Confronting our Culture, Presenting our Past

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s

David ison 2

I saw a new member of staff at morning prayer in St Paul’s last week. He said that he’d felt drawn by the sense of something ancient and solid, something that he could connect with, and he was going to follow it up…

Cathedrals have that sense of solidity, of continuity with the past, which most ancient church buildings have, as they’ve been shaped and reshaped not only by the physical labour of many generations but also by ancient and modern belief and experience, art and music. Even new church buildings have an internal geography and practice that speaks of thousands of years of faith and our Christian story: font, altar, pulpit; scripture, song, prayer; liturgy, Eucharist; a home for a community that continues the story on. And even old churches, bar a very few, have within them evidence of the changing and current life of their communities: living churches and cathedrals change through time in order to be true to their identity as witnessing Christian communities. As the Sicilian author of The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, put it, ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’

Which is of course true for us as well. Each of us has to grapple with how our past beliefs and practices are going to interact with our present and its challenges. All of us face change, and wonder what we can (or should) preserve, and what we can let go of. Books, or electronic readers? Typewriters, or voice recognition software? Vinyl or Sonos? Local or internet shopping? We change as we go through life (even if we decide to be idiosyncratic by not changing at all).  Punk rockers become pillars of the establishment; miniskirts become twin-sets; conservatives become revolutionaries and vice-versa. It’s not only our appearance and ideas that change: it’s what we believe about life too, about God and the world and our place in it, in sympathy with who we have been and in reaction to what we experience.

It’s a particular temptation for human beings to go back to the past when facing the stress of the present. But harking back to a golden age, of faith or politics or anything else, isn’t a Christian reaction. The past has always been ambiguous, containing as our age does both good and bad, including in matters of faith. The Scriptures are full of God, through the prophets and the ministry of Jesus, confronting the faithlessness and injustice of what was then the present day. Why would we expect the present now to be different from the present then? The mindset that the past is always better isn’t consistent with either experience or revelation: it’s as mistaken as thinking that the present is always better than the past. We should expect God to be revealing new truth today, truth consistent with the truth of the past; and we should expect God to be confronting our own present culture, identity and beliefs with the radical nature of the Christian gospel.

When Church of England clergy begin a new ministry, they use the words of the Declaration of Assent, affirming that they share the faith of the Church in Christ, uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures, set forth in the creeds and proclaimed afresh in each generation. The Declaration of Assent also asks them to ‘affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care.’

The revelation of God in the past, through scripture and the witness of God’s people, sets us on our way towards God, walking with Jesus through the changing present. It’s the inheritance which inspires us through the Holy Spirit to embrace how God is inspiring and guiding us into greater likeness to Christ. It should be the prophetic norm which enables us to confront where, throughout the ages, God’s people looked back to the past instead of encountering the living God in the present. Of course God calls the assumptions of our current culture into question: and God also calls into question the assumptions of Victorian evangelicalism, the Oxford movement, the Reformation churches and the Greek, Roman and Hebrew cultures of the early church, as Jesus shows us how to do. None of us has our culture right: all of us are under the judgement of God’s radical and demanding love.

The Christian faith isn’t a static edifice, but The Way; not a place to sit down in, but a pilgrimage to follow, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

One aspect of what’s drawn our new member of staff is a connection to the past, to his experience of church as a child. But this is way more than nostalgia: it’s about being drawn into that long story over the centuries through which Christ has been active, in which God is to be found, and a story which still continues. We can be a part of that story too – a story which, by being part of the telling, we make our own and help to shape in the present, to call us all into question and to bring the grace and truth of Christ to our present generation.

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A “Safe Space” for Liberalism?

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Jeremy Morris

Do you describe yourself as a Liberal?  I don’t mean in the party political sense, but as a ‘Liberal Christian’, or perhaps a plain ‘Liberal’ as in someone broadly progressive in outlook.  Yes, the definitions I’m implying here are pretty loose or vague, but then Liberalism is notoriously difficult to define.

