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.

Society’s dystopian trends and the church’s response

Posted by on Apr 10, 2018 in Crime, Editorial Blog, Mission | Comments Off on Society’s dystopian trends and the church’s response

Society’s dystopian trends and the church’s response

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Last week Britain was confronted with a series of headlines about out-of-control violence on the streets of London. While most of the killers and their victims are young, and knives are the weapons of choice, a drive-by shooting of a teenage girl on Easter Monday showed an escalation that needs priority attention. Reuters reported that for the first time ever, there are more murders per month in London than in New York.

The horrific killings are the tip of the iceberg as far as violent crime is concerned. Attacks using acid, and brazen theft using weapons to threaten, are on the increase. What are the causes, and what can be done about it? From the left comes the accusation that cuts to police, education and social services by the Conservative government have had a negative effect (started, most tellingly, when Teresa May was Home Secretary). But attempts to politicise the problem have been undermined by things getting considerably worse under the Labour Mayor of London. To his credit, the mayor himself has said that while more money from government to deal with the crisis would be appreciated, poverty is not an excuse for violent criminal behaviour, and other factors are at work.

If the blame can’t be laid at the door of deprivation, what about social media? Certainly it adds to the complexity of the environment; minor incidents, reprisals and the need for young men to avenge perceived slights can be immediately magnified with deadly results.

For solutions: some say it’s not necessarily about the amount of money available, but the quality of the youth and community programmes and the people delivering them. Other commentators have pointed out the huge divisions in London as affluent middle class families live in quiet streets close to rough council estates that have long been breeding grounds for crime and violence. And should police should focus on particular communities where gang violence is so endemic, such as recent immigrants from the horn of Africa, and adopt a zero tolerance approach – or is this unacceptable ‘racial profiling’ and blaming ‘the other’? Is the reality that crime and violence using weapons is now found increasingly among all racial groups? And how would a crackdown work when our prisons are already full?

Where is the church in this? While the disturbing wave of aggression has reached the headlines of most media, it doesn’t seem to be a concern of Christians: certainly by the end of last week, violence in London had not been mentioned at all on the popular websites Christian Today (where there seems to be more celebrity news from the US than comment on the UK scene), or Premier. Nor on the Church of England website, or in the Church Times, or, the Diocese of London site. And I confess that I’m only thinking about it now, as English Christianity of which I’m a part is predominantly white middle class, not affected by a scourge primarily of different ethnic groups in places where the likes of ‘us’ don’t go, let alone try to establish church communities.

 

Here are some urgent questions which need to be asked in the light of this developing social breakdown. Firstly, however we interpret these symptoms in terms of our ‘big picture’ analysis of society, do we care about the individuals who are affected? A spate of knife murders can be looked at as an issue, but each case involves pain and distress for individuals, families and friends. It was good that at our church on Sunday this was brought before the Lord in corporate prayer, and I’m sure many churches in London are not only praying, but also involved in caring for those affected.

But secondly, the big picture: what does such a rise in vicious attacks say about our country? Should the trend be separated from other recent depressing news about the rapid decline in Christian belief and the exponential increase in mental health problems and general unhappiness among young people? Or is there a link between the brave new world of relative affluence, new instant forms of mass communication; family, sex and gender chaos, and a sense of meaninglessness on one hand, and on the other, what could be the stirrings of a return to values of the dark ages, where men achieve a sense of significance through membership of gangs, and violence?

And then, an issue like this gives an opportunity for the church to define and evaluate its mission. The church may see itself as a voice for social justice in the public square, an agent of healing and community-building on the ground. In this model, church leaders articulate a vision for a better Britain, as Archbishop Justin Welby has done in his recent book, and call on the government to release more financial resources for the less well-off, while at the same time showing examples of effective pastoral ministry and community engagement carried out in parishes.

Another, very different approach is to see politics and concern about general social and moral issues in society as outside the remit of the church’s task, which is to preach the Gospel, make disciples, grow the Christian community and plant new churches. This might have a secondary effect of shining a light in the secular darkness and even turning things around if enough people are converted. But according to this view, when getting a local church to hold its own is difficult enough, critiquing trends in society and thinking about how to bring about change on a national level is unrealistic – and probably not biblical.

Martin Davie’s review of Archbishop Welby’s book shows the limitations of the social justice approach – it ends up being not radical enough (what Davie calls ‘modest proposals’ for tinkering with the existing system), and not explicitly Christian enough. While concern for social justice, and action to help the poor motivated by compassion, is a part of authentic Christian faith, a church which prioritises alignment with mainstream liberal thought can shy away from any prophetic critique of destructive aspects of secularism. And is anyone listening? As the church faces regular headlines about its rapid numerical decline and its association with protecting paedophiles, the views of its leaders on the nation are in danger of seeming increasingly irrelevant.

The second model of church-based mission favoured by conservative evangelicals receives a strong critique from Joe Boot of Christian Concern. Boot describes the weaknesses of a pietistic ‘churchianity’, which produces “immature believers… with little or no conception of the scope and grandeur of the gospel or the transforming power of the kingdom of God for all of life.” He asks “is it really a full-orbed and robustly biblical Christianity?” suggesting that it derives from a dualistic idea of church and religion being ‘holy’ , and the things of the world being unworthy of attention.

Boot also demonstrates the weaknesses of the social justice model, where the church “becomes a handmaiden of the state and an advocate of liberal progressivism…rather than biblical righteousness”. He favours the development of a vision for a culture in which Christ is recognised as Lord, an idea which he develops more fully in his books, but which many who agree with his diagnosis of the problem might not agree is achievable.

The debate among Christians about the nature of the church’s mission, and how best to carry it out given the realities of our culture, will continue, and are brought into sharper focus the more serious our national social problems become apparent.

Easter people: celebrating liberation and new life, but living on unleavened bread

Posted by on Mar 27, 2018 in 2-Important Posts, Child abuse, Church of England, Easter, Editorial Blog | Comments Off on Easter people: celebrating liberation and new life, but living on unleavened bread

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The Church in captivity.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, as it relates to the Church of England, has focused on the failure of institutional process. Bishops and other church leaders, when presented with evidence of clergy sexually abusing children or having done so in the past, at worst appear to have colluded with the abuse by covering up the evidence and protecting the abuser; at best they didn’t know what to do, perhaps following the letter of the law and agreed procedures by passing the information on to other responsible individuals or bodies, but not taking more decisive action to ensure safety and justice.

The Pastoral Letter from the Archbishops of York and Canterbury continues the attitude of penitent admission of fault in the organisation, and reminds readers that the situation is now vastly improved compared with the dark days of the past that have been exposed so excruciatingly. However there is acknowledgement that the sense of the church being under judgment from the secular world has only just begun. IICSA will in due course produce a damning report, and from there will flow strong calls for statutory regulation of church activities, and even its theology, by government agencies.

