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.

What’s behind the bad news? Is there hope?

Posted by on Apr 2, 2022 in 2-Important Posts, Bible, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on What’s behind the bad news? Is there hope?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

We’re entering a season where the church prepares to celebrate and communicate with confidence a message of hope. This was a challenge two years ago, when churches were closed for Easter at the start of the first lockdown, and nobody knew how much suffering the pandemic would bring. And yet, there seems to be even more of a disconnect between the narrative of the basis of our faith and the fear-inducing realities of the world around us now than there was then.

Today, multiple threats are all around us: a rapidly rising cost of living, unaffordable for many, at a time when governments are already heavily indebted. A war in Europe, a refugee crisis, and open talk of possible nuclear conflagration for the first time in more than 30 years. Climate change – what will that mean? And these are just effects on our physical environment. What about the spiritual vacuum of secularism, the largely unopposed invasion of anti-Christian ideologies, the turning to idolatries old and new even among the people of God?

The biblical writers addressed the big picture view of their contemporary culture as well as encouragements and direction for the local people of God. They connected the ongoing call to repentance and faith of individuals with the world, the past and future, and ultimate realities. We need to do the same, and this passage, 1 Peter 3:18-22, can help us.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.  After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits –  to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,  and this water symbolises baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience towards God.  It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

In the season of Lent the church traditionally reflects on temptation and sin. We recognise our negligence, weakness and our deliberate fault; our individual and corporate wrongdoings and also our sinful nature. But we also remember how Christ was human as we are, tempted and tested daily, but resisted sin and satan’s temptations. We look forward to celebrating on Good Friday the ultimate sacrifice and victory of the Cross, where as Peter says here, Christ died for sins, he died for sins that were not his own but our sins, he died in exchange for release from the judgement that our sins deserve. He died so that the curtain separating us from God could be torn open; he died not so we can make our own way to God but to do something impossible for us – to bring us to God.

Peter speaks about our sin, about the atoning death of Christ, and then he speaks about the resurrection. The ESV says “he was put to death in the body but made alive in the spirit” which is the more literal translation, but could imply that only his spirit was resurrected, not his body. The NIV has a capital S and so does the interpretation for us – it was by the Holy Spirit that he was bodily resurrected. Peter returns to the resurrection at the end of verse 21 – it is through the resurrection that our salvation, our new relationship with God, is assured and completed.

From resurrection he goes on to mention the ascension – Christ has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand. So here in these few verses we have the gospel summarised: our sin; the cross and the resurrection of our Lord, our regeneration and baptism, the current position of the ascended Lord Jesus.

 

But then, what about these other bits in this passage? What do they mean and what is the relevance for us? Who are the “imprisoned spirits who were disobedient in the days of Noah”? How and what did Jesus proclaim to them?

A non-protestant interpretation is that the spirits in prison are Old Testament people in purgatory – Jesus preached to them between death and bodily resurrection. But this goes against the clear teaching of Scripture that we die once and then face judgement. Godly people in the OT received salvation by faith as a gift of grace while living, just as we do.  There is no second chance in an intermediate state.

Some say maybe Peter is referring to the preincarnate Christ speaking to the people of Noah’s time through Noah. But Peter says Jesus went and proclaimed “after being made alive”, ie after his resurrection, not thousands of years earlier.

So, more likely, the “spirits” are the same as the “authorities and powers” that Peter mentions at the end of this passage. He is talking about the spiritual realm. We know from Genesis 6 that something not fully explained, but very bad happened just before the cultural sin and hardening of heart that led to the judgement of the flood. Spiritual powers at that time rebelled against God and acted directly on earth. They were placed under restriction – “in prison” as Peter says.  Those same spirits still exist and have influence, as the bible teaches in other places. When Jesus ‘preached’ to them after the effects of his bodily death were reversed by God’s Spirit, this was an announcement to those principalities and powers, active but restricted from the days of Noah until now, of the victory and supremacy of the triune God over the powers of evil and hell.

Isn’t this a crucial perspective as we approach Easter and the season leading up to ascension and Pentecost?

Yes, the gospel is for individuals, of sins forgiven and empowerment for godly living.

But also, the gospel for the cosmos, of the sovereignty of Christ.

Looking at the world, we see the reality of evil. In our own hearts, yes, but as we look at incomprehensible brutality in Ukraine, or northern Nigeria, or Yemen, or at the state-supported mass killing of babies in the womb or widespread gender confusion among young people in Western culture, we see something horrifying, more to do with personal psychology than “the world”, more complex than the sins of individuals, not just the corporate dimension of “the flesh”. Evidence rather of the work of satan and the furious rebellious anger of the spiritual powers, held back from destroying all God has made and thwarting his plans. One day in the future these powers will be either destroyed, or fully, visibly submissive. But in the meantime, now, they have influence to cause disruption and agony on vast scale.

Knowing Christ’s victory displayed in his death and resurrection; knowing his status, gives us encouragement and hope, but not in a way that applies the gospel to church and individual spiritual life only. We are aware of the desperate needs of the world caused by evil, we face it, name it and analyse its effects as the biblical prophets did. Then we are motivated to engage in spiritual warfare, in prayer, in practical caring, sometimes in protest and political action, always in the faithful teaching of the biblical message. Also in upright and holy living, as Peter says “the pledge of a clear conscience towards God” (NIV); “the appeal to God for a good conscience” (ESV). As we look towards Easter, we rejoice in the implications of the cross and the resurrection for us and our church family, and also for the world, for what is seen and unseen, as we cry out to God “thy kingdom come”.

See also:

How can we trust God when bad things happen? by Martin Davie, Christian Today

 

Bishops crossing the Tiber: What is the church?

Posted by on Mar 18, 2022 in 2-Important Posts, Anglican Ordinariates, Church life, Editorial Blog, Roman Catholicism | Comments Off on Bishops crossing the Tiber: What is the church?

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

When Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali announced that he was leaving Anglicanism to join the Roman Catholic Church in September last year, it was a bombshell that even those who thought they were close to him on the Anglican and wider Protestant side were not expecting. Many felt it was a betrayal. Some took to social media to express strong criticism of the move, reopening hostilities about Roman Catholic theology; others, for example Gafcon leaders, communicated their profound disappointment privately.

I felt that the approach taken by Gafcon Great Britain and Europe was the right one at the time. Michael had made the decision and already “crossed the Tiber” without any hint of discussion with anyone apart from those in his new fellowship. He was not going to be persuaded to change his mind; attacking him personally was not going to achieve anything. The best thing to do was to express appreciation for what he had done for the cause of biblically faithful Anglicanism, affirm that his analysis of Western secularism and revisionist Anglicanism is largely correct, but re-commit to the ideals and vision of a renewed Anglicanism through Gafcon.

But Michael’s recently published, substantial essay, published in First Things, setting out his reasons for going to Rome, perhaps calls for a fresh response. It’s a bit of a risk to do this, as I don’t claim to be Michael’s peer in experience, breadth of knowledge, or theological and cultural understanding, and I don’t want to jeopardise the relationship we have. However, I think it is worth asking some questions “from below”, as someone who has great sympathy with his decision to leave institutional Anglicanism but like many people on the ground, does not agree with his ecclesial destination.

Michael recounts a growing frustration during his years on official Anglican and Catholic dialogue initiatives. There was, he believed, increasing convergence on some doctrinal issues in the dialogues, but moves towards unity were shattered many times by “unilateral and unprincipled action” by Anglicans. He mentions the ordination of women, and then of ordination of those in active homosexual relationships. Where is the authority holding churches to a standard? Where is the “apostolic continuity”? What has happened to the commitment to greater unity between the denominations? These are fair questions about process (leaving aside the theology behind his opposition to women’s ordination, which many orthodox believers would say is of a different order to that of sexual morality).

