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

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)

Human Sexuality: Open Church Mesa Gathering

The Open Church Mesa Gathering, held back in April, was a two-day conference, organised and hosted by Steve Chalke’s Oasis Waterloo church. The full title was ‘Open Church: The church, sexuality, mission and the future. An important conversation for all those passionate about the future of the church. ‘Mesa’ is Spanish for ‘table’, and the concept was of a gathering together around a single table of different voices to discuss church, sexuality, mission, and the future. The conference consisted of a number of talks and some workshops, with plenty of time allowed around the margins of these fixed points for people to chat together. Speakers included Steve Chalke himself, Tony Campolo (by video-link), Vicky Beeching, Andrew Marin, Bishop Alan Wilson and a number of others (including a significant group of young LGBT contributors). In stating all of that, two things become clear about the event: this was what might be described as an ‘Inclusive Evangelical’ gathering (it was a gathering mainly of evangelicals, most of whom were pro-gay), and it was a gathering inextricably caught up in the politics around Steve Chalke’s declaration of his own pro-gay stance in 2013. This summed up both the strengths and weaknesses of the event: this was a safe space for a group of people (gay and pro-gay evangelicals) who often find it difficult to feel that they can find a safe place to be themselves, and partly as a consequence of that the range of views expressed and engaged with was actually fairly narrow.

I suspect the narrowness of the range of views was a surprise even to the conference organisers. One of the speakers – Counsellor and former model Susie Flashman-Jarvis, had been billed as a speaker with traditional views but seeking to support a son who was gay. It emerged that her own views were now quite liberal. Tony Campolo, the only explicitly conservative speaker, was clearly on a journey himself, expressing some reservations about many traditional positions, and clearly concerned to be as inclusive as he could.

Given the broadly evangelical makeup of the gathering, the strongly pro-gay tone was striking. I spoke to many people who were committed members of evangelical churches that would not be seen as pro-gay. Some were youth group leaders or home group leaders. Some of the young people, who had clearly experienced rejection from evangelicals, were visibly relieved at finding themselves in a safe space. Obviously this was a self-selecting group. Evangelicals who had decided Steve Chalke had put himself ‘beyond the pale’ were unlikely to attend. But this was a sold-out conference of committed evangelical churchgoers, to which (on my brief and totally unscientific sampling) most people had not travelled more than an hour to get to. This could be a window into a foreseeable future where the centre-ground in evangelicalism has shifted.

That would indisputably be good news for gay evangelicals, who may find evangelical churches become safer places for them. However, if the conference is a window into a foreseeable future, there are some other things to notice. Firstly, and hugely significantly for a gathering of evangelicals, it is clear that a shift of this nature in such a short space of time implies a (perhaps unexamined) shift in understanding of Biblical interpretation or authority. Steve Chalke explicitly called for this in his talk, and several of the speakers urged a greater embracing of mystery, but given the (often contradictory) range of biblical approaches presented by the various speakers, these questions clearly need more attention. Simply, for evangelicals (whose identity is centred around being ‘Bible people’) to make a very public shift in their biblical interpretation on a controversial issue necessitates having a serious discussion about how we read the Bible, and at present there is little sign this is happening.