Some commentators have pointed out that there needs to be profound spiritual analysis, and the seeking of spiritual solutions, not just legal and managerial ones. Could the crisis be linked to toleration of sexual immorality in other areas by clergy, and in Christian discipleship in general? A misplaced pastoral concern for a clergyman with a ‘weakness’, desire to protect the reputation of the church, a belief that sexual behaviour is a minor, secondary issue, not understanding the spiritual toxicity that results from unrepentant sin in this area – all of these and more have surely been factors in allowing a ‘turn a blind eye’ culture to develop in the church.

I was brought face to face with this in a safeguarding training day that I attended recently. Our table group were discussing a fictional case study of a salaried parish youth worker who was in a relationship with a girl in the youth group; she was pregnant, but they claimed that as she had recently turned 18 they were consenting adults and no wrong had been committed. My response (although I prefaced my remarks by laughingly admitting that I was “a bit hard line”), was to say that this was a clear case of gross misconduct; that the youth worker should be immediately suspended, and once lawyers had been consulted about employment contracts etc he should be removed from his post as soon as possible. A vicar on the table disagreed. His instinct was to be pastorally concerned for the couple, that this was a minor indiscretion in a loving relationship, and that my attitude would result in losing a successful youth worker and giving a bad reputation to the church.

The next day my morning bible reading was 1 Corinthians 5. Here Paul addresses a similar situation of sexual morality in the church. “A man has his father’s wife” almost certainly refers to a situation where a wealthy, elderly man takes a much younger second or third wife, who then has an affair with the son of the previous marriage. The young man is a member of the church, who pride themselves on their liberal tolerance, not judging the situation in any way. Paul says instead that they should have “gone into mourning and put out of your fellowship the man who did this” (v2). Paul’s first concern was not the young couple’s happiness, or whether people on the fringe of church might be put off by a judgmental attitude towards unconventional domestic arrangements. His first concern is for the spiritual health of the church, which is being harmed by the toleration (and even celebration) of sexual immorality in its midst.

 

Exodus and unleavened bread

What has this got to do with Easter? Paul goes on to use the image of yeast. “Get rid of the yeast”, he urges, “for Christ, the Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (vv7-8).

This is a reference to the well-known practice at the Jewish Passover, when the children are sent to run around the house looking for yeast, or bread with yeast in it, so it can be put out of the house before the feast begins. The instructions from Moses had been clear and strict on this (Exodus 12:8; 14-20). Getting rid of the Egyptian yeast, going without it during the escape from Egypt, and then as a people remembering this every year, was a powerful symbol for detachment from the spiritual influence of the pagan culture from which God’s people were liberated after the slaughter of the lambs and the application of the blood.

So too, says Paul to the Corinthians, you have been set free from the power and defilement of sin by the atoning death of Christ, the Lamb of God. Now you are a new batch of dough, a new creation, ready for a fresh start, living every day as a celebratory Passover feast in memory of that great day of salvation. But in practice this means discipline – not allowing the ‘yeast’ of sinful ideologies and behaviours to infiltrate the dough again.

He goes on to say that unlike the Israelites who physically moved away from the pagan Egyptians, the Corinthians would have to keep living among those with different values, but internally, spiritually, they were to be set apart. In practice this means separation, even the harsh consequence of putting outside the fellowship someone who claims to be a believer but is living in open and unrepentant sin. While sexual immorality is not the only or worst sin (Paul lists others), it is the first on Paul’s list in 5:11. At the end of the next chapter he urges the Corinthians to “flee from sexual immorality”, and instead, honour God with their bodies (6:18-20).

Of course many would want to draw a clear distinction between sexual abuse of children, which is a crime and universally acknowledged to be something heinous, and consenting sex among adults outside marriage. The latter is seen as a sin in the apostolic biblical tradition, but other more liberal versions have historically not worried about it – indeed some revisionist Christians have even claimed that traditional, conservative ‘hang-ups’ about sex may be responsible for child abuse and its cover up. But the consistent witness of Scripture does not draw this distinction, as if all sex is OK as long as it is consensual and not exploitative. If anything, Jesus and Paul strengthen and reinforce the Old Testament teaching in this area: “flee sexual immorality” does not just refer to criminal activity, or sex where there is a power imbalance, but to any sinful sex in deed and even in thought (Matthew 5:27-28).

Like yeast, toleration of this infuses the church, and infects each one of us individually. It cannot be dealt with by finger-pointing and self-righteousness;  by denial of the problem, or saying that sin is only committed when crimes against children are involved. The grip of spiritually and psychologically damaging habits is powerful for us all, and can only be broken by the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God, but then comes the discipline of the Christian life, which Paul explicitly links with the Passover discipline. Easter people are those who celebrate their freedom, but live carefully, on unleavened bread, putting aside hypocrisy and lies, and embracing sincerity and truth.

University missions provide signs of hope amid Anglican decline

Posted by on Mar 20, 2018 in Editorial Blog, Evangelism, Mission | Comments Off on University missions provide signs of hope amid Anglican decline

University missions provide signs of hope amid Anglican decline

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The numbers don’t look good, nationally. Surveys tell us regularly that church attendance is going down, and those who have religious faith are now in a small minority. For example, on the faithsurvey.co.uk website, 2016 figures suggest that only 28% believe in God, while 38% are convinced there is no God – the rest don’t know or have a vague belief in spiritual power but not a personal God (although many of these appear to put ‘Christian’ and even ‘C of E’ on census forms). In the past 40 years, overall church attendance has more than halved, down to 3 million, or less than 5% of the population (here’s a new campaign that seeks to address this). Following a trend of mainline church decline, Peter Brierley’s research predicts that Anglicans will make up only 21% of all churchgoers in the UK by 2022.

So are there signs of hope? It’s not all bad news for the Kingdom: by that year more than 30% of churchgoers will be Pentecostal or independent evangelical. Amid general decline, some C of E churches are holding their own, and there are pockets of growth. Again we know from research that churches with enabling leadership, a clear vision, commitment to bible-based evangelism and with good youth and children work, among other factors, are more likely to attract already committed Christians (often at the expense of smaller churches), motivate parents to pass on their faith to their children, and even see people come to faith through focused preaching or more likely, one to one friendship, and discussion courses.

Some say that numbers don’t matter; that in a context of secularism, decline is inevitable and should be managed to ensure it’s gradual, rather than a crisis of cliff-edge collapse. But many churches reject this view: they still care about the eternal spiritual destiny of the thousands in their parish and beyond who don’t know the Lord, and are taking action to share the Gospel and make disciples. In addition, they care about the material and social lives of people here and now, contributing to the common good, giving aid to the poor and seeing that a prayerful, evangelistic presence enhances the well-being of a community whether or not people are being converted.

Many churches have times of special focus on evangelism, whether running an Alpha or Christianity Explored course, evangelistic preaching for the Christmas crowds, or mission weeks – but often these don’t reach beyond the fringe, close friends of existing church members, perhaps, who have already heard the Christian message a number of times.