There is also an accusation of “saying different things to different partners”, with Anglican negotiators coming up with different language and content for working with Catholics and other European protestants; a failure to balance local autonomy and subsidiarity within the Anglican Communion with any kind of discipline over innovations in doctrine and ethics, a “tendency…to capitulate to the culture rather than sound a prophetic voice within it”. While the gospel needs to be communicated afresh in different cultures, and while new insights can come from this process, Anglicans have gone too far in permitting “syncretism” – allowing culture to change the gospel message as to make it unrecognisable.  By contrast, Michael says, Roman Catholics have an “authentic teaching authority”, made up ultimately of the Pope and the bishops, which acts as a bulwark protecting faithfulness to Scripture, and which avoids doubt over what the church teaches.

Protestants have an inadequate view of the sacraments, Michael goes on to say. He asks repeatedly “why not” give the designation of ‘sacrament’ to other important aspects of the church’s life (he mentions ordination and marriage as examples, but does not talk about penance…) He uses most the rest of his article to address other key theological issues such as Scripture, justification by faith, “real presence of Christ” in the Eucharist, the saints, the Virgin Mary, and prayers for the dead. In each case with customary careful and concise language he explains why he thinks former Protestant understandings are compatible with, and enhanced by his acceptance of Catholic teaching. He ends by commending the Ordinariate as a kind of “best of both worlds”, where he retains some Anglican tradition while being under the authority of Rome.

It’s probably not fair to accuse Michael of glossing over some centuries-old divisions in an article with such broad scope and a tight word count, although the foundational theological problems in institutional Roman Catholicism highlighted by the Reformation have not gone away. I hope that others more qualified than me will address some of these areas in detail. But I would like to express some broader questions, by pointing out some gaps in his account.

First, given that Michael clearly has had doubts about Anglicanism and sympathies with the Roman Catholic expression and its institution for many years, why did he not make the move earlier? Such a major shift of allegiance cannot be just intellectual or even spiritual. It would be interesting to know more about relational factors – who was he talking to? Was there a group which drew him in? Might this point to a failure – not theological but relational – in the orthodox Anglican world, particularly in England?

Then, within orthodox Anglicanism globally, important voices have for some time been calling for something similar to what Michael says is needed: a new ‘conciliar’ approach to the development of an authentically Anglican global body committed to orthodoxy; more than just a movement of like-minded people and churches committed to mission, but an authoritative ‘centre’ made up of representatives from the whole church, guaranteeing alignment with the apostolic faith.

Michael was in a unique position, given the high esteem with which he was held in England and globally with Gafcon and wider, to provide exactly the kind of leadership for a global orthodox Anglican conciliarism he felt was lacking. But when people looked to him for this, he was curiously diffident. Was this because he felt unfit for the task, or  – perhaps because of the inner conviction about his ultimate destination with Rome which he was holding for some time?

The answer to the problems with liberal Anglicanism which he outlines surely lie in a new reformation and renewal of Anglicanism, rather than its abandonment. Michael doesn’t mention attempts to do this, for example the John Stott-inspired heritage of diverse but united evangelicalism standing firm for biblical truth within the Church of England. Nor does the global Gafcon project feature, part of a wider ‘Global South’ movement in which he had played a leading role for many years, including being the President of the Great Britain and Europe Gafcon branch, and overseeing the establishment of the Anglican Network in Europe as a new Anglican jurisdiction committed to orthodoxy. Clearly Michael was disappointed in what he felt was elements of compromise, and lack of institutional ecclesial strength in these movements, but it is a pity when discussing Anglicanism as he does in his article, only to reference the official, Canterbury-aligned structures, and not to see any hope in the vibrant orthodox grass roots of Anglicanism globally.

And it is ultimately at the grassroots where authentic Christianity stands or falls, not in the eminence of its leaders and the impressiveness or weaknesses of its institutions.

In Isaiah 8, the context is the Kingdom of Judah, trembling with fear as it is threatened with attack from its northern neighbours, Israel and Syria. Yahweh, through the prophet, says that these small nations will soon themselves be swallowed up by a much bigger threat, Assyria. The tendency of God’s people is to panic at the latest disruption, and to put trust in political alliances, and worse, returning secretly to the worship of the old gods to bring security. Instead,

“Do not fear what they fear… The Lord almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, He is the one you are to fear…

He will be a holy place; for both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”

Isaiah 8:12-14

Rather than urging a rallying to the visible political and religious institutions of Judah, the prophet says:

“I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob. I will put my trust in him.

Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are the signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (v17-18).

Certainly Michael Nazir-Ali has seen more clearly than most the way that Christianity is threatened, historically by overt persecution in the East and South, and more recently and insidiously, by the ideological takeover of secularism in the West. Not to mention the recent additional challenges of pandemic, war and economic squeeze. Of course I am not saying that he is not personally looking to the Lord for salvation, or that he believes returning to the “true church” is somehow a substitute for deep individual repentance and cleaving to the Lord which we all need to do. But it does seem from his apologia in First Things that he thinks the Roman Catholic church is an ark which will guarantee protection from the error, compromise and apostasy seen in Anglicanism and other established Protestant denominations.

But can any institution provide this? The message from Isaiah, reinforced in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, seems to be that the main ‘unit’ of believing, living out and witnessing to authentic faith in Christ is not something visible and apparently strong, like a nation or a religious institution, but a local community, often unremarkable and unprestigious. It is the ‘children’ who are the signs and symbols of Yahweh, just as Jesus spoke of the meek  “little ones” who see the Father’s face (Matt 18:10), and Paul spoke of the church in Ephesus, probably just a few small groups of families, as the household  of God, the new temple, the spiritual beacon of God’s wisdom. (Ephesians 2:19-21; 3:10). Good structures are important, but it is the cross, the Holy Spirit, the Word, and ordinary people of faith in Christ which makes the church and defines and protects orthodoxy.

I hope that as Michael embarks on his new journey in the Roman Catholic church, he will experience the joy of being part of a small, faithful community, and see that it is in networks of these gospel cells that the apostolic faith is preserved, not necessarily in the high offices, pronouncements and religious rituals of Popes, bishops and Synods in their gilded buildings.

 

 

Bishop sides with Pride against orthodox clergy

Posted by on Feb 21, 2022 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Gay activism | Comments Off on Bishop sides with Pride against orthodox clergy

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

In the middle of the street in the centre of Oxford, a small cross made of cobblestones marks the spot where Anglican leaders were tortured and killed for following their conscience and refusing to submit to laws which conflicted with their biblically-informed faith. As Bishops Latimer and Ridley, and Archbishop Cranmer burned, fellow clergy and former colleagues watched and approved, as Saul did at the stoning of Stephen.

The love of acceptance by the establishment, the need for power, the fear of being on the ‘losing’ side, have caused Christians in every age to keep quiet or even approve while their brothers and sisters suffer for Christ. In many cases, they have convinced themselves that conforming and adapting their own faith to the demands of the ruling ideology, and attempting to eradicate authentic Christianity, is a good thing, perhaps for the stability of the nation, or for the sake of “justice” according to the new definition of the governing elites.

I’ve been reflecting on this as a historical scene-setter to the intervention by Gavin Collins, Bishop of Dorchester, Suffragan of Oxford Diocese, in response to the naming on social media by Oxford Pride of those Oxford clergy and laity who signed the ‘Ministers’ Consultation Letter’ calling on the government to re-think plans to introduce a ban on ‘conversion therapy’. The key documents are here:

Minister’s Consultation Letter opposing ‘conversion therapy’ ban

BBC report: Oxford Pride condemns conversion therapy open letter

Statement by Bishop Gavin Collins on the Diocese of Oxford website

 

In his statement, the Bishop makes several remarks which are incomprehensible without detailed knowledge of the background. They operate as slogans or tropes, signalling which side he is on rather than bringing wisdom and clarity. He does not address the actual concerns expressed in the letter which has been signed by some of his own clergy, for example that the government’s reasoning for the ban conflates already-illegal coercive and violent attempts to suppress homosexuality with looser definitions which end up including freely chosen counselling and prayer, and any perceived criticism of LGBT ideology or promotion of heteronormativity. He does not explain why a letter expressing concerns about retentions of basic freedoms should cause “people” (presumably, LGBT people?) to feel “upset” and not “safe or welcome in our churches”.

