by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Convocation of Canterbury
When I was in full-time theological education, our training was enriched by a number of people who were not pursuing a vocation to ordination but were seeking to equip themselves for some other form of Christian service. One of those people – I forget her name – was taking time out of running a tea shop in Gloucestershire, which she sought to use as a form of Christian service and outreach. I asked her what it was she did and she told me that God was calling her to run what she called ‘a Christian tea shop.’ When I asked her what the difference was between a Christian tea shop and any other tea shop, she talked about it being run on Christian principles.
I tell this story because I have no doubt about her sincerity and the way in which she served God but because, I don’t know about you but, when I go out for a cup of Darjeeling and a slice of Victoria sponge, my first thought is not ‘is this a Christian tea shop?’ but ‘is this a good tea shop’? Equally, when our Church Council needed legal advice, I looked for a good solicitor first, rather than a Christian one. Simply putting ‘Christian’ in front of something does not guarantee that the business is of a high standard or a person is somehow morally superior.
I say this because I’ve been struck by the way in which politicians and others have been attacking Tim Farron, the Christian leader of the Liberal Democrats, during the early days of the General Election campaign. “Can he tell me if he thinks being gay is a sin?”, asked the gay Conservative MP Nigel Evans. Whatever Farron’s personal view is – and he now appears to have made it clear that he doesn’t think gay sex is a sin – I have wondered why it matters, given his very clear admittance that he was wrong to oppose certain liberalising parliamentary votes a decade ago. Speaking to Pink News, Farron has made it clear that he has changed his mind and that, in matters of public policy, he is a supporter of equal marriage.
Part of the problem is the way in which we use the word ‘Christian’. For better or worse, Christians are perceived as those who take the moral high ground, who stand in judgment of others and whose ability to participate in public life is to be questioned because of a perception of where Christians stand on matters of sexual ethics. Tim Farron is clearly an able, gifted and passionate politician but, both within his party and outside, some question his suitability to lead because he is a Christian, and (pause for dramatic music) an Evangelical Christian at that.
Tim Farron’s electoral problem is but a microcosm of the test that the church faces. Whatever the merits of the policies of the Liberal Democrats, many people judge him – and his advisers fear, his Party – through the lens of being seen to be prejudiced or homophobic. Christians face the same challenge. We are no longer listened to by virtue of our inherited status, thanks be to God, but by the way our words and deed match up. For all the talk of being against homophobia, it still remains an endemic problem. If you don’t believe me, ask Jeffrey John.
Archdeacon David Picken, speaking at the On Fire Mission this week, said that “so many things are coming back to bite us from the past in the church. And most of them are to do with a lack of authenticity, a lack of trust and a lack of truth.” Until we face up to that, putting “Christian” in front of anything is likely to make little difference to our missionary effectiveness, even if it makes us feel good about ourselves.