Secondly, and perhaps related, the shift from a conservative to a liberal position doesn’t seem to change much else. This was not a gathering that was much more inclusive than other evangelical gatherings might have been, it simply included different people. However, my observation was that few people noticed this, being convinced that because openly LGBTI Christians could take the stage (and in an evangelical context this genuinely *is* a big deal) this automatically made the event inclusive. Andrew Marin (to his considerable credit) pointed this out in his address – challenging people to remain open and inclusive having included LGBTI Christians. But it seemed that not many people were listening. Tony Campolo (at that point the only speaker explicitly taking a conservative position) was repeatedly challenged to rethink his views. No speaker from a liberal position was ever similarly challenged by either audience or presenters. The opportunity to ask Campolo constructive questions (like ‘how can we enable an open and honest conversation about sexuality to happen with more conservative evangelicals?’) was passed up in favour of trying to get him to justify his position. Marin himself came under repeated pressure from other speakers and the conference facilitators to state clearly his own position, despite having explained that he refuses to do this as a key part of his bridge-building ministry. At one point in a panel discussion another speaker, with the tacit approval of the chair, attempted to get the audience to pressure Marin into ‘outing’ himself as either a conservative or liberal, whilst one of the other panel members did a not-too-subtle chicken impression. I should say clearly that I would defend to the utmost the need for gatherings like this, which are safe spaces for LGBTI Christians and their allies, but it concerned me that even the conference organisers seemed unable to recognise the extent to which it was not safe for others.

Reflecting on it now, I found this an exciting and challenging conference with some impressive speakers. The chance to hear younger voices was especially helpful (a number of teenagers spoke), giving a sense of freshness to the discussions. But it had the narrowest range of participants of all the three events I attended. The conversation in the title turned out to be mainly an internal one within this grouping of liberal-leaning evangelicals. It may be that that is necessary at this point in time – more liberal evangelicals have long been silent (and perhaps silenced) in the discussion about sexuality. It takes time to gather the confidence to engage with those who often give the impression of pretending you don’t exist. But this is a voice that needs to be heard.

Other people have written about the conference here:

Premier’s review

Savi Hensman’s review

Ian Paul (reflections on a pre-meeting organised by Steve Chalke)

Human Sexuality: C of E Shared Conversations

I’ve been writing and thinking about church and sexuality for some time now (and my research will hopefully get published later this year), but much of that has been done on my own. This year I’ve been lucky enough to attend three key gatherings examining homosexuality and the church. First, a gathering of evangelical leaders and theologians brought together in London by the CEEC in preparation for the Church of England’s Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality. Second, the Open Church Mesa gathering at Oasis Waterloo, which was open to anyone who wanted to attend. Third, the East Midlands Shared Conversation on Human Sexuality, that brought together representatives from 5 dioceses. They were three very different gatherings, but in different ways gave snapshots of where we as a church are on this issue. I’m going to give a quick write-up of my experience of being part of each of them, and then perhaps start to think about how the experience of being to each of them has changed my understanding of the issues. This is the first of these posts, and I will post again on each of the other gatherings.

The gathering I was at most recently was the East Midlands Shared Conversations. This brought together representatives from the dioceses of Leicester, Lincoln, Peterborough, Derby and Southwell & Nottingham. We met over three days in a conference centre just outside Leicester, where a team of facilitators led us through a series of discussions that explored the geography of the debate: the changes in British society, discussions about scripture, hopes and fears about the future of the church. Overall, the conversations took the form of a mapping exercise. The intent was to create space for people to hear those on all ‘sides’ of the debate, and therefore understand something of the overall shape of the debate within the church as a whole.

There had been strict guidelines as to the makeup of each diocesan delegation. A certain proportion should be lay people, a certain proportion should be under 40, a certain proportion should be LGBTI, and the range of views within the diocese should be represented within the delegation. (My observation was that dioceses had struggled to do this. Although there was a good proportion of lay people, and a fair number of LGBTI people, there were few under 40, and it had been hard to represent the more conservative end of the argument when various groups had advised their members not to attend). I was part of the Southwell & Nottingham group.