The Bishop goes on to say that the motive of the authors of the letter is to “diminish people” with certain identities and lifestyles. Since the purpose of the letter is to point out the need to retain freedom to practice Christian teaching and pastoral care relating to sexuality, and the Church of England officially agrees with that teaching, does this mean that Gavin Collins believes the doctrines and canons of the church of which he is a bishop inherently diminish people?

He ends with what could be seen as a summary of his ‘gospel’ message in three points: all are made in God’s image, all are welcome in church, everyone has a place at the table. What does he mean? Is he only saying, for example, that a Muslim or atheist should be warmly welcomed in a church service? Or is he going further – that they should receive the sacraments without discrimination? That they are members of God’s kingdom by virtue of their common humanity? The Bishop clearly has in mind all three interpretations. Again, some background is needed here: the Bishop is being consistent with the move towards “radical inclusion” outlined in the letter by Diocesan Bishops to clergy in October 2018:

Text of 2018 Ad Clerum: “Clothe yourselves in Love”

Anglican Mainstream commentary: “This interpretation of the full inclusion of LGBTI+ people in the church, then, is not simply about love of neighbour, and welcoming those who are different. It involves a radical change in Christian anthropology and sexual ethics.”

Oxford Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship’s letter protesting against the Ad Clerum

 

The timing of the Bishop’s intervention is also significant, coming immediately after Oxford Pride published the names of clergy and laity from Oxford churches who had signed the letter, one of which was myself. Gavin Collins is signalling that he, and the Church of England leadership whose Synod voted for a ban on conversion therapy in 2017, are on the side of Pride against their fellow Anglicans. He no doubt sincerely believes that in doing so he is on the side of the oppressed against the powerful, but in reality it is the opposite, as he is aligning with the might of government, the media and the corporate world against those who dare to say that sexual desire does not define identity, and that God calls us all to repentance and conformity to his standards .

Collins is joining other bishops (eg the Bishop of Manchester) in saying he would support the future criminalisation of his own clergy if convicted of ‘conversion therapy’, perhaps if they teach the biblical view of marriage, or by counselling someone who wants to manage same sex desires in a faith-directed way, or leave LGBT identity and lifestyle. We are in a different era – they don’t burn people at the stake nowadays – but there is a parallel between the craven senior clergy who watched approvingly at the demise of the Oxford martyrs, and Bishops today who support laws banning their own clergy from fulfilling aspects of their ordination vows.

At the heart of the ‘Minister’s Consultation Letter’ to which Gavin Collins objects, is the assumption that people should be free to choose what to think and how to act, within the confines of the law, but that the law should not infringe on what happens in people’s souls. This idea began to develop partly in response to the horror of the persecutions of Mary commemorated in Oxford’s Broad Street, and eventually became enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief…(Article 18)

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression…(Article 19).

The proposed ban on conversion therapy contradicts these noble principles. In attempting to prevent people from, if they wish, deciding not to be gay or trans, and to be helped in this journey, it is a ban on making choices about what to think and how to live in their personal space. This is a return to Britain of the 1550’s, and more recent examples in other places.

 

Faithful Anglicans will need to weigh up how to respond to this. Here is part of my personal story. Until March 2020, just before the pandemic lockdown, I was a licensed clergyman with permission to officiate in Oxford Diocese. I have for many years observed and chronicled on this website, the drift away from biblical Christianity and towards revisionism and institutional wokeness by the Oxford Bishops and the Church of England as a whole, of which the intervention by Bishop Collins is the latest example. Eventually I no longer felt able to offer an oath of canonical obedience, putting myself under the spiritual oversight of these men and women. I have been in a privileged position of not being dependent on the C of E for my stipend and housing, and I fully recognise that this decision is not as easy for others, who also feel they have a flock to care for regardless of the views of the bishops over them.

I continued worshipping in a Church of England church, offering service where I could (I was banned from preaching by the Diocese in February 2021!) During this time I played a role in helping to establish the Anglican Network in Europe, working with Bishop Andy Lines under the oversight of the Gafcon Primates. Late in 2021 with a team which includes two other clergy who have left the Church of England, we established a small house fellowship in the Oxford area. We gather round the word, worship and share the sacraments in the Anglican way, hoping for freedom from interference from state-sponsored secular ideologies and their episcopal local enforcers, looking rather to global orthodox Anglicanism for our inspiration and human leadership, and ultimately to the King of Kings who knew what it was like to face the wrath of the alliance of worldly and corrupt religious institution.  This alternative way of being Anglican in Britain is now a serious option.

 

See also: The Bishop of Dorchester’s statement on ‘Minister’s Consultation Response’ on conversion therapy, by Martin Davie

Big lies and their cultural consequences

Posted by on Feb 7, 2022 in 2-Important Posts, Book Reviews, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Big lies and their cultural consequences

Sharon James explains the background to Western secularism, and sets out the bible’s worldview in response.

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

I recently saw a short video in which two students, members of an evangelical church, were discussing the impact of social media in their lives. What are some of the potential pitfalls? “It makes me compare myself to the ‘good life’ that others are having, and that makes me feel jealous”, said one. “I find myself scrolling through lots of mindless content, and realise how much time I’ve wasted”, came the reply. Both agreed that they should spend more time in Christian activities.

That was it.

The bible constantly warns us that ‘the world’ is not a neutral space where the biggest danger is being diverted into frivolities. Rather, we learn of a system of spiritual powers behind convincing but destructive ways of thinking, human-centred ideologies and worldviews. Today, while social media and the internet can be used for good, for the undiscerning it can be the latest, very powerful vehicle for disseminating these worldviews which are hostile to biblical faith, disruptive of harmony-in-diversity, and sometimes opposed to the common sense or ‘natural law’ necessary to human flourishing.

These Christian young people discussing social media either are not aware of this aspect of their online lives, or feel unable to say anything about it publicly. To me this shows how much our churches need resources to recognise the world’s lies, to discern where they come from and how they’re being spread, and to see in the Gospel the truth which sets us free.

Such a resource is found in Sharon James’ book The Lies We Are Told, The Truth We Must Hold (Christian Focus 2021). It was recommended to me as “like Carl Trueman, but easier to understand”. There’s an element of truth to this. While Trueman’s book focusses on the thought of a small number of thinkers with the most influence on contemporary secular culture, the scope of Sharon James’ (SJ) book is much wider, covering more ground but in less detail. What both books have in common is the underlying conviction that many of the presuppositions and assumptions of our post-enlightenment, post-Christian Western culture is based on lies, which have acted like “environmental pollution”.

 

The dismantling of old certainties about truth, beginning with God and the ‘given’ structures of creation, led to postmodern suspicion of all truth claims as attempts to gain power. But an unregulated free market of ideas and activities is anarchy, and does not guarantee the formation of humanist utopia. So we’re quickly coming to accept the promotion of a new hegemony, based around ‘progressive’ ideas of ‘social justice’. SJ says in her introduction that we need to understand and expose “the lies we are told”, and then recover a biblical worldview, which is not only important for the church, but “the only solid basis for defending human dignity and achieving justice”.

SJ devotes the majority of her book to explaining secularism and its impact. Lie number 1 is that there is no God. Christianity is then first relegated to a private opinion, and then seen as harmful. A number of voices are quoted as prophets of the atheistic worldview – giants from the past like Nietzsche and Russell, and more familiar recent celebrities: Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, Kurt Cobain. But atheism ultimately leads to disregard for human dignity and a culture of death. Marx and his political followers feature here, as the myths of ‘liberation’ from divine authority and their consequences in terms of government are laid bare.

