthily enough. Is that also a “nightmare”? If a fourth bank opens a branch, will people turn away in disgust at the disunity shown in the financial services industry, and decide they don’t need money at all?

There is also an Anglican church, an independent evangelical church and an African pentecostal church. Is that also a “nightmare” and if so, why? Are the vast majority of non-Christians really less likely to seek God and go to church if there is more than one church in their area?

I can envisage a situation where there might be a fourth church in the street or nearby, with proud Anglican ancestry, (maybe with a different name?), loyal to the doctrines contained in the BCP and the 39 Articles, strongly linked to thousands of churches across the world who believe similar things. So there would be two “Anglican” churches, one offering welcome and inclusion to all (though I suspect not many would turn up), and the other humbly attempting to explain and live what the Christian faith actually is. They would not be competing with each other, as they are offering different products and services. Why would this be a nightmare?

The secular, postmodern re-shaping of church and society

Posted by on Dec 11, 2018 in Church of England, Editorial Blog, Gay Activism, Philosophy | Comments Off on The secular, postmodern re-shaping of church and society

The secular, postmodern re-shaping of church and society

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

A detailed and helpful article on Wikipedia begins by describing propaganda as information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is presented”.

Saturday’s Times [£] featured a story about senior Church of England figures partnering with Government in an Orwellian-style drive to eliminate any means by which people might seek to change their sexual orientation or behaviour if they are not happy with it. The way the story is written bears careful scrutiny as an example of manipulation by subtle propaganda and overt threat.

“Senior Church of England bishops are to begin an inquiry into ‘gay cure’ therapy amid claims that it is still prevalent among religious groups”, we are told, with quotes from the Bishops of Liverpool and Manchester. The implication: something sinister is going on, and who would question the judgement of such eminent Lords Spiritual? The survey will be organised by the Ozanne Foundation, “a Westminster-based charity that promotes equality and diversity in religious organisations worldwide”. It is ironic that Jayne Ozanne, the founder of this charity, has made no secret of her belief that orthodox Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage is psychologically harmful to LGBT people and should be considered abusive and ‘hate speech’ – in other words, the opposite of a culture of liberal tolerance of the ‘diversity’ of different views. 

We’re then reminded of the way the full force of the establishment is behind the crackdown on ‘gay conversion’ practices; the government plans to ban it and the C of E’s General Synod supported this in a vote in 2017. But what are we talking about?

“The practice, otherwise known as conversion therapy, ranges from private prayer, fasting and counselling to deliverance ministry, hormone treatment and, according to the government, ‘corrective’ rape.”

In this sentence, a simple everyday religious practice, prayer, is seen as something potentially dangerous to society. ‘Private prayer’ if it relates to change in the area of sexual orientation, should be banned. Then, the sentence conflates such prayer, offered for example in a gentle church setting in response to a request, with a brutal practice associated with poor and lawless slums in Africa where violence against women is tragically and outrageously a daily reality whether they are lesbian or, much more commonly, not. The issue is ‘conversion therapy’ but the sentence doesn’t actually mention trained professional psychotherapy at all, or any of the carefully researched weight of evidence that sexual orientation is fluid and change is experienced by many people, whether mediated through counselling/therapy, or not.

Campaigners say conversion therapy has done serious harm, the report continues. This is a serious accusation which one would expect would be backed up by some kind of scientifically verifiable evidence. Instead, we hear again of Jayne Ozanne’s no doubt genuine experiences of trauma associated with the tension between sexual identity and the Christian faith she was taught. We are reminded of the recent Hollywood movie ‘Boy Erased’ with its negative portrayal of a supposedly typical examples of ‘gay conversion’ techniques in the US in the 1980’s and 1990’s. And then a quote from Government Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt, who promises to stop practices which ‘cause self-loathing’. It’s not difficult to see that this ‘evidence’ is at best extremely subjective and at worst, based on a work of fiction (a film). This is surely an example of propaganda in its purest form, being used to curtail a basic freedom to seek help with personal change. 