Overall, the conversations represented Anglicanism at its best – finding a way to talk and share communion with each other despite our differences. As Richard Coles (who was at the same gathering) said in his Pause For Thought reflection, we didn’t find the answers, but what we did find was (in his words) that our non-negotiables seem a bit more negotiable when we explore them together rather than using them as barriers to keep each other out.
The value of exploring our positions in the company of those we disagree with (as opposed to arguing with each other) is that we can see where the differences between us really lie, and as might be expected we often find that they are not where we might have thought. There were some great moments over the days we had together where there was a palpable sense that misconceptions were being set aside, and those who fundamentally disagreed with each other took the time to see each other clearly and left with a greater respect for each other. In particular, there was a session where one of the self-described conservatives sat with a group of self-confessed liberals and listened to all the things they wanted him to hear, before stating his own position as clearly and non-defensively as he could. Rather like a lion in a den of Daniels, as someone described it later. Nobody changed their minds about what they believed. But I think everyone came away with a real sense of respect for each other as people sincerely trying to live their lives as disciples of Christ.

So overall, I felt the Conversations were a positive thing and I sincerely hope that they help the church as we move forward together. However, I came away with a feeling of great sadness that I haven’t been able to shake. I took the time while I was there to talk to most of the people who were self-confessed conservatives. This wasn’t particularly onerous – they were all quite congenial and they were all evangelical (if there were conservative catholics in our gathering I don’t think I met them), so they were my people, we shared a common language. Although I think we were able to identify the areas where we disagreed (and this has given me much to ponder over) there was a great deal on which we agreed. Yet from all of them, I had the unmistakeable sense that they were disengaging from the debate. Not on a personal level – I think those who were there genuinely contributed to the Conversations – but they were self-consciously representatives of a grouping that was disengaging from the debate. Almost every one of them talked about what it would take for them to leave the church. Some seemed convinced it would happen, and sooner rather than later. And these, of course, were the conservatives who were independently-minded enough to disregard the advice of Reform to boycott the Conversations. Reform’s position in itself indicates an even more significant level of disengagement that is prevalent amongst many conservatives. I had the frustrating sense that there was a good and worthwhile conversation just starting, very hesitantly, to begin, and yet that one ‘side’ had already decided that conversation had been exhausted and was getting ready to walk out.

I’m not sure where that leaves the Church of England. It leaves me, as an evangelical anglican feeling, as I said to someone at the conversations, like a child watching their parents go through a nasty divorce, conscious that at some point I’m going to have to decide which one I’m going to have to live with.

According to John…

An idea for a Christmas sermon that doesn’t quite hit the right tone…

According to John…

It took me many years to write it. Many years of pondering on the incredible events of those three years. Others had already written the story, of course. Gospels that told of his teaching, his miracles, and of his death. But there was more that needed to be told. The things that couldn’t be seen. The things that we only realised years later. The truths that took a long time to really sink in. And that’s why I couldn’t start with the baby being born. Not because that’s not what happened. Not because it wasn’t important that it happened like that. Others had written that story already, and better than I could have. No, I couldn’t start there because it would be too close. Too close too early. This is a big story, not a little one, and I needed people to understand that. If you want to see a city, you need to go outside the walls, get some distance. Otherwise it’s just houses. So I didn’t start with the baby. I started before that. I started before everything.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

God was before everything, this we have always known. It’s written in the first lines of scripture. The first, the source of everything, the one who gives meaning to everything. But now I realised that he was not alone. The one who gives meaning had spoken that meaning in a way that makes sense. He had spoken a Word. And the Word was him, expressed in a way we could understand.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

God is life and God is light. He gave us the very breath in our lungs, the spark in our eye, but more than that, he gave us all that is good and gives life. The joy of a baby’s smile, the warmth of a hand in ours. All we long for and need, offered out to us, like a light shining in a dark place. We can’t help but find our eyes drawn to it, wouldn’t you think? But somehow we miss it. Time and again we make the wrong choices, choose what frustrates us instead of what we need. We don’t recognise the light.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that allmen through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

John. I remember him. Like a madman, raving out in the desert. Maybe all people who see a great truth seem mad to everyone else. And he had seen it, no mistaking it. He had looked right into the light shining in the darkness. He saw the way that all round him people turned their backs on it, scrabbling round in the shadows, ignoring it. So he shouted about it, put a few people’s backs up. Made others think he was the light. But he was just a man shouting ‘open your eyes’!