Atheism has also led to a “reversal of moral codes”, particularly in relation to sex. Focus here is on the ideas of those who linked Christian sexual morality with neurosis (Freud) and militarism (Reich), and American abortionist and eugenicist Margaret Sanger. The “spectacular success” of today’s ‘sexual revolution’ (a phrase coined by Reich in the 1930’s) has resulted in a dystopia of fatherlessness, poverty and crime. Meanwhile, the philosophical underpinning of neo-Marxist ideas applied to law, education and family, designed to influence and take over the establishment guardians of culture, were drawn up and communicated by the ‘Frankfurt School’ – activists and ideologies such as Gramsci and, later, Marcuse, along with literary critics who undermined the idea of a meaning in a text (Derrida, Foucault). As the ‘lived experience’ of those with ‘oppressed’ identities trumps common sense and even science which comes to the ‘wrong’ conclusion, SJ concludes: “Critical Theory has taken root in all the main institutions of the West” (p132).

Contemporary identity politics, deriving from a Marxist diagnosis of human society in terms of oppressor and oppressed, leads to the assertion that Western societies are beset with ‘systemic’ racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity. ‘Solutions’ are enacted in the form of what SJ calls the “politics of guilt”, and increasing polarisation and division in society, is the result. At this point in the book (p148ff), SJ helpfully includes some tables, with single-sentence summaries of various beliefs and the agendas which follow.

She ends the chapter on the contemporary culture war with the question: “Why have so many Christians joined in the trashing of truth?” (p157). This introduces an overview of the main tenets of theological revisionism, with its roots in European Protestantism, and fruits in today’s church leaders denying Scripture and taking the side of secular cultural Marxists against authentic Christianity. This chapter could be much longer if it included a fraction of the story of what has happened in British and North American Anglicanism over the past twenty years!

The second, shorter section of SJ’s book deals with “the truth we must hold”, and sets out a biblical worldview, based on God as creator and as the basis for all truth and reality. Humanity has inherent dignity because of being made in God’s image; we are loved and invited to share in management of creation and an eternal destiny. While we are alienated from God because of our inherent sin, we are given moral responsibility – which again confers dignity, but does not allow for victimhood or other-blaming. Instead, God offers forgiveness based on the sacrificial death of Christ.

Biblical concepts of family, work and society based on law and mutual generosity are then outlined. Finally, the Lordship of Christ is presented as a doctrine not just for Christians within the confines of church, or something to look forward to after the second coming, but a present reality which is the basis for mission. This is not only evangelism, but the bringing of institutions under the influence of gospel truth and values. It’s important to understand and be realistic about the extent of the (increasingly enforced) wrong thinking in the world and the suffering it causes, while at the same time affirm the rule of the Son of God, his activity through his people by his Holy Spirit, and the coming judgement and renewal of the cosmos under his headship. The task of the believer is to “love and praise God…don’t be afraid…work for the extension of God’s kingdom”.

 

This is an excellent book about contemporary culture which is a counter to the pietism sometimes seen in evangelical circles. While of necessity only being an overview, it contains plenty of footnotes to be followed up by readers wanting more detail on all the topics. It would benefit from more practical suggestions for action (this is also true of Trueman’s book), and perhaps more of an appreciation of the demonic spiritual powers behind the ideologies and their effects that she describes. But maybe that is a topic for another book?

Psalm 103 – four dimensions of reality

Posted by on Jan 17, 2022 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Philosophy, Theology | Comments Off on Psalm 103 – four dimensions of reality

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

I’m interested in the idea of “the self”, that consciousness of me as an independent, unique person, who has a unique set of experiences, thoughts and feelings. The ‘I’ who relates to my environment – physical, psychological and spiritual – in a unique way; being impacted by other people, the seen and unseen realms, as well as in small ways, having an impact on them. Psychologists talk about how this awareness can be seen in normal child development, referring to the first as the “existential self”, which is where French philosopher Descartes started in his quest to find a ‘ground zero’ for enquiry, and the latter as the “categorical self”, the sense of being an object as well as a subject.

In his 2020 book ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self’, Carl Trueman explains how the current rapid changes in understanding about sexuality and gender, identity, and the dominance of “woke” ideology in other areas of life, are based on the ways the secular West now understands “self”. Previously, he says, in the ‘pre-modern’ era, the individual’s understanding of him/herself was tethered to certain unchangeable ‘givens’ in the environment. For example, the physical world (the cycles of the seasons, animal and crop husbandry etc), the social world (laws and norms established by tradition in communities); the religious world (God, and or other gods, seen as controlling the world, our lives and ‘fate’ in some way).

When it became fashionable, in Europe towards the end of the 18th century, to question the truth of the bible and even the existence of God, for the first time people were growing up having to construct their sense of self without the God ‘hypothesis’. Trueman shows how very soon afterwards, philosophers began to blame problems in society and the bad behaviour of individuals not on the doctrine of sin, as previously, but on outdated social conventions and morals, and societal structures. If we agree that God is dead, they argued, then we should also get rid of ethical demands based on the bible. In fact all authorities should be questioned, and if necessary, overthrown.

It took many more years for the next stage to be reached, but from the 1960’s onwards it became more commonplace to believe that human beings have the power not only to change the facts of theology and sociology, but biology as well. Marriage no longer has to be between a man and a woman for the purpose of reproduction…a foetus in the womb can be declared a non-person, and hence disposed of…the immutable characteristics of biological sex can be seen as an unwanted prison, easily erased by hormones, surgery and new legal “self-identification” to suit how a person feels. This is “expressive individualism” – how I feel must be accommodated and affirmed by society, put “out there”, and any questioning of it should be suppressed. Sixties philosopher Philip Rieff, whose ideas are summarised by Trueman, called this phenomenon “psychological man”. Using this somewhat dated phrase Rieff foresaw how what was hailed as a ‘breaking free’ from constraints of religious worldview, social convention and even the physical world would not bring liberation, but a hellish confinement[1].

So these four elements – me, others, the world, God – are in fact four pillars of a building, or four dimensions of existence.  To erase three of them leaves the self as one-dimensional. I’m not even a badly-drawn boy (who in this song recognises his two-dimensionality, and longs for more substance), I’m just a floating dot.

 

Sadly, many church leaders have shied away from any kind of critique of contemporary secular culture, and the powerful ideologies which people believe. Instead, they have decided that it is more ‘Christian’ to uncritically affirm whatever people think about themselves (see here for an example). In contrast, turning back to the ancient wisdom of the Scriptures ensures that the church critiques false ideology, and then offers a saving and wholesome way of thinking about self, based on truth and humility.

Psalm 103 is a poem about God, but it begins with the “existential self”, where the real “I”, or “my soul”, talks to myself, “my inmost being”. In true Hebrew fashion, time is not wasted in the contemplation of the Greek philosophers or contemporary teenagers in their bedrooms, “who am I?” David begins with inner attitude and action in relation to Another: “praise the Lord…and forget not his benefits”. I exist, but I have a choice in my consciousness: to focus primarily on myself, or God.

The implication, straight away, is that this doesn’t come easily or naturally. God is perceived in a different way to the physical realm. My natural inclination not to praise him, and not to be mindful of his gifts, physical and spiritual, is the first sign of sin in me, and a world in disharmony, in which there is sickness and misfortune. So I must remember that he forgives sin, heals physically and psychologically, restores to satisfying relationship.

So in these first few verses, the psychological and spiritual dimensions of life are established. God does not restrict in a damaging way, but provides inner wholeness, so I can be the real me, rather than having to construct my identity from my sinful feelings.

