Review: The Minister as Entrepreneur by Michael Volland

minister entrepreneur

Full disclosure: I’m reading this because I’m due to take over teaching a course on Mission Entrepreneurship and it’s not language I’ve been particularly familiar with.

Volland has a strong background in mission and Fresh Expressions, and wrote and researched this book while in post as Director of Mission at Cranmer Hall. It’s an interesting book, part reflection on his self-understanding of his own ministry as entrepreneurial and what entrepreneurial ministry might mean and have to offer, and part research into the experience of several clergy in Durham diocese identified as entrepreneurial.

This has the feeling of a conversation-starter rather than being a major piece of theology. Volland’s theological reflections are the weakest part of the book. I began the book unconvinced that entrepreneur was a helpful term for describing ministry, and ended it feeling the same, though recognising that what the language appears to do is to enable a label to be applied to a vital set of skills that the church urgently needs to engage with. To that extent, then, I suppose I’m happy to adopt the language of entrepreneur as a sort of ‘nom du guerre’ given that it appears to have real utility. In the fullness of time, though, I hope we can find language less resonant of capitalist excess, cutthroat business practice, and the myth of the heroic individual. Despite Volland’s protests that genuine entrepreneurship was none of those things, the tendency to valorise headstrong charismatic individuals who go their own way, pay lip service to notions of team and partnership, and have an uncomfortably flippant relationship to institutional loyalty or the limits of the law was still all too evident.

And yet, there is much here that the church needs to engage with. The CofE is, demonstrably, in a missional situation where its traditional strengths: (respect for institution and tradition, a preference for moderation and slow incremental change, and a strong sense that the local church should just hatch, match and dispatch, be nice and not demand too much of anyone) will inevitably lead to the death of a thousand cuts. An openness to creativity, radical change, and forging new sorts of relationships with the communities around it are vital if the church is to survive. And that means clergy, senior staff, and congregations who either are themselves entrepreneurs, act in entrepreneurial ways, or at the least have sympathy with and a permission-giving stance towards those who are.

There are a whole constellation of issues around mission, church growth, collaborative ministry, vision, leadership, and changing church culture that are helpfully brought into close focus when looked at through the lens of entrepreneurship, as becomes apparent in Volland’s research. Being entrepreneurial is not the same as being missional (in the narrow sense) but there are interesting connections between them. Partnership and collaboration are not the same as being entrepreneurial, but I wonder whether much discussion of them does not focus enough on what sort of person forges new partnerships and networks and why.

There is much in the research Volland discusses that rings very true of the reality of parish ministry, where the struggle is to find any way to be pro-active and to take risks, caught between the expectations of congregation, peers and senior leaders, and without the resources to even adequately do the bread and butter reactive work of ministry. There is a nettle to be grasped here, and Volland’s work may provide a new way of identifying it.

The General Election of 2017: a brief guide

I was asked by an American friend to provide some notes to understand what has happened in the UK election. Having started to write, it grew a bit, and I realised it might have wider interest. So, this is a rather long primer in recent British politics aimed mainly at Americans. If you’re only interested in my analysis of the election and its likely aftermath you’ll find that right at the end, under point 7.

Understanding the UK General Election

A primer in UK politics aimed mainly at Americans 

  1. Some basics about British politics

In the UK, the government is appointed by the Queen, who asks the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons to form a government following an election. The leader of that party becomes Prime Minister, and then appoints a cabinet. In US terms this is equivalent to the Speaker of the House of Representatives automatically becoming President, in a setup where the Senate is unelected and has no power to veto legislation. So for us, the General Election determines everything, and it is a vote not directly for a Prime Minister, but for a member of Parliament to represent your constituency.

There are two big political parties: Labour and Conservative (also known by their 18th century nick-name Tories).

The Conservatives are, generally speaking, a right-wing party, who are interested in supporting business and enterprise, small government, a strong and unregulated economy, and are strong on law and order and family values. (Similar to the Republicans in the US). They are a broad party, however, and contain within them some who are essentially committed to liberal values, some who are convinced of the need for a socially responsible conservatism, and some who are widely seen as sexist, racist, homophobic, and elitist. Characteristically, they are pragmatic, less wedded to ideals than ‘doing what must be done’. Tories are blue.

Labour are, generally speaking, a left-wing party (in the sense of being socialist, and with close links to organised labour and trade unions, rather than in the American sense of being socially progressive, though they are often socially progressive too), who are interested in supporting workers and industry, big government, a strong interventionist approach to the economy, and are strong on education, social welfare, and health policy. (If Bernie Sanders was a party in his own right, they would be something like this). They are also a broad party, however, and contain with them some who would be more committed to a free market and liberal values. Characteristically they are idealists, seeking to bring wide-ranging change to society in the interests of equality. Labour are red.

As well as the big parties there are a number of smaller ones, the most significant of which is the Liberal Democrats (or Lib Dems), whose strength in Parliament has fluctuated over the years. They are a centrist party, committed to progressive liberal values, and seeking to bring reform to society in the interests of liberty. (Similar to the Democrats in the US). The Lib Dems are often the ‘second choice’ party in many constituencies, picking up disaffected Labour or Tory voters. Lib Dem are yellow. There are also regional parties, who have considerable appeal in particular parts of the country but not outside of them. So the Scottish Nationalist Party (or SNP) in Scotland, who are progressive but primarily interested in campaigning for Scottish independence, pitting them against all the other parties, Plaid Cymru in Wales (broadly similar to the SNP), and the various Northern Ireland parties, who split along sectarian lines, with the Unionists being right wing and allied with the Tories, and Sinn Fein (the republican party) being more left wing, but refusing to recognise the authority of the British government on principle, and therefore not sending its MPs to the Commons. Finally there are what are generally regarded as the more extremist parties: the Green party (focused on environmental issues, but also being progressive) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)(focused on independence from the EU, but also being broadly anti-immigration, socially regressive, and somewhere to the right of the Tories).


  1. Some recent political history

Labour were last in power in 2010. They came to power in a landslide success in 1997 largely due to the charisma and vision of Tony Blair, who remodelled the rather old-fashioned socialist Labour into ‘New Labour’, which looked and sounded reassuringly like a rather funky version of the Tories (Blair was privately educated, and a former London-based lawyer) but in fact put through some significant socially progressive policies and social welfare reforms all whilst being reassuringly hands-off with the economy and pro private enterprise.

Blair fell from grace largely due to the unpopularity of the Iraq War, but Labour’s demise was also because of the global recession of 2008, which the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown responded to by breaking his previous non-interventionist economic policy to shore up the UK economy.  The General election of 2010 resulted in huge losses for Labour and a hung parliament (where no party had an overall majority). The Tories, (under the leadership of David Cameron, who looked and sounded like a slightly more right-wing version of Tony Blair), formed a coalition government with the Lib Dems (under the leadership of Nick Clegg, who looked and sounded like David Cameron’s long lost twin brother) and successfully spun the global recession as being the fault of Brown’s economic policy which had left the country deep in debt, requiring a period of extended austerity and cuts to public spending to put us out of debt.

In 2014, there was a referendum on Scottish Independence. Labour and the Tories campaigned together in favour of Scotland remaining within the Union (something that in Scotland almost certainly underlined a sense that there was little to distinguish the two). The SNP campaigned in favour of independence. The referendum was narrowly in favour of remaining in the union.

The general election of 2015 saw the Tories narrowly win the overall majority Cameron needed to govern independently, campaigning once again under the need for austerity, and deep cuts to public services. The Lib Dems were punished at the ballot box for their role in the coalition government, which had required them to go back on many of the promises they had made in the election campaign. Labour, under Ed Milliband (who looked and sounded like a cross between Tony Blair at his most earnest and Mr Bean) failed to win the support they needed to challenge the Tories. In both cases, the losses were partly due to a massive surge in support for the SNP in Scotland, which led to the SNP replacing the Lib Dems as the third largest party, and almost eliminated the previously strong Scottish Labour party. Ukip had a massive surge in support, but because of the electoral system actually decreased their number of MPs from 2 to 1. In many constituencies, however, they had the second largest number of votes, attracting support from disaffected Tory and Labour voters with a strong anti-Establishment message.


  1. The Rise of Jeremy Corbyn 2015

The loss of the 2015 election led to soul-searching in the Labour party. There was a general feeling within the parliamentary party that to win, Labour needed a candidate who had enough of the Blair factor to be electable – someone who could look and sound not too left wing so that they could appeal to the middle ground of politics. The main candidates in the leadership contest to replace Miliband were therefore of this mold. Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime left-wing member of the party, stood largely in order to provide an alternative option. He was elected by an overwhelming majority of party members despite lack of support from the parliamentary party, who thought he represented a step backwards for the party.

The next two years for Corbyn as party leader were a continual battle to prove his credibility as a party leader and potential Prime Minister against a background of constant hostility from the press, and vicious infighting within the party as various members attempted to remove him. At one point he faced mass resignations by his shadow cabinet and a leadership challenge, which he comfortably won (again, due to support from the grassroots members rather than the parliamentary party). Imagine Sanders somehow won the democratic nomination, but the DNC were still determined it should have been Clinton, and were trying constantly to remove him or embarrass him enough to force him to step down, and this goes on for two years.


  1. The Referendum on EU membership and its aftermath 2016

The Tories had for years had a serious split within their ranks over their attitude to the EU. Some were internationalist in outlook, and saw membership of the EU as a positive thing. Others were rather more insular, at times almost rabidly xenophobic and suspicious of the motives and power of ‘Brussels’. The right wing press generally fell into the second camp. Increasingly, as the 2015 election had shown, more euro-phobic Tory voters were turning to Ukip. David Cameron saw the chance to stop the rot by calling a referendum on EU membership. The bluff of Ukip would be called, all sane establishment figures would make an overwhelmingly reasonable case for continued membership, the referendum would be won (though expectations were that there would be a sizeable minority in favour of Brexit), and the threat of Ukip would be dealt with. The whole political class (on both sides) were convinced this would be the outcome. Parliamentary parties therefore began politicking on the basis of this assured result.

Cameron had indicated his intention of stepping down before the next general election (due to be in 2020). Boris Johnson, the ex Mayor of London whose ambitions to succeed Cameron were no secret, unexpectedly announced his intention to campaign for Brexit. It was clearly a calculated political move to demonstrate his ability, as the most high-profile Brexit politician, to command support across the country (particularly amongst those disaffected tory voters). He began energetically presiding over a cheerfully irresponsible and blatantly populist campaign, which promised the world if only Brexit would happen, and disregarded the words of experts as establishment stooges.

