Oxford Faith Debate: Tragic Drama at St Mary’s

Nov 22, 2014 by

by Andrew Symes


The title for the debate on 20 November at St Mary’s Church, part of a series of five, was “Diversity: what kind of unity is appropriate…; how can diversity become a strength?”


A brief look at the panel shows some diversity: a revisionist Bishop, Archbishop Justin’s right hand man, a woman theologian and an African Bishop,  joined by a spokesman from a conservative grouping. But in practice the idea of diversity was undermined by bias: taken together with the other four debates in the series, and including the “provocateurs” who are primed to speak from the audience, mine was one of only two or three genuinely orthodox voices in an overwhelmingly revisionist line up for the series. Also, the debate was preceded by a Press Release from organizer Linda Woodhead which was highly critical of male evangelical clergy.


I had been advised by some not to take part because of this. But I thought it would be an interesting experience, with free dinner at Christ Church College afterwards. How did the debate itself go? A quick look at the Twitter feed gives some of the highlights.


At the time, I was trying to concentrate on listening to what people were saying, framing answers as carefully as possible when my turn came. But having had time to reflect, I can imagine a bit what it must have been like for a dispassionate observer. Perhaps like a Greek tragedy, where the protagonists make their speeches as the city is facing inexorable doom. They all say variations on “love, inclusion, diversity, peace. Seeing Jesus in the ‘other’. Hope, goodness, friendship, community.” Except for one, who says that there is a problem based on different understanding of what is true and false, right and wrong, God and other gods, the bible and human understandings; that we need to face up to our differences. (My own brief presentation is attached below.)


Then other characters speak, and a theme develops: that ideas and expecially doctrines don’t matter – its all about people, relationships, and feelings. As the microphone is passed to the audience, speakers coalesce together like a chorus, with a repeated refrain “My outrage and anger! My sense of injury and exclusion! Patriarchy! Homophobia!” One speaker says he has a “problem with the bible”, and the chorus concur. It could potentially turn nasty. One speaker says there is too much “niceness” on the panel – is this the beginning of baying for blood? One  Bishop has a go at responding with outrage, and gets some applause. Time runs out, the speakers summarise, we go to drinks, the problems remain, unresolved. This has been less a debate about faith, more a tense, postmodern kind of drama about conflicting worldviews, perhaps more Beckett than Sophocles.


Actually it could have been a lot worse. I was not personally attacked – a generous way of interpreting this was that as the one representing ‘the other’, people saw Jesus in me? Rather the focus of anger was “the church” which is why Alan Wilson has taken the decision not to represent the organization which pays him but to join with the other angry and hurt people attacking it. I was pinned after the meeting (missing my glass of wine in the process) by a vicar who insisted that the only way evangelicals can prove they are Christians is by showing love to gay people, and this must take the form of blessing gay relationships in church. He was very clear that this should only apply to faithful, monogamous, relationships between consenting adults, but given that doctrines and ideas apparently don’t matter, why should this be the case?


Later in the evening a comment was made to me that the only thing keeping the C of E together is the stipends and pensions of the clergy. Is this negative cynicism to be refuted, or wise discernment requiring honesty and action?


My presentation to the Faith Debate


When we talk about diversity and inclusion in the C of E, no one is saying we should all be the same. Some may want there to be complete inclusion but this is impossible – even the most liberal organisation has boundaries of who is in and out. So the discussion is about where we draw those boundaries, why, how important is each issue on which we draw boundaries, and if there are irreconcilable differences, what do we do about it.


Let me give three examples. 1. Worship in different contexts. I have experienced the full gamut of diversity here. I have worked with Baptists planting a church on a Council estate. In South Africa I once presided at morning Holy Communion in a township church, wearing robes and coloured stoles, and even after some tuition using a censer. The people were mostly poor and black. In the evening I was in an affluent suburban church, predominantly white, wearing chinos and polo shirt, leading worship with my electric acoustic guitar, using almost no liturgy. Many of my evangelical friends would have been horrified on both counts! Were both services “Anglican”? What made them so? What elements were common to both? Should there be more uniformity or should such diversity be encouraged, with certain controls?


2. Theology. As a vicar I have heard fellow clergy confessing an understanding of God not as a personal being outside ourselves, but more a projection of human psychology. So we already have this kind of diversity in the C of E. These people are not being kicked out for their beliefs or lack of them. The reason I can stay in the C of E is because in our formularies we still officially believe in God. Now if there was a movement within the church for officially recognised diversity, ie perhaps two integrities, where we agree to differ but affirm those who believe that God doesn’t really exist as equally honoured members of his family, it would cause a problem for a lot of people. What do we do about this? Do we say it doesn’t matter, that we celebrate the full diversity of theologies and show that we can still be one church? Or do have to retain some limit to our diversity in this area, effectively excluding people who have different beliefs?


3. Ethics. This boils down to what we believe is right and wrong, and whether there is some objective, permanent guideline or if it is ultimately a matter of personal and cultural preference. For example, is racism wrong? How do we know? When we say we are saved by grace, does that mean we change or abolish the law, right and wrong, altogether? Or are there some behaviours and attitudes which inhibit and prevent human flourishing, and should be excluded as much as possible from the fellowship of God’s people? And how do we reconcile establishing a principle of what is right and wrong, with the need to show compassion to individuals to whom such a principle seems harsh?


I’m here to represent a tradition which says that Scripture, as generally interpreted down the ages, rather than the opinion of the majority or the most powerful, is the guide for where we set boundaries on doctrine and ethics, how God deals with all of us as we cross them, and how we should live with one another. The Bible especially the New Testament celebrates diversity of race, languages, cultures, gifts, personalities. But Scripture clearly speaks of areas where there cannot be disagreement for God’s people. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, which does not just unite Christians in belief, but in terms of ethics sets them against what is wrong in their old life and against the world which is at enmity with God and his loving rule. The cross of Christ, rather than any unity project we might carry out, is the means by which we, as sinners, can be welcomed back into God’s presence, and is also the means of reconciliation between diverse peoples and the model for showing grace to one another.


I realise that simply restating this does not solve the problems we’re going to talk about this evening. But we can’t simply say “diversity – good, exclusion – bad” as none of us believes that. We draw lines in very different places: we need to be honest about it, perhaps look at the underlying worldviews, and face up to the consequences.

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