While the local church has always been a primary agent of evangelism, historically it’s not the only one. As the context for mission in the nation becomes more of ‘unreached people’ rather than the nominally Christian majority that the great Billy Graham rallies encountered, we have to look perhaps to the methods used by evangelists in Africa and Asia in the 19th and early 20th century. But before that, we can observe other major evangelistic initiatives, not necessarily part of a church programme, which already happens in our midst every year in February and March, connecting with previously unchurched young people. These are the missions run by university Christian Unions.

Dozens of evangelistic programmes have been held up and down the country among students over the past few weeks. Hundreds, perhaps thousands have heard the Gospel explained clearly, often for the first time, by listening to talks, reading testimonies on social media, or reading a Gospel with a friend using the ‘Uncover’ material. And people have put their faith in Jesus, started to live the Christian life, and begun to attend church. Young Christians have begun to develop spiritual gifts and leadership skills as they move from a shy, perhaps second-hand faith learned from parents and home church, to confident witnesses, having broken the ‘pain barrier’ of asking a friend to a meeting, now bold in intercession and participating in the organization of evangelistic events.

What is the impact? How many have come to faith this past ‘mission season’? It’s quite difficult to find publicly accessible reports. The UCCF site features a few blogs, and each year I hear anecdotes, but generally this seems to be an area of mission which needs more attention from sympathetic researchers. There would certainly be a lot of material to draw on, ranging from the major events run by traditionally large CU’s at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham etc, to the stories now coming out of the smaller and newer higher education centres. The initiatives themselves are often full-on and exhausting for the CU members, who when it’s finished have to catch up on their missed academic assignments, rather than collect stats and write missiological reflections. It would be very helpful for the wider church if this work of recording could be done.

History shows that UCCF student evangelism will always have its critics from outside and inside the church – ‘the theology is too conservative, the methods too didactic and pressurizing’. But there are large numbers of church leaders and committed lay people in the C of E today who trace the beginning of their journey of faith to the persistence and prayerfulness of friends at university who led them to a place where they could hear and understand the simple Gospel.

Many Christian students of today will not end up in C of E churches, but often because of what they perceive as a lack of Gospel clarity there, increasingly gravitate to new independent evangelical fellowships. The work of the Kingdom is not being harmed by such transfer, and it could also have a positive effect on mission-minded Anglicans. So it would be counter-productive for a church to try to co-opt and domesticate this movement; rather let the Spirit do his work in refreshing the church.

The Anglican Church in Nigeria was by many accounts rather staid, before its transformation in the 70’s and 80’s into a mission powerhouse, largely as a result of contact of its members with vibrant bible-based student ministry, and the Spirit-filled worship of Pentecostal churches. So it could be that in Britain too, the growth of independent churches and the indigenous mission movement that is student evangelism could provide new impetus not just for new forms of Christian church, but also for biblically faithful Anglicans both inside and outside the national church structures.

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

Posted by on Mar 13, 2018 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Evangelism, Humanism | Comments Off on Humanism, the collapse of faith and the need for new methods of apologetics

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

“I used to pray before bed, but I’ve definitely become less religious. I used to go to church every week – not any more. I hugely regret not voting for gay marriage. Faith is about love, and religion is too. I should have realized that.”

So says Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP, whose feisty character and working class roots set her apart from most of her more conventional and privately educated male colleagues, and has sometimes gained her tabloid notoriety. This quotation from an interview with Dorries in the Sunday Times magazine (March 11th) illustrates two important trends in our society. Firstly, even political conservatives have become more liberal on social issues. And secondly, this appears to be connected to decline in church attendance.

Among the governing elites in the nation, wide differences of opinion may exist on political and economic issues such as Brexit and levels of government borrowing and spending, but a liberal consensus on moral issues such as same sex marriage is such that it is extremely rare for anyone in the public eye to express a conservative view publicly (such as Jacob Rees-Mogg did last year.)

But as another Christian politician, Tim Farron, has pointed out, a liberal consensus quickly moves on to an illiberal conviction that those who don’t share the liberal view are wrong, hateful and potentially dangerous. They should be marginalized and punished, and the next generation should be educated in the politically correct view only. Many with influence, such as politicians and church leaders, have decided that given this climate, the necessity of avoiding controversy and aligning with accepted opinion means the best thing is to change one’s view, or at least not to articulate the conservative view publicly.

Has this change come about naturally, through evolution, as we grow in enlightenment compared to our forebears? Increasingly people are realizing that there has been a deliberate and revolutionary re-shaping of the culture, and the minds of the populations of the Western world, by an unholy alliance of secular left and right- wing thinking.

On one hand, the proponents of neo-Marxist ideologies believe progress towards equality and mutual prosperity is hampered by the old oppressive social order of patriarchy, heteronormativity, binary gender and the nuclear family, which can be eliminated through control of key institutions, propaganda, law change and education. On the other hand, capitalist marketers have realised that getting people to buy more stuff involves removing any brake or friction in the consumer experience. Traditional moral codes and placing a high value on personal self-control would definitely act as such a brake; while a generation increasingly ‘free’ of such ‘constraints’ will be psychologically more open to marketing messages, and so create more profit for the corporations.

 

The second insight from Dorries’ remark is that in her case at least, changing her mind about a moral issue such as same sex marriage accompanies what is portrayed as a softer, more humanistic, more tolerant approach to morality in general, and from that to faith. Previously, belief in God and his word was an absolute from which could be derived essential beliefs about morals and behaviour. When we feel uncomfortable about those absolutes, perhaps because everyone around us is saying that they are unfair, repressive, creating false guilt and so on, this causes us to question what we thought we knew about God. Maybe, we conclude, faith does not start with positing a morally pure Creator and his communication to us, but with us, our emotions and relationships of love, and what we hope for as a better world. But for Dorries and many others, if religion is about love, then church and even prayer become optional at best.

It’s not difficult to see the implications if a right-wing politician’s journey from social conservative to social liberal has led to her stop going to church and praying to God. Many millions in the West are making the same journey. What does this say then about the continued trend of mainline churches in the West, to embrace social liberalism as an evangelistic strategy?

Associating God, Jesus, the church and the bible with a ‘thou shalt not’ morality, injustice towards minorities and the preservation of inequality has made the brand of Christianity toxic, the argument goes. Embracing inclusion and a message of unconditional acceptance is a ‘missiological imperative’ to get people back into church. But in fact the opposite has happened. As the message has been received by Dorries and millions of others that religion and faith are “just love”, they don’t see the need for organized worship, the receiving of the divine word and sacrament, and a discipleship of taking up the cross. Paradoxically, the focus on a liberal interpretation of “God is love” has proved more toxic to Christian faith than the idea that God might be against same sex marriage.

 

So if trying to align the message of the Gospel with contemporary social liberalism appears to be counter-productive in terms of evangelism, what approach should the church take? Many nominal Christians who used to have a basic bible knowledge, socially conservative views and go to church sometimes, now have liberal opinions and don’t go to church at all. This has not just happened naturally, but as the result of the successful propagation of ‘other gospels’ which, like the true Gospel, offer the stick and the carrot – a vision of a perfect society, and warnings of not being included for those who don’t embrace the humanist ideology.