The Parliamentary Labour Party began planning a coup against Corbyn in the aftermath of a Referendum. Labour were officially pro-Remain, and Corbyn was expected to campaign on this basis, but he was known to be personally sympathetic to the Brexit cause. The press was briefed that he was campaigning half-heartedly for Remain, in anticipation of being able to hold him to blame for the high (but unsuccessful) pro-Brexit vote, and make a case for a more Blairite pro-Remain candidate to replace him as leader. (In the event, the coup was completely unsuccessful).

The Referendum was narrowly in favour of Brexit, catching everyone by surprise (even those who had campaigned for it). Cameron resigned, prompting a leadership contest that was spectacularly inept. Boris Johnson was widely seen as the most likely successor, and was expected to be supported by Michael Gove, who had also campaigned for Brexit. Unexpectedly, Gove announced his own candidacy, publicly betraying Johnson, who then chose not to stand as a candidate. Gove then failed to win enough support within the party (many of whom turned on him for his betrayal of Johnson) to become leader, and was eliminated, leaving Theresa May and Angela Leadsom. Leadsom then sabotaged herself through ineptly handling an interview, and withdrew from the contest. Theresa May, who had herself campaigned against Brexit, then became Prime Minister without ever having really had to sell herself. She continued Cameron’s policies of austerity.


  1. Brexit

The Referendum had committed the country to Brexit, but had given no indication what alternative we were committing ourselves to (partly, no doubt, because those framing the legislation had not expected this result). Brexit campaigners had exploited this, arguing that a vote for Brexit meant complete freedom from EU legislation and payments on the one hand and continued access to the Single Market on the other, though the two are logically incompatible. It now became important to clarify what Brexit actually meant.

Ultimately, of course, the shape of Brexit will be determined in negotiation with the EU rather than being something the UK can dictate, but broadly speaking, concerning the government’s intentions in approaching negotiations, there is ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’. Soft Brexit means seeking a relationship that is as close as possible to that held as an EU member, including access to the Single Market, favourable trading conditions etc. In return, of course, this would mean agreeing to some concessions (certainly including adhering to EU legislation as regards goods being traded in the EU, but probably also freedom of movement and likely some sort of payment for the privilege). Hard Brexit means seeking complete withdrawal from the EU, without any continued relationship. May initially refused to clarify her exact intentions, stating “Brexit means Brexit”, but eventually started to sound like she anticipated a hard Brexit, arguing that “No deal is better than a bad deal”. All of this lack of clarity was compounded by a refusal to concede that Brexit could not mean having your cake and eating it, generally glossed with an appeal to patriotism and an attack on “remoaners” talking Britain down. The result is that at the time of the election, we were 10 days off from the start of a two-year negotiation process, with no idea what the government was going to be arguing for behind closed doors, no guarantees or promises, no oversight, but with a vague threat that if they couldn’t get a deal they thought was good (and a hugely inflated sense of what that notional ‘good deal’ would look like) they were prepared to walk away with nothing.

It’s probably helpful to give some overview of what Brexit involves. The UK government has been evasive, reluctant to challenge widely-held misconceptions originating in the Referendum campaign, and all too willing to indulge in wishful thinking based on a rose-tinted view of the UK’s importance in the world, so this is not something that gets set out clearly.

The UK government has formally requested to exit the EU (known as triggering Article 50), which has started a 2 year process of negotiated withdrawal. This negotiation is essentially the divorce process: deciding the terms on which separation will occur and dividing the assets. The EU has made certain things clear about its position: the UK will indisputably have to make a settlement payment to cover its dues to the EU, if the UK wants access to the Single Market it will have to also accept Freedom of Movement (ie no immigration restrictions for EU citizens), and they will not begin talking trade deals with the UK until these matters are resolved.

Once the ‘divorce proceedings’ are concluded, then Brexit has two further major implications for the UK. At present its trade agreements with pretty much everywhere are through the EU, and will therefore all need to be renegotiated. The government is airily confident that this herculean task will be quickly accomplished, and result in better deals for the country than were possible while we were a member of the world’s largest trading block. Also, much of the UK’s legislation is at present based on EU law. This means that following exit from the EU all this legislation (covering amongst other things health & safety directives, civil liberties, workers rights, environmental protection etc) will need to be rewritten as part of a Great Reform Bill. The government has thus far been completely silent on its intentions for this wholesale redrafting, but many are suspicious that rhetoric about making the UK an attractive place for foreign companies to do business implies taking the opportunity to remove or water down legislation in many of these areas.


  1. The General Election campaign of 2017

To summarise the above: in 2017, Theresa May was governing with only a small majority, meaning that she was in a comparatively weak position to push through controversial legislation. The Conservatives had since 2010 been pursuing Austerity policies of deep cuts to public spending, proclaiming that this was necessary for the economic health of the country, though in fact it had had minimal impact, and increasingly it was apparent that the policies were ideologically motivated attempts to move the UK into a privatised, small-state model. There were concerns that the NHS was being de-funded and privatised by stealth, that the BBC was being pared down and sold off, that education was being de-funded and moved inexorably onto a private business model. The police and armed forces had seen serious cuts. Cameron’s early promises to promote clean energy had been junked and there were moves from the government to encourage the fracking industry.

The Referendum that brought May to power had committed her to a Brexit she had campaigned against, but that the media and influential sections of her own party eagerly desired, creating expectations of a wildly economically successful hard Brexit. She knew that at some point over the next 3 years it would become clear that many of those hopes were illusory, and that a hugely controversial Great Reform Bill, some of  which might even be opposed by the members of her own party, would have to be steered through parliament. At the same time, her major political opponents were currently in disarray. The Labour party had a leader they themselves thought was unelectable, who was regularly lampooned in the press, and were engaged in a vicious public civil war. Ukip, having achieved all that they had campaigned for, and with all their major policies now adopted as government ones, had lost their whole raison d’etre. The Liberal Democrats were a shadow of their former selves, and despite attempts to position themselves as the party of Remainers, they were still distrusted by the electorate.

May had previously promised that there would be no early election, but surprised everyone by calling one, due to happen a mere two weeks before negotiations with the EU were due to commence. It was decried by everyone as blatant political opportunism, an attempt to secure her own personal position as Prime Minister and secure a larger parliamentary majority to give her the strength to make unpopular decisions. It was also grudgingly recognised as a masterstroke – a crushing victory, probably destroying Labour at the ballot box, and perhaps ensuring Conservative dominance for a generation seemed almost certain.

The campaign that followed confounded all expectation. Theresa May launched a tightly controlled, zero-risk campaign. There were minimal public appearances, and those that happened were tightly stage-managed. She said little in interviews, simply emphasising that she offered strong and stable government and attacking the weakness of Corbyn. She refused to appear in the televised leader’s debate, or to engage in any head-to-head debate with her opponent. Meanwhile, her manifesto reflected the absolute confidence she would win. There were no undeliverable popularist policies, but rather a clear setting out of the policies she wanted to introduce, including a reform of social care for the elderly enabling the government to take the houses of those requiring long term care to recoup the costs (a policy labelled ‘dementia tax’ by her opponents).

Meanwhile, Corbyn fought an incredible campaign. Election rules meant that despite a dirty campaign being waged against him personally by the Tories (alleging that he was a spendthrift pinko lefty terrorist sympathiser who could not be trusted) the media coverage of him was actually more positive during the campaign than it had been for the last two years. They had to cover his speeches because he was campaigning in the election, and nothing could be thrown at him that hadn’t already been thrown at him. Improbably, the Labour party rallied around him and presented a united front. He waged a campaign that emphasised personal contact with voters and addressing huge outdoor rallies (a very visible contrast to May). His manifesto was a well-crafted presentation of popular left-wing policies, emphasising progressive taxation and re-investment in all the public services that had suffered under austerity, whilst stepping back from the more unpopular policies he held to personally (nuclear disarmament). He very naturally came across as the anti-establishment figure in an election where May presented herself as the embodiment of the establishment: a vicar’s daughter who you could trust to do the right thing for the country and make the difficult choices that had to be made without needing to bother you, the ordinary people, with any of the details.

Opinion polls started to show a narrowing of the gap between the two. An increasingly panicky and flustered-looking May looked awkward when challenged, and quickly dropped her most unpopular manifesto policies within weeks of having presented them. Meanwhile, a relaxed Corbyn attracted huge crowds. By the time of the election, some polls showed Corbyn ahead.


  1. The Election of 2017

The election resulted in a hung parliament. May, who had called it in order to strengthen her comparatively small majority, ended up losing that majority, unable to form a government in her own right. Ukip lost all their seats. Labour saw the biggest increase in support, although not enough to beat the Tories, it was their greatest gain since the post-war government. There was some speculation that they would be able to form a coalition or alliance of some sort with other progressive parties to form a government, but this ended up not being possible, partly because other progressive parties did not perform as well (in part because some, like the Greens, actively encouraged their supporters to vote tactically to keep the Tories out, a tactic that Labour were the major beneficiary of). The SNP, the big winners in Scotland in 2015, lost half their seats in Scotland (some to the Tories). Their opportunistic attempts to build a case for a second Scottish independence referendum off the back of the Brexit vote had not played well in a Scotland where some resented their self-appointed role as spokespeople for all of Scotland, when the majority of Scots had voted against independence. The Liberal Democrats saw only a modest increase in their seats (and actually a reduction in their percentage of the vote overall) rather than the surge in support they had hoped for as the voice of Remainers. In Northern Ireland, the smaller parties lost seats to the bigger ones, leaving Sinn Fein (who do not take their seats in parliament) and the DUP as the big two. This left the unusual situation of one Unionist party with an unusually large number of seats (10) rather than the usual collection of smaller unionist parties. This was to become significant.

Ignoring calls for her resignation, May chose to form a minority government, with the support of the DUP. This is a vulnerable position. Unlike a coalition government, a minority government has to win support for each of its policies in parliament in turn, having no guarantee of passing them. It is very vulnerable to rebellions from its own party members. This makes extreme policies far harder to support.

It is likely that this spells the end for May personally. She has shown herself unable to win an election in almost ideal conditions. The only reason she has not already gone is likely to be that the party needs a certain degree of stability in order to ensure they stay in power. Her days are certainly numbered, however. They will not wish to fight another election with her as party leader. A leadership challenge from within the party and subsequent change in political direction seems inevitable, it’s just a question of when, and which way it will take them. There are clearly some who feel that a wholehearted embracing of a hard Brexit is the way to go (and May was only ever a reluctant spokesperson for this position). There are also those who feel that is a mistake and that a soft Brexit should be persued, and they may now feel emboldened to speak up.

All this makes a hard Brexit, further harsh austerity measures, or controversial weakenings of key protections and freedoms in a Great Reform Act far less likely. All of these are unpopular, and will be hard to get support for as a minority government.