Yet, as a term Liberalism now attracts extraordinary hostility.  Conservative critics of change in the churches speak of a ‘Liberal establishment’ or a ‘Liberal takeover’.  Arguments are dismissed with a simple swipe at their ‘Liberalism’.  Some – by no means all – leftist positions are equally anti-Liberal.  In the university world in which I work, Liberalism is under attack from those who think that the free expression of divergent views is a concession to covert forms of prejudice, promoting ‘micro-aggressions’ in the form of seemingly minor or harmless statements of view that collude with more sinister forms of oppression.  As a reaction, some students demand a ‘safe space’ – a place where opposed views will not be heard, where no platform will be offered to speakers with controversial, and potentially offensive, views.

And I don’t mind saying I’m not always quick to call myself a ‘Liberal’.  I’m a Christian first, a Catholic Christian second, and an Anglican third.  In that mix, to my mind there isn’t usually much space for some sort of ideological Liberalism.  I’m wary about the systematizing rationalism implied in some versions of Liberalism, and about the common assumption that Liberalism expresses the modernistic, materialist tendency of the Enlightenment (note: I’m not claiming that that actually characterizes the Enlightenment).  I’m also averse to versions of Liberalism that are themselves a kind of secular eschatology, erasing seemingly incompatible ethical and metaphysical worldviews.

And yet an awful lot of the people I know who are skeptical about Liberalism, or even hostile to the term, are quite content to enjoy the fruits of Liberalism.  If Liberalism implies – as it often did in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the dethroning of confessional autocracies, then probably most of us are Liberal, content with the de facto separation of Church and State typical (even in England) of Western society.  We don’t want religious hierarchs deciding what we should or shouldn’t read, and whether we ought to be free or not to attend religious worship.  Those most loudly decrying the ‘Liberal establishment’ want freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of political and religious association just as much as anyone else.  The ironies mount up in the case of those in the churches who launch, from a post-modern or critical theoretical perspective, an assault on the methodology and epistemology of Liberalism, yet who espouse a range of causes associated with theological Liberalism – the ordination of women, and acceptance of same-sex relations, for example.  I can think of very few modern theologians across most of the mainstream Christian traditions, at least in the West, who positively reject not just certain specific conclusions of critical Biblical interpretation, but the very idea of it.  And that means that most theologians have had to accommodate elements of the theological Liberalism of the modern era.  Yes, it is easy to be critical of Liberalism, but actually very difficult to step aside from it altogether.

It remains true that Liberalism is a very plastic term.  What one person means by Liberalism is not necessarily recognizable to another.  Stephen Sykes once said that Liberalism is an essentially parasitic term: you can’t really be simply a ‘Liberal’, because ‘Liberal’ is a qualifier, as in a ‘Liberal Anglican’, a ‘Liberal Catholic’, and so on.  This is pretty close to the late-nineteenth century Anglican theologian Charles Gore’s use of the term: as a ‘Liberal Catholic’ he preferred not to think of himself as someone who added a sacramental tinge to a fundamentally rationalistic theology, but rather as a Catholic Anglican who thought an orthodox doctrinal position was compatible with a commitment to free enquiry.  But this was simply to claim that the two things could be held together, not to demonstrate how they could be.  And as Sykes was quick to point out in a number of his works, claiming to support free enquiry and a liberality of spirit did not necessarily prevent churchmen (yes, he probably did mean men) of apparently ‘Liberal’ persuasions from abusing their power and authority sometimes.

So pointing out the difficulties of a flat rejection of Liberalism doesn’t get us over the difficulties often inherent in the idea itself.  And yet something really important to my mind is at risk here in all the current assaults on Liberalism, and not least in the idea of ‘safe spaces’.  I don’t believe in the myth of inevitable, one-way progress.  But people of various cultures, groups and identities do change at different speeds.  So, no matter how strongly we may suspect an element of fear or willful ignorance in the views of those opposed, for example, to same-sex marriage, we ought to allow them space to express their views.  Only then – only by the critical interrogation of views strongly opposed – can we hope to expose the difficulties inherent in their position.  Of course, they will think the same thing of us.  But arguments are won, in the end, not simply by imposition, control or the implicit violence of ‘banning’, but by contest and exposure.