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Jesus. I heard the stories about his birth, but I never knew him then. I only met him as a man. But always far, far more than that. The Word, spoken where everyone can hear it. The Light, shining where it can be seen by everyone. The answer to all our questions, the fulfilling of all our needs, right there. So, of course, we turned our backs on him. Not how the story should end, really, is it? The Word spoken at the beginning of time is spoken again, and we try and silence it. Sometimes the truth is not what we want to hear.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: 13 which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

So it’s lucky, really, that that isn’t the end of the story. Because some didn’t reject him. I guess it started with that young couple taking on a child who would never quite be theirs. The innkeeper who found a place a young woman could give birth in safety. The shepherds and wise men who sought him out. And so it went on, until I got caught up in it too. And now you. You see, it’s not a small story. It’s the biggest story of them all. It started before the world began. And you’re writing the latest chapters now. The Light is still shining, the Word is still being spoken. How will you respond?


A rephrasing of the beatitudes, from my All Saints sermon:

They say you are the little ones who will never amount to much, but God says the kingdom is yours.

They say you’ve lost everything that mattered most to you, but God says one day he’ll wipe every tear from your eye.

They say you lack confidence, that you’ll never get anything if you’re not a bit more aggressive, but God says one day you’ll have it all.

They say you are consumed by your idealistic dreams about a better tomorrow and you won’t be realistic about today, but God says keep dreaming, because those dreams will come true one day.

They say you’re too soft, you let people off when you should call them to account, but God says I’ll judge you the way you judge others.

They say you’re naïve, you’re not canny enough, too trusting, too easy to run rings around, but God says only the people who are always hoping for the best and trusting despite everything stand a chance of ever seeing him.

They say you’re too quick to compromise, too eager to mend arguments, too quick to forgive, but God says that’s what makes him proud you’re his.

They make fun of you because you follow God. But God says that you’re in good company, because that’s what they’ve always done to the people who follow him.

Maundy Thursday meditation: Bread and Wine

I actually used this as the first meditation on Good Friday, as we didn’t have a separate Maundy Thursday service. I placed bread and wine on a table at the front at the beginning to act as a focal point, and left plenty of time at the end for reflection:


They had celebrated Passover together. Jesus and his disciples. In the midst of all the confrontations and controversies, the teaching in the Temple with the chief priests and their agents constantly watching for an excuse to act against him. Somehow, Jesus had managed to find a place where he and his friends could break bread together in safety.  Knowing what he did about what was coming it seems amazing that he did it, but he did. It was one of the last things he chose to do, before all choices were taken away from him. And the disciples did not know it, but it would be the last time they would all meet together like this. For three years they had followed Jesus together, travelled together, constantly in each other’s company, spending their time under other people’s roofs, accepting the hospitality of strangers. For them, this was just another one of those evenings. Jesus was talking about suffering and betrayal, but none of them could really believe it. And when Judas slipped out on some errand it doesn’t seem like they saw anything unusual in that either. Though it was the last time they’d see him as a friend.

And Jesus chose the ordinary things at the table: bread and wine, to try and help them understand what was going to happen. To give them something to hold on to afterwards when they tried to make sense of it all. He took the bread and broke it, called it his broken body, and asked them to eat it. He took the cup of wine and called it his blood, asked them to drink it. You’re all a part of this, he was saying. The suffering and death and betrayal I’ve been talking about for months and you’ve been trying to ignore. It’s not something you can sit on the sidelines and think about. It’s me suffering, me dying, me being betrayed. And it’s happening for you. Here. Take. Eat. Drink. Let me die for you.

Steve Chalke’s ‘A Matter of Integrity’ – A turning point for British evangelicals?