The reliance on the support of the DUP means that their political priorities will become far more significant for the government. They are socially regressive, far more so than the Tory party (which recently introduced same-sex marriage legislation), and pro-Brexit, though they are averse to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Eire (which is inevitable unless some sort of Freedom of Movement agreement is reached). The effect of these priorities on government policy remains to be seen. There may be destabilising effects of this close linking of Ulster unionists with the Tory government on the Northern Ireland peace agreement too, which is a cause for concern. Northern Ireland politics are volatile, and Westminster is now going to be increasingly embroiled in them. Sinn Fein have already warned that they consider the agreement between the DUP and the Conservatives to be in breach of the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which formally ended hostilities between paramilitaries in and beyond Northern Ireland.

The incredible surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn consolidates his position as leader of the Labour Party, and will make the Tories wary of calling another election in the near future. Whether the infighting within the party will really stop is open to debate. Labour has a history of long and bitter ideological battles, and the battle between its left and right wings is unlikely to go away. However, the clear demonstration that Corbyn has wide popular support, particularly amongst the young, changes the nature of the debate a little.


Striving for the Kingdom – A paper for the Sexuality & Anglican Identities Conference

This is a long post. It’s the text of the paper as given to the Sexuality and Anglican Identities day Conference in Chester on 6th May 2017. There’s talk of getting the papers published, in which case a slightly polished version of this (with proper referencing for all my dodgy arguments) will be available elsewhere at some point. Until then, though, here it is.

TLDR: The current conflicts around sexuality are reshaping the identities of both evangelicals and liberals. The activist wings of both groupings are increasingly becoming monstrous twins who are eschatologically focused.


Striving for the Kingdom – the battle-forged identities of evangelical anglicans

It’s a truism that identity is shaped in adversity. It’s certainly true contemporary evangelical Anglican identities cannot be understood without reference to a number of key debates that have happened within and beyond the Church of England in the latter part of the last century and into the current millennium. There are many of these debates that could be named: around gender and specifically women’s ministry, around relations with other faiths and specifically interfaith worship, around the engagement with an increasingly secular media and public discourse and specifically ‘persecution’ of Christians real or imagined. However, the most prominent of these, especially in recent years, has been the debate around sexuality. Broadly, these debates can be understood as key sites in evangelicalism’s response to late modernity.


English Evangelicalism in Late Modernity

The cultural landscape around evangelicalism has shifted over the last 60 years almost beyond recognition. There has been a massive increase in cultural and religious pluralism, leading to a corresponding shift of religion from the public to the private sphere, so that religious truth claims have been relativised and treated as subjective. Social and cultural controls over women and minority groups (including sexual minorities) have been increasingly relaxed and/or disavowed (though in some cases, clearly, a rhetoric of political correctness has encouraged public disavowal of controls that may in fact still remain in place in the form of glass ceilings and other structural inequities). Simultaneously, as Pete Ward described 20 years ago, an expansion in access to higher education, increased social mobility, and shifts in educational practices have resulted in highly educated congregations (and increasingly church leaders) from non-elite backgrounds, capable of asking critical theological questions of their tradition, and used to a more egalitarian and cooperative style of learning and leadership than had previously been the case. Evangelical church leaders, many of whom are still drawn from elite backgrounds, the legacy of a strategy of investment in summer camps and Christian unions, can no longer fall back on the comfortable assumptions of a shared public school and Oxbridge background as was the case in the 50s.


The most obvious symptom of Late Modernity to the churches (and the one that most evangelicals still feel keenly as the area where the church should direct most of its energies) has of course been catastrophic decline in church attendance, highlighted in increasingly detailed and widely available statistical surveys from the 70s onwards through the English Church Censuses. A corresponding rise in church closures and decline in levels of ministry provision has created a situation in which the felt experience of Anglican evangelicals over the last 60 years has been finding the modern world to be a profoundly hostile environment. In this struggle the cultural elites of the liberal intelligentsia in the Media, Higher Education, the Arts and Sciences have often been seen as the enemy without, the embodiment of a creeping secularism. Amongst charismatic circles, the world was often viewed explicitly in demonic terms. Frank Peretti’s novel This Present Darkness, which portrayed everyday life as a supernatural battle between angels and demons in which the church was a battleground was a bestseller in evangelical churches in the 80s. With Church attendance plummeting, the nominal Christianity of the nation at large declining with each successive generation, evangelicals seemed locked in a never-ending struggle against cultural forces that seemed determined to eradicate their existence. An increasingly alien and hostile culture, ‘out there’ was asking difficult and new questions, and had a growing dissatisfaction with the evangelicalism that attempted to answer, embodied as it was in establishment, within institutions and in elite white, straight male authority figures. More recently there has been a particular focus in evangelical circles on legal cases brought against evangelical believers, often these cases have been widely publicised through the charity Christian Concern. Cases around the public display of Christian symbols, or evangelicals offering praying with others in their workplace, or the public statement of traditional views on sexuality. While we may wish to resist understanding these as ‘persecution’, the felt effect of these cases being widely publicised is an evangelical sense of being marginalised, and pushed out of the public square.


Alongside this, Anglican evangelicals have felt themselves to be fighting a civil war within their own denomination against liberalism, largely informed by the shared history of the Christian Union movement and its struggle with SCM, later ossified by UCCF’s self-construction of its identity around the Doctrinal Basis. The experience, shared by many evangelical church leaders, of having served on the executive committee of a Christian Union in their formative years crystalises two key touchstones of evangelical (and by extension authentic Christian) identity: there is an irreducible core of doctrine that everyone should be expected to affirm, and our primary focus should be engaging in evangelism. These two key assumptions work together – all necessary doctrine can be summarised on a sheet of A4, that can be referred to once a year, signed, and then forgotten about. Because discussing doctrine is a distraction from our main focus, which is evangelism. This is a caricature, of course. Evangelicals are not simplistic or anti-intellectual, and are often also aware of and active in other areas of mission as well as evangelism – the last half century has also seen the recovery of evangelical concern with social justice, rather the point I am making is that they are characterised by what Bebbington labels as Activism: an instinctive leaning towards doing the work of the gospel, in prayer, in apologetics, or mission.

Evangelicals are wary of speculative theology. At best it’s a distraction from the work of proclaiming the gospel. At worst, it undermines those less sure in their faith and brings disunity. Liberal theology, therefore, has always been viewed with suspicion by evangelicals. Liberals were the enemy within the church, weakening its witness and unity, distracting from the task of evangelism, an impression solidified by statistical analyses of church decline which suggested that liberal churches declined significantly while evangelical churches did not.


Embattled evangelicalism

I don’t think any of the above is particularly controversial as a description of the position of evangelicalism in recent times. Often though, it is described in rather sterile sociological terms, with the aid of statistics. I have myself done this elsewhere, and noted the extent to which the whole conflict between evangelicalism and Modernity is in technical terms mythical – the evangelicalism which casts itself as the defender of tradition against modernity is itself thoroughly modern. However, although these sorts of nuances and specifics undoubtedly bring accuracy and perspective to discussions, they have the effect of encouraging a discourse of historical detachment, in which all of this is seen as simply evidence of long-term social trends. It’s pointless to ask how you feel about them, any more than it makes sense to ask how you feel about the tide coming in. It’s happening. You just need to decide if you’re going to move or risk being washed away. What I want to suggest is that this evasion of the felt experience of these cultural shifts that I have just outlined obscures the effect they have on the one experiencing them. Because that effect is fear. It’s the flight or fight reflex. So I want to suggest a rather more visceral language with which to discuss these shifts and evangelical responses to them: the language of warfare.


Evangelicals are engaged in a battle with the world. It’s a language as we’ve seen, that evangelicals themselves use. I think this language is helpful in understanding what has happened to Anglican evangelical identity, because it helps to explain the way in which particular aspects of it change. In war, lines are drawn, and positions become entrenched where they face strong resistance. Certain positions become weakened over time and are abandoned. Unexpected new fronts open up to exploit a weakness in the enemy. Other areas are unexpectedly reinforced in anticipation of an enemy attack. The point is that increasingly evangelical identity has become shaped around resistance to the claims of the world. The evangelicalism of today is not the evangelicalism of a century ago precisely because it has been shaped and formed by conflict.


The changes in evangelical identity can be mapped out in various ways. Rob Warner’s study Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1966-2001 traces the ways in which doctrinal statements have changed over that period, reflecting underlying shifts and splits in evangelical identity. The changes can also be mapped out in relation to the increasingly public debates over sexuality within the Church of England. The growing understanding of the diversity of sexual identities and the campaigning for legal equalities and protections for sexual minorities, leading to growing acceptance of diverse sexualities and legal protections for their expressions has been a key part of the cultural shifts in Late Modernity I have been discussing. Throughout the 60s and 70s sexuality, along with the rest of these sites of cultural change, was reacted to by evangelicals as a problematic aspect of the world they were striving against. It was not particularly singled out, but it was very much a part of the problem. Within this there could be evangelical pastoral responses towards gay people that are remarkably affirming. This was only, however, because at this point sexuality was not being singled out by evangelicals as a particular ‘front’ in the battle against the world.


All this was to change. Homosexuality became an ‘issue’ to be addressed. It became a strategic front to defend in the war against the world. And increasingly, for conservative evangelicals it has become the key position in the whole front, principally because it seems to embody the clearest point where evangelicals are feeling pressured to abandon and disown a reading of scripture that most evangelicals regard as straightforwardly and uncontroversially true. If evangelicals lose this point, they fear, not only that battle but the whole war will be lost. Unfettered modernity will sweep all before it. The point was perhaps made most clearly by the American evangelical Richard Lovelace writing in 1979: ‘if we can interpret Scripture to endorse homosexual acts among Christians, we can make it endorse anything else we want to do or believe and our faith and practice are cut loose in a borderless chaos.’


As far as many evangelicals are concerned throughout their lifetimes, they have been locked into a life and death struggle with the world for the soul of the church. The enemy was shadowy and indistinct (sometimes ‘liberals’, or ‘gays’, or ‘the godless media’ or even ‘demonic forces’.) Occasionally a champion would emerge to do battle. But much of the time this was a war of attrition, waged against an enemy who could wear many faces, and might infiltrate your own ranks. In a word, this enemy was terrifying. It corrupted the best and the brightest and turned them against you. It captured your own weapons and fired them back at you. It served supernatural masters determined to plunge the whole world into darkness.


Rene Girard and Clausewitz’s On War

I want to draw into the discussion here Rene Girard’s fascinating engagement with the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s 19th Century treatise On War in his book Battling to the End. (I realise this sounds unpromising, but bear with me, and I’ll try and make it worth your while.) The work of Rene Girard has been devoted to exploring the areas where violence and the sacred interact. In Battling to the end, he reflects on the modern turn to violence in the light of apocalyptic texts and Clausewitz’s work. Clausewitz was a Prussian general writing about warfare from his experience of the Napoleonic wars, which were in many senses the first world wars. On War ostensibly describes Clausewitz’s understanding of ‘Real War’, but Girard teases out the extent to which it is haunted by the terrifying concept of the ‘Absolute War’ that Clausewitz had glimpsed in Napoleon’s mobilisation of a nation.