Then David goes on to observe himself in relation to others. He is part of a community, the people of Israel (v7) who are also living in relationship to God. And there is a richness to the sense of being in community, the historical element which stretches back to Moses, and forward to our children’s children (v17). It goes beyond a national or racial identity – it includes all who fear God and seek to live in accordance with his will (v18). Lastly there is the physical dimension. God gives us the good things we need, but our lives are finite, like the grass of the field. It would be wrong to conclude from this that the physical aspect of our existence is somehow less important, that the psychological and spiritual ‘real me’ can be detached from or even at odds with my mortal body and the hard world around me. I am a body-soul-spirit unit.

 

So let’s not say to our neighbours “your expressive individualism is great – just add Jesus!” That is colluding with the zeitgeist. And if we take the pietist line, and say we don’t need to analyse and understand the cultural currents and what people are being taught to feel, it shows we’re not paying attention to our neighbours in distress in their one-dimensional existence. Instead perhaps we need to say, with grace and compassion like God (v8), “we understand what you think about yourself and why, but that won’t work. Try the wisdom of Psalm 103 and you’’ll be restored to the four dimensions you were created to live in and enjoy”.

 

[1] [1]   “…our…world rejects the vertical in favour of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: ‘Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing.’” From ‘A Theological Sickness unto Death: Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age’, by Bruce Riley Ashford, Themelios https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/a-theological-sickness-unto-death-philip-rieff-prophetic-analysis/

Desmond Tutu – a personal reflection

Posted by on Jan 4, 2022 in 2-Important Posts, Anglican Church of Southern Africa, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Desmond Tutu – a personal reflection

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

My wife and I met Desmond Tutu in July 1994, three months after the historic elections which brought Nelson Mandela and the ANC to power in South Africa. We had arrived in the country at the beginning of that year, to begin service with the Diocese of St Mark the Evangelist[1], based in Polokwane (then called Pietersburg).

Desmond Tutu had become Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, in the full glare of global publicity. He was already well-known[2] as the Nobel Laureate, a fearless and vociferous campaigner against the apartheid political system, but also as a man of God, an independent Christian voice, definitely not in the pocket of any party political agenda, against violence and abuse of power on all sides, talking about God and his love in the public square. He was at Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s side when the great leader was released from prison in 1990 (my wife claims that the two of us watching this historic event on a grainy black and white TV in England was our first date!) Desmond’s voice was often heard pleading for peace in the fractious and dangerous build-up to the first elections in which the majority were allowed to vote, in April 1994.

But Desmond was also leader of a denomination with well over a million affiliates. South Africa has a huge diversity of independent churches, but the ‘mainline’ groupings – Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Dutch Reformed and others – remain numerically strong. As part of his pastoral work, Desmond would visit Dioceses around the Province[3]. His tour of the Diocese of St Mark in July 1994 had been in the diary for some time.

Desmond and his wife Leah stayed with Bishop Philip Le Feuvre and his family. His press secretary, John Allan, stayed in our little bungalow not far away. When he first arrived at the Diocesan Centre for a lunch to meet the Bishop’s staff and local clergy, I remember one of the first things he did was to go through into the kitchen, to greet and comfort the recently widowed cook and housekeeper, Nikka Malebane, whom he remembered from a previous visit. This trait of seeking out the people others overlook, and showing a real interest in them and their lives, was repeated again and again as we observed him in the various functions around a Diocese which was a backwater, predominantly rural and poor, with around 12 full-time clergy caring for 165 congregations in an area the size of Wales.

Despite the febrile atmosphere of post-apartheid South Africa, he was at ease with the white people he met as well as with everyone else; with the affluent and powerful as well as the most disadvantaged. He did not resent the role my wife and I had just embarked on, as “missionaries” from a former colonial power. Rather he encouraged us in our work of empowering church leaders (mostly laity – the de facto leaders of congregations) in gospel ministry, community development and emergency relief work. He spoke to large crowds at churches around the Diocese. The day before his departure, after a final Communion service, a few of us retired to the Bishop’s house for the important business of watching TV. It was the first test match at Lord’s, the ‘home of cricket’ in London, between South Africa and England since the late 1960’s when the apartheid state was banned from most international sporting competition. Desmond was keen on cricket and other sport; he made knowledgable comments as well as joining in the general banter, in between sips of rum and coke.

Later that evening my wife and I were privileged to be part of small group dining at an Italian restaurant with Desmond and Leah. We knew that he was due to retire as Archbishop later that year. He confided to us that he had just received an invitation to play a leading part in the post-apartheid rebuilding process. This was to become the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of which he would be appointed Chairman in 1995. Desmond was actually discussing this openly across the table with Leah – “Dudu should I do this?” he asked, using his term of endearment which means something like “beetle”. “I was so looking forward to retirement”. Leah said “you know you have to do it – it’s your calling”. I felt at the time I was in the presence of history being made.

The next day they left early to catch a flight to London. We saw him on TV the day after – he was in a hospitality box watching the cricket live at Lord’s!

I disagreed with some of Desmond Tutu’s theology, but I admire him tremendously for his qualities as a human being and man of God. One of the challenges that liberation theology, and theological thinking from the majority world generally, has brought to affluent, biblically orthodox Christians from the 1960’s onwards, has been hard questions: “you might have correct theology but what are you actually doing? Are you and your message good news (or any sort of news) to the economically poor? Are you acting rightly (orthopraxy) as well as believing the right thing (orthodoxy)?” The current soul searching in some evangelical circles about abuse of power and creating leadership hierarchies based on privilege, and about the historic neglect of disadvantaged urban housing estates in mission priorities, are examples of how biblical principles neglected by those who claim to be bible-based are sometimes rediscovered by a challenge from non-evangelicals. Tutu’s life and witness challenged me as a young man to care for the poor and be concerned for justice across the world, even if these concerns were not typically shared by some in my church circles at home.

In my studies of the South African situation, both before I lived there and from observing in situ for nearly 13 years, I noticed that Christians responded in different ways to the pressure created by the apartheid system (which was in itself an attempted ‘solution’ to the issue of trying to forge a nation out of very diverse peoples and cultures). For me, it was obvious that enforced segregation and the suppression of the majority by the minority was wrong and shameful, while the Christian gospel remained the same in every context: the availability of forgiveness, relationship with God and eternal life for undeserving sinners through repentance and faith in Christ. But I found that for some church leaders in South Africa, the hope of political liberation, equality and democracy is the gospel. For others, the gospel is entirely spiritual, and so Christians should not be taken up with the way society is run, or people’s material welfare at all. A third group of Christians fully supported the apartheid system, believing that the alternative was godless communism.

These three standpoints are classic responses to a dominant and oppressive socio-cultural ideology, and we see the same responses today by Christians in relation to secularism and increasingly enforced ‘wokeness’ in contemporary Western culture. Some collude with it and even celebrate it like the white South African Christians who supported apartheid. Some try to pretend that such cultural and political issues have nothing to do with them as they focus on the work of ‘the gospel’ (defined in a narrow, church-based way). And then a third group embrace full political resistance and revolution as the practical outworking of their faith. Personally I think a more sound approach is to critique false ideologies and their effect on society and government, from a biblical perspective, to work peacefully for change, while at the same time affirming the need for personal salvation and transformation to holiness of life through Christ, and the work of the churches in making disciples of individuals and local community groups.

I believe, for what it’s worth, that Desmond Tutu got the first part right, lived and communicated it, perhaps as well as anyone in living memory. He looked at the man-made system in which he grew up, how it disfigured those made in the image of God and caused division and injustice where there should have been harmony; he felt outraged, and said, like Moses, “this is wrong and we can change”; like Martin Luther King he not only said it eloquently but also his personality became part of the message. He was passionately opposed to a bad ideology, but he did not hate those who agreed with it or even enforced it – in fact he loved them. He prayed, he spoke, and then he acted, often with amazing courage at the risk of his own life. He was not, as some believe, a secular socialist politician in a purple cassock. He was a Christian prophet, flawed like everyone, but ensuring that the new South Africa was not characterised by retribution towards apartheid perpetrators, also quick to warn against corruption in the ANC, always insisting that his values came from faith in God.