Steve Chalke, probably Britain’s most high-profile Baptist, and one of its most high-profile evangelical Christians, has ‘come out’ as an evangelical supporter of a moderately pro-gay position (that gays in monogamous, committed relationships should be affirmed). He has done this in the wake of his decision in 2012 to perform a service of blessing for a Christian same-sex couple following their entering into a civil partnership. The full text of his paper on the subject can be found here. Now as followers of Chalke’s work may be unsurprised to learn, this paper breaks no new theological ground, but accurately presents arguments and approaches that have been made by many others for some time. Chalke is a gifted communicator of theology at a popular level, not a theological innovator himself. What is significant here is not so much what he says, but who he is. Steve Chalke has considerable support and influence within British evangelicalism. Where he leads, others will follow. And he is no stranger to such controversy. His book The Lost Message of Jesus (with Alan Mann) created a split between Spring Harvest (who defended his right to explore different approaches to the atonement) and UCCF (who refused to share a venue with anyone not teaching an orthodox position). This history is important.

There is a debate going on within British evangelicalism. It’s not really about homosexuality or atonement theology or Christianity in the public sphere, but these seem to be the areas where it bubbles to the surface most clearly. It’s a debate about what it means to be an evangelical in modern Britain. On one side of the debate are those who feel that being an evangelical means proclaiming timeless truths in an age slipping away from the gospel and its Christian heritage. On the other side are those who feel that being an evangelical means reinventing the faith in a creative engagement with scripture and culture. It’s important to stress that both sides of the debate are committed to the authority of scripture, a Christ-shaped discipleship, a missionary outlook and the need for conversion (Bebbington’s quadrilateral of key evangelical beliefs). Despite the rhetoric, the first group are not simply dogmatic literalists clinging to the past and the second group are not simply liberal pseudo-evangelicals selling out to the influences of culture around them (though there may be individuals within both camps who conform to these stereotypes). Although homosexuality is not what this debate is about, it is perhaps the key to it, because it touches a raw nerve in wider society. Here the first group can reliably get decried when they state their position and the second group applauded. This neatly reinforces both stereotypes – confirming the first group’s calling to be martyrs and the second group’s calling to discern the wind of the Spirit in the church and world. It’s also helpful to those in both groups feeling the need to clearly distinguish themselves from ‘those other evangelicals’ in the other group. Here is an issue where it is extraordinarily difficult to give anything but a clear yes or no. Just what you need to sort the sheep from the goats.

This is why Steve Chalke’s paper is significant. Because the boundaries have been quietly shifting in this debate for some time. Despite their reputation, most evangelicals have a healthy aversion to sticking their head above the parapet when controversial issues come along. So it’s not always easy to figure out how many evangelicals are in each group. However, when someone of the stature of Steve Chalke makes a public stand on it, it suggests that the first group may not speak for the overwhelming majority they tend to paint themselves as representing. This may one day be looked back on as the moment when things started to change.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before…

A modernised retelling of the Christmas story, given as an after dinner speech to Worksop Rotary.

Have you ever wondered how the Christmas story would sound if it was completely updated? Jesus as the son of a teenage mother in Gateshead, whose builder boyfriend decides to stick with her even though the baby isn’t his. A new Government tax process forces them to travel down to some small village in Suffolk, because that’s where he was born. Only by this point she’s pretty close to her due date. It’s the worst possible time to be trying to make a journey like that, he’s only got his white van to drive in, and it’s not got great suspension. To make matters worse, everyone else has to go to their place of birth too, so the roads are just diabolical. It takes days to make the journey, with her getting anxious about the baby coming all the way. They’ve got her maternity notes with them, but Joseph hasn’t a clue where the nearest hospital would be if she does go into labour, and he’s worrying, though trying not to show it, so he’s snapping at her as they go. He’s not exactly thrilled about the whole not-your-baby thing anyway, so the fact that this child is causing him yet more grief even before its born is not endearing it to him.