The ‘Real War’ is war that would be recogniseable to generals of the 18th century and earlier. It is, in Clausewitz’s own phrase ‘a continuation of politics by other means’. It is an attempt to achieve particular goals unachievable except by violence, based on a calculation of the probabilities of success. It does not lead to an absolute decision, but to a relative result. One side wins an advantage which the other calculates it cannot afford to challenge, and thus concedes, ending hostilities and making a peace treaty – moving back into the realm of politics. Real War is about politics embracing violence to achieve its ends. It is concerned with the possible, with the workable compromise.


However, Girard discerns that although he seems to be describing ‘Real War’, Clausewitz has seen that it can become something else: Absolute War. This is the unchecked form of warfare that characterises the modern age. In the Absolute War, no-one is willing to settle for a relative result. The victory of one side must entail the overthrow of the other. All violence, according to Girard, is prone to reciprocal escalation. In the words of Sean Connery in The Untouchables: ‘He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He puts one of yours in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue.’ The cycle of reciprocal violence naturally escalates and accelerates, moving Real War into Absolute War, as we move from seeking to achieve a goal to seeking to annihilate the enemy. The escalation is suspended if we start to speculate, if our response is not immediate, if we slow to calculate what the best possible outcome might be. We start to move back to Real War, to the realm of politics. Absolute War depends on a sense of urgency.


It is implicit in Girard’s thought that the two sides locked in reciprocal violence are mimetic – they increasingly mirror each other to the point where they become indistinguishable. In The Untouchables it becomes harder to tell which side is which, when both essentially operate as mob families answerable to no-one, and lose sight of all goals but that of destroying their enemy. Ness’s response to the question what he’ll do when they repeal Prohibition is ‘I’ll have a drink.’ When he examines On War, therefore, Girard highlights Clausewitz’s counter-intuitive insight that it is the attacker who wants peace, where the defender wants war. The aggressor in a conflict acts pre-emptively in a bid to bring conflict quickly to an end and restore peace. They are hoping and planning for there to be as little violence as possible. The defender, meanwhile, provokes the conflict by their aggressive preparations for war. All their plans are made to ensure that the conflict will be as long and costly as possible. Girard notes


The aggressor has always already been attacked…people always have the impression that the other is the first to attack, that they are never the ones who begin, though in a way they are always the ones… We make others understand that we recognise the signs of aggressiveness which they manifest, and they in turn interpret our posture as aggression. And so on.


The rhetoric of being the aggrieved party, reluctantly drawn into a conflict they did not seek simply to defend themselves is everywhere in the sexuality debate. Liberals speak of centuries of oppression and ongoing homophobia, which necessitate harsh steps being taken now. Conservatives speak of the need to resist the ongoing liberal drift of the church, and of being continually drawn away from the urgent need to focus on mission into debates around sexuality simply in order to defend themselves against attack and misrepresentations of their position.


In the recent reactions to the statement of the House of Bishops on sexuality following the Shared Conversations: GS 2055(prior to its being brought to Synod), these dynamics are clearly observable.


Adrian Symes, Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainsteam, commented that:


For many decades, perhaps for centuries, evangelicals in the C of E have wrestled with their consciences as unbiblical practices have taken hold in the culture of parish churches and Diocesan administrations up and down the land, and Bishops have spoken in support of heretical ideas… While the headline recommendations mean that there is no emergency requiring an immediate alternative Anglicanism as in Scotland, the underlying theology reflects and describes a church from which more and more potential ordinands and faithful lay people are already drifting away to other spiritual homes. The preservation of orthodox Anglicanism in England requires something different to trusting in the outcome of this document.


Meanwhile, the then LGCM’s open letter to Synod members urging them not to take note of the report stated that:


The Report was a betrayal of the trust vested in the House of Bishops during the Shared Conversations process, and opens the way to a single, very conservative interpretation of these matters being introduced… Our understanding is that the majority of members of synod were looking to the College and House of Bishops, when they took the initiative to respond to the Shared Conversations process, to lay a path for a process of change, perhaps setting a programme of activity to realise some of the priorities articulated by the LGBTI Mission.


For many conservative evangelicals then, the report represented the latest in a long series of slow concessions by the House of Bishops to heresy and a lukewarm failure to resist the pressures of the world, something they had feared being normalised in the Shared Conversations, prompting many to boycott them. For many liberals it represented a betrayal of trust by the House of Bishops, scorning the implicit promise that change would come that they felt had been made by the Shared Conversations. Both conservatives and liberals were the aggrieved party, responding to aggression, reluctantly forced to make a stand after long suffering. And although the common interpretation of the Synod vote was that not taking note represented a liberal victory, as many evangelicals felt that the report should be taken note of despite their misgivings, some did refuse to, voting with the many liberals who did likewise. Members of Reform and LGCM both urged a vote to not take note.


In fact, Girard’s insights illuminate the way in which the House of Bishops is increasingly playing the part of the villain for both liberals and conservatives. Girard notes that refusing conflict does not prevent an escalation of violence, it incites it. The House of Bishops fairly clearly are doing all they can to manage a situation spiralling out of their control, attempting to stop the conflict of an open split. They want peace. But the more you want peace, the more you prepare for war. In their quest for peace, the Bishops engage in elaborate managerial expansion. This was precisely what the content of the statement was: they strengthened and clarified their systems of observation and control. They set out areas where they might permit liberty, explicitly delineated the powers they were entitled to use, the legal structures they would refer to as authority. These steps to secure peace are inevitably interpreted as acts of aggression. The one seeking peace at all costs becomes the one making the most effective preparations for war. Ultimately, putting so much effort into systems of observation and control is daring the aggressor to violence. Because only through the aggressor showing their aggression can the morality of their own stance be demonstrated. Part of the implicit purpose of the statement’s studied moderation is so that when one or the other side massively over-reacts to a statement that was utterly predictable in content the Bishops are shown to be justified in their need to focus on managing the volatility.


I draw on Girard, however, not simply to make the fairly obvious point that ‘well, they’re all as bad as each other’. Girard’s insights around the way in which conflicts escalate and become increasingly mimetic do not just illuminate the rather depressing way that this cultural war is progressing. They also illuminate the way in which it is changing the identity of both conservative evangelicals and liberals (and, I suspect, the House of Bishops, though that is beyond the scope of this paper). I’ve suggested that the very fact of being engaged in warfare changes you: you become entrenched in your key positions, abandon indefensible ones, seize new ground that has become strategically important. These sorts of changes are readily observable, from evangelical tactical alliances with anglo-catholics to Reform’s quiet acceptance that women’s ministry perhaps wasn’t a first order issue after all. In the paper I presented in February I drew attention to the way in which some evangelicals have adopted hierarchical understandings of the Trinity explicitly as a means of bolstering a complementarian understanding of sexual identity, with obvious implications for women’s ministry. But Girard’s insight pushes this further: the longer and more intensely warfare rages the more changes occur and the more indistinguishable the opponents become. This seems counter-intuitive, and would be strongly resisted by both liberals and conservatives, so I want to focus my discussion here. In what follows I will use the terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘liberal’ for convenience. I’m very aware that both of these are complex and multi-faceted identities which have fractured and changed over the last half century or so. For the purposes of this discussion, then, I’m going to use the terms primarily to describe those wider groupings within the Church of England who would broadly identify themselves with the causes advocated by activists and campaigners on either side of the sexuality debates.


Evangelicals and liberals as monstrous twins

It’s a commonplace observation that for both evangelicals and liberals this is a conflict over their seemingly irreconcileable identities as Anglicans. Both sides openly question the extent to which an Anglican identity that encompasses both of them is really possible or might have any integrity. Evangelicals believe they are fighting to defend their Anglican identity as bible-believing Christians, as good protestants who can do no other than stand on the truth of scripture as they have received it. Liberals believe they are fighting to defend the Anglican identity of being a national church for all people, gay and straight, male and female as equals within the body of Christ. Both believe that compromise in these areas would be fatal to their identity as Anglicans. Evangelicals believe they are fighting against making a compromise, holding firm to a true biblical Anglican identity. Liberals believe they are fighting to redeem an already compromised Anglican identity, stained by centuries of homophobia and oppression. So far, these positions appear clear and opposite. And yet as we have seen in the responses to the House of Bishops statement, increasingly, evangelicals also believe and explicitly speak as if they are fighting to redeem an already compromised Anglican identity. Melvin Tinker writes of the need to work for Deep Change within a compromised Anglican church. Liberals believe they are fighting against making a compromise on an existing Anglican identity that has already been discerned, but is in danger of being dishonoured. The purpose of the YouGov survey of Anglican views on sexuality commissioned by Jayne Ozanne prior to the statement being released, was to make precisely this point. The responses by LGCM and others pointing to the integrity of LGBTI Anglicans involved in the Shared Conversations, as well as the implicit promise of change that had been betrayed by the Bishops, all point to a Liberal understanding that there is a clear Anglican identity already existing that must be held firm to, and which cannot be compromised.


Liberals, like evangelicals, have their own statements of faith, easily reducible to a side of A4, on the basis of agreement on which doctrinal differences (and the doctrinal differences between different liberals make those between different evangelicals pale by comparison) can be shelved and activism can be engaged with. OneBodyOneFaith retains the same Statement of Conviction held by LGCM since 1976, which members must accept. The more recent Inclusive Church requires agreement to their Statement of Belief in order to become a member. Liberals increasingly define themselves by their activism in campaigning on issues of social justice. Both Evangelicals and liberals then can be characterised as doctrinally focussed, yet with a tendency to use a very brief statement of doctrine as a shibboleth of identity, on the basis of which any deeper doctrinal differences can be ignored, allowing unified activism, with their identity primarily being found in the shared activism. In a nutshell, they both follow the CU model of membership and shared purpose.