Given such a change, simply talking about God and Jesus to those who have imbibed the contemporary worldview will result in rejection of the message at worst, and a kind of syncretism, seeing God and Jesus as metaphors for secular views of love and justice at best. Part of the essential apologetic task of the church is to show how humanistic understandings of God, humanity, love, sex, marriage, sin, justice and so on are “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8) being forcibly imposed in our culture, and then to deconstruct them with bible, spiritual warfare and the example of sacrificial discipleship.

 

‘Voices of the Silenced’ – is it best to keep it that way, or should they be heard?

Posted by on Feb 27, 2018 in 2-Important Posts, Editorial Blog, Homosexuality, Testimonies | Comments Off on ‘Voices of the Silenced’ – is it best to keep it that way, or should they be heard?

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Attempts to suppress a documentary illustrate widespread ignorance, intolerance and injustice in Western sexual politics.

What makes a good society? Should there be ‘liberalism’ and ‘tolerance’ for any point of view, within a framework of law that protects against exploitation and violence? Or are certain viewpoints, voices, actually better kept away from the public space, because they cause harm by stirring up hatred, affecting people’s mental health, or simply being inconvenient? And then, who decides?

Some views generally held to be abhorrent and patently false, such as holocaust denial, are illegal in some countries but not in others, because in the liberal West we have usually taken the view that an opinion should not be censored, no matter how wrong or stupid, but rather should be open to debate and held up for scrutiny rather than being given the opportunity to breed in dark corners.

However today, loud, powerful lobby groups are capable of generating such public disapproval about certain viewpoints that they are effectively suppressed, even though, unlike holocaust denial, they are based on truth and beneficial for those who hold them. On 8th February a documentary film about a viewpoint deemed ‘incorrect’ was due to be shown at Vue Cinema in Piccadilly Circus. At the last minute the cinema bowed to pressure and cancelled the screening. With exquisite irony, the film was called ‘Voices of the Silenced’ (VoS) – see here for press reports on this ‘silencing’.

What are the main points of the film? Why were critics so keen to stop it being shown, rather than debating the viewpoints in a tolerant manner? And what was the result? The ‘voices’ that VoS allows to speak are men and women who have been involved in homosexual relationships and in some cases have identified as part of a gay or transgender community and lifestyle, who for various reasons became dissatisfied with that, sought help in the form of different types of counselling, and stopped their compulsive behaviour. In some cases, they found that heterosexual feelings developed even to the point of getting married and having children.

The immediate objection to this, which led to the cancellation of the film’s screening, is that it’s promoting the idea of ‘gay cure’, linking it to the dark days of compulsory electric shock aversion therapy in the 1950’s. Critics say “what’s wrong with being gay – why are you trying to change people from gay to straight?”, completely ignoring that the voices are from people feeling oppressed and wanting to change, and those willing to attend to them (often at great personal cost), not from any powerful group imposing their view and solution on others. The point is made in the film that change is not guaranteed, and seeking it should be entirely voluntary, but help should be available and not suppressed.

Another common objection attempts to use science: “hasn’t it been proven that some people are born gay? Won’t trying to change them cause harm?” So the documentary features a second group of voices: researchers who have analysed the debates around the science of sexual orientation, and the rapid evolution of scientific opinion on the subject. They show that medical opinion is now firmly on the side of sexual desire being influenced by postnatal factors and ‘fluid’, ie with potential for change, rather than genetically determined or fixed. The speakers in the film conclude that guidelines issued against therapy for unwanted same sex attraction by such august bodies as the Royal College of Psychiatry and the British Medical Association, laws enacted in States in the US or motions passed in Church Synods, have too often been guided not by science, but by ideology mediated by cultural pressure coming from lobby groups, illustrating the power of sexual politics, or politicization of sex, in the West.

The third group of voices in the documentary come from the ancient world. Presenter Mike Davidson from Core Issues Trust invites viewers to imagine the worldview of Jewish slaves, taken to Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem in ad70 and forced to build the Coliseum, or of Christians in Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius. The first century AD saw a clash between Roman and Judaeo-Christian sexual ethics: the powerful but immoral and violent civilization of Rome on one hand, Judaism and the new religion of Christianity which was emerging from it on the other. Those in control demanded conformity to their values, and there was huge pressure on Christians to compromise. But despite their voices being silenced in the early days, it was Judaeo-Christian ethics which were on the ‘right side of history’, and eventually became the foundation of our understanding of marriage, family, law and human rights which are again under threat today, as one of the voices of the documentary, Bishop Michael Nazir Ali explains.

The documentary shuffles repeatedly between these three themes of personal testimony of seeking and finding ways to change unwanted thoughts and behaviour, analysis of scientific and cultural bias trying to prevent this testimony from being heard, and finding parallels with the ancient world. Some might find this confusing, but for me it’s effective in helping to communicate the three strands in layers of short clips, rather than getting bogged down in overlong explanations.

As is often the case, the voices of individuals calmly, convincingly and bravely sharing stories of changed lives are compelling, although for English-speaking viewers, testimonies in a foreign language with subtitles might strain attention spans. The visuals of sites in Rome and Pompeii, and the narrative making the parallel of clash of values in ancient and contemporary cultures, is effective in breaking up what would otherwise be a documentary consisting only of talking heads. Is the content convincing? The historical angle certainly adds weight to the idea of a minority being persecuted and silenced for their faith-based sexual ethics.

The film was due to be shown to a few dozen people at Vue. Because of the cancellation and subsequent media interest, thousands of people were alerted to the documentary, the work of Core Issues Trust, and the idea that for some at least, being ‘gay’ might not be a destiny that must be embraced, but a choice that can be refused. But perhaps this is about more than allowing a minority some freedom of choice in thought and behaviour – it’s a courageous challenge to an entire ideology of sex which dominates our culture but because of the lies on which it’s based, has to use increasingly oppressive methods to enforce conformity. Voices of the Silenced is not for entertainment, but is compellingly watchable, and deserves a wide audience.

See here for clips of the film

here for the website

Northern Ireland: The first part of the documentary Voices of the Silenced was also denied a viewing at Queens Film Theatre in the Belfast but a screening will go ahead at Ballynahinch Baptist Church on Tuesday 13th March at 7.30.

The ‘merger’ of three Anglican evangelical groups in England: some questions

Posted by on Feb 21, 2018 in 2-Important Posts, Church of England, Editorial Blog, Gafcon | Comments Off on The ‘merger’ of three Anglican evangelical groups in England: some questions

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

After a long period of discussion and, I’m certain, lots of prayer, three organizations which have had overlapping membership, leadership and aims have agreed to merge, or in reality Reform and Fellowship of Word and Spirit will cease to exist, and a new, beefed-up Church Society will be created.

Church Society has a long history dating back to the mid-19th century and itself is the result of previous mergers of voluntary Societies within the Church of England. Its focus has always been on preserving reformed, bible-based evangelical ministry within local parishes, and in doing so, maintaining the presence of this theological position in the C of E as a whole. It’s probably fair to say that in the past, Church Society sometimes has had an image of being fairly staid, old-fashioned and lacking in wider influence – this has certainly been changed by the dynamism of the current leader Lee Gatiss.