When they finally arrive in Bethlehem, Suffolk, they discover that not only is it a smaller place than they’d imagined, but that both pubs, the Travelodge down the road and all the B&Bs have all been taken by other people. Right then, sitting in the pub carpark, when Joseph is starting to get the road atlas out and figure out where else they could try that might have places to stay and would still leave them within striking distance of Bethlehem, Mary announces that her waters have broken and she’s in labour. The baby is coming now. So now Joseph really starts to panic. His girlfriend is in labour in the back of his van, he hasn’t got a clue where the nearest hospital is, whether they’d make it there if he tried, and he can’t get a signal on his mobile because Bethlehem, Suffolk has really poor coverage. Which is when the landlord comes out with a baseball bat to find out what all the screaming in his carpark is about. Once Joseph has convinced him that his girlfriend is screaming because she’s having a baby and not because he beat her up, which is harder than you might think because he’s got a pretty broad Geordie accent and he’s a skinhead white-van man who’s built like the proverbial brick outhouse – anyway, once he’s convinced him that Mary’s having a baby, the landlord takes pity on him. He’s got no rooms spare in the pub, and she can’t give birth in any of the public rooms – ‘health and safety, mate – can’t have girls popping babies out in the toilets’, but he does have a garage round the back with an old sofa in it.

Meanwhile, out on the industrial estate on the outskirts of Bethlehem, there’s a bunch of security guards playing cards in the control room. Dave, the shift supervisor, is dealing, Steve holds cards with one eye on the monitors, Gary is passing the teas round, and Matt is busy texting his girlfriend with one hand. Suddenly there’s a flash like a flare going off on the monitors and they all turn to static. Gary almost drops the mugs. Steve curses, drops his cards and starts switching between cameras to try and find a working one. Dave gets to his feet and grabs his coat and torch. He rounds the others up, and they all trudge out to try and figure out what’s going on, Matt still texting as they go. It’s only when they get outside that they hear the singing. Not drunk kids larking about, or some car with its stereo turned up too loud, but proper singing – a choir, a really big choir, but somehow higher and deeper than anything they’ve ever heard before. And they can’t quite make out the words, though they know exactly what it’s about. Hopes fulfilled, boundless gratitude, and a pure, deep joy. Only they can’t see where it’s coming from. A song as loud as a pop concert, but no singers to be seen. This is just plain weird now, and they walk around the warehouses shining their torches into every corner getting more and more uneasy. Matt tells his girlfriend he’ll call her later and puts the phone away. Dave is about to call the boss when the singing stops. It’s completely silent. And that’s when they see the man. Just one man, walking towards them. Afterwards they can’t remember what he was wearing or what he looked like, but they all say he wasn’t an ordinary man. There was something about him, something powerful, almost dangerous. They can’t take their eyes off him. Turning and running isn’t an option. So they stand there, rooted to the spot as he gets close enough to look them in the eye.

“Don’t be afraid.” He says “I have a message for you from God. A baby has been born, about thirty seconds ago, in Bethlehem. He’s going to save the world. You’ll find him wrapped in an old dog-blanket on a broken sofa in the garage at the back of the Dog and Whistle.”

And suddenly he’s not alone, and it’s no longer silent. The warehouses, car parks, alleyways, everywhere is suddenly full of people singing. They’re surrounded, the song rolling over them, loud enough to deafen them. For five heartbeats, maybe six they stand there surrounded by this vast choir singing at the top of their lungs. And then they vanish. And it’s Dave, Gary, Steve and Matt standing there alone and the only sound is their breathing. They look at each other, questions racing through their head. Truth be told they had never had a conversation about religion. Steve had said he was getting the kiddie christened, but the rest of them had never been near a church, not except for funerals. So when it came to messages from God, well… 5 minutes ago Dave would have said he didn’t believe in God. They looked at each other, no-one wanting to be the first to speak, the first to say what he thought. Finally, Dave cleared his throat.

“Right.” He said. “We going to the Dog and Whistle then, see if we can find this baby?”