To my mind the Church needs to model good argument, and the ebb and flow of controversy.  It needs to allow people to air their views, and to invite critical interrogation of them.  Universities must be allowed to do the same too.  That doesn’t mean embracing a doctrinaire Liberalism, just allowing for space to argue, interrogate, and conflict.

 

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Jeremy Morris, Social Justice | 4 Comments

Primates Meetings – Who’d Be a Prophet?

by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Diocese of Leeds

hayley

Today, as I write, the readings from my midday Eucharist included a message from a prophet and a couple of lines from a gospel where Herod hears about some new arrival on the scene who seems to be saying and doing ‘prophet-like’ things.  Of course, we know it’s Jesus he’s heard about, but Herod wonders if some other long-dead prophet has been somehow reincarnated.  ‘Who’d be a prophet?’ I ask, following a long line of clergy who know better than to chase after the most painful of callings.

Prophets are publicly humiliated, ridiculed and ignored at best – persecuted, punished and murdered at worst. As for being ‘good’ and speaking truth to power – it isn’t just Christians who know you can be crucified for that.

The American Episcopalian Church and now the Scottish Episcopalian Church are facing the most powerful of human sanctions – exclusion – that which goes against our incarnational faith, the one in which we are categorically told ‘it is not good for humankind to be alone’.  Rather than agree to disagree and to continue in communion and dialogue, those who are ‘early adopters’ of what the Spirit is saying to the Churches are being shut out.  Like players in a religious game of Monopoly, these churches are getting on the train but finding themselves banned from stopping at the stations. They have picked up a Chance Card and been sent directly to Jail. They must not pass go and they may not collect £200. It will take three rolls of the dice and a fine for them to be released, much like the three years it will take for their sanction to play itself out in the Anglican Communion so that they may take a seat at the decision-making table again. The most insightful voices, those who have tussled with the difficult – no, the unspeakable – questions, finding that they can no longer ignore the insistent nudging of the Spirit are excluded. Consequently, the decision-making bodies become more and more conservative in membership, totally lacking in the experiential voice of practical theology.  ‘Scripture’ and ‘tradition’ all too easily jettison ‘reason’ and nobody wants to sit on a two legged stool.

Now we all know innovators of any new-fangled thing are annoying, running ahead and taking risks like they do.  Just look at the way Abraham Lincoln risked his entire political career on the 13th amendment, successfully abolishing slavery according to his Christian principles.  This was in the face of majority Christian opposition from within his own party – let alone that from the opposition.  Yet the general idea is that the courageous people daring to make these prophetic moves are still connected to the train. They are the engine room, the ones who pull us out of the stations, from the tracks we have become rusted to – often through lack of use or from preferring to stay and play at hospitality (amongst ourselves), rather than go out into the world taking our gifts and graces to less grace-filled places with doors open to new passengers – be they drunk, drab or downright decent folk.

What happens to us when we shunt the engine room off to a siding, thus disabling the journey from even starting? The engine rooms ought not to be disconnected and certainly not at the behest of the laggards. Yet it seems of late that it is neither our engine room innovators nor early adopters who are driving our Anglican train.  No, not even the early or late majority.   I would suggest that it is the laggards who are being prioritised. This is nothing less than suicide, for it takes the drive of the first four carriages to generate enough energy to get the laggards on board.  Some may choose not to take the journey and will prefer to remain sitting on the station platform with words of doom on their lips as the train gathers momentum.  But that’s OK, that is normal. What is not normal is realigning the carriages so that the innovators are placed behind the early adopters, who are placed behind the late adopters who are placed behind the laggards. That is the road to nowhere. That is pushing an entire train uphill single-handedly, whilst the weight of two centuries of tradition seek to remain anchored to a safe spot.  It is well-known, well-worn, well-loved and well, comfortable.