Meanwhile Reform and FWS were created more recently to reflect a less ‘churchy’ style and different strategic agenda. Reform in particular brought together conservative evangelicals in the 1990’s to campaign against theological liberalism in the C of E (rather than anglo-catholicism, the previous focus of Church Society’s opposition), to be involved in the ecclesiastical politics of Synod, and to be more creative in promoting mission.

So given that Church Society has significantly modernized under Gatiss’ leadership, and one of the key battles for Reform, namely the introduction of women Bishops, is now over with a significant concession in the form of the official C of E commitment to valuing conservative evangelical ministry through the ‘Five Guiding Principles’ and the concept of ‘mutual flourishing’, in the eyes of many it seems sensible for the organizations to merge. They now become, in effect, a Society for conservative evangelicals, similar to that offered to Anglo-Catholics, with their own Bishop, Rod Thomas; and the prospect of more in future.

Gatiss’ statement on the merger can be found here. No doubt more will be said on behalf of the new organization; much is being said on social media. For the moment I would like to offer some comments and questions in a hopefully friendly spirit.

How big is this news?

Lee Gatiss says of the merger: This is the biggest thing to happen in the Anglican Evangelical world here for 25 years.” He has at a stroke given an enormous boost to the organization he runs, and it will shortly be unrecognizable from the struggling institution he took over, so one can make allowances for a certain amount of hyperbole! But I’m sure many people, for example some of those theologically orthodox evangelical Anglicans in England who aren’t members of CS or Reform, who might take issue with him and put forward other ‘big things’ which have happened. One hopes that this overstatement doesn’t build up expectations on which the leaders can’t deliver in future.

Do different views on strategy threaten evangelical unity?

Lee also sees the new merger as a bulwark against ‘fragmentation and dispersal’. This seems to be a reference to the confusing proliferation of overlapping networks and organizations, often reflecting different views that evangelicals have on various issues. Of course unity is good, and so is leadership with clear vision. But some readers may detect here a slight danger of appearing to say that anyone who agrees with the theology of Church Society, but sees a different way forward with regard to the state of the Church of England and the various kinds of ‘differentiation’ that are being proposed and enacted in response to the trajectory of theological liberalism, is somehow guilty of ungodly division.

So it would be good to know what will be the approach of the new organization to working with other evangelicals who share the same understanding of the Gospel and the authority of Scripture, but who might differ on other secondary issues? For example, the Church of England Evangelical Council (of which Reform, FWS and Church Society are members) has recently produced a document robustly re-stating the historic biblical position on sexual ethics, saying that some kind of separation from the Church of England structures will be inevitable if changes to church teaching are enacted. In a previous CEEC document, ‘Guarding the Deposit’, a clear warning was given about the limitations of a Society operating under the auspices of the C of E to guarantee the long term future of evangelical belief and practice within the denomination. Is this kind of thinking to be viewed as damaging to evangelical unity? It would be better if the different perspectives could be discussed from a position of recognizing that unity already exists, rather than seeing diversity of opinion on strategy as a threat to fundamental unity.

How to contend for the faith?

There are also a number of references in the Press Release to ‘contending for the faith’; mentioned by Lee and in quotes from representatives from Reform and FWS. Again, many will be fully supportive of the need to challenge false ideas, and bring congregations and hopefully more of the governance of the Church as a whole under the direction of God’s word. But there needs to be further explanation on what kind of ‘contending’ will be envisaged? Is it just a familiar phrase designed to ‘rally the troops’, while in fact Church Society plans to operate very diplomatically and in peace with the C of E structures? Or are they really planning to kick up a fuss about revisionist theology, heretical Bishops and so on? By committing fully and unconditionally to remaining in the Church of England, have they perhaps given away a key bargaining chip in contending for orthodox Anglicanism in England?

What about Gafcon?

Then there is the absence of any mention of relationship with orthodox Anglicans in the global Communion. It could be argued that the development of Gafcon is in fact the ‘biggest thing’ to happen to the church in recent years! This is because, perhaps, the presence of a united, biblically faithful group of Primates around the world who have already demonstrated their willingness to act against heterodoxy in the US, has been the main factor in preventing more rapid moves towards revisionism in the C of E. Though ‘contending’ by English Anglican evangelical groups such as Reform has been strong and clear at times, Gafcon’s influence has been more significant.

The Gafcon leadership have repeatedly expressed concern about the state of the Church of England. They accept that there are many theologically conservative folk remaining in the C of E and carrying out gospel ministry through its structures, and want to support them. But because of the secularization in the culture and the general theological slide in the Western church as a whole, they have acted to consecrate a missionary Bishop to provide oversight for some British Anglicans outside the official structures now, and in preparation for what may be needed in the future. It is not inconceivable that at some stage in the near future, Gafcon Primates could declare themselves in impaired communion with the mother Church. Again, where would this leave members of an evangelical society within that church who have not given themselves flexibility in terms of future strategy?

Meanwhile, membership of Gafcon, enjoying fellowship with the multicultural global mission movement based around shared understanding of faith as expressed in the Jerusalem Declaration, does not require signing up to any particular ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ strategy. I hope that the new Church Society will not see a contradiction between commitment to operating within the Church of England for the moment, while at the same time being part of Gafcon, and supporting other expressions of Anglicanism outside the C of E such as the Anglican Mission in England and Free Church of England.

Read also:  Why should Reform spell disunity? by Julian Mann, VOL

Securing a future or stockpiling whitewash? By Peter Sanlon, Anglican Mainstream

Anglican Unscripted: Ashenden and Kallsen comment

 

 

Reflection for Lent: Resisting temptation and the cosmic struggle against evil

Posted by on Feb 13, 2018 in Editorial Blog, Lent, Theology | Comments Off on Reflection for Lent: Resisting temptation and the cosmic struggle against evil

Reflection for Lent: Resisting temptation and the cosmic struggle against evil

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

During Lent, we’re reminded of how Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. This was God’s way of ensuring that Jesus’ humanity was mastered, working in perfect harmony with his divinity; that he was prepared for the ministry where popularity would tempt him to pride, and humiliation to despair. Jesus resisted the devil’s schemes, and so later was able to remain humble amid the adulation; hopeful and trusting in God’s sovereignty as he was being crushed.

Jesus went without food; faced and conquered head on the desires for power and prosperity natural to his human nature, so that he would be able, when the time came, to go to the cross and take the sins of the world on himself. He went through temptation in the desert, so that he could later endure torture and death. He did it for us, so that our salvation does not depend on how well we pass our tests, but on the grace that he demonstrated to us.

The Bible does not try to cover up how difficult this was for Jesus. He is not portrayed as detached and otherworldly, as if somehow because of “the joy set before him” he was oblivious to pain. His disciples saw his physical and psychological agony. He succeeded, knowing what he was doing, with immense courage and constant trust in God – in contrast to the disciples themselves, who are portrayed as seeking after human power, failing to grasp God’s plan, cowardly and fearful. Their salvation could only be by faith, not by their own efforts. And yet throughout his ministry Jesus taught that as his followers, they too would be tested and tempted, and that through their practice in resisting temptation, putting self to death and Jesus and his Kingdom first, the church would grow and spread.