Both evangelicals and liberals are working to safeguard a true Anglicanism threatened with fatal compromise, and working within an already compromised Anglican church to bring redemption. For both, the question of how much longer and under what circumstances they can remain Anglican with this issue unresolved, or resolved in a way that excludes them is a very live one. These are not abstract questions, especially for those of us who are ordained and members of one tribe or the other. They can be as personal and far-reaching as “Should I be honest about who I am and what I believe”, “Should I get married?”, or “Should I defy my bishop?” The lived experience of being a liberal and being an evangelical within the Church of England at present is in fact incredibly similar. Inasmuchas their identity is increasingly shaped around this struggle, therefore, evangelicals and liberals will begin to resemble each other more and more closely. The very fact that for both their identity hinges around the deeply-felt dangers of a compromise of integrity sharply distinguishes both from the more relaxed broad Anglican identity that sees Englishness and being Anglican as unproblematically overlapping. Both are massively invested in and committed to the Church of England – which is why both feel the pain of compromised identity. Walking away is not something that comes easily to either. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, conservative evangelical Anglicans are not really free church evangelicals, and liberal Anglicans are not really closet secularists. Both have been driven by their shared pain and fear deeper and deeper into a fight to the death. They tell themselves different myths about the nature and purpose of the struggle: that it is the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, or the struggle for principle against convenience, or ideals against money. Though actually, all these myths are used by both sides: whether the oppressed are seen as sexual minorities or the two-thirds world, or the wealthy are seen as evangelical mega churches or the wealthy West. The struggle is itself mimetic. Any weapon used by one side will soon be used by the other. So both sides see themselves as a persecuted minority when it suits them, and both sides proclaim that their position represents the settled view of the majority when it suits them.


The struggle changes both sides, not into more extreme and monstrous versions of themselves (though that is what each perceives in the other) but into increasingly identically monstrous versions of each other. As time goes by, evangelicals and liberals become less evangelical and less liberal. Ironically, the very thing that compels us to fight – the fear that our identity is threatened, that distinctions are being broken down, dissolving, creating the crisis where our friends can at any moment be unmasked as our enemies – is only accelerated by the conflict. The struggle, because it is reciprocal, becomes mimetic. The more we fight, the more we resemble our enemy.


Striving for the Kingdom – visions of the coming apocalypse

If all this is true, and Anglican identities are increasingly being reshaped around this conflict, the future of Anglican identities is bound up in the future of the conflict. Where is it headed? Is some sort of a resolution in sight that might resolve these tensions? Well, significantly for our discussion, the hope of just such a resolution is a central myth for both evangelicals and liberals. Both have become hugely eschatological identities.


Both sides are explicitly describing themselves as moving towards the end, towards the coming of the Kingdom in a moment of apocalyptic judgement – the destruction of the community as a whole. Only by destroying the Church of England can it be saved. Only by tearing it in two can we hope that a unified body will rise from the carcass. What is interesting in this is what they perceive to be the eventual fate of the others who are not to be counted amongst the faithful and therefore have no place in the coming kingdom.


Both liberals and evangelicals are striving for the Kingdom. They want to see a church that models and proclaims the Kingdom to the world. They want it so much that they will fight with each other to get it. And in this fight, more violence is always required before victory. Both sides nurture a hope that everything will be resolved at the end of history. That when this story is over, all the differences and divisions based on violence and ignorance will be overcome and their true identities will be clear. There will be no compromise. But both also believe that there is one last remaining obstacle to be overcome first. Girard comments that this is the mark of Absolute War: ‘Peace is perpetually postponed. More violence is always needed before reconciliation.’ This can clearly be seen in the way both sides describe the struggle in which they are locked and their hopes for the future.


On 29th April 2017, the Gafcon primates announced their intention to consecrate a missionary bishop to operate in the British Isles, offering episcopal oversight for conservatives completely separate from the existing provinces. This move of course implies a complete loss of faith in the integrity of existing structures, however much they may stress their willingness to recognise that some faithful Anglicans may still feel the need to remain within them. GafconUK’s statement responding to this move describes the position of the Church of England, Church in Scotland and Church of Wales in this way:


…a weak version of the Christian faith which has too often failed to point out these dangers or even made accommodation with them. This accommodation and ‘cultural captivity’ is seen in the failure by many Anglican leaders in the UK to hold to the key principles of Holy Scripture as speaking clearly to God’s will for human flourishing, and of requiring unequivocal obedience whatever the cost… some Anglicans are already outside of these structures and need Episcopal oversight; others may do so soon… [the Primates have] expressed respect for and continued warm fellowship with those who for the moment are choosing to remain within the official structures and contend for orthodox biblical faith there, while warning that inaction in the face of revisionist pressure is not a faithful option.


True faithful Anglican identity requires Episcopal oversight, but this cannot come from structures that are compromised by ‘cultural captivity.’ Inaction is not a sign of faithfulness. The only faithful options are to come out of the structures, or to stay within them in order to ‘contend for orthodox biblical faith.’ The last days have come. The only options for the faithful are flight or fight. The faithful find their unity in their shared theology, whether it corresponds with official structures or not. The fate of those who are not faithful is left unspoken. But it is clear that they have no foreseeable place in the Kingdom that is to come unless they can be brought back to the faith by reformation of the Church.


Similarly, Martyn Percy, in his recent piece ‘Not a matter of opinion’ on the Philip North debacle, broadened the scope of his reflections to consider the wider crisis and division gripping the Church of England centred around discrimination. He argues that any discrimination based on either gender or sexuality should have no place in the church, but explicitly exempts discrimination based on religious belief (or ‘opinion which can be changed’ as he describes it) from this. Unity must come through the imposition of a shared belief:


Because a temporary political solution cannot resolve our deep theological divisions. Only deeper theology will bring us lasting peace. Such theology will be founded on equality and inclusion, not dubious ‘equal-but-different’ discriminatory reasoning.


The church may tolerate flawed and discriminatory theologies within a ghetto, but they cannot be part of the mainstream because they cannot form the basis for unity that can only come from the true deeper theology. Despite Percy’s savage critique of Forward in Faith’s secret hope that one day women priests might become ‘extinct’ as he puts it, it’s hard to tell the difference between this and his hope that:


they should remain in their partially sealed-off wings (but still self-constructed, incidentally), until such time as they wish to part company with those alienating opinions, and no longer choose to practice their identity-based discrimination.


The faithful will be united through their true theology which must coexist with the official structures of the church. Those who are not found amongst the faithful, in their half-in and half-out ghetto must be left to ponder the error of their ways. We can hope that after spending time in this purgatory, in which they are bound by nothing but their own sins and ignorance, they will rejoin the faithful in the kingdom.


I’m sure much could be made of the fact that GafconUK’s vision of the future is so characteristically protestant with its notion of the invisible church, and Percy’s is so characteristically catholic with its notion of purgatory, but the point I really want to make is that the language of both is almost explicitly apocalyptic and eschatological. We must strive towards the coming of the Kingdom, we must see the eternal consequences of our present action or inaction. We must turn aside from any thought of compromise or prevarication. In all this, once again, evangelicals and liberals are almost identical to each other, and profoundly different from the broad Anglicanism that thrives on ambiguity, compromise and incremental change.


Evangelicals and liberals are locked together in an accelerating conflict of increasing aggression and absolutism. It is changing both of them. It threatens to tear the church apart. And both of them yearn for that to happen. There are dark days ahead.


MVS 5th May 2017

Fight the Good Fight – A paper for the Chester ‘New Directions in Sexuality and Christianity’ forum

In February 2017, I gave a paper as part of the second open forum held in Chester Cathedral by the Sexuality & Anglican Identities Project of Chester University. The brief for speakers was to look into the future and speculate, on the basis of current trends in in gender and sexuality, what further developments might occur and how these will influence Church thinking, theology, and biblical interpretation.

Fight the Good Fight – Social change and the church as battlefield


I suspect some of my fellow panellists will be far better able to comment on future developments in gender and sexuality than me. I feel the most useful contribution I can make is to focus on the second part of the question: how will any changes in wider society’s understanding and expression of gender and sexuality influence Church thinking, theology and biblical interpretation?


We are in a time of far-reaching social change. Greater awareness of diversity in sexuality and gender identity has slowly percolated through British society over the last century. Tolerance of different identities, different lifestyles, different family arrangements has grown. There are legal milestones in this, but perhaps more revealing are the cultural ones – the first gay kiss on national TV, the multiplication of options for pronouns and titles on official forms, the first openly gay & partnered Bishop.


There is a narrative of inevitability that has developed around these discussions. It’s rooted in classic sociological studies of these sorts of cultural shifts like Giddens’ notion of ‘plastic sexuality’. Acceptance of sexual and gender diversity is seen as a rising tide, washing further and further across the beach, and those parts of society that appear to resist this change appear like areas of higher ground, that are now islanded, and shrinking as the tide rises higher. The church of England might be the classic example of this. The slowness of structural and theological change within the churchcompared to the rapid pace of social, cultural and legal change in wider British society is hugely apparent. In 1956, when homosexual acts were still illegal, the CofE’s report Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment called for legalisation. 60 years ago, when the tide was still low, the church was at the forefront of cultural change. Now, the latest House of Bishops statement explains why the church will not change its theological or legal frameworks in a wider context where it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and the first same-sex marriage happened 3 years ago. Without changing its position at all, the church appears now to be the relic of a prejudiced and oppressive past.

Change has occurred at an incredibly rapid pace.

A case study: Use of language

The Church of England has visibly struggled to find appropriate terminology. Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment, in 1956, when homosexual acts were still illegal, used the language of ‘inverts’ and ‘perverts’. Homosexual Relationships in 1979 spoke of Homophiles, language taken up by Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991, though now with an apologetic awareness that it ‘may have a somewhat technical ring’. Some Issues in Human Sexuality in 2003 does finally begin to make reference to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgenedered, but prefers ‘homosexual persons’ or even more vague circumlocutions, a trend continued by Pilling in 2013. The overall trend is away from overly scientific and objectifying language like ‘the invert’ and towards a far broader range of expression. However, it lags behind conventional usage. Terms like LGBT are generally avoided, let alone LGBTIQ.

The Church of England is not alone in facing difficult questions of how to respond to swift linguistic change, however. The Gay Christian Movement was founded in 1976. It wasn’t until 1987 that it changed its name to the LGCM in recognition that Gay and Lesbian could be considered as distinct identities that should be accorded equal dignity. It remains the LGCM, though their website honestly confronts the fact that the community they speak from and with is now more commonly described as the LGBTIQ community. Part of the reason they give for resisting further change is that their current name has widespread recognition.

Why has the church resisted change? – Some common explanations

Why is there such a disjunction between cultural change in society at large, and theological change within the church? If we can’t at least venture a guess at this, then our whole discussion today is useless. On the basis of the last 60 years, the prediction of what change might be expected in the next 5-10 years should probably be ‘not much’. Unless we think that something dramatic is going to happen to change whatever it is that is making the church so distinctly different, so out of step.

The most common explanations as to what might be the source of the church’s resistance to change are developments of the narrative of inevitability. Change is still inevitable, it’s just going to take a little bit longer.