But I hope it’s not unfair to say that his understanding of sin and salvation deviated from the bible’s teaching. Desmond made no distinction between the inherent dignity and value of every human being made in the image of God, and the special status of those adopted as children of God, which according to the New Testament is not through privilege or merit but through faith in Christ alone. Desmond could not accept this – he saw the idea of separation of the saved and unsaved as a form of apartheid. For him, the love of God would conquer all – He would accept everyone in the end, especially the oppressed, even the unrepentant. For the same reason he supported LGBT ideology including same-sex marriage  (although at the request of his fellow bishops he did not promote this cause in Southern Africa while in office as Archbishop).

Desmond’s brand of liberalism is a superficially attractive theology especially when contrasted with a caricature of apartheid-supporting Calvinism in old South Africa, or some Western evangelicalism today which is sadly tinged with racism and lack of compassion for the poor. And Tutu’s universalist soteriology is completely understandable given his context. Valid points can be made about how a denial of God’s judgement against sin leads to much worse unintended injustices, but I would rather leave it there. Should Tutu be denounced for being a bad influence, even be blamed for the revisionism of contemporary Western Anglican leaders? I’m not sure we can do that. The capitulation of liberal Anglicanism to Western secularism has been going on for decades and would have continued without Tutu.

Perhaps we can say he may be held up as a hero by the Christian left, but they would do well to emulate his refusal to demonise (or threaten to imprison) those who think differently, his sense of perspective (apartheid South Africa was proper ‘institutional racism’), his humour, his prayerfulness. And while today’s Christian right may always write Tutu off, those moderate orthodox believers who tend to pietism can validly remain cautious about the salvation theology of his tradition, while learning from his immense courage,  the way he brought God and aspects of his character into the public square, and from his commitment to defending the weak and oppressed.  Meeting him and watching him in action was an immense privilege for which I will always be thankful.

 

Footnotes

[1] This region, in the far north of the country, had been carved out of the Diocese of Pretoria in 1987. Despite a predominant anglo-catholic churchmanship in the area inherited from the missionaries of Mirfield and USPG, and the main languages of the area being Northern Sotho and Afrikaans, the first Bishop to be appointed was an English-speaking evangelical, Oxford-educated Capetonian Philip Le Feuvre.

[2] Such a household name in the UK at the time that students referred to a lower second class degree (2:2) as a “Desmond”.

[3] The Anglican Church of Southern Africa includes other nations and jurisdictions: Lesotho, Swaziland, and St Helena. At the time it also included Mozambique and new mission work in Angola. Anglicans in these Portuguese-speaking countries have now formed a new Province.

Christian freedoms must be protected, (ordinary) church leaders tell government

Posted by on Dec 14, 2021 in 2-Important Posts, Conversion Therapy, Editorial Blog, Evangelicalism | Comments Off on Christian freedoms must be protected, (ordinary) church leaders tell government

Why the ‘Ministers’ Consultation Response’ to the proposed ‘conversion therapy’ ban is a sign of a major shift in evangelical approach to secular culture.

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

The government consultation on bringing in new laws to ban ‘conversion therapy’ was extended at the last minute until 4 February. One reason for this, it seems, was the perceived exclusion of certain groups because of the complexity of the supporting documents to the consultation response form; an ‘easy-read’ document was hastily published the day before the original date for the closure of the consultation. But reports also suggest that the civil servants responsible for collating the responses were overwhelmed by the number and strength of feeling of those opposed to the plans. Many of those criticising the proposed ban are not from a religious background at all; they are mainly concerned about the potential impact on free speech, and counselling of young people particularly in the area of gender identity. But it seems that a large number of Christians from a wide variety of denominations have also used the consultation to express dismay at the government’s proposals.

The Open Letter from church ministers to the government minister responsible for the process, Liz Truss, has at the time of writing garnered over 2200 signatures. This could be a fraction of the total number of orthodox Christians who have responded to the government consultation. It is worth looking in more detail at the ‘Minister’s Consultation Response’ in terms of what it says and who has signed it, as it could  indicate a shift away from a “steer clear of politics” approach among British evangelicals, or compliance with the ruling establishment, towards a more robust and critical engagement with secular society and culture, its values and ideologies.

The letter begins with affirmation of a posture of “welcome” for those with “different experience and views” from the historic Christian norms, including in the area of sexuality and gender; it expresses intention to act with love, gentleness and respect, and rejects the use of coercion and control. It then moves on to the main point: the proposed ban will impact the everyday pastoral work of churches, and potentially criminalise pastors and other Christians, including parents for teaching the faith and giving “loving advice”. What is immediately noticeable here is that there is a refreshing absence of apology for the church’s “homophobia”, past or present. Perhaps the authors felt that they, speaking on behalf of orthodox Christianity now rather than some church attitudes and practices of the past, have nothing to apologise for; perhaps they realise that such apologies have done nothing to prevent the onward march of the LGBT agenda in recent years.

The fourth paragraph addresses head on the false category of ‘conversion therapy’. The focus here is on the unfair and caricatured equivalence of careful pastoral practice, therapy or private conversations, with “evil and disreputable past practices which are already illegal”. One effect of the proposed ban would be to criminalise the former, which would breach a universally agreed right to manifest one’s religion.

The next paragraphs summarise what Christianity has always believed and taught about sexual ethics. It does not, either here or in the accompanying ‘Background and Analysis’ document (eg points 6-14) attempt to answer the objection that many who call themselves Christians do not believe this. This is a bold strategy – to assert aspects of Christian doctrine and assume an agreed biblical basis without attempting to add detailed theological reasoning. It is very different from the ‘let’s weigh up different views equally’ approach of Living in Love and Faith – and it has clearly struck a chord with the signatories. Many are no doubt fed up with church leaders who equivocate publicly on this issue.

The Open Letter goes on to describe a key aspect of Christian ministry often neglected in typical evangelical treatments of sexuality and gender. A common approach, particularly in evangelical Anglican circles, is to reaffirm the bible’s teaching on sex, to affirm the value of people with same sex attraction and gender dysphoria, and to emphasise ministry which helps such people remain celibate and/or live according to their biological sex. This letter goes further in identifying a false ideology within the culture, which encourages people to “believe that their identity is found purely in their feelings” and “best guided by self”.

The background analysis continues: “great harm arises from following our internal desires when they are contrary to the design and commands of God”. A key aspect of the work of ministry, then, is not simply helping people not to act on sinful desires, but to identify and reject the false worldviews which encourage them to see those desires good and an intrinsic part of their being; to elevate self and its public expression as providing meaning and identity. This is a central component of ‘conversion’: a change of allegiance, away from false gods and ideologies to Christ and his kingdom, and change of behaviour. People can change, and part of Christian ministry is to urge people to do so (Letter para 7; Background point 12).

There is an explicit appeal at the end of the letter to the Christian foundations of British society and even government. “It should not be a criminal offence”, the letter repeats, for the church or parents to teach Christian ethics. This contains an implied question – in what kind of state might such activities be criminalised? Surely a totalitarian one? The letter ends by appealing to the role of the Monarch, warning that the bill as proposed would legislate “against the very faith of which she has been appointed defender”.

The Letter is significant for a number of reasons. Here we see:

A new unity among theologically orthodox leaders of  a number of different denominations, including Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, independent evangelical and Pentecostal.

A new boldness in proclaiming Christian doctrine in the public square, including sexual ethics, sin, guilt and judgement. The writers of the document clearly will not restrict the ministry of the church to the in-house local gathering, or limited evangelistic initiatives around the fringe. Rather, Christian ethics are assumed to be for the good of all, and the church’s responsibility is to the whole community not just believers. The strong critique of transgender ideology resulting in the “appalling crime” of “genital mutilation” (Background, points 30 and 31) are not statements associated with a pietist church, but one seeing the relevance of the gospel to the whole of life, and to church members and unbelievers alike. Anglicans should be the first to affirm this understanding of the church and its mission.