The garage at the Dog and Whistle is quiet. After Mary had the baby, the landlord fished out an old blanket from somewhere to wrap him in. Joseph is trying to figure out how they were going to get her and the baby to the hospital when a car roars into the carpark and four guys dressed in some sort of security uniform bundle out. They look around, but pretty quickly zero in on the garage and they’re coming over with torches, looking suspicious. Suddenly Joseph is a bit worried, and he walks out to meet them.

“Alright lads, what’s going on?” He asks.

“We’ve come to see the baby” says Dave, “the man said he was here.”

Suddenly they spot Mary and the baby on the sofa, and they look completely awestruck. They’d never really been sure what they’d find. As Dave is explaining about the man and the singing and how they got there, there is whirring sound and a helicopter lands in the middle of the car park. Three very well-dressed men get out. It turns out they’re scientists from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. They’re from all over the world, one is Swedish, one Chinese, the other one from South Africa. All  speak perfect English. They say they’ve come because they detected some sort of alignment of sub-atomic particles that led them to the birth of a baby in the garage of the Dog and Biscuit in Bethlehem. Joseph doesn’t have a clue what they mean, and to be honest it seems like they’re not exactly sure themselves, but they do say that this baby is very special. In fact, they’re concerned that if certain unscrupulous people find out about the child then he could be in danger – some scientists might feel they needed to keep him in a lab under constant observation. They haven’t told anyone about it and they never will, but they have brought gifts. One set up a small trust fund for the baby (not millions, but enough to make sure they’re ok), another brought a nicely bound set of the world’s greatest religious scriptures (Joseph isn’t sure what to make of these, to be honest, he’s not much of a reader, but he’s sure they mean well), and the Swede brought a bottle of embalming fluid. Now Joseph really isn’t sure what to make of that, and the Swede wouldn’t say why he thought it was an appropriate gift for a baby, but he looked sad.

And then they are all gone. The scientists get back in the helicopter and fly off. Dave and the security guards drive back to the industrial estate before anyone spots they’ve left their control room. Dave had left Joseph directions to the hospital before he went, and told him which way to go to get out of the mobile blackspot. And then they are alone again.

“What just happened?” asks Joseph.

And Mary says nothing. She just smiles, and knows, just as she had known all along, that her baby is going to be something very special.

What difference does it make, to hear the story like that? Sometimes I think we make the Christmas story a bit too chocolate-box, a bit too easy listening. Something we can listen to and feel comforted, or nostalgic. It’s not that sort of story, really. It’s supposed to disturb us. It’s supposed to make us ask ‘who is this child, and what does he mean to me?’

So as you listen to carols and give presents, watch Christmas specials on the telly and clear away wrapping paper, remember the Geordie chippy having the worst night of his life, the night shift at the industrial estate having a close encounter with something not of this world, and the smartest men on the planet travelling hundreds of miles to see a newborn baby they thought could change everything. And have a very Happy Christmas.

Gays, Nazis, and the decline of Christendom

On 28th October, the Church of England Newspaper ran an article by Alan Craig of the Christian People’s Alliance entitled “Confronting the Gaystapo”. In it, he explicitly and at length compares gay activists to Nazis. On this basis, he argues that the gay-rights agenda has conquered the media, education, the police and various branches of government, and is poised to undermine society and civilisation as a whole through establishing legal rights to Same Sex Marriage. Such an hour, he argues, calls for courageous, Churchill-like people who will confront this and stand up for traditional values.

