Learning from the parable of Tim Farron 

Jun 20, 2017 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The Church often seems keen to skate over or even deny what it really believes, in an effort to be taken seriously. Do we have something to learn from recent political events?

Tim Farron, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has been seen by most people as a decent chap, intelligent, compassionate, giving a difficult job his best shot. During the election campaign, he wanted to talk about politics,  and to suggest distinctive new approaches to government. But he was constantly dogged by attacks on his Christian faith. Journalists had dug up comments he had made years earlier, and kept pressing him on these issues, not satisfied when he tried to turn the criticisms aside by referring to his voting record in the Commons and his proven commitment to liberalism generally. He denied that being gay is a sin, and tried to turn the conversation away from his theological views; when pressed more specifically on whether gay sex and abortion is sinful he finally was forced to say “no”.

Whether he lied about his real convictions for the sake of his career, or whether he had genuinely changed his mind, it has not been enough; we learned a week after the election that he had stood down as leader of his Party. The reason he gave was that it was not possible to be faithful to Christ and hold that particular public office.

Did Farron have a guilty conscience that he had lied about his beliefs on sexual ethics, and repented? Or perhaps it broader than that – no matter how much he tried to appease the secular humanist liberals in his party, it would never be enough – they just didn’t like his Christian faith.

There has been a lot of comment on this story, and what it means for Christians in public life, especially Christians who take their faith seriously like Tim Farron. But this issue also serves as a parable for the Church and its mission. Many church leaders have taken the view, like the former LibDem leader, that if only we can get Christians talking about positive things which will resonate with he public, and simply not answer controversial questions about sex, or even about theology (eg why does God allow tragedies to happen?), our mission will succeed. But just as with Tim Farron, society isn’t satisfied, knows that there must be something distinctive about Christians, and keeps pressing us on what we really believe. So the church leaders begin to do what Tim Farron did when pressed – they deny central tenets of their faith as a way, they think, of focusing more on what they have in common with people of goodwill in society who are not Christians.  Although the triune God is sovereign and not elected, the church somehow thinks that like a politician it is in a popularity contest.

So this year we have seen an Archepiscopal call for ‘radical inclusion’ in the C of E. The otherwise commendable Thy Kingdom Come campaign is promoted by the leader of an Anglican Province (TEC) which has torn the fabric of the Communion with its arrogant and cavalier disregard for Christian orthodoxy.  The decision by the Scottish Episcopal Church to change its canons on marriage is, we’re told by our leaders, “a matter for Scotland”, while Gafcon’s decision to send a missionary Bishop to care for faithful Episcopalians there is strongly criticised. General Synod next month will be asked to provide liturgies to mark gender transition, and to distance itself from ministries which help people live according to the teaching of the bible and the church in the area of sexuality.  The evidence is strong that the Church of England leadership, under pressure from a hostile culture, is saying, first, that there is ‘plural truth’ on these issues, and then, when pressed, that they no longer want to apply the word ‘sin’ to certain sexual behaviours.

But if we heed the parable of Tim Farron, we know the outcome of this approach. First, the world says “why be a Christian then? You’re just the same as us”. This could partly explain the continued decline in numbers attending church. Why bother, if being a Christian is just the same as being, well, a Liberal Democrat? In the end, though, after giving up our distinctiveness and integrity, we find that they still don’t like us. After all that, they just “don’t do God”.

It may be true that the sort of Christian in public life who is not too enthusiastic about personal faith, not too into the Bible and evangelism, “moderate C of E” in the eyes of the opinion formers, does not have such a hard time from the media as a born-again non-conformist like Tim Farron. But in the eyes of an influential section of society, anyone who believes in the “sky fairy”, and who admits to praying to him, is suspect – hence the continued call to remove even the most liberal Bishops from the House of Lords, and abolish even those faith schools which have moved away from any kind of confessional ethos.

Now that Tim Farron has movingly and publicly stated that he is putting discipleship of Jesus first, there is a final reminder for us: Christians should be true to what the Bible believes and what Christ commands, and not try to water these things down to try to be more popular. Otherwise, first we will be telling lies about God and his word, and second it won’t work – rather than help our mission it will make no difference to it, because people have already decided that we are irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst.

This is not a call to be obnoxious, but to be faithful. Many have interpreted the parable of Tim Farron as being about individual Christians in public roles, but it is just as much about the Church’s position in society, and the message and method of church leaders among their own members. While there is no guarantee that those who are disliked, even persecuted for holding to the truth will see  church growth, the bible and mission history shows that there will certainly be blessing, and probably growth, because this is how God normally works.

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