So Lent calls us first to look at Christ, how he took on satan at great personal cost and won; how he prepared for his unique sin-bearing role which alone could bring us forgiveness and peace with God. The Gospel is primarily about us looking at his victory and sharing in it. But then, this season also focuses on the next stage of discipleship: to look at ourselves, to imitate Christ in our own battles with temptation to sin. The church has often struggled to maintain this balance, either emphasising our effort and turning faith into a daily grind or self-help philosophy, or so emphasising God’s grace and love that our need to resist temptation, live holy lives and be counter-cultural is lost.

 

There is a powerful illustration for the necessity of resisting temptation in the Lord of the Rings. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the films (I met someone in this category the other day), it can be summarised like this – Frodo Baggins has to destroy an extremely dangerous and powerful ring with a little help from his friends. (That’s inadequate, a bit like summarizing the story of Pride and Prejudice as “girl finds a husband”, or the Die Hard movies as “tough guy gets his vest dirty”, but it will have to do).

Frodo is an ordinary ‘Hobbit’, a harmless, insignificant creature wanting to live a quiet life. In a scene near the beginning of the first film, the ring comes into his possession, which means that his life is changed forever. He is aware of a new cosmic reality, of forces of evil which will take over if he does nothing. When he and his companions know what the ring is, he must destroy it, and there is a constant temptation to misuse it, and so part of what they have to do is to remain focussed, to constantly choose good and reject evil. If Frodo refuses to go on the journey to destroy the ring, or if he yields to its power, then its not just him that will die, but the whole world he loves.

Frodo’s immediate response is to offer the ring to Gandalf, the wise wizard, who responds “don’t tempt me” in a way reminiscent of Jesus refusing Peter’s suggestion that he does not need to go to the cross. But for both Frodo and Gandalf, for the ordinary person and the eminent influential figure, the call is to deny self and put to death the thing that seems to offer freedom and comfort, but in fact calls them to the service of evil.

In the same way, before someone becomes a Christian, they see their desires, and fulfilling or not fulfilling them, simply as part of being a human being. But once someone has understood that God is real; that Jesus really is alive; that the devil is trying to derail our lives and wreck the world, life totally changes. The choice facing every person, whether low or high in status, to go God’s way or my own, has implications in the spiritual realm not just for the eternal destiny of the individual, but much wider. So resisting temptation is not being a killjoy, or denying a valid part of your humanity as some may say – it is a statement that you are taking part in the cosmic struggle against evil.

In Romans 8:5-7, Paul speaks of two types of person: those who live according to their sinful nature, and those who live according to the Spirit. Temptation is the desire to indulge the sinful nature inside us. The verses following tell us a bit more about what it means to be controlled by our sinful nature – it is “death”, an absence of true life; it shows a mind hostile to God and refusing, even unable to obey his laws.

But there are crucial aspects of the Christian faith which aren’t reflected in the Rings story: the cross of Christ, and the giving of the Holy Spirit. In the Lord of the Rings, destroying the ring, a symbol for the sinful nature, is up to Frodo and his friends. At the end, when he’s on his own, there’s nothing to sustain him but his own courage and inner strength. If he fails, then all is lost.

In Romans 8:3-4 Paul makes three extraordinary statements that tell us something different about our struggle. First, “the law was powerless” meaning that knowing what’s right and wrong is not enough to stop us giving in to temptation, or to prevent the global advance of evil. But second, God’s Son died in my place as a sin offering, so that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us”. This is justification: God declaring us acceptable to him despite our failure, because of Jesus’ success, rather than because of our success in resisting temptation. And then thirdly, he makes it possible for us to live in a new way: “according to the Spirit” rather than constantly being dragged down by sinful nature.

This is expanded in vv12-13. Like Frodo, we have an obligation to go on a journey to destroy the precious thing which leads to sin – otherwise the result is death. But unlike Frodo, we are walking with One who has already done it for us, and we can can claim the help of the Spirit of God himself as we turn away from evil and live for Christ.

Evangelicals, ‘differentiation’ and the global Church

Posted by on Feb 8, 2018 in 2-Important Posts, Doctrine, Editorial Blog, Evangelism, Gafcon | Comments Off on Evangelicals, ‘differentiation’ and the global Church

by Andrew Symes, Church of England Newspaper:

A document entitled ‘Gospel, Church and Marriage: Preserving Apostolic Faith and Life’ (or ‘AFL’) has recently been published and circulated within evangelical networks. Although the authorship of AFL is anonymous, it has been endorsed by the Church of England Evangelical Council which met in early January. It is significant because CEEC isn’t a homogenous body – it’s a loose coalition of evangelical groups who have different views on issues such as women’s ordination, charismatic gifts and mission strategy. But there is agreement on the essentials of the Gospel, and the authority, trustworthiness and clarity of Scripture as it speaks to the contemporary debate.

AFL is eirenic in tone; it sets out clearly the historic approach of the Christian Church to issues of sexuality and marriage, and concludes that were the Church of England to adopt different teaching and practice, this would be regarded as “a departure from the apostolic faith”. Such a departure would inevitably lead to “acts of differentiation” by those concerned to preserve biblical faithfulness.

While the reaction of some will be to accuse those endorsing the document as threatening disunity and schism, AFL’s conclusion points out that divisions and differences already exist. There are those in the Church of England who agree with the biblical vision for humanity living under God’s rule, as expressed in AFL; they want to preserve this apostolic faith as currently expressed in the Church’s formularies, prayers and policies. But there are others who are not prepared to promote and defend the Church’s teaching, and an increasing number who are determined to change the external liturgical and canonical expressions in line with a different vision, which they already believe and practice.

The CEEC document does not express an opinion on how far the C of E has already gone informally in bringing about this change, in terms of the statements of its leaders and in accepted practice on the ground. Nor does it spell out what forms ‘visible differentiation’ might take. But a previous document, called ‘Guarding the Deposit’ (GTD) and released in October 2016, did give some pointers in terms of options for faithful Anglicans who feel increasingly alienated by a Church which appears to be embracing ideologies at odds with the historic deposit of apostolic faith, and who need something more robust than the familiar “live and let live” approach of Anglican evangelicals in their networks in recent decades.

So for those who believe that ‘visible differentiation’ may be necessary to preserve authentic Gospel witness in the Church of England, what are the options? Models outlined in GTD include the negotiation of various forms of delegated Episcopal oversight on a non-geographical basis, or even a Third Province. These would be formal structures to give a safe space to parishes wishing to remain biblically orthodox on issues of sexuality and perhaps other matters, within a Church increasingly aligned with the views of secular society. But another model mentioned in GTD, though not developed, involves realignment with Anglicans outside the Church of England who publicly and unambiguously stand for the apostolic vision.

