Scandals, flags and encouragements: news from August

Aug 27, 2018 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Churches usually scale down some activities during holiday time, such as home groups, and childrens’ activities during Sunday services. The more vibrant fellowships take on other events, like  holiday clubs for kids and the elderly (evangelistic, and providing for a real social need). Planning for a new season of ministry has taken place; hopefully clergy and active lay people have returned from their breaks refreshed. This essential worship and witness at local level, carried out faithfully by thousands of unheralded disciples, takes place within a wider context of a Church finding itself in an increasingly confusing and hostile culture, and sometimes failing to navigate it because of its own faults.

Some issues have generated a lot of comment during August, showing that journalists are still working, and some bloggers can’t put down their laptops even when on holiday. Looking at these might help to illustrate the continued challenges that the church faces, and also some signs of encouragement.

The most depressing August story is surely the growing avalanche of revelations about sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church worldwide. Secular commentators are pointing out, correctly, that the scandals illustrate the danger of abuse of power in a large religious organization, where leaders are held in awe, and protection of reputation must be maintained at all costs. The demand for visible justice for perpetrators, massive compensation for victims and, sadly, fees for lawyers can only grow.

But other questions are being aired on the Christian websites and chat forums (see a selection here.) Firstly, theological. Has a mystical, ‘mediator’ view of priesthood, which has no basis in Scripture, led to the idea that clergy shouldn’t be subject to scrutiny by anyone other than their ecclesiastical superiors? And then ethical: many secular commentators, in talking of ‘sexual abuse’, have of course focused on abuse of power and ignored the immoral use of sex. But the problem with the reported abuse is not just that the victims may have been underage, or were  non-consenting adults, though these violations are appalling and deserving of punishment. The revelations expose a culture of sexual immorality and in particular predatory homosexual grooming in sections of the Roman Catholic Church. There are now serious allegations of institutional cover up at the highest level (see here for an excellent summary). The hypocrisy of a church which preaches sexual purity and the value of the family, unable to contain and trying to cover up this rot in its midst is embarrassing and shameful to Christians of all denominations.[1]. Can the church change, and if so how?

The solution is not for the church to abandon its opposition to same sex relationships, as if somehow by being open and relaxed about clergy lifestyles which contradict biblical norms of Christian discipleship, the keeping of secret mistresses and furtive pouncing on choirboys and seminarians will stop, a new culture of openness and healthy power dynamics will ensue, and the church will regain its spiritual authority. The Bible is clear about the need to maintain strict boundaries on our sexual behaviour and thought, for good reason. But nevertheless some politicians have publicly called for a change to the church’s teaching on sex and marriage on the eve of the Pope’s recent visit to Ireland, and campaigners continue to argue the same case within other denominations, for example the Church of England.

And so the Cathedral in the small historic town of Ely, Cambridgeshire earlier this August became the latest ancient symbol of Christian life and witness to fly the rainbow flag in support of gay pride. The Dean explained that this was to “celebrate diversity” and a “sign of inclusion”; later he claimed it was a way of “entering into the debate”. The Cathedral’s action brought a series of sharp responses, some of which can be found here.

Martin Davie points out that the rainbow flag is clearly a symbol of an “LGBTI programme” which “goes against what is revealed in nature and Scripture”, and that  flying any flag (apart from national and Diocesan banners) is actually not permitted by church regulations. For Ian Paul “the cathedral was therefore signalling their rejection of the Church’s current teaching”, and asks, by implication, why Bishops who believe in this teaching are not prepared to publicly defend it. Lee Gatiss says memorablyin reality it is a white flag, signalling their [the Cathedral leadership’s] surrender of Christianity in favour of a completely different gospel, which is divisive in the church and endangering to the soul.”

It’s encouraging that there appears to be more concern expressed across different orthodox constituencies about Cathedrals supporting Pride than in previous years, and an increasing recognition that this is evidence of a trajectory away from bible based Christianity in the institution of the C of E. But some evangelicals continue to either avoid the issue altogether, or are more concerned about building bridges with revisionists; they want to retain the right to promote “no sex outside heterosexual marriage” as a personal view and a kind of niche interest, while denying that there is a harmful LGBT agenda in the culture, and saying that the biggest need for the church is full inclusion of LGBT people and rooting out of homophobia. This attitude of positive and receptive rapprochement with the pagan culture on issues of sex in some evangelical circles in England mirrors that shown in reports of the Revoice conference in the USA in late July (a selection of articles here).

Some August good news stories to end on. Nurse Sarah Kuteh, who was disciplined and then prevented from practicing her profession because she spoke to patients about her faith, was reinstated after a campaign by Christian Concern. An article in the Church of England Newspaper reminds us of the phenomenal growth of the church in Africa. The Roman Catholic scandal reminds us that a large church is not necessarily a better church and needs to be constantly reformed by obedience to Scripture and renewed by the Holy Spirit, with mutual accountability between humble disciples, not power concentrated in a few places and groups. So news that Gafcon’s global fellowship is moving forward in the development of its ‘networks’, focusing on training of leaders and sustainable development in contexts of poverty as well as sound training for leadership, is very welcome.

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[1] By contrast, the shocking but unique case of John Smyth and his grooming and beating of boys in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, showed poor judgement by individuals dealing with the issue at the time and subsequently, but not condoning of or turning a blind eye to Smyth’s actions, or a wider culture of abuse in the organisation of which he was a part.

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