The first explanation is that the church is essentially prejudiced, it’s homophobic. This is not rooted in anything rational or inherently obdurate – it’s basically cultural. It can be overcome by more awareness, by hearing the voices of gay people. The church is dominated by old men who are of an older, more reactionary generation. Wider society is dominated by those who are younger. Once generational change occurs, and the older leaders retire (or in some versions, when we get more women bishops) we’ll see the church undergo a sudden shift as this developmental delay is overcome. Much of the response to the recent House of Bishops statement picks up these assumptions. ‘We’d hoped that the Shared Conversations would change things, because the church would actually listen to its gay members. Prejudice would be overcome, the die-hard homophobes would be recognised for what they are, and the bishops would see that there is no reason why change cannot happen.’ The failure for this to happen produces feelings of betrayal because it is assumed that the bishops do know better. It’s a failure of nerve on the part of people who must recognise the inevitability and rightness of change.

The second explanation, which we’ve also seen on display in recent days, mainly among those who are linking the bishop’s statement with the revelations of historic abuse within the evangelical wing of the church, is a much harder version of the first: the church is prejudiced and homophobic because its theology and spirituality is inherently dangerous, justifying hatred, fear and abuse, linked to deeply flawed models of authority and biblical interpretation. On this analysis, change, the leadership of the church is understood as dominated by a dangerously fundamentalist spirituality and theology. The inevitable change will therefore involve not just generational change and some altered policies, but far-reaching theological change. This is obviously a far more long-term process of change, and indeed it’s one that in reality may require the church to divide on theological grounds in order to allow the necessary changes to be made. This second explanation, far more than the first, is open to questioning the narrative of inevitability itself. What if this change is not inevitable? What if some cultures, some theologies, are inherently opposed to it – meaning that accepting this change means their own death? Maybe some people will never be able to embrace this change.

They’re caricatures, of course: the homophobic church and the fundamentalist church. Maybe you recognise them. There’s evidence that can be pointed at to support both, surveys indicating generational difference in views, personal testimonies of those who have felt the need to radically change their theology to accept who they are. And clearly they overlap. The point is that these explanations themselves are part of the social change we are discussing. They’re not objective observations made from somewhere outside of society. They emerge as part of the wider cultural changes that we are discussing, and they emerge as a form of critique offered by one ‘side’ to the other.

A case study: Homophobia

The concept of homophobia has a history. It was coined by the American psychologist George Weinberg in the 60s, and he employed it in his 1972 study Society and the Healthy Homosexual. At this point, the American Psychiatric Association defined homosexuality as a mental disorder. In 1973, influenced by Weinberg, the APA removed it from their list of disorders, concluding there was no scientific evidence to suggest it wasn’t a healthy expression of sexuality. Since then, the idea that homophobia itself is a mental disorder as well as an institutional prejudice has steadily gained traction.

Homophobia as an explanation of resistance to cultural change is fundamentally a product of the process of cultural change it attempts to explain. Not only that, but it’s clearly a weaponised cultural product – it’s used to attack those perceived to stand in the way of inevitable change. It’s a weapon that has been formed because of the need to defend a community who were already being attacked. We like to avoid this language, but I’m using it deliberately, because it points to a reality that we are in danger of ignoring: that the incoming tide is not the most accurate way to describe what is happening in the church at present. This is not a natural event. This is warfare, and the church is the battlefield. Significant and rapid change like this involves acts of violence and sacrifice on both sides, and the outcomes of battles are never certain.

The Church as battleground

I want to suggest that the battle being fought in the church over gender and sexuality is a mimetic conflict, in the sense defined by Rene Girard, in which both sides are locked in a downward spiral of violence, mirroring each other increasingly closely as they reach crisis point.

In this context, some sort of ‘natural’ development or influence of trends in wider society and culture isn’t going to happen. What happens instead is the weaponisation of theology. Lines are drawn, sacrifices are made – this position is defensible, this is not. The effect on theology is unpredictable, but rarely positive. Some long-held positions are quietly surrendered (the very quiet admission from Reform that women’s ministry is not a first-order issue, but that homosexuality is – a move that effectively undermined the very reason for their having been established in the first place – is a good example of this). Some new positions are adopted because they bolster the main line of defence (I have an example later). Central positions may become distorted or degraded under the pressure of an attack. The apparent inability in some quarters to see recognition of other’s self-identity as a key part of the love commandment, but to view it as equating to agreement with a theological position (visible both in liberals branding evangelicals as fundamentalists and in evangelicals refusing to recognise a gay identity and using circumlocutions like ‘those experiencing same-sae attraction’). These are the most significant and direct ways in which this cultural shift is influencing the church.

Unpredictable theological developments

A Case Study: Hierarchical ideas of Trinity

John Piper, Wayne Grudem & Bruce Ware, all prominent evangelical theologians, are putting forward a complementarian view of the Trinity. This theology argues that the correct biblical way to understand the relationships of the Trinity is as hierarchically ordered – with the Father ruling over the Son, who eternally submits to his authority, as their roles are inherently ones with different levels of authority. Grudem argues that the eternal subordination of the role of the Son to the role of the Father is the teaching of the Nicene Creed. This all seems very unlikely to be related to developments in gender and sexuality, but these theological positions were all explicitly being adopted as a means of bolstering a complementarian view of men and women. The argument was that an ‘egalitarian Trinity’ was a theological innovation that had been introduced under the influence of egalitarian views on gender.

Obviously, in the case of a battle of this sort, there is increasingly the sense that we are hastening to some sort of violent resolution. Increasingly, both sides seem eager to see this happen – to bring about some sort of split that will leave them in a ‘pure church’, no longer bound together with the hateful other. I think, if nothing else changes, in all likelihood some sort of split looks likely. Whichever side gets to call itself the ‘Church of England’ and claim to have ‘won’ is as yet uncertain. If this happens, though, neither side will get the ‘pure church’ they long for. Battles raise demons in both sides, changing those who fight in them, and neither ‘side’ is now the same as it was before this battle began.

Review: ‘Us Versus Us’ by Andrew Marin

us versus us

Andrew Marin is an outspoken, in-your-face American. His first book Love is an Orientation described his personal journey from being a straight conservative evangelical who unthinkingly adopted a ‘traditional’ understanding of sexuality and had little or no real knowledge of gay people to moving to the Boystown area of Chicago, centre of the local gay community, and learning how to show love and acceptance to the people he met there. This has lead him to being at the forefront of efforts to get divided communities of liberals and conservatives to relate to each other. As a matter of principle, he does not set out his own views, but simply urges people to show love and acceptance to each other and find common ground without feeling the need to sacrifice their own integrity in the process.

Us Versus Us is a different sort of book. It’s the fruit of some detailed survey work that he did of LGBT people across America to get some understanding of their spiritual lives. The research was done following good social-science principles, over as wide a group as possible. He then reflects in detail on the results (often by making comparisons with other public-access data on the religious beliefs and experiences of the general population).

I won’t discuss all of his findings, but one stands out: 86% of LGBT people were raised in a faith community between the ages of 0 and 18. This is 11% higher than the general US population. Put simply, if you are gay it is more likely you had significant Christian input as a child or young person. The specific religious affiliations are consistent with their frequency in the general US population.

This fact flies in the face of the dominant cultural narrative, which casts the parties to this conversation as opposing forces. In reality, the culture war has always been a civil war: us versus us.

54% of these LGBT people who were raised in a religious community leave after the age of 18. This is twice as high as the general US population. So if you are gay you are more likely to have grown up religious but you are much more likely to have left your religious community as an adult. The experience of leaving your religious community behind is therefore a hugely significant part of the experience of being gay in America. This may explain a lot about the nature and tone of the debate in US society at large.

Marin does a lot of work on trying to identify what the reasons are why LGBT people leave and what might encourage them to come back. One of his more interesting findings in this regard is that the biggest reason why LGBT people leave is (unlike the general population) because of bad personal experiences. Feeling loved was the biggest thing that would encourage people to return. Love and acceptance counted for more than theological agreement. Marin uses all this data to suggest that Christians and the LGBT community have far more in common than is usually recognised, and that getting too focused on the theological disagreements distracts us from this.

All this is interesting, of course, but obviously poses questions as to how transferable any of these results are to the very different and far more secularised UK context, where people are far less likely to have been raised in a faith community. What might make it more transferable is the hypothesis he develops as to why LGBT people are more likely to have been raised in a faith community. His argument is that coming to terms with an LGBT orientation in a Western homophobic culture is an irrevocably spiritual experience. At least 96% of the entire sample, irrespective of their own religious beliefs, have at some point prayed that God would make them straight. 80% of the sample continue to pray regularly, including a 19% of self-identified atheists. Wrestling with your sexuality as a teenager makes you more spiritual than the average person. If this is true, then it is likely to be true in the UK too.

Shared Conversations and the Bishops

On 23rd January, the House of Bishops made a statement on marriage and same sex relationships following its reflection on the 3 year Shared Conversations process in the Church of England. Predictably (and indeed, the document itself predicts it), no-one is very happy with it, though those on the conservative side are happier than those on the liberal side. The broadbrush interpretation of the statement would be “no change in the Church’s official position, but a willingness to allow ‘maximum freedom’ to express the diversity of practices and understandings within the church without actually changing anything.”

This is a huge disappointment to many, particularly LGBTI+ Anglicans who have contributed to the Shared Conversations (often at considerable cost) in the hope that they would bring about change. (Jayne Ozanne describes it as ‘unbelievable, unacceptable and ungodly’). The harsh reality is that change comes slowly in the Church of England, if at all. I have studied all the church’s various statements on sexuality since Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment in 1956. There has been no change to the basic doctrinal and legal position of the church in any of them. It was never likely that there would be in this one. However, there have been significant changes of emphasis, tone, and suggestions for future action in each of them. Some of these have had far-reaching effects, the fruits of which are apparent in this document (witness the attempt here to ‘correct’ one of the widely-recognised problems created by Issues in Human Sexuality, which introduced a distinction in the church’s expectations of sexual behaviour between its lay and ordained members). It’s in the detail rather than the big picture that the significance of this statement lies.  I want to make a few general observations about that detail, because I think they help in understanding what this statement is actually saying.

  1. This is a self-consciously limited document. It is not primarily a theological statement, but a procedural and political (in the most positive sense of the term) one – a description of what the House of Bishops has done and what they would like to do next. It presents its practical recommendations as recommendations, not as an executive fiat. These are recommendations that express the view of a majority (explicitly not all) of the House of Bishops (para 17, 56 & 57). They are presented to General Synod as a considered political judgement as to where it would be constructive for Synod to focus its efforts over the coming months, given that movement on other areas is unlikely to be fruitful (para 21, 25-27). The explicitness with which it acknowledges the disagreement within the House of Bishops over the issue is almost unprecedented, and this is significant in itself (para 17, 56). There is no attempt being made to suggest all the bishops welcome the statement as a clear expression of their position.

It’s worth noting that Bishop Paul Bayes (who has been public about his own liberal stance on the issue) has echoed this perspective (that the statement must be understood as a political one, an exercise in ‘the art of the possible’) in his blog post where he quotes the words of Bishop Peter Selby: ‘Bishops do focus the Church, but what they focus is the Church as it is.’ (My emphasis).