Various levels of informal differentiation already exist in the Church of England between individuals and churches who do not share the same vision of Christian faith, and yet also remarkable unity between those from different networks and emphases who agree on the fundamentals. The same is true on the global level. As the fabric of the Anglican Communion has been torn by constituent Provinces in the West adopting doctrinal and ethical innovations, making claims of ‘walking together’ sound increasingly hollow, so the emergence of Gafcon and its alliance with the Global South movement has provided a focus for unity around shared understanding and confession of faith.

As was stated in a presentation at the recent CEEC meeting, Gafcon offers a vision of global orthodox Anglicanism where participants from around the world can meet in fellowship; mutual learning and support, and mission, without being hampered by serious disagreement on primary issues of doctrine. The movement provides an authoritative prophetic voice: Primatially-led, warning about destructive powers and ideologies in culture; and calling the Church back to God and his word.

Many now see Gafcon as a means of support for the ‘concerned and increasingly differentiated’ Church of England clergy and parishes. Membership of Gafcon, and attendance at the major gathering in Jerusalem in June, does not mean commitment to a particular model of differentiation. Meanwhile the new Gafcon missionary Bishop now offers Episcopal oversight for new expressions of orthodox Anglicans outside official structures, such as Anglican Mission in England; this comes under the remit of Gafcon UK’s wider work. Those who agree with CEEC’s recent document will find this work increasingly attractive in preserving and promoting the Anglican version of apostolic faith and life in our nation.

See also:

Three cheers for the CEEC statement on marriage and sex, by David Baker, Christian Today

Evangelical Anglicans warn they might walk away if C of E departs from ‘apostolic truth’, by Mark Woods, Christian Today

Gafcon Chairman’s February 2018 letter

 

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

Posted by on Feb 6, 2018 in Church of England, Editorial Blog, Liturgy, Transgender | Comments Off on Synod debates about liturgy open up bigger questions of truth and religious freedom

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

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

If the Church of England approves prayers to celebrate and affirm gender transition and / or same sex relationships, does it matter? Some would say it doesn’t, as long as individual parishes are not compelled to use such prayers. Some churches long ago stopped using most formal liturgies anyway, so perhaps the question is irrelevant. But others would say such prayers are very important. For the LGBT activist, specific prayers are necessary to publicly validate identity and experience in the setting of the church; “to actually name us and our reality”, as Christina Beardsley says about ‘trans’ people.

Theologian Martin Davie agrees with the LGBT activists about the importance of officially sanctioned liturgies in the C of E and how they express truth: what we all believe. In his recent essay he revisits the theme of ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’, meaning that what the church believes and what it prays must be aligned. Davie points out that unlike some other Protestant denominations, Anglicanism defines its system of belief not just on a statement (the Thirty Nine Articles), but also a series of prayers and rubrics (the BCP and the Ordinal). But of course Davie argues strongly against the adoption of the proposed new liturgies, precisely because they would imply that the church believes something different to what it has always believed. While some may claim that such prayers in church would only be a minor local expression of pastoral care for individuals, in fact LGBT activists know very well that they would be a symbol of a radical change in how the church understands itself and reality.

The Anglican formularies are derived from an accepted understanding of Christian faith based on Scripture, and prayers that we say reflect that. It’s not the case, as some have claimed, that prayers develop according to our evolving experience and understanding of God, and then we get our theology from these prayers (Davie cites the Anglican Church of Canada as having embraced this erroneous idea). Rather, Article 20 is quite clear:

‘The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies, and authority in controversies of faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s word written.’

In other words, Scripture comes before liturgy and controls its content. Considering the question of prayers of affirmation for same sex couples, Davie concludes that the only way this could be done with integrity is if the C of E repudiates all its existing teaching on sex and marriage in the Canons and Prayer Books, and says it no longer believes in the teaching of Scripture as historically understood. As it wouldn’t do this, what we would have is incoherence, where the church officially contradicts itself, for example by allowing prayers that celebrate same sex unions as the ‘Hereford Motion’ urges, while not contradicting the theology of the BCP marriage service.

But what about liturgies for gender transition? Davie is not impressed by the Episcopal sleight of hand, by which they did not recommend a new liturgy but have given permission for clergy to use an existing reaffirmation of baptismal vows service.

Regardless of the wording, the Bishops have in fact declared it is “an acceptable part of Christian discipleship for someone with male biology to identify themselves as female and vice versa”(Davie). While the Church has not sufficiently grappled with the recent phenomenon of transgender, and hasn’t produced any teaching which the new services may or may not align with, what is clear is that a biblical theology of creation and the nature of humanity is contradicted by the Bishops’ guidance. Prayers which celebrate someone’s ‘gender transition’ are not just a local expression of love and welcome for an individual – they articulate a new, non-Christian understanding of reality which is why the LGBT activists were so keen for the Bishops to go even further.

There is a contradiction at the heart of the new rhetoric of gender which is illogical, but also compelling. On one hand, we are told (for example in Beardsley’s article, and in the ‘Radical Inclusion’ speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury last February) that there is no ideology or agenda, just individuals with a profound personal conviction about their identity, who need to be welcomed with love and not shunned by the church. On the other hand, we are all expected simply to accept that a ‘trans person’ is not just identifying as a gender different from his/her biological sex, but that he/she is different on a profound ontological level. A ‘trans’ person according to this account, does not just feel ‘trapped in the wrong body’; rather he/she is a variant kind of human being, has been created as such, and has come to discover this previously hidden truth about gender and personhood which we all need to discover.

This is certainly an ideology. As Ryan Anderson explains, this is “a metaphysical claim”. It is in fact a religious claim, a manifestation of a faith. And it seems that the leadership of the Church of England are determined to avoid the necessary theological analysis of this faith. In accepting the concept of ‘trans children’ in the anti-bullying guidance issued to schools last November, and in speaking in official Synodical documents about ‘trans’ people’s journey to find their true identity somehow being equivalent to the Christian journey, the Bishops have gone further than advocating compassion for people with gender dysphoria – they have accepted aspects of the new Gnostic faith of gender fluidity, incorporated it uncritically into their understanding of Christian faith, and expected all Anglicans to simply go along with it.

But what about the responses with which we began this exploration – those who don’t use liturgy anyway, and those who think new liturgies don’t matter as long as they’re not compulsory?

Firstly, all churches use liturgy, and perhaps the most easily recognizable is the informal type used by worship leaders in charismatic churches. I’m not criticizing that style of worship at all – I’ve participated in it myself as a musician and worship leader. But the words used between songs to encourage devotion and worship, and the songs themselves, often develop a form that is repeated week by week. To what theology is it tethered? That’s another long discussion, but the point is that what a church believes is shown in its liturgy, formal and written or informal and spoken/sung, for good or ill. You can’t avoid lex orandi lex credendi just because you don’t use the Prayer Book.

