The weekend when Britain changed

Apr 4, 2014 by

By Andrew Symes

Saturday 29th March will go down in history as the day when same sex couples exchanged marriage vows on live TV and radio, and when a large proportion of the debate was taken up by what Christians believe. The official voice of the Church of England, and the establishment-leaning voice of evangelical and catholic orthodoxy were virtually silent on the weekend itself and in the days leading up to it. Revisionist Christian opinions were given free rein in the media, and the fiction of a church united in doctrine was exposed, as was the delusion of basing a strategy of witness to Christ on accommodating to anti-biblical cultural trends.

My own article of two weeks ago, suggesting that Christians disturbed by current developments at this time could turn to prayer, was picked up by veteran Guardian religion correspondent Andrew Brown as an example of swivel-eyed loony reactionary opposition to the march of progress and civilization. I was grilled about my article on Premier Christian Radio, formerly a strong voice for evangelical Christianity but now sadly increasingly a mouthpiece for the views of Steve Chalke and Brian Maclaren. Having to explain and defend the concept of corporate prayer at a time of concern about a major change to a supposedly Christian audience is a sign of the times we are in. Brown’s article, in which he claimed that the Archbishop has signalled an end to resistance to same sex ‘marriage’ (and thereby suggesting that the church may change its policy on the issue) was not refuted by Lambeth Palace or Church House but was bizarrely posted on the C of E website along with a similar Daily Mail article as the only information available about the issue on the day.
In another radio interview on the Saturday, this time national BBC Radio 4, I found myself pitted against Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham. He had got onto the front page of the Telegraph that day with his public call for the church to “rejoice” over gay marriage and make plans to celebrate them in church in future. The Bishop has form on this (see here for a more detailed critique of Wilson’s views). For all his urbane smoothness, Wilson’s argument seemed to be lacking in theological depth: “I know some gay couples who are very nice and who appear to have a good relationship, therefore we should allow them to marry in church”; and “the church has changed its position on things in the past, so it can change its views on anything now and in the future”.  He will have received a lot of applause from liberal Anglicans, and in this he has received his reward in full. In my response I simply pointed to the Bishops’ statement of February 15th about marriage, and asked why this Bishop was contradicting it.
But what does it say about any project for unity and reconciliation in the church when a Bishop publically undermines the clear statements about marriage from his colleagues, and the BBC has to turn to independent voices to refute him as no official spokesman can be found? Also, does he engender real interest in Christ from those outside the church with his revisionist stance – which I presume is his motivation? To put it simply, which approach best serves the cause of the Gospel in this land: actively supporting same sex ‘marriage’, silence, or opposing it?
What is clear is that many of the debates on national TV and radio were not so much about same sex relationships in themselves, as about what the Church believes, especially concerning sex and marriage. A number of phone ins and live TV debates narrowed down to the argument within the church about what constitutes Christian faith, with gay ‘marriage’ as a starting point. Revisionist Christians had lined up in alliance with the secular media to argue for the elimination of historic biblical Christianity, while a small number of conservatives could be found to try to explain the traditional views with varying degrees of nuance. The implication could be that long after people have forgotten who won a particular three minute argument on radio, they will still be thinking about what kind of church they want to be there (even if they are not churchgoers).  A church which agrees with and echoes cultural trends paradoxically may have less ‘relevance’ compared to one which remains distinctively biblical with a critical distance from culture, even if this seems old fashioned and even offensive.
And so to prayer. Saturday’s  inauguration of a new anthropology marked another stage in a planned assault on the Judaeo-Christian concept of God, salvation and the nature of humanity which has underpinned Western culture for centuries. It has been pointed out many times, not least in the Dissenting Statement to the Pilling Report, that to claim God’s favour on individual or corporate actions which his word says clearly are sinful, is to worship an idol, which as we know from Scripture grieves and angers the heart of God. In my home town in central England I joined with a small number who felt compelled to come before God in prayer, to repent for our own sin, the folly of the nation and the silence or collusion of the church, and to pray for God’s mercy and his wisdom going forward. The venue was a building used by a Pentecostal church of West Indian origin, and it was fitting that the Pastor from Jamaica and myself led the prayers, together with the author of the liturgy we used, who is from a nonconformist background. Those Christians from communities with a long history of oppression have learned what it means to cry out to God for justice, to see prayer not as a genteel religious activity but as desperate advocacy in the battle for survival. The future of the church in England depends on the majority population who have had a comfortable life in ‘Christendom’ learning to engage with culture as critic and intercessor, or we will end up as co-worshipper of its idols.
In addition to inter-denominational solidarity and prayer for the nation on the initiative of Anglicans, I’d like to mention two other examples of how local churches have made a stand for truth on this historic weekend. One vicar has made a statement explaining the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage, and how in the event of any official departure from this in the future, he and his church would not change. Other churches are making similar stands. There is a real opportunity to tell people about God from the Bible as we explain our understanding of marriage in a positive way, which is different from assenting to a statement about marriage, then subsequently apologising for it, and refusing to defend it when it is under attack. Another vicar of a large south London church gave an extended interview to a pro-family activist in an evening service full of under 40’s, and then preached a sermon on Genesis 11, using the story of the Tower of Babel as a warning about the folly of trusting in human projects to construct society without reference to, or in competition with God. This takes seriously the responsibility of Christians not just to protect the space of their own church tradition, but also to train members for discipleship in the world, and to be ‘salt’ in the culture, with a distinctive flavour rather than just blending in and being trampled underfoot.
In the future when we are asked “what did you do on that weekend”, some of at us least will be able to say “we observed with grief, we prayed, we taught our people, we spoke to outsiders when asked for our opinion”.

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