A Question of Christian Identity?


by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News

Later this week, the University of Chester will host a one-day conference on “Sexuality and Anglican Identities”.  It promises to be an interesting day with speakers offering a wide range of perspectives – from Dr Susannah Cornwall (Exeter University to Dr David Hilborn (St John’s School of Mission in Nottingham).

In promoting the event the project organisers, Dr Paul Middleton and Dr Jessica Keady, note:

G“Sexuality is a divisive issue in the Church today.  For many of those who hold different positions on the presenting issues, Christian identity is at stake.  …While what has been called the Church of England’s via media has been able to accommodate theological and ethical breadth within a broad understanding of Anglican identity (eg The Pilling Report, 2013), in the current environment, various Anglican groups (such as Changing Attitude, GAFCON, Reform etc) call for a more decisive decision to either include or exclude people in same sex relationships.  These groups, for whom sexuality (or more particularly, homosexuality) has become the measure of Anglican faithfulness, create different ways of constructing and understanding Anglican identity.”

Personally, I would argue that this issue actually has very little to do with Anglican identity and everything to do with certain tribes’ definition and understanding of Christian identity.  I make this important distinction as there are many tribes (such as New Wine, the Evangelical Alliance, Spring Harvest) whose first allegiance it seems is not to their denomination but to their tribe.  This is particularly true within the evangelical tradition.  If you doubt this, just look at how many relate to authority – where the recognised tribal leaders hold more influence than the official appointed traditional leader, such as the local bishop.

For many, their sense of identity is and has always been in their allegiance to their Christian brothers and sisters who exhibit certain key traits or have experienced certain spiritual manifestations.  These can be summed up in key catch phrases such as “bible-believing Christians” or “spirit-filled Christians” who have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”.  As such, these descriptors are used to segregate “real Cristians” from those who “just think they are Christians”.  Of course, they would argue this practice is highly biblical as Jesus talks about separating “the sheep from the goats” and “wheat from tares” (although they tend to forget that it is Jesus himself who does this – and not until the final judgement).

A good example of this was when Rowan Williams was announced as the new Archbishop of Canterbury.  I remember clearly that the one single question that most of the Lambeth Partners (a group formed to provide practical support (ie money) for the archbishop) wanted to know was “Is he spirit-filled, Jayne?”  Most had joined the Partnership to support Archbishop George Carey, and as such were senior evangelicals from across the country.  Many were very sceptical at ++Rowan’s appointment, and wanted reassuring.  I remember being deeply angered by these questions and would always respond “Of course he’s spirit-filled!!  Have you read any of his books or heard him preach?!  Can’t you see the gift of wisdom that God has given him?”  But what they wanted to hear from me was that there was tangible proof that he spoke in tongues or exhibited other signs of the Holy Spirit as set out in 1 Corinthians 14.  For without this proof they could not be certain that he was on the right side of the great divide.  As such many left the Partnership.

And therein lies the crux of our problem as a “Church”.  We have a deep fault line that we hardly ever acknowledge or talk about.  One (large) evangelical group passes judgement on another (large but more dispersed) liberal/Anglo-Catholic group.  They assume that because they don’t have a similar experience of God – or at least they don’t believe that they have – they should be “written off” as charlatans and pretenders.  They perceive them as people just in love with tradition and ritual, who don’t have a “personal relationship with Christ” and hence “are in love with religion rather than with the living Lord Jesus”.

The problem doesn’t stop there.  Many within the liberal/anglo-catholic group tend themselves to write off those from the evangelical group for being “narrow minded bigots, who leave their brains at the door”.

Oh, see how we love each other!

Whatever happened to “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others you will be judged”?  Yes, I know this verse is frequently quoted by tribal leaders who say they don’t want to judge individuals – at least it’s regularly quoted to me when I ask whether they think I am going to hell as per Romans 1 for being openly gay.  But, of course they do judge!  They refuse to recognise people like me as being part of their tribe – or indeed any evangelical who “has gone soft” on homosexuality.  Instead many of us are asked to stand down from positions of lay leadership because of the views that we hold.

Be under no doubt, your tribal identity is key.  In fact, it is more than that, it is critical – as you may find yourself on the wrong side of the pearly gates if you get it wrong!  Of course, you’ll also find yourself out in the cold – away from the fellowship of your friends – if you show any form of disagreement.  That form of ostracism is far more difficult and painful to deal with.  You may also not get that promotion you hoped for.

As many know to their cost, it is extremely difficult to stand against your leaders’ teachings if you don’t agree with them – best to keep quiet and keep your thoughts to yourself.  Remember, your leaders must know best because “they are the really spirit-filled ones”.  They know, because they have the Spirit of Discernment, and the Spirit of Wisdom and the Spirit of Counsel.  Of course, “pretend Christians” can’t have the same level of biblical understanding because they aren’t spirit filled – even if they are a bishop!

So, to recap, there are many who believe that to be a “real Christian” (and recognised by your church leaders and friends as a “real Christian”) you must belong to the “right group”.  This means you MUST publicly show that you are prepared to play by your club’s rules – and more importantly, that you are prepared to publicly state that you believe the “right things”.  Hence being asked to sign a Statement of Faith, which increasingly has clauses about beliefs regarding sexuality and same sex relationships in it.

Indeed, your stance on sexuality is key – it is now the defining factor that shows whether you have “conformed to this world” and given in to “liberal pressure”, or whether you’re prepared to “stand firm against the devil” even if this makes you unpopular.  Showing any form of weakness in this area is very dangerous – you cannot afford to be swayed by emotional blackmail of the painful stories of what happens to LGBTI Christians who suffer under their church’s teaching.  Heaven forbid that your heart aches to show compassion and kindness, or that you see the wonderful fruit flowing from a same sex couple in love.

After all, you’re told, didn’t Christ warn this would happen “in the end times”? That people would be ensnared by “false teaching” and would “love the world”?  Ironically, it’s all done “for the sake of the Gospel” – even if that core Gospel message is being horrendously undermined, people excluded from God’s love and a Church labelled homophobic by an incredulous nation who look on in anger and bewilderment.

Oh what a web we weave!

But because we’re Anglicans (and British) we all smile sweetly at each other, and we pretend we get on.  Behind the smiles is that thought that “one day, God will show them we’re right and then they’ll repent..”

And that thought exists on both sides!

I am of the firm belief that this judgemental spirit is one of the greatest dangers to the Christian gospel today.  It turns the Word of God into a lie.  It is a form of spiritual abuse and blindness that cannot be reasoned with or challenged.  It is a fundamentalist belief that “I am right because I am spirit-filled and I KNOW.”  It is harsh, unloving, uncaring and ungodly.  It is even more dangerous because it is preached in the name of love by leaders who are themselves good men and women, but who refuse to recognise that they exhibit a homophobic spirit.  More importantly it refuses to answer the call of the Holy Spirit to show kindness and compassion, and fails to recognise that where there is love there is God.

Only Jesus can touch hardened hearts to the enormity of his love – and for that we need a miracle, and for that we need to pray!