My Grandad was a train driver. He felt that his vocation was taken from him when he stopped shovelling coal into a living fire, watching the steam billow into the sky as his breakfast sizzled on the shovel while the crisp morning air caught his shirt sleeves through an open engine cabin.  The advent of diesel engines disconnected him from being little more than a passenger who knew which buttons to press. So much cleaner, tidier, for sure, but entirely disconnected from the connection between this man and his vocation. I wonder if we’ve swapped a living flame for something that claims to do the same job in a much more civilised manner, but has somehow missed the point entirely?

I shall travel to Edinburgh on a train in due course.   I will be delighted to share in holy communion with my sisters and brothers in Christ there who have found a home in an accepting, welcoming church that celebrates the colourful diversity of all God’s people from the plain dull to the plain crazy. I shall pray with and for them as they shoulder the burden of exclusion whilst – I dare to suggest – feeling the wind of the Spirit in their hair again.  I can even here the signal sounding through the highlands and low – change is a-coming, the train is a-coming, all aboard!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Church of England, Hayley Mattews, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | 5 Comments

The True God and the Real World

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

my-name-is-paul

So last week I saw this editorial from the “Scientific American”. [The New Science of Sex and Gender – Scientific American](https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-new-science-of-sex-and-gender/). It is not itself a piece of science, but I was moved on reading it to tweet this: “The real world is complex, and we find out more about it each moment. However it is, Christians believe God made it”

 

And as I thought more about it I found myself thinking about fear and love, and the true God and the real world. And this is what I thought:

 

 

Our confidence is in God, whom we believe to be the true God. When Elisha’s servant was intimidated by the armies of Aram, the prophet was calm: “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” (2Kings 6:16) The writer of 1 John shared the same confidence, “for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)

 

This true God, the God revealed in Christ, the God who is Christlike and in whom there is no un-Christlikeness at all, this true God made and loves the world. The world God made and loves is the real world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

 

The real world is loved by God, saved and not condemned, real as it is. And the way the world is becomes clearer as we seek to understand it better. It  seems to me, then, that the Christian approach to the real world should be open, calm, loving, free from any sense of threat or fear. The surprises of science, the shocks of culture, the mysteries and realities of pain, suffering, sickness, evil – all these are seen and gently held within the still-greater mysteries of creation, incarnation and redemption.

 

But we must know that this calm and open spirit is not the way Christians are usually perceived by those around us. On the contrary we as a people are seen as defensive, jealous of our rights, nostalgic for the time when we were important, resistant to change, ready to attack any insight that surprises our existing worldview, just as the Pharisees and Sadducees were when the true God came among them in the real world, in the person of a carpenter’s son, scandalously human. 

 

We are seen always to be fighting, and often we are. Some of us want to diminish God’s truth by approximating God’s call to the call of the leader of the nation, as the self-styled  “German Christians” did in the 1930s and as so many self-styled “evangelicals” seem to be doing in the US today. Others of us want to turn from the world’s reality to a diminished little place sparsely peopled by God and God’s chosen, complacently counter-cultural, disdainful of so much around, as many have done through the ages and as the so-called “Benedict Option” asks us to do today. 

 

And if we are Anglicans we must know that the conversations within our Church too, and within our Communion, are so rarely marked by the pure and peaceable wisdom that the Bible commends (James 3:17). Instead we too fight the culture wars, to the gleeful entertainment of the world and the despair of those who seek God in our lives. 

 

And yet it seems to me that one of the geniuses of Anglicanism is that in our messy and foolish via-media way we have the tools to work together to turn away from these mistakes. 

 

We have the via-media capacity to trust God to have made the world well, even if we are surprised by the discoveries of science and the realities of experience; even if the world is not the way they thought it was in Victorian times, or in the Middle Ages, or in the time of the Bible. 

 

We have the via-media capacity to trust the Bible to have pointed the way as the way of love, even if in the time of the Bible, or in the Middle Ages, or in Victorian times, or today, we did and do not love each other as we should. 