Since being published this has, predictably, caused waves. Even more so after the paper’s editor (despite acknowledging that he hadn’t seen it prior to publication and would have toned the language down a little if he had) seemed unapologetic about having published it. There are so many things that really should be said about this fiasco, and better people than me have already said several of them. Alan Wilson has pointed out the inherent offensiveness of the analogy – both in that in reality gays were some of the principal victims of the Nazis, and that using the analogy of the rise of Nazism simply to add a sense of alarm cheapens the sacrifices made by those who suffered at their hands. Nick Baines has made a plea that it is really time that we as a culture moved on from drawing on a Nazi German demonology whenever we need one. He also makes the very sensible point that something as far out of touch and offensive as this really should be ridiculed rather than argued with. Part of me agrees. However, part of me doesn’t. Because the problem here is not actually just that the analogy is ridiculous and offensive (though it is) or that it perpetuates stereotypes that we all need to move on from (though it does). The problem is that what is being argued here – that gay rights groups are working to undermine our society as a whole and that gay marriage would shatter Western civilisation – is believed so passionately by some people that they feel the need to reach for the most extreme of language to shake others out of their slumber to fight it.

Peter Ould offers a not unsympathetic critique, noting that Alan Craig’s essential argument should not shock or surprise anyone: it has been raised by many conservative evangelicals before. It was his decision to reach for the Nazi analogy that not only prevented his argument from being heard, but actually did more damage to his cause. Which Ould is concerned about because he finds at least parts of the actual argument convincing.

The fact is that for many years now a group of conservative evangelicals and fellow-travellers have felt increasingly threatened by changes in our society. It is this that lies behind talk of persecution of Christians in the West and concern about the freedom of Christians to publicly hold to their beliefs. For years now there have been a succession of news stories about doctors or nurses unable to pray with patients, employees unable to wear crosses, teachers unable to speak of their Christian belief in the classroom, B&B owners unable to ban a gay couple from sharing a bed in their establishment, or city councils banning the word ‘Christmas’. Whatever the degree of truth or spin in the stories or the rights and wrongs of individual cases, what all of these have in common is that they seem to be milestones in the unravelling of a notion of Christendom.

The idea of Christendom is that as a society we share a set of Christian values and beliefs. Some of the news stories that stick in the mind may be more spin than substance, but it is undeniable that the drift is all in one direction. Britain is a far less Christian society than it was before the sixties, measured in almost any way you care to attempt it. This is the context in which Alan Craig’s article must be set: of the decline and threatened dissolution of a certain sort of idea of British society. And the progress of gay rights acts as a particularly acute inverse index of that history. In the first half of the Twentieth Century, when Christendom seemed so much more present, homosexuality was criminalized. As gay people have won greater freedoms and protection under law, some evangelical Christians feel they have correspondingly lost them. The analogy is not exact (there is little prospect of Christianity becoming criminalised, and even now violence against gays is a well-documented present reality in a way that evangelical Christians who think of themselves as ‘persecuted’ in the West have never experienced) and there is no necessary causal relationship between the two (though the Church has a poor record in regard to gay rights, so that a decline in its institutional authority could be seen as a partial explanation for increased freedom for gays) but for some, gays and the gay-rights movement have become symbolic of the cultural forces determined to undo Christendom. If Christendom is understood as by definition a good thing, and gay rights as symbolic of the cultural forces ranged against it, then the fear and hate behind Alan Craig’s article becomes more comprehensible.

It is the fear and hate, ultimately, that is the problem. (And I use ‘fear and hate’ here deliberately. Whether or not Alan Craig intended it, calling Outrage ‘the gaystapo’ is expressing a fear and hatred of Peter Tatchell and his fellow campaigners). Christendom may or may not be disappearing, and this may or may not be a good thing. But these arguments can and must be made without giving way to fear and hate (particularly of those who have patently been amongst the victims of Christendom). Peter Ould, perceptively, writes: “The problem with such an analogy is that it carries with it exactly the level of emotional engagement that we have seen translated into a furious condemnation of the column.” Fear and hate breeds fear and hate, more so when it is not recognised and acknowledged. And seeking to express contemptuous mockery and ridicule of it is not the way forward either. Like it or not, we have to try to understand why those who are not like us think the way they do. Otherwise we end up so out of touch that we feel comparing our opponents to the Nazis is an acceptable way forward.