A new confidence in critiquing culture, ideology and worldview, seeing Christian doctrine of marriage as counter to secular “expressive individualism”, and calling people to be transformed by the renewing of their mind according to God’s word, especially on how they view what it means to be human (eg Background, point 6).

A new willingness to be unpopular, and even disobey the law . This is in marked contrast to the strategy of other evangelical groups, who attempt to gain respect from the ruling establishment and avoid being targeted by LGBT lobby groups, seeking to avoid a reputation for censoriousness, developing an image of apologetic winsomeness. As such the letter will not cause division among evangelicals but reveals existing divisions on how to respond to the pressures of secularism.

A new resistance by orthodox Anglicans to the pro-LGBT stance of their leaders. In 2017 General Synod voted to support a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ so to sign this letter as many Church of England clergy have done, is a signal of opposition to the official policy of their own church.

A new voice for the ordinary church leaders. The burgeoning list of signatories does not feature many ‘stand-out’ names, well-known leaders of large churches, and as such as an example of a grassroots movement, not one directed from those normally seen as leaders of the constituency. They have more to lose, of course, from being associated with such a bold and clear initiative. Meanwhile the group who composed the letter and launched this initiative should be commended for their work.

Mary shows how to do “expressive individualism”

Posted by on Dec 7, 2021 in 2-Important Posts, Bible, Editorial Blog, Philosophy | Comments Off on Mary shows how to do “expressive individualism”

Mary shows how to do “expressive individualism”

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

There is a view of history which sees human progress as a linear journey of improvement from backwardness and ignorance to enlightenment and global justice and peace. In this view, though there are brief periods of reversal, the ‘arc of history’ always heads in the same direction. Not only are conditions better now than they were 100 or 200 years ago, but according to this view, people are better.

So or example, we often hear that before the Reformation and the period of ‘Enlightenment’ – huge flowering of exploration, knowledge and new technologies in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, people saw themselves, not as individuals with rights, but as part of a collective, members of a community who had no choice but to follow the customs of their time. It was only when Martin Luther said “Here I stand”, Rene Descartes said “I think therefore I am”, and Rousseau advocated breaking free from the prison of social convention, that the West cleverly invented the individual. Societies were patriarchal; women were seen and carried out their duties but were voiceless. It took the suffragettes and then the feminists to make us realise that women are actually quite important. So the argument goes.

But a cursory reading of the bible should tell us straight away that this reading of history is a narcissistic Western myth. Three thousand years ago David and other poets were composing songs focussed intensely on the individual, his feelings and his God. In the 6th century BC the prophet Ezekiel warned against taking refuge in communal responsibility, insisting “the soul who sins will die” (33:18-20). Even further back, as the Israelites were in the wilderness, the Daughters of Zelophehad were engaged in a test case for women’s inheritance rights (Numbers 27:1-8). We have a number of other vignettes of women showing their individuality and speaking out (eg Joshua 15:16-19, 1 Samuel 2). So the very modern ideas of the expressive self and the platformed female voice were not invented in the enlightenment or the 20th century.

The difference is that in contemporary secular ideology, the individual and his/her feelings has become the centre of the universe, the ultimate arbiter of reality. As Carl Trueman has pointed out, once God was declared far away and irrelevant (the Deists), or even dead (Nietzsche), and the conventions of society and repression of sexual desire were seen as restrictive of individuality (Rousseau and Freud), the framework of reference which we as human beings need for identity and in order to function, in particular the cosmic and the social, disappears. For some this creates a blank canvas of exciting possibilities in which even the restraints of biology can be overthrown; for most it opens us up to psychological and mental crisis.

In the bible, the individual self, my inner thoughts and feelings is not autonomous, the centre of everything, worthy of pampering and worship. Rather the ‘I’ only exists because of the Creator and only finds meaning in relationship to him, who needs to be rediscovered as personal rescuer from sin (the tendency to self-worship), enemies bent on my destruction, and death. This is seen supremely in the short poem recorded near the beginning of Luke’s gospel, known as the Magnificat or Mary’s song.

In the ‘progressive’ view of history outlined above, a woman in the first century bc would never have referred to “my soul”, let alone have this expression of individuality recorded for posterity. But it’s the wrong view of history. People are the same, the issues we face are the same, and God is the same, even if the outward trappings of human life change. Here a peasant girl confidently expresses her identity just like any girl of a similar age today on social media. Except that for Mary, her standing comes in relationship to the Lord, whose character she understands, and expounds in her song of praise. She is an individual, but she didn’t make up her truth or create her own identity. She is aware that she stands in a tradition controlled by Word and cycles of worship in community, though not a dead convention focussed on idols as the prophets warned, but a warm day to day relationship with the same divine Person as encountered by Abraham, Moses and David before her.

This God is not remote or tyrannical, but is “mindful” of the ordinary person. He is opposed to what our sinful selves love: human power, pride in our selves constructed without reference to him. He is in control of history. And he works through “generations”. The system God has created of history as humanity propagating itself through having children is mentioned three times in the song (v49, 50, 55).

In contrast to Western society, whose cultural leaders consider past generations to be irrelevant and who assume or even despise the heteronormativity needed to produce future descendants. Who have replaced the “social justice” God of the Magnificat with the State as Saviour, redistributor of wealth and power, and punisher of today’s ‘sinners’ – those who have not got with the programme. And who, paradoxically, in seeking to free people from the chains of religion and tradition and encouraging an alphabet soup of individual identities based on feelings, actually make people more like cogs in a machine, an NHS number, an Amazon account, an Instagram post saying what everyone else is saying.

“My soul magnifies the Lord…he has done great things for me” said the empowered individual after hearing that she would have to endure the shame of a pregnancy as as unmarried woman. But today, the mantra is “My heart tries to magnify myself; my soul is broken; it’s the fault of others”.

Then, “his mercy endures to those who fear him”; today “I deserve more according to my rights”.

Then, “he has scattered the proud”; today “be proud of who you are”.

Then “he remembers Abraham and his descendants”; now “it’s all about me in the present”.

The Magnificat as a prophetic critique of the contemporary secular ideology of the self? That’s surely too controversial!

see also

The Autonomous Self Is a Coercive Godby Casey Chalk, The Public Discourse: While ‘Cancel culture’ – “hypersensitivity to any perceived offense against the autonomous, sexualized self – is a fairly recent phenomenon… its roots are not antithetical to the modern West, but deeply embedded in its self-identity, beginning with the Reformation.”

 

The authentic church: witness to the reality of the spiritual

Posted by on Oct 23, 2021 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on The authentic church: witness to the reality of the spiritual

The authentic church: witness to the reality of the spiritual

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

“No church is perfect”, admitted Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, explaining why he was leaving the Church of England to be admitted into the Roman Catholic Church – despite the recent record on child abuse and subsequent mismanagement, and despite historic theological question marks for those from a reformed Protestant background. He is answering his critics, and that discussion goes on.

But “no church is perfect”. Every local expression and every denomination is flawed, made up as it is of sinful human beings. In fact we should be amazed and thankful that the church in its various forms exists at all, given the widespread indifference, misunderstanding and hostility that Christians regularly encounter from those outside the church, and given the low levels of virtue among those inside it (including ourselves first). It is a miracle when one person comes to Christ and when another is still going as a faithful disciple after many years, and yet somehow the worldwide church is full of millions of such miracles!

“No church is perfect” – “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed” – and yet, somehow, at the end, this fallen woman in the gutter will be a radiant, flawless bride, brought into full union with the perfect Bridegroom. “No church is perfect”, because the denominations, while being part of God’s mysterious purpose to broadcast his purpose and plan to all that is, visible and invisible (Eph 3:10), are also human institutions, subject to the same structural weaknesses, forces of group psychology, and spiritual powers (or ‘angels’, Rev 2-3) as other secular organisations.