  1. This is not an end to the process of discernment. The statement is explicitly not drawing to an end the process begun by the Shared Conversations, but seeking to continue to ‘walk together’ (para 59). It is explicitly acknowledging the divisions within faithful members of the church in this area. It sees Anglicanism as essentially a contested tradition, which holds together those with differing convictions and not a ‘pure church’ (para 8). It commits the church to continuing to walk together towards an unknown future:

Finally, Anglican theology has been marked historically by a certain reserve. One element in this is a sense of provisionality, of knowing only in part (cf. 1 Cor. 13.9). God gives us the wisdom we need for the situation that faces us today, and that is what we should ask for, without doubting or double-mindedness (James 1.5–8). We are seeking to discern the right next steps, not be sure about the end of the road. (para 66)

It suggests that the bishops have made a political judgement that the degree of disagreement within the church at present (including within the House of Bishops) makes change to the doctrinal position of the church (and the understanding of Marriage as being between a man and a woman has explicitly been presented as a doctrinal position) impossible at this time for the Church of England without causing the sort of schism they would seek to avoid. The inclusion of the legal advice provided to the House of Bishops as to their options as an appendix shows all the options that were on the table. They are clearly wanting to signal that a wide variety of responses have been considered. They are not saying that this is an end to the discussion.

  1. One of the key principles being affirmed throughout, within the context of the recognition of faithful dissent, is a refusal of too detailed a centralised response being imposed in regard to these issues, in order to allow legitimate freedom of expression at a local level, within the established legal framework, with appropriate protection for clergy making these judgements (para 4, 43, 64, 65). There is an emphasis on the need to trust local clergy as those best able to judge how to express the mission and ministry of the church in their context. The document as a whole is remarkably robust in its disavowing of the exercise of centralised power to ‘solve’ issues (and interestingly the use of the scare quotes for the language of ‘solutions’ in this area is in the statement itself – para 9).

The Statement can be found here.

I will blog again to address the statement’s recommendations in more detail, but these are my initial impressions. Other perspectives can be found here:

Ian Paul (giving a ‘traditionalist’ response)

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (giving a ‘liberal’ response)

Michael Sadgrove (retired Dean of Durham, giving a more liberal response)

+Paul Bayes (giving the perspective of a liberal bishop)

Review: ‘Studies on the Bible and same-sex relationships since 2003’ by Martin Davie

Davie book

This was the book commissioned by the CEEC in preparation for the Shared Conversations in the CofE, and reflection on which was intended to form the basis of their consultation in February 2015. Dr Martin Davie, the author, is the CEEC’s academic consultant. He has taught at Oak Hill and Wycliffe, and served as theological consultant for the House of Bishops and Secretary to the Faith and Order Commission.

The report is both impressively broad and open and depressingly narrow. Its openness comes from its insistence on considering every significant piece of writing on the 6 core biblical passages published in the last 10 years, and presenting them as objectively and fairly as possible, often through extensive quotation, allowing the writers to speak for themselves. This has been critiqued by Colin Coward as still containing an implicit filtering in that Davie chose what texts to present and what quotations to use, which is doubtless true (true objectivity is always impossible), but I’ve never seen a document by either ‘side’ in this debate take such pains to present a broad spread of texts with so little evaluation offered in the presentation. The narrowness, however, was evident in the above description (and in fairness to Davie, this was simply the brief he was given in preparing the report): this was a review of writings in the last 10 years, and only writings addressing the bible passages already identified as the ‘core’ texts. Earlier writings were not considered, neither were any writings addressing wider matters than biblical interpretation, nor any passages beyond the 6 ‘core passages’.

The purpose of the report, clearly set out in the introduction, was very sharply defined. ‘Some Issues’ in 2004 had suggested that the ‘traditionalist’ interpretation of these passages was accepted by most biblical scholars. The ‘Piling Report’ in 2014 suggested that there was no scholarly consensus on the ‘traditionalist’ interpretation. The report set itself the task of determining if anything had actually changed in the last 10 years that would warrant a change of this kind in the CofE’s understanding. The underlying assumption was that if no new research had been produced, then the evaluation given in ‘Some Issues’ could still be valid, and ‘Piling’ could be shown to be mistaken in its evaluation. In other words, the report started by assuming that ‘Some Issues’ could be trusted, and questioned whether ‘Piling’ could. It set out to test ‘Piling’’s evaluation, but made no attempt to similarly test the evaluation of ‘Some Issues’, which was assumed throughout to be trustworthy. (I should stress here that what is being disputed is not a ‘traditionalist’ or ‘revisionist’ interpretation of the passages in itself, but whether or not a scholarly consensus can be said to exist in their interpretation – the report is not just arguing for a particular position, it is arguing that the vast majority of biblical scholars agree with that position).

Given that the existence of dispute over the issue of same sex relationships cannot be denied, the report suggested three possible ways of understanding this dispute: that scripture is inherently unclear, that scholarly debate remains inconclusive, or that neither of these is the case and one side of the debate is simply wrong. Essentially, the final argument of the report is that by establishing that there is scholarly consensus on the traditionalist understanding of the passages (which the report considers itself to have done) it can be shown that scripture is clear, that scholars agree, and therefore that there is only disagreement because one side is wrong.

There are some obvious problems with this, but the most dangerous is the unquestioned assumption that the evaluation offered by Davie of the various scholars who are reviewed in the report represents in itself the balance of scholarly opinion. Davie presents evaluations of the various revisionist scholars that essentially all boil down to ‘this is not a good enough argument to warrant moving from a traditionalist understanding’. Personally I find some of his evaluations more convincing than others, but that isn’t the point I want to make. Davie has every right to argue for his own position, to make his own judgements about the worth of the arguments of others, and is to be commended for seeking to defend his position against the fair and robust presentation of others’ positions. What he doesn’t have the right to do is to argue that his judgement *is* the supposed scholarly consensus. Davie’s argument for his evaluation that scholarly debate cannot be judged inconclusive is that “Although writers about the issue continue to disagree the traditionalist position has not been successfully called into question.” But the measure of ‘successfully called into question’ used in the report is whether Davie finds the argument convincing.

Logically, by separating out the question of scripture itself being unclear (ie no clear position is possible) from the question of the current state of scholarly debate being unclear (ie a clear position may be possible but at present we can’t be sure what it is), Davie should be assessing not only whether the bible is itself unclear, but also whether scholars at present have the level of consensus required to establish a clear position. Despite the avowed intention of the report, he shows no real interest in exploring the second of these. His underlying assumption is that if scripture is clear, then there is no room for scholarly dispute. Having carefully separated out two legitimate reasons for continued conflict, he implicitly ignores the separate existence of the second. There is a hidden assumption that the clarity of scripture can be assessed independently of disputes amongst scholars, because Davie, unlike these other scholars, is capable of truly objective judgement (so even though it is clear that different scholars see different things in scripture, an objective observer (Davie) can tell at a glance that scripture is clear and some scholars are simply not reading it accurately). There is likewise a hidden assumption that if scripture is clear then there is no legitimate dispute. There can be no legitimate dispute over how the clear words of scripture should be applied to today’s vastly different context. In fact the clarity of scripture is assumed throughout. Davie’s evaluation of biblical scholars proceeds on the assumption not that their discerning different meanings might indicate a lack of clarity in scripture, or that different hermeneutical approaches might legitimately suggest different applications of clear passages, but that the clarity of scripture necessitates that only one applied meaning can be correct.

Indeed in his evaluation of the revisionist writings Davie gives no indication of offering two levels of evaluation: whether an interpretation of scripture is strong enough to convince him or whether it is strong enough to suggest a viable attempt to faithfully interpret scripture. The second is never treated as a serious possibility. What seems strangest about this is that, of course, anglican evangelicals have accepted that precisely this differentiation is possible in regard to women’s ministry: evangelicals accept that other evangelicals who take a different view from their own are faithfully interpreting scripture, even if they do not find their position personally convincing. The official position of Reform is now that women’s ministry is a second-order issue. This suggests that this sort of distinction has been recognised as genuine and significant in regard to a similarly divisive issue. It is interesting to consider why it is not even considered as a possibility here.

CEEC Consultation on Sexuality & Scripture Feb 2015

Belatedly realising that I never posted some of the stuff I wrote about the CEEC consultation I attended in 2015. For context: the CEEC is the Church of England Evangelical Council. It’s a representative body for Evangelical Anglicans. Prior to the Shared Conversations process, they wanted to give key leaders a chance to reflect together on the issues. So they called together some theologians and activists (from all sides) to meet with them and reflect together on a report they had commissioned by Martin Davie that reviewed recent literature on the subject. I’ll discuss the report itself in another post. I was invited as a theologian.

CEEC consultation

I told a friend just before I went to the CEEC day that the whole thing was being conducted under Chatham House rules, meaning that we couldn’t say who said what, so probably all I’d be able to tell him about it was “we met, we talked, there were disagreements, no-one changed their mind”. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes. More happened than that rather cynical summary suggests, however.

I’d gone with some personal wariness. I’m an evangelical who holds to what was described in the report as the ‘traditionalist’ position on the Biblical texts concerning same-sex relationships (though not, as I discovered from reading the report, on all of them – there are some texts on which my reading now apparently counts as ‘revisionist’). However, I’ve become increasing concerned about the way in which a traditionalist interpretation of certain texts is being used in contemporary discussions, and I’ve been convinced that in many cases evangelicalism has been guilty of a sort of institutional homophobia. This puts me somewhere in the awkward middle ground of the debate, which everyone has a vested interest in saying isn’t a credible place to stand, and so I went convinced that the more people found out about my position the less people on either side would like me.

On top of this, I had gone having spent the day before reading through the CEEC report that we were supposed to be discussing together. This is by Martin Davie, and shortly to be published. I’ll go through this rather problematic report in another post, because it warrants a bit more attention than I can give it here, but in brief it’s a review of all significant writings (by all sides) on the biblical passages that are key to the debate on homosexuality in the period between the publication of ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality’ and the recent ‘Pilling Report’. The report follows a tight brief set by the CEEC, to determine whether in that period any new research had suggested that a conservative reading of the texts was less well founded than it had been before. The report concludes that no such significant new research has emerged, and therefore a conservative reading of the texts has not been seriously challenged. It is, in short, a document written with the purpose of showing that the Pilling Report has changed nothing.

In the event, the day was not dominated by discussion of the report. There were three responses to the report, which critiqued it in different ways, and there was plenty of space for discussion around the wider debate. The day was designed to create space for reflection, to help people to listen to each other, and to consider where the debate might be going. The provocative question was asked: is the pain we feel the pain of divorce, or of childbirth? Are we on the verge of a parting of the ways or of a new birth?