 

We have the via-media capacity for self-awareness, even in the midst of all the shrill self-assertions that pass for conversation in our Church.

 

Because perfection still rests in God, and we are called to be perfect as God is perfect (Matt 5:48), and we are taught that the way to move towards that perfection is in love. The writer of 1 John wanted us to know that it is perfect love that casts out all fear (1Jn 4:18). The writer did not say that it is perfect strength that casts out fear, nor that it is perfect faith, nor perfect truth. All these things are lovely, but they rest in God and in God’s perfection and they are God’s gifts. For us the via-media road is the road of love, the road to perfect love, as John of the Cross understood when he wrote that “in the evening of our lives we shall be examined in love”.

 

A real world that is complex and surprising and in many ways mysterious, and a call of the true God to walk in love in the real world God loves, and the gift of the via media, the Middle Way, the way of open, trusting, fearless loving. These are the poles of our discipleship and the road on which we can walk. And as I have been on this road since I was newly born, so I will continue on this road until I die, this messy road of the Middle Way, my road and the road of my people.

 

Anyway, that’s what I thought. What do you think?

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 5 Comments

Loyalty and Obsession

by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Chair of Human Sexuality Group on General Synod

Giles Goddard

As I reflect on the forthcoming Primates’ Meeting two words sound loudly in my head; loyalty and obsession.  I can’t imagine that there is any Anglican, anywhere, who does not recognise the Anglican Communion as flawed and imperfect – but the vast majority of us hang on in there, speaking and preaching and attempting to live out the Gospel despite years and years of frustration and, often, harsh and cruel exclusion.

Because we believe in the possibility of redemption, and we understand that all institutions need to constantly renew themselves in order to flourish. Faithful and loyal Anglicans, spending most of our time working in the vineyard, trying to get on with those around us doing the same.

But it seems to me that conservative evangelicals in the C of E and the Anglican Communion are wrapped in an obsession that has affected their entire relationship with the C of E and the Anglican Communion.  In a statement issued by AMiE after the consecration of Andy Lines, the group said:

“A new generation of Anglican church leaders is being identified, trained and sent out to share the good news of Jesus and bring people together in new local churches. These churches and their ministers require the support and example of missionary bishops who themselves both proclaim and defend the Gospel, and will encourage others to do the same.”

It’s sad. There’s a clear implication that the thousands of Christians working hard and faithfully within the Church of England to witness to the gospel –  including many loyal, faithful conservative evangelicals – are in some sense tainted, their ministry undermined by the very fact of their association with those who believe the gospel calls us to welcome LGBTI people.

It sets up a false dichotomy between ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘inclusion,’ diminishing the Christian call to preach the love of God to, as Desmond Tutu says, ‘all, all, ALL!’, and has fundamentally distracted the C of E from its core mission for decades.

However, the obsession seems to ride a coach and horses through attempts to live and love and learn together. We see it in the behaviour of the primates who have decided to absent themselves from next week’s meeting and set up alternative structures.

We see it in the behaviour of Church of England bishops – particularly the diocesan bishop of Blackburn, recently returned from the GAFCON meeting in Egypt –  who have welcomed the arrival of an AMiE bishop in England. We see it in the behaviour of conservative evangelicals like Jane Patterson who sit on the CNC and at the same time act as trustees for AMiE- affiliated churches. It’s so counterproductive.

I was asked by the Archbishops to be a consultant to the group of bishops charged with putting together a Teaching Document on Human Sexuality. I know that there is a some scepticism about the usefulness of the proposed document. Long grass and fudge has been much in evidence in the comments.

But I am clear that this document has the potential to be a game changer, if  it’s produced with care and carefulness. At the moment we have nothing, within our core documents, which expresses inclusive theology as part of the Anglican deposit of faith. We have not yet formally acknowledged that it is possible to be a loyal and faithful Anglican and at the same time allow the love of God to flow wherever it will.