“No church is perfect”, and yet that can’t mean we just shrug our shoulders and say “they’re all as bad as each other (an attitude which often leads to drifting away from Christian community and regular worship). Nor can it mean complacency, “they’re all as good as each other”, meaning that no discernment is needed about what different churches believe, teach and practice, and all that matters is love and unity.

For Bishop Michael, the problem appears to be not just the Church of England, but Protestantism, otherwise he could have joined a ‘continuing’ Anglican entity, a newly authorised Gafcon jurisdiction, or an independent evangelical church. The Bishop has drawn attention to a deficit of catholicity (small c) – a sense of one universal church believing and doing the same thing with authority to enforce it – which is lacking in Protestantism. Perhaps it is an inherent Lutheran individualism (“here I stand…”) which is at the root of tendency to break away and do our own thing.

See more articles on Dr Nazir-Ali’s pivot to Roman Catholicism, here.

Responding to Bishop Michael’s choice in a gracious and friendly spirit, Phil Ashey of ACNA points to the development (frustratingly slow for some) of a ‘conciliar’ approach within Gafcon and the Global South. Here a genuine attempt is being made to create an authentic Anglicanism which is genuinely catholic (global, rooted in history, mutually accountable), evangelical (based on the authority of Scripture and affirming the necessity of personal repentance and faith), and charismatic (Spirit-led before institutional/managerial).

In the post-Christian West, being part of a church is a choice. It is no longer “default”, an accident of birth or geography. Some may disagree, pointing to baptism, and the significance of this as a sacrament of incorporation into the church should not be minimised. But unless we are universalists, we must always affirm the importance of personal faith and active participation in the life of the local fellowship and the global body of Christ. And this is under increasing threat in our current context. As Gafcon GBE reminded us in their statement following Bishop Michael’s move, “the pressures of secularism in the West are causing many faithful Christians to re-evaluate their relationship with historic denominations, and different decisions will be made about which spiritual home can offer safety and the best opportunities for witness.”

“No church is perfect”, but some spiritual homes can offer more “safety” than others. This is not just about protection, for example from false teaching, abusive leadership, internal division, attacks from outside, financial mismanagement. Many churches in the global south have these problems, often much worse than those in the West, but in the minds of many, they are “safer”. It’s not that they are necessarily more committed to orthodoxy, but perhaps the threats to the church’s very existence are worse in a secular culture even than in places where there is extreme violence, poverty and corruption. At least there, people believe in God and the spiritual realm.

Rod Dreher addresses these problems of the threat of secularism to the church in his latest piece about the ‘Benedict Option’ idea. Drawing on the insights of an Eastern Orthodox theologian and also quoting from a Protestant one, Dreher shows that secularism does not just obscure the spiritual aspects of reality while affirming the material and psychological aspects. Ultimately secularism has allowed people to define reality by their own feelings and desires, which then undermines even the truth of objectively observable, physical reality. Conversely, the fullness of reality can only be apprehended by an appreciation of the spiritual realm. He says authentic Christians “believe that all of reality is undergirded, and founded, in a sacred order of which we are a part. We can’t make it up as we go along; we must instead be open to divine revelation, and organize our lives from what has been revealed from God, because it tells us what is really Real.”

The challenge provided by respected thinkers such as Nazir Ali and Dreher for faithful, biblically orthodox Anglicans and independent evangelicals in the West, is not just how to communicate theological truth better, to organise ourselves more efficiently, or care for others more compassionately (all compatible with a secular worldview). Rather, whichever church we’re in (because none is perfect), we also need that other dimension of reality that comes from “the sacred”; encounter with the Holy Trinity: “That is the Benedict Option: to recognize that the force of chaos of the world in the present moment is so overwhelming that in order to avoid being torn apart by it, Christians need to step back somewhat to strengthen ourselves spiritually — so that when we enter the world, we will be steady icons of light and order, bringing God’s cosmos to the chaos.”

So, while I myself remain convinced about the benefits of an evangelical and global Anglicanism, the important thing is not the label on the denomination, but the extent to which a network of the faithful can promote the gospel while understanding secularism’s threat and intentionally withstanding it.

 

Calling colours by their real names

Posted by on Sep 28, 2021 in Editorial Blog, Gender ideology | Comments Off on Calling colours by their real names

Calling colours by their real names

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

[Editor’s note: this allegory was first posted on this website in September 2015, but was inadvertently deleted as the site was undergoing malware cleaning. We thought it would be relevant to post again, in the light of Sir Keir Starmer’s insistence that it’s not right to say that only women have a cervix.]

As little Johnny stood in the crowd, holding tight to his mother’s hand, waiting for the emperor to arrive, he reflected on how confusing things were nowadays. When he had started in reception at Primary School, he had gone over the names of the colours with the other children. The houses that they painted were simple: a red square box with windows and a door, green grass, blue sky, yellow sun.

But then things changed in his second year. The teachers started talking about people who saw things differently. For them, grass is blue and the sky is green and the sun is purple. Even though Johnny and his classmates had never met anyone who believed this, they were told solemnly never to make fun of such people. In fact even though some children got bullied mercilessly for having ginger hair, unfashionable trainers or being slightly overweight, the teachers seemed to ignore that, but were always on the look out for comments about colour awareness.

In the third year it changed again. The teachers got them to do interesting things in class. First, they pointed to the colour which Johnny had always known was blue, and as a group they intoned “green”. They learned to call colours by words which they had always applied to other colours. And then they were told to paint pictures with blue grass, green sky and black sun, except they were still to call the colours by their original names. This, the school principal said, was all part of “diversity”.

Johnny noticed that all around him people were talking about the different colours. On TV, presenters would call colours by their wrong names – at least he thought they were, but then the presenters would laugh and say there was no right and wrong when it came to the names of colours.

On Sundays Johnny went to church with his parents and his little sister. They didn’t always have a Sunday school but Johnny found it interesting to sit with his parents and listen to the sermon. On one occasion the preacher referred to the story of the feeding of the 5000. “It says in the text that the grass that the people sat on was green”, he said, “but of course the writers at that time were very primitive and didn’t have our level of understanding. We know that the grass may well have been blue, or ‘colour-fluid’. As a church we have too often failed to listen with compassion to the views of people with diverse colour awareness. We must repent and become more inclusive. Our casual use of colour designation can cause real pain to some people.”

His family moved to a different church after that.

And now here they were waiting for the emperor to arrive. They had all been told that he would be wearing a special suit and robe of red and yellow, and a song had been composed:

Our emperor, our valiant king

Peace and prosperity you bring

Red and yellow, yellow and red

We fly our flag, by you we are led.

Many people had arrived holding red and yellow flags. But they had all been confiscated, and replaced with black and white ones. Announcements over the speaker system up and down the streets explained: we are celebrating diversity! When the Emperor comes, please hold your red and yellow flags high and sing the song together!

Twitter nearly crashed as millions of people around the country watching on TV joined with the crowds on the streets to send in pictures of a black and white flag with the hashtag “red and yellow”.

“But mum”, said Johnny, “these flags are black and white”. His mother was appalled as people standing around them looked frowning at Johnny. “Shhh” she said. At that point the music started up, and the song rang out through the streets. The cavalcade with the Emperor at the centre made its way slowly along, as people cheered, waved their flags, sang and shouted the song. Johnny was too small to see what colour suit the emperor was really wearing. Did it matter?

In the sermon that Sunday, the Vicar did refer to the issue of colour. “In this place we still refer to the colours by their traditional names”, he said, “and that may sometimes make us feel uncomfortable in the world outside. But it’s not our business to criticize those who have different views, even less to try to change them as if we could return to a golden age. We just want to talk about God and his love!”

Johnny had limited experience and understanding, but he knew that he was living in a world of adults most of whom had taken leave of reality, and those who hadn’t, even those who believed in God, were just passively compliant. What could he do? He was just a little boy. At school the next day, he and two of his friends decided that they would start a secret society called “true colours”.