I met with some wonderful people, and found compassion and thoughtfulness on both sides of the debate. In the end, though, my feeling was that the anger I’d feared simply wasn’t there. Most of the participants, on both ‘sides’, were old hands who had hashed this out many times before. They weren’t going to change their positions, and had come determined to play nice. A few spats aside, they avoided unproductive squabbling. It was the others, who didn’t quite fit this pattern, who intruiged me. There were evangelicals who wanted to claim a revisionist position themselves. There were those who wanted to acknowledge the validity of a revisionist position they didn’t hold to themselves. There were those willing to concede that the way the debate had been framed in the past and continued to be framed now was unhelpful. And increasingly, discussion was being framed in terms of endgames. What sort of structures (if any) might allow continued disagreement with integrity? What sort of developments would mean those holding to a traditional position might have to leave the church?

Overall, though, I was left with a sense of hope for the future.

2015’s Christmas Monologue: What does peace mean? The innkeeper’s story

Monologue: What does Peace mean?

I remember hearing the announcement: Caesar Augustus, King of the world, declares that there is peace. The pax Romana – the peace of Rome. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want to live in peace? Well, it doesn’t always feel like peace means the same to the Romans as it does to the rest of us. Do you know what the Roman peace means? It means the world is at peace because the Romans have killed anyone who could start a war. ‘They make a desert, and call it peace’ – that’s what it means. And do you know what the Romans do, when they’ve brought you this glorious peace, by killing your kings and breaking your armies, and grinding your cities into the ground? They tax you. They make you pay for the soldiers that have made you bleed. So that’s how we know that Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Julius, has brought us peace on Earth – he declares that the whole world is to be taxed.

At first, I thought it was going to be great for business, the census. Caesar Augustus orders everyone to go to their hometown to register. Well, seeing as we were in Bethlehem, I thought we’d be set up, you know? I mean, sure, it’s not that big a place if you compare it to Jerusalem, up the road, but it’s Bethlehem, city of David, you know? No ordinary town. Most of the time, trade for us is slow but steady – merchants or pilgrims travelling into Jerusalem from the hill country or back out again. It picks up at festival time, you know? But for the census, you see, everyone has to register in their home town. And suddenly – aha! – everyone discovers that their mother’s mother’s mother was of the line of David. Never mind that by now their family’s been living in Emmaus for five generations and married local boys and girls – no, suddenly they’re of the line of David for tax purposes. You’d be surprised how many people want to make that sort of claim. It’s good for their business, or their political prospects, or their chances of being guru to some crazy cult or whatever. You get the picture. So, when the census gets announced, they all know if they’re going to try and cash in on this claim of theirs then they need to be seen to take it seriously. I mean, a lot of them probably aren’t that keen on paying taxes to Caesar, but if you want people to think of you as of the line of David then you need to make a big thing of it and never mind who called the census. ‘Curse these Romans and their taxes, forcing the sons of the line of David to leave home and business and travel all this way just to have their name recorded by some scribe, but we will not dishonour our ancestors by failing to be there’ Hmmm? I expect you’ve heard them too, telling every soul they pass on the road where they’re going and why.

So, I was thinking business is looking up – all these people coming to a hometown that strangely enough they have no home in. I thought, time to put my rates up for census month, this’ll set me up for life! But it didn’t work out that way. See the problem was, as fast as people were coming to Bethlehem, people were leaving it too. And most of them seemed to be on my staff. Abra, my cook, turns out her family was from Jericho. Miciah and Hila were from Jerusalem. Even my suppliers were leaving – wine merchants, oil sellers, tailors. And you couldn’t say to a guest ‘I’m sorry, but we have no wine left since the merchants left to be registered elsewhere, so I hope you’ve brought your own – oh and that’ll be 20 denarii’.

I had to beg, borrow, and steal to stockpile enough to last. Take on new staff, pay them double and find time to train them to be half as good as the ones who’d left. When I started to add it all up – well, let’s just say I just about broke even by hiking my prices to ones even I winced at. They paid of course – after all, what other choice did they have? But it was hell. I was cursing the census by the end of it. We were providing service so bad our reputation would be ruined in every town the guests came from, and working our fingers to the bone to do it. We barely had time to think, let alone eat or sleep.

That was when the young couple arrived, all the way from Galilee. Late. She was heavily pregnant – looked like she was about to pop. I expect it had slowed them down more than they thought. They’d already tried everywhere else in town. I could tell just from looking at them that they couldn’t afford what we were charging, even if we’d had the room, which we didn’t. No-one travels like that if they can afford not to. This wasn’t one of those glory-seekers. He must actually be from the line of David. I told them we had nowhere, but the poor girl was practically in labour standing there. So I showed them to the stable. I couldn’t just leave them in the street. Look, I know I’m a businessman, but I have a heart, you know? I’d hardly let them in when I had to rush back to sort out bedding for the merchant from Caesarea. It wasn’t until hours later I could spare time to go down with some blankets and bread – I know, if you thought the service for the other guests was bad… but it was the best I could do. And more than they could afford. By then they’d had the baby. A boy. My wife wanted to know.

It was then that the shepherds arrived. That was a surprise, I must admit. Half a dozen shepherds, stinking of stale sweat, sheep, and wood fires, all suddenly descending on us, hammering on the door, babbling about visions of angels. Now I’m not an irreligious man – I go to the synagogue, make the journey to Jerusalem for Passover. But if a bunch of shepherds appear at your door in the middle of the night saying they’ve seen angels, what would you think? And yes, they clearly had had a few, but they didn’t seem to be actually drunk.

Well I tried to keep them quiet – it was the middle of the night and they’re a rowdy bunch – but they were demanding to see the baby. The angels had told them about it, gave them exact instructions to find him. So exact that they were hollering outside my inn asking for the baby in the manger. Apart from the parents, me and the missus were the only ones in Bethlehem who’d know what they were talking about. That made me think. So as I led them round to the stable, I asked what else the angels had said. What they told me – well, it wasn’t what I’d expected. So I kind of stood there at the door while they went in, and looked at the couple and their baby. They looked so ordinary. Yes, I’d thought the man must be genuinely of the line of David, but they weren’t people I’d have singled out as the parents of the Messiah. But that’s what the angel had said. That child, wrapped in some cloths that had seen better days, put in the straw of a manger for lack of anywhere softer, was going to be king of the world, son of God. Absent mindedly, I pulled a denarius out and looked at the face of the man who claimed those titles today. What was it the angels had said? Peace on earth, goodwill to all. When Augustus proclaimed peace it meant blood and taxes. I looked at the baby in the manger: his parents with barely a pair of denarii between them, the shepherds, who were as rough and rowdy as you’d find, silent and awe-struck, even the donkeys and horses looking curiously out. This was a different sort of peace. A peace where the people you’d usually try to keep out were there, welcomed in.

I walked away quietly, and I wondered, (as I tried to reassure the guests that the rowdy shepherds weren’t trying to break in and they could go back to sleep) I wondered: what sort of king is this? What sort of kingdom will he bring? And is it one where I could stand in peace, with the shepherds?

‘In the essentials unity…’

Earlier this month, IVCF (the US version of UCCF) asked its employees to sign up to a new statement on sexuality, saying that they agreed to both believe and behave in accordance with its guidelines. This might seem fairly run-of-the-mill these days. After all, the conservative stance of the CU movement is not exactly news. Certainly it’s not something that has made a big impact over here as far as I can tell. I only really paid attention because of my previous involvement in IFES (the international umbrella body for both IVCF and UCCF).

Two things here have given me pause, however. The first is that, as highlighted in this Sojourners article, the demand for staff to both behave and believe is a new departure for IVCF (and indeed any CU movement). They have never before demanded affirmations of belief on anything but the Doctrinal Basis. In effect, this move elevates an ethical issue to the status of core doctrine. It is no longer permissible to recognise this as an area where (although the organisation has a declared view that it would expect its employees to support) it is legitimate for doubts to be held and questions asked in private. There is no legitimate space for debate on the subject. Even to entertain that the stated position may not command your wholehearted support is to suggest you cannot remain within the organisation. It is put on a par with faith in Jesus as saviour and Lord, the Bible as source of authority etc. Sexuality is the only area of ethical teaching treated in this way. Partly, it must be assumed, because it is inconceivable that any other ethical issue would command this level of unanimity amongst conservative evangelicals. It is sexuality’s totemic position within the cultural wars of the West that has elevated it to an issue that can be placed on the level of shibboleth of orthodoxy. This raises the question: is this a helpful development? The doctrinal basis was originally produced within a context where it was vital to ensure that the leadership of the CU were not theologically liberal but sat unquestionably within the mainstream of Conservative Evangelicalism. By definition, then, any change to it (even one like this that is a de facto rather than actual one) signals a change in what is considered to be the mainstream of conservative evangelicalism.

The second thing that gives me pause is the nature of the Christian Union movement. I grew up in the CU movement. I worked for the Christian Union movement. I believe in it. It’s made me who I am. At its best, it represents Christians from many different churches who can agree on the essentials of their faith, coming together and setting aside the things that divide them for the sake of the gospel. It’s about saying ‘yes we believe different things, and have different ideas about what Christian discipleship and church order look like, and we have good reasons for that, but none of that is as important as sharing the good news’. It’s a profoundly inclusive stance, way more so than that of many of the liberal Anglicans who look down their noses at it. In the Ukraine, we had Orthodox, Baptists (registered and unregistered), and Adventists all working together as brothers and sisters in Christ. The point is that it’s not a church. It’s a missionary organisation. It doesn’t have to demand unity on things that it would be inconceivable for a church not to take a stance on (like sacraments), and encourages tolerance and mutual respect between disciples following very different paths (such as those who are teetotal and those who are not). What it has to do is have a shared understanding of what the gospel is that we are sharing. As long as there exists a shared understanding of that, the rest is details: things that can be taught by whichever church you settle in.

It’s a profound commitment to the principle I alluded to in the title: ‘In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, in all things charity’. It’s a saying attributed to a 17th century German Lutheran: Rupertus Meldenius, writing in the midst of the Thirty Years War. The import is clear and profoundly Christian: our commitment to love one another should, amongst other things, express itself in our desire to restrict as much as possible the list of ‘essentials’ we demand unity to. If we accept that, then we should always be concerned when it is felt necessary to increase that list of ‘essentials’. Particularly when, as seems to be being argued here, it is not believed that any change in understanding is implied: this is a position that has been clearly understood for some time as the ‘default position’ of the organisation. What is changing is that now it is deemed to be essential to hold to it as an article of faith. The fact that this has caused some employees to leave because of their inability to comply with it demonstrates that whatever the rhetoric this represents a real shift. IVCF no longer welcomes those who harbour questions in their heart on this issue, even if they are willing to abide by the organisation’s guidelines.