It has long been noted that as human beings we respond at a deep psychological level to images and stories, particularly when we connect to characters with whom we can empathise. This is first a good thing. It has been built into us from creation, and is evidence for the existence of a personal God in whose image we are made. Relationship with him, more than just cerebral understanding about him and the universe, is what we are created for. But from Genesis 3 the human delight in the visual, the complexity of psychology around relationships, and our capacity to envision a future has been manipulated to steer us away from truth and what’s objectively best for us, so that we serve ourselves, and ultimately evil forces, rather than God. Propaganda and fake news began with the snake in the Garden of Eden.

 

I had nearly finished this piece when I was alerted to a major new development in the Church of England: the publication of liturgies to mark ‘gender transition’. (Press release, and my comment here.) Well that wasn’t such a surprise, as this was accepted by General Synod last year, and then agreed again in February 2018. What is alarming is that the new services, which have been developed by clergy who are transgender activists, have been commended for use by a leading evangelical Bishop. No doubt he will argue that while he believes that God created us male and female, this is a way of offering welcome to those who don’t feel they fit into the traditional gender categories. But in speaking about ‘trans people’ and supporting the liturgies in this way, this Bishop has inevitably accepted the validity of the new ideology of gender, which is incompatible with Christian anthropology, colluding with a fiction which cannot ultimately be pastorally helpful, and based on propaganda and fake science rather than evidence.

Should faithful Christians just accept the decisions of their leaders in these matters, and keep quiet, perhaps focusing on evangelistic courses and foodbanks? Or can we counter this trend? If so, perhaps our challenge is to tell a “better story”. We know that heterosexual marriage and sexually abstinent singleness, living within the physical sex God gave us, are the most effective ways of living a flourishing life as individuals and communities, and for our future. Numerous studies prove that stable marriage and family life, and sexual self-control are beneficial for individuals and society; likewise it is clear that family breakdown is linked to crime and mental health issues, and immorality to sexually transmitted disease. The Judaeo-Christian ethic is commanded and explained in Scripture and has been taught by Christians and Jews for millennia. It makes sense. It is the truth. Surely, if the church demonstrates an attitude of love, and tells a positive and exciting counter-story, society will be convinced of the truth of the gospel and how we are supposed to live our lives?

In this paradigm, ‘truth’ is contained in God’s word, backed up by scientific research based on observation of an ordered world. Truth must be communicated clearly, imaginatively, winsomely with love, but it exists as an entity in itself, like a Platonic ideal, or indeed God himself. God exists and his word is true whether or not we communicate it effectively with love. One plus one equals two, regardless of how effectively and relationally it is taught, or how I feel about it and about myself.

But in the secular postmodern paradigm, things have changed. God, and truth, do not exist outside of the reality which is the interweaved matrix made up of millions of human beings’ individual consciousness and experience. The personal story, and the emotions it evokes, is not just a method of communicating truth. It is truth. If feelings of same sex attraction or gender dysphoria lead someone to embrace a gay or trans identity, this is a discovery of truth, and the church’s job is to affirm it through liturgies. To suggest that someone with these feelings might be able to explore a different direction is seen as hurtful, even abusive, and should be suppressed by law. 

Because of this tendency in us to be drawn to personal constructions of reality and reject Reality, the biblical writers insist that it’s not enough to simply repeat God’s true message, and to find better ways of communicating it, including demonstrating God’s nature through acts of love and mercy. It’s also necessary to enable the faithful community to reject the false messages they are being fed constantly in the world around them. Jesus said “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” Faith must be accompanied by repentance, which is not just a decision to say sorry for bad habits, but a constant turning away from false views about oneself and the world, often inculcated subliminally and on the emotional level.

So a vital aspect of prophetic ministry among the people of God, and from the community of the faithful to the world, has been to be aware of the ease with which we can be deceived, to unmask the false messages with which we are being shaped, and the methods of communication that are used. To turn away from them, and to consciously embrace and be shaped by genuine, objective Truth, even if it involves rejection and even persecution.