Secondly, because the debate about LGBT liturgies is not just about compassion for individuals but about the nature of the Gospel, truth and justice for all, for many activists, once the Church has agreed to such liturgies, they and the worldview they illustrate should be mandatory. Jayne Ozanne argues that in the secular world, once “equality” laws have been passed, there should be no exemptions, for example for Christian bakers who object to icing a message on a cake supporting same sex marriage. Presumably she and others who think the same way would also insist that the same principle of “just love” (her phrase) should apply in the Church of England – that once Synod has approved services blessing a gay couple, or someone’s new gender identity, those prayers reflect what we now believe about reality, and the principle of “just love” should make this compulsory across the board.

What appeared at first to be a minor issue of pastoral provision for a small minority of individuals has quickly become first a theological crisis in the church, then a threat to religious freedom. Do enough faithful leaders in the church understand this, and can they turn the situation around?

Understanding more about Israel

Posted by on Jan 30, 2018 in Christianity, Editorial Blog, Israel, Judaism | Comments Off on Understanding more about Israel

Understanding more about Israel

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

I can still remember the lecture when I was at theological college more than 25 years ago. I had never bothered to get to grips with Romans 9-11 before that: the chapters where Paul addresses the question of God’s plan for the Jewish people and the nation of Israel. I had always assumed that, now that Christ had come, Judaism was just the same as any other non-Christian religion. Salvation was not by race but by grace. And anyway I was preparing for a ministry of grassroots community development and theological education in Africa, so for me, what the Bible has to say about Jews was irrelevant.

But now here was this lecturer asking us: how many of you have heard the first part of Romans 1:16 expounded in a sermon – I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. We all put our hands up. But what about the second part: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile? Most of us confessed that this aspect, picked up again in chapters 9-11, had been missing up to that point in the teaching we had received. It was eye-opening, and forced me to wrestle with Paul’s theology of the chosen people, culminating in the conclusion: all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26).

Since that time the question of Israel and the Jewish people has been on the back burner of my mind, sometimes coming to the fore theologically (does God still have a special relationship with Jewish people, and how is this relevant to global mission?), and politically, when we see a news item on tensions and suffering in the West Bank and Gaza, or anti-Semitism in political parties and on university campuses in the US and Europe.

So when I was invited to join a small group of clergy on a special tour of the Holy Land, I realized this would be an opportunity to learn more; perhaps to clarify my thinking but also to see first hand some of the complexities.

Knowing the history when visiting a site is always fascinating, anywhere in the world. But there is something extraordinary about being at Joppa, the place where Peter had his vision of the unclean animals in Acts 10, or at Shiloh where the tabernacle was set up in the time of Judges. Or being told “that is the mountain where Abraham and Lot parted company”; “over there the Crusaders were finally defeated by Saladin”.

Likewise, one can read books and watch news items about Israel and Palestine, but we had the privilege of meeting people and hearing their stories: articulate, passionate and resourceful women and men from Jewish settler communities in the West Bank (illegal? Or essential? Certainly contentious); Palestinian political leaders angry at what they saw as an unjust and oppressive ‘apartheid’ system; a British diplomat, an Israeli Professor of international relations, a check-point manager, a Jewish survivor from 1940’s Vichy France. Palestinian Christians with different views; one working for political liberation, one running a centre for evangelism and community development, and an Aramaic speaker determined to preserve this small community and its churches of ancient heritage.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the trip is to focus on four themes or areas in which my understanding increased and my feelings were touched, rather than making a chronological list of places visited and voices heard.

Jesus

Like many English Protestants visiting the Holy Land for the first time, I’m disappointed at the way massive church buildings cover the supposed places of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection and other key moments of his ministry. While this is a way of showing devotion and of witnessing to the reality and Lordship of Christ in some traditions, when I read the Gospels I have a strong sense that the message is “he isn’t here, he is risen!” Hasn’t the desire for possession of the geographical space where Jesus’s physical body touched led to vast and unnecessary expense on stone and silver and gold, and the awful stain of the Crusades?

True, Christ is known and worshipped in spirit and in truth, not by prayer in a consecrated building or on a mountain in Samaria. Unlike some, I can’t say I felt that being in a certain location made me closer to Jesus. And yet it was certainly awe-inspiring to see the Synagogue in Magdala, to have Communion on the Mount where Jesus taught; to take a boat trip on the magnificent (though increasingly depleted) Sea of Galilee; then in Jerusalem to read again the account of the healing of the lame man by the pool of Bethesda while actually being there.

Jerusalem

While on the plane I finished the magisterial account of the city by historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore. Seeing and walking around the old city itself, and then looking at the huge scale model of the second temple period, at the Israel Museum, helped to complete the picture for me. The scale of the Temple Mount in particular is astonishing – no wonder the disciples said to Jesus “look at these stones”. Overall, as archaeology uncovers parts of the city of Jesus’ time and before, the city reveals its history of prosperity, decline and conquest, over and over again, so the stones show mind-boggling amounts of investment of money and human labour, to build and to pull down.

Of course Jerusalem is also a visual symbol of human fascination with the numinous; held by Muslims and Jews to be the place where God is most present, and where the final judgement will begin (a view also held by many Christians). And so it is a place of conflict, bearing witness to centuries of struggle over control and ownership; a place where empires have clashed from the time of Assyria and Egypt to Britain and France.

Jewish people

And the city is the focus of devotion and identity, both in Israel and the diaspora, for this remarkable race. The talent, innovative skill and determination to make the country work is evident visibly in the fertile productivity of the farms in a dry land, the cutting edge medicine and IT, and the enthusiasm of the tour guides. I was particularly struck by the strong sense of shared identity which transcends the different nationalities that make up the Israeli people, which comes from centuries of history, ritual and of course terrible suffering (as the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Centre reminded us). Family is central – we had the privilege of being hosted for a Shabbat meal – and there is belief in the future despite the chaotic arguments of Israeli politics. While many modern Israelis do not believe in the God of the Bible, they all understand the significance and power of the story that has shaped them. What a contrast with so many young people in Britain: rootless, ignorant of the nation’s Christian heritage or their family history. To quote the title of a popular TV programme: “who do you think you are?” – the Jews know, but the majority of Western Gentiles do not.

Judgement

But where does this leave us in terms of forming an opinion? I think I have stayed where I was before I went. Politically, I celebrate the success of the nation of Israel but see the need to pray for the leaders as they navigate the balance of maintaining their own security and prosperity, with peace with and justice for the Palestinian people. In terms of Paul’s vision in Romans for a great movement towards Christ among Jews in the last days: humanly speaking, the Israel project and the strong religious and cultural heritage seem to be a blockage to that, but God fulfils his promises… I don’t accept, like some Christian Zionists, that full Jewish ownership of Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the temple and military victories, not faith in Jesus, is the key to the salvation of the Jewish people and the establishment of Christ’s reign. But nor do believe in a replacement theology which denies that the Gospel is “first for the Jew”, and which sees the church as making Israel irrelevant.

In the end, there’s a space left for not having sorted everything out in our hearts and minds, and it’s good that while fulfilling our responsibilities of love and prayer, we can leave the judgements to God.

[Many thanks to the Anglo Israel Association for making this trip possible.]