I have a Muslim friend who, recently, told me how impressed he was by the speed the Church of England changes. Really? I said, doesn’t feel like that to me. But he had a point; things don’t happen overnight.

It’s the loyalty and faithfulness of those of us who seek to help the Church of England to grow into its own fullness of being which enable change to happen. The resistance to change make the process more painful, and distorts the generosity and beauty of the gospel. I wish conservatives would stop obsessing and, instead, work for the growth of the whole body of Christ in all its glorious diversity. I pray for the Primates meeting next week.

 

Posted in Church of England, Giles Goddard, Human Sexuality | 1 Comment

Is “Sorry” Too Easy a Word?

by Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham

Rosie Haarper

It’s very unsettling when you interrogate something you thought you understood and find you never understood it at all.

I was doing a sort of mental mail merge between Sunday’s gospel reading about forgiveness and the various big fat apologies that the C of E has issued in recent months over the mishandling of abuse and the arrant cruelty towards   -well -anyone who wasn’t uncomplicatedly straight.

I asked myself a perfectly simple question. What exactly is forgiveness? Growing up in a fairly strict evangelical church it was presented to me as a vital but simple concept. There was sin. That was the bad stuff you did or thought. Because God was just there was a consequence to that sin, and because he was loving he wanted to forgive us. The death of Jesus bridged the gap between the justice and the love.

When I was about eight I began to question this. It sprang out of a little family incident. My father had saved up his minute pocket money and bought my mother a very tall dark green glass vase for their wedding anniversary. He wasn’t usually very good at presents, but she loved it. While they were both out at a prayer meeting or bible study or some other holy activity I was playing and accidentally broke the vase. I had already worked out that, specially with Christian parents, the best strategy in such cases was to get in first with deep contrition and beg for their forgiveness. So I confessed to my Dad and I remember to this day watching his face as he controlled the outburst of disappointment, controlled his desire to give me a good telling off that would have been his natural human response, and then put his arm around me and say ‘Darling, don’t worry. Let’s clean it up together.’

My little eight year old mind thought; ‘Is that what God is like?  When I do something wrong does he really want to shout at me and punish me, but somehow he controls it and forgives me instead?’ I wasn’t liking this God very much. It was made worse by the fact that of course I hadn’t meant to break the vase in the first place, but the Pauline teaching that I had already received meant that I was horribly aware that even when I didn’t think I was sinning I probably was. In other words there was something about simply existing, about being human that was of essence sinful. Somehow we need to be forgiven for existing.

This may sound childish and ridiculous, but it’s at the root of a lot of the abusive behavior in the church. It’s how you get a poor little posh boy to accept being beaten week after week simply for masturbating – perfectly natural and normal behavior. (By the way, girls masturbate too and somehow that doesn’t seem to count. But that’s another blog!)

The whole sin and forgiveness script was then for me at that time entirely transactional. And yes, if you get stuck there you run the risk of obsessing about behaviors. Hence it is possible for some people to say it’s OK to be gay so long as you don’t do gay things. Who you are doesn’t matter as much as what you do. Probably the exact opposite of the way Jesus famed it.

Desmond Tutu understood this in a most remarkable way. The matter of forgiveness is relational. It needs to deal with the real people in the room telling the truth. The whole Truth and Reconciliation process was incredibly hard and it was imperfect, but it seems to me that if forgiveness is to mean something that restores relationship and offers a sense of potential freedom from the past then there needs to be truth not a sweeping of difficult things under the carpet.

There is some excellent work done in the field of forgiveness and reconciliation and Archbishop Justin has been at the epicenter with his previous work at Coventry Cathedral, but the way you act inevitably reveals what you really believe and the way the CofE treats survivors of abuse and LGBTI people shows that at heart we are still driven by a transactional theology. Why else could it seem right to pay your debt to the abused person via the insurance company but offer no pastoral support and fail to put into effect the well over 100 recommendations to improve our processes that have come out of repeated inquiries?

The debt has been paid, we should be forgiven!

Why do we still get heartfelt public apologies for the devastatingly cruel ways in which the church has harmed and discriminated against gay people whilst continuing to those very practices?

A survivor’s passing shot, after spending several hours talking through her story, was ‘it’s the theology that did it.’

Even articulating this is bound to get some people angry, but I firmly believe that unless we have the courage to examine our inner drivers, our theology, there is very little hope that we can change our ways and become a church that is safe for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Rosie Harper | 1 Comment

This Love Ain’t Big Enough!

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury

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Someone I know is getting married this month. He is an active sincere Christian and his faith has been nurtured in his local middle-of-the-road parish church; he is from a loving Christian family, and they have been involved in many and varied church activities over the years.

His fiancée is from a large, conservative Evangelical church. He worshipped there often as a teenager and was blessed and nurtured by its teaching and fellowship. He has grown in faith through it. This is the church where they will be married, although he has continued to worship in his family’s church.

One of the reasons for this was because of an incident a few years ago. A member of the church’s youth group he, along with a number of others, was asked to give public statements to the rest of the youth group that he accepted the teaching of this particular church on same-sex relationships. In short, they were required to stand up and repudiate same-sex sexual activity. He naturally felt torn between belonging to a supportive fellowship of young Christians and making a statement he felt was lacking in Christian love. In the end, after talking it through with his parents, he decided to decline to make such a commitment. From that day he said, things were never the same again. Something changed. He was now clearly a second-class member of the group, he said. He was told he could not take any leadership role in the group or in the wider church. And yet he stuck to his principles and refused to compromise (ironically, a lesson about his Christian faith he had been well taught in this very church!). He is a fine young man.

Last week saw the publication in the United States of the “Nashville Statement”[1]. It emerges and is aimed at a different culture than the UK, although it has been signed by two, prominent, same-sex attracted English Anglicans. When I read its long list of fourteen binaries (“we affirm…we deny”), I am reminded of the position in which this English church put this young person and his fellow youth group members. Setting aside the spiritual abuse of requiring young people to make a choice between making a public statement of this nature and their membership of the youth group, what strikes me is the insistence of both groups of drawing boundaries around membership by requiring public statements.

Nashville adds nothing to the debate on sexuality any more than getting a few teenagers to make public statements does; all both do is simply to draw the boundary lines more clearly. What those inside the ‘circle of soundness’ want is to be certain that they are standing in the will of God. Public statements like these reinforce their sense of uprightness. They are a subtle form of works-righteousness, a badge of orthodoxy that will allow those inside the circle to sort the wheat from the chaff, the faithful from the unfaithful, the saved from the lost, despite the clear teaching of Scripture that leaves such things to God.

I’m reading Richard Rohr’s demanding The Divine Dance at the moment and it has caused me to ponder the fundamental nature of God as relationship rather than being. When I look at my own life and behaviour, I’m not always very proud of my choices or my conduct. Sometimes I’m not even proud of my consistency in keeping to my principles. But what Rohr has reminded me of is that, as I stand in relationship with the Trinity, I am free to be foolishly wrong yet am still loved. As such, I can continue to reach out to those who hold to a different view of sexuality knowing that, even if they are right and I am wrong, I need not be afraid of God.

Sadly, I am forced to conclude that those who signed the Nashville Statement cannot say the same, of me or of God. Invested as they are in confidence that they are right, and deeply afraid of the consequence of being wrong, they circle the wagons closer and closer, even excluding many who hold a conservative position on sexuality[2], forever asking fewer and fewer people to make more and more stringent promises. It is self-justifying and fear-driven and, as such, is a false gospel. Believe you are right, by all means. We all believe that. But believe it with humility and be confident that the truth of your claim requires no coercion, nor lines in the sand.

Nashville is not just a place, it’s also the name of a Country and Western Band. One of their greatest hits? This Love ain’t big enough. Enough said.

[1] https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement/
[2] https://psychologyandchristianity.wordpress.com/2017/08/30/on-the-nashville-statement/
Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Simon